With 15.8 million acres of Virginia land forested, discovering new patches of brilliantly colored fall foliage has become one of autumn’s most popular pastimes.
It’s also become big business for everyone from wineries to autumn festivals that build annual events around the thousands of travelers.
The Virginia Department of Forestry estimates that commonwealth’s foliage will begin to turn at the start of October. Bristol and parts west will be the first to turn; Roanoke up to Harrisonburg should begin around Oct. 7, followed by Richmond and the majority of Northern Virginia near the end of the month and into early November. While most areas of Virginia have their fall foliage on display for more than a month, the VDOF predicts the I-95 corridor will only have its color for just over two weeks.
The exceptions to those predictions — and for any prognostications for when the peak times for fall foliage should occur — are associated with temperatures, rainfall (or lack thereof) and, perhaps most importantly in Virginia, with geography. Elevated regions will peak before low-lying ones.
As foliage season approaches, here are some scenic options — by car or by foot — from Northern Virginia and from around the state:
Being the most popular fall foliage destination also means being its most well-trafficked, as cars clog sections of this scenic route every year.
The 105-mile National Scenic Byway runs north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, and it’s the only public road through the park. It’s estimated that it takes about three hours to travel the length of the park.
There are 75 overlooks throughout the drive — grab a camera and document the breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley.
Shenandoah National Park can be accessed from Routes 66 and 340 near Front Royal, and is open year-round. There is also a Thornton Gap Entrance at U.S. 211, which goes from Warrenton to Luray and crosses Skyline drive. The South Station entrance, Rockfish Gap, is located near U.S. 250 and I-64.
According to a report by Julena Campbell of the Byrd Visitor Center on Virginia.org, about 40 percent of the trees along Skyline Drive were showing some signs of turning colors by the end of September.
Visit www.nps.gov/shen for more information, including admission fees.
The trip to Front Royal, by the way, offers its own scenic views of colorful foliage.
<sh>Blue Ridge Parkway
Consider the Blue Ridge Parkway in Buena Vista the sequel to Skyline Drive, picking up nearly where the more famous byway leaves off.
The Blue Ridge, which stretches 469 miles from Shenandoah to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina, offers opportunities to for stunning views throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains.
There are several rest areas and overlooks maintained by the National Park Service. Driving the parkway is free.
Visit www.nps.gov/blri for more information and for directions.
The complex itself offers a stellar array of trees on its picturesque and historic grounds, including a variety of elms, maples, oak, beech and others that were planted as a part of Mount Vernon’s recent renovations in preparation for the opening of its new visitor’s center and museum. Visit www.mountvernon.org for more information and for hours of operation.
Mount Vernon is also the starting line for the scenic Mount Vernon Trail, a favorite route for local cyclists, which brings you from Washington’s home through Old Town and all the way up through Gravelly Point near National Airport. The end point is Theodore Roosevelt Island on the Potomac River. The 18.5 mile trail offers glimpses of some great local sights and stellar foliage, perfect for biking, jogging or just a long hike.
More information about the Mount Vernon Trail, and other scenic bike/walk routes around Northern Virginia, can be found on Bike Washington’s Web site, bikewashington.org.
<sh>The C&O Canal/Great Falls
For the adventurous and the athletic, the 184.5-mile long Chesapeake & Ohio Canal offers some of the best opportunities to view fall foliage up close and personal. Mile 000 is D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. Mile 14 is The Billy Goat Trail, a 4.7-mile long hiking trail near Great Falls in Montgomery County. There are three different hiking options on the Billy Goat trail, some more vigorous than others. Visit www.nps.gov/choh for more information.
Of course, Great Falls National Park in Virginia offers its own stunning color displays. Visit www.nps.gov/grfa for more information.
Knowing how crowded places like Skyline Drive and Great Falls can be during the peak foliage season, the Virginia Department of Forestry had released its first "Recommended Fall Foliage Driving Tours" list, which offers alternative destinations for leaf lovers. Designed by local foresters, these routes offer beautiful views without traffic hassles.
The four regions that have VDOF-approved routes are Harrisonburg, with tours of Rockingham and Shenandoah counties; Lexington, with a tour through Bath County; Roanoke, with tours of Bedford, Craig and Franklin counties; and Staunton, with tours of Highland County.
Visit www.dof.virginia.gov/fall/index.shtml for more information, including printable directions for each driving tour.
<sh>Oinkintucky Derby Pig Race
Great Country Farms, 18780 Foggy Bottom Road in Bluemont, offers what they claim is the largest you-pick pumpkin patch in Northern Virginia, where patrons can pick a pumpkin right off the vine. There is also something called P-Rex the Pumpkin Munchin' Dinosaur, which in and of itself sounds like it might be worth a trip.
The Oinkintucky Derby Pig Races are held throughout the fall season. Visit www.greatcountryfarms.com for more information and for hours.
<sh>Foliage by the Lake
There are a dozen travel packages around the state that feature weekend getaways built around fall foliage. One of them is Cooper's Landing Inn & Traveler's Tavern, which offers a two-night stay in a room with a queen-sized bed, a claw-foot tub and gas fireplaces. Kerr Lake, only a half-mile away, has a three-hour pontoon boat trip to check out the foliage. Sunday offers a private trail ride. The package is priced at $495 per couple. The Inn is located at 801 Virginia Ave. in Clarksville. Call 434-374-2866 for more information.