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Chasing Fall Colors in Shenandoah National Park

My family's trip to Shenandoah National Park in search for fall colors.

By: Brandon Dewey + Save to a List

This has been a bad year for fall colors in the Mid-Atlantic, but my family and I decided to make the most of it and go camping the first weekend in November to try and photograph any fall colors we could find. On Friday, I loaded up the car so we could head up to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia as soon as my eldest son got home from school, but the weather quickly changed. A severe weather warning was in effect that evening through the area we were going to drive though, including all of the Blue Ridge Mountains. So we decided to play it safe and wake up early the next morning for sunrise instead. As we later found out, we made the correct call.

The next morning we woke up, piled into our vehicle, and drove up to Shenandoah National Park. As soon as I entered the park, leaves were all over the Skyline Drive and in some areas completely covering it. Turn after turn, all of the trees on either side of the road were entirely barren and the leaves were layered on top of Skyline Drive. Even with no fall colors in sight, we were still excited to be in the mountains as we reached our trailhead and hopped on the Appalachian Trail (AT). We followed the AT until we reached Blackrock Summit, in my opinion the best view Shenandoah’s Southern District, and four of us sat and enjoyed the sun rising over the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the sun slowly illuminated the landscape, we saw, to our surprise, the storm from the night before did not blow any of the leaves off the trees in the valleys or at the lower elevations on the mountain ridges. Even though most of the leaves remaining on the trees were now brown, when the rising sun hit them, they turned a dark red giving the appearance that the mountains were on fire. We sat and enjoyed the view as we ate breakfast, then we hiked back down the AT to our vehicle before continuing north along skyline drive toward our camping destination.  

As we slowly made our way up Skyline Drive, we stopped at different overlooks and enjoyed the views of the mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Piedmont Hills. Skyline Drive runs the whole length of Shenandoah National Park and has some amazing views, not just from all of the different overlooks, the road itself is beautiful as it winds its way along the mountain ridges. As we made our way north, we came around the corner and left behind bare trees and found a pocket of fall colors along the road. This area of Skyline Drive appears to have been sheltered from the wind because almost all of the trees still not only had their leaves, they were the vibrant colors we were hoping to see everywhere in the park. After enjoying the fall colors, we got back into our vehicle and finished our dive to Big Meadows Campground.

As we checked in to the campground, I spoke to the park ranger who said we made the right call about not camping there the night before; not only did they get two inches of rain in less than six hours, but they also had over 40mph sustained winds from the early evening into the early hours of the morning. As we drove through the campground, we saw a lot of people trying to dry their gear out in the sun. Having “slept” though gale force winds two weeks earlier when I was camping in West Virginia, I was glad not to have had to repeat the experience so soon. We picked out a spot, and I started to set up camp. As soon as we stepped out of our vehicle, my boys instantly made friends with some kids camping nearby, and they went off on an adventure. That’s one thing I love about the outdoor community, everyone is usually so friendly, and it is easy to make new friends. As my boys were off on their adventure, my wife and I set up camp, which went really quickly thanks to how easy it was to set up my Sierra Designs Sweet Suite 3 Tent. After lunch, we loading back up into our vehicle and continued our way north along Skyline Drive looking for more fall colors until we reached our sunset location.

Since the lower elevations had the most color, I decide to head to Jewell Hollow Overlook which provides a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains as they lead to the Shenandoah Valley near Luray. We got there about an hour before sunset, which allowed me a lot of time to play with different compositions to find the best angles to capture the scene at sunset. This was my first time photographing at this location, but I did a scouting mission to this location a few weeks prior to see if it would be a good spot to capture the fall colors. I’m glad I did the scouting mission because it gave me a general idea of where I wanted to set up. One of the great things about this overlook is the pure size. I believe this is the largest overlook off of Skyline Drive, which is awesome because it gives space for people to spread out. My sons really liked this location because there are a lot of fun rocks to scramble up and down. As the sun got lower and lower in the sky, the mountain sides once again looked like they were on fire as the leaves on the trees reflected the golden light from the setting sun. Once the sun was below the horizon, we packed up and headed back to camp.

Once we got back to camp, we made a fire, and the four of us enjoy sitting around it as we cooked hotdogs and s’mores. With the fire dying down, we all crawled into our tent to get a good night’s sleep. One of the main reasons why I love my Sweet Suite 3 Tent is because of the floor space. Unlike most three person tents, where only two people can comfortably sleep in it, the Sweet Suite 3 can actually sleep three adults or, in my family’s case, two adults and our two kids (a toddler and an elementary school aged child). The next morning, I got up to photograph sunrise and discovered frost on the ground, but we were nice and warm in our tent, and I was especially warm in my Sierra Designs Down Sleeping Bag. Since I went to my favorite location in Shenandoah’s Southern District for sunrise the morning before, I decided to head to my favorite location in Shenandoah’s Central District to photograph sunrise.

I believe Bearfence Mountain’s view is one of the best in the park. The hike up to the summit’s viewpoint is also a lot of fun with a few easy rock scrambles with the final scramble leading up to the 360-degree view of the Shenandoah. Since the view is so amazing, it is one of the more popular hikes in the park, but I had a great time talking to some of the other hikers as we watched and, in my case, photographed the sunrise that morning. After enjoying another beautiful sunrise, I hiked back down the mountain. On my way back to the campsite, I decided to hike though Big Meadows to see a different side of the park. Big Meadows is a great place to view flora and fauna that are rare in most other parts of the park.  As an example, I found wild cotton plants as I was hiking though the meadow. After exploring new areas of the meadow, I headed back to camp.

Once at camp, we ate a quick breakfast and then started to break down everything. The Sweet Suite 3 was just as easy to break down as it was to set up and with its burrito style carrying bag, it helped save a bunch of time because I didn’t have to roll up the tent multiple different times to try to squeeze it into the carrying bag.  I rolled it up once, and it fit easily into the bag. After loading up the car, we did one last sweep of the campsite to make sure we left it better than we found it, and then we were off to our next adventure. Since Shenandoah was well past peak colors, we decide to switch it up and explore Luray Caverns.  

If you are in the Shenandoah Valley and have never been, I recommend checking out Luray Caverns. It is touristy and can be pricy, but it is worth it. Once in the caverns, my family and I went on the 1.5 miles guided tour though the caverns. Along the way we saw amazing stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and “Fried Eggs," but my favorite part of the tour was the mirrored pools. The water was so clear and still that it perfectly reflected the ceiling, creating the illusion of an even more vast cavern. After the trip below the surface of the earth, we headed back as it was time to head back home. Even though we didn’t get to see peak colors this year, my family and I still had a great time.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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