Scenic Drives and Fall Foliage
October 23, 2020
Interstate 81 is a convenient and efficient way to move through the Valley, but autumn days call for more bucolic drives that are full of fall colors and vibrant culture. Luckily for us, Virginia has 2,500 miles of road that’s been designated “scenic byway” and many of those miles travel through the Shenandoah Valley. If you’re looking to take in all the Valley has to offer, here’s your chance to pack a picnic and a camera and check out one of these leisurely drives.
Alternatives to I-81
Arguably one of the most famous drives in the country, the Skyline Drive that runs north and south and bisects Shenandoah National Park for 105 miles. Take your time (the speed limit is only 35 mph) and absorb the endless panoramic views with blankets of trees spreading out below to the valley floor. You might also catch a glimpse of native Virginia species like deer, bear, bobcat, fox, or Eastern box turtle crossing the road. Stop at one of more than 75 overlooks and trailheads. This drive is incredibly popular with leaf peepers, and trees like red oak and chestnut grow high on the ridges, giving way to mixed hardwood and yellow poplar forests as you descend. Access to Skyline Drive is limited to four places: Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap. Food is available at wayside food stops every 25 miles, but there’s only one spot to stop for gas, so make sure you enter with a full tank! Entry fees apply.
Really adventurous fall color seekers might want to take a detour to swoop through the trees at Bear Mountain Ziplines, which is only 1.9 miles off the route near Luray.
Blue Ridge Parkway
It would take you 10 and a half hours to drive the entire 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway as it connects the south end of Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This road has been one of America’s most popular for 90 years, and with good reason. The drive itself is stunning and it offers regular places to pull over to enjoy the magnificent overviews and scope out the trails exploring the wilderness surrounding the Parkway. Expect the fall leaf extravaganza to begin in early October for elevations over 5,000 feet. The colors will drip down to the valleys by November.
Hop off the Parkway for a hike at Crabtree Falls. You’ll climb a switchbacking trail up to the top of a series of waterfalls. The views are spectacular the entire way!
Rt. 11, once called the Wilderness Road, also stretches north and south through the Valley, from Martinsburg to Roanoke. Running parallel to 1-81, it was originally formed by migrating buffalo and the Native American hunters who pursued them. European settlers took advantage of the same roads and many of the oldest settlements along this route are 20 or so miles apart, representing the distance that could be covered in a day’s ride. While still a fairly direct route, Rt. 11, gives the traveler gorgeous views of farms and mountains in the distance. You’ll also be able to explore some of the towns along the way, including Winchester, Stasburg, Woodstock, Mt. Jackson, New Market, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Lexington, and Natural Bridge. Fun places to stop include the Rt. 11 Potato Chip Factory, the historic Meems Bottom Covered Bridge, the Virginia Quilt Museum, Hull’s Drive-In, and the Virginia Safari Park.
Scenic Byways in Shenandoah, Page, and Warren Counties
For a taste of the Shenandoah Valley’s best autumn colors, take a driving tour of Fort Valley. Known as “The Valley Within the Valley,” and possibly where George Washington hoped to hide his troops if the Revolutionary War turned sour, Fort Valley remains secluded today, and is unmarred by commercial business. You’ll see nothing but mountain views and rolling farmland. Access this unspoiled corridor from Edinburg and consult the driving tour mapped out by the Virginia Department of Forestry. If you want to stop along the way, take a trail ride at Fort Valley Ranch or learn about how iron was made while exploring trails at Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area.
Nearby, another picturesque corridor is U.S. 340 and 211, which follows the Shenandoah River’s South Fork and goes from Front Royal to Timberville. The Shenandoah Valley is split here for 50 miles by Massanutten Mountain, which you’ll pass over on the way. This route gives easy access to Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive, but you might also enjoy exploring the 5.2 acres of shoreline at Shenandoah River State Park. Another good bet is the 2-mile hike to Woodstock Tower for a wonderful view of the Valley and the Shenandoah River. And if you’d rather go underground, check out Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the Eastern U.S.
It will take you about an hour to drive Route 600 from Winchester to where it ends near Woodstock, but it will be a peaceful drive down back roads through forests and past fields. Nearby attractions include Winchester’s Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Magic Mountain Horse Farms, and North Mountain Vineyard and Winery
The Winding Roads of Rockingham, Augusta, and Rockbridge Counties
Route 608 runs from Grottoes to Lexington and passes farms and along the edge of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. You’ll pass the New Hope site of the 1864 Battle of Piedmont ,and you might want to stop at Stable Craft Brewing for a craft beer and pleasant undulating view. Make sure you also visit The Cheese Shop and Milmont Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft.
Route 42 meanders through undulating hills and pastureland along the path of the Little Calfpasture River. You’ll see abundant autumn color, mountains in the distance, and small communities like Craigsville, Churchville, Bridgewater, and Dayton. You might also share the road with old-order Mennonite horses and buggies. Good side trips are nearby Natural Chimneys Regional Park, home to a natural “castle” made of limestone towers and family-owned Bluestone Vineyard for excellent wine and wonderful views.
You can get all the way to Richmond on Route 250, but the part that most excites us is the beautiful section through Augusta County that climbs westward from Churchville through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest toward Monterey. You’ll want to stop at the Confederate Breastworks at Ft. Edward Johnson for some views, hiking, and a history lesson.
Route 252 Loop
You can access Route 252 from downtown Staunton. Very quickly you’ll be in the countryside, passing gentle hills and pastureland. Stop to explore the historic village of Middlebrook, which was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1983. Founded in 1799, this is one of the oldest rural villages in the county. It has examples of popular architecture from that time period, but hasn’t seen much development in a hundred years after commercial traffic shifted away. Nearby highlights include Wade’s Mill and Rockbridge Vineyard.
Route 39 through Goshen Pass
Route 39 is called the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, and you can follow it for 60 miles, all the way to the West Virginia line. The highlight in Rockbridge County is the 23-mile section between Lexington and Goshen, which cuts through Goshen Pass, an amazing 4-mile gorge in Great North Mountain created by the Maury River. Park at one of the pull-offs and climb down to the water to scramble on boulders and explore the 937-acre Goshen Pass Natural Area Preserve.
You really can’t go wrong on a drive through the Shenandoah Valley. Whether you’re looking for striking mountain views, or bucolic county scenes, you’ll be sure to find it on your next scenic drive along one of these routes.
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