Revel in the foliage-filled scenic route but unclick your seatbelt to explore the historic attractions and natural wonders across Shenandoah National Park.
By Erin Gifford
A carefree drive along the gently curving 105-mile Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is for many a bucket list-worthy experience. This is especially true in fall as the dramatic foliage display gets underway with vibrant bursts of gold and fiery orange leaves.
Motoring along at 35 mph, it can take as little as three hours to drive the length of this two-lane scenic byway from Front Royal in the north to Waynesboro in the south. However, you’ll want to take it slow to revel in all historic Skyline Drive has to offer its visitors.
It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s as a public works project. Skyline Drive is deserving of a dedicated road trip to fully soak in the postcard-perfect views, cascading waterfalls and spectacular foliage, as well as the history of this breathtaking route and surrounding national park.
The First Miles
As you leisurely meander along Skyline Drive, you may be awed by the sheer number of overlooks and pull-out points. More than 75 scenic viewpoints beckon visitors to pull over to take in sweeping views across the majestic Shenandoah Valley. Each is more picturesque than the last, while all boast rolling landscapes bursting with splashes of amber and vermillion.
For many, a jaunt along Skyline Drive begins in the North District at the Front Royal Entrance Station. From here, it’s a few short miles to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at milepost 4.6. Chat with a park ranger and wander the gift shop before walking out back to the west-facing overlook, which attracts plein air painters on clear days when you can see for miles.
The Central District
Continue south until you reach Skyland resort at milepost 41.7, stopping along the way for pull-outs, like Hogback Overlook, the longest overlook in the park. Here you can see the striking Allegheny Mountains, as well as the flowing Shenandoah River as it leisurely snakes across the valley down below.
Skyland is the larger of two forested lodges inside Shenandoah National Park with 179 guest rooms, modern suites and rustic-chic cabins. Situated at 3,680 feet, the main lodge occupies the highest point on Skyline Drive in the park’s popular Central District.
Dine on regional specialties, like pan seared trout and shrimp and grits, at Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room. For dessert, order up a slice of mile-high blackberry ice cream pie. Gaze out the dramatic wall of windows for sweeping views across the Shenandoah Valley.
While at Skyland, book a one-hour or 2.5-hour guided horseback trail ride at Skyland Stables to see the foliage-filled valley from a different perspective, as in, from atop a horse as you trot along leafy trails and across an old apple orchard. Hand-guided pony rides are available for small children.
From the Central District, you’ll have easy access to several first-rate hikes, including a three-mile out-and-back hike that wows with a two-for-one deal on spectacular views, including vibrant foliage-filled lookout points at Little Stony Man Cliffs and Stony Man summit. It’s less than half a mile to Little Stony Man Cliffs, perhaps one of the most photographed vistas in the park.
The three-mile hike to Mary’s Rock is another top pick for active visitors. Halfway along this trail you’ll take pause for a beguiling old stone chimney. It’s all that remains of a former homestead once occupied by one of more than 450 families that lived within the boundaries of the national park in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Story of Creation
As you continue on, stop in the Byrd Visitor Center in Big Meadows at milepost 51. Check out the wildlife and historical displays, then dig into the story behind the park’s creation through an interactive exhibit called “Within a Day’s Drive of Millions.” This exhibit tells the story of the park’s creation and the critical work of the CCC.
Once you get your fill of park history, wander over to Big Meadows Wayside for a casual lunch. Choose from made-to-order sandwiches, salads and to-go snacks. Top it off with a scoop of blackberry ice cream. Given Shenandoah National Park is well-known for thickets of blackberries along the roads and trails, it’s no surprise to see blackberries on every menu.
While many return north or exit the park altogether at the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station at milepost 62.7, you’ll miss the quietest and most unspoiled section of the park in the South District if you do. Here, overlooks are plentiful and crowds are far lighter than in the North and Central districts. The South District is also wonderful for waterfall watchers. Hikes to cascading Doyles River Falls and Jones Run Falls are especially delightful.
As you plan out a road trip along Virginia’s Skyline Drive, consider that fall is the park’s most popular time of year for visits. If you can, explore this gem on weekdays in late-fall when crowds are lighter and you have more freedom to mosey Skyline Drive at your own pace.
Add a stunning fall foliage drive to your autumn “to go” list. Your AAA Travel Agent can help! Call 800-750-5386 for more information.
Visit your local AAA office.
(Traveler Fall 2020)