Virginia’s Fall Foliage Takes Center Stage

<i> Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section</i>

This state, as well as Vermont, has become a major foliage destination.

In addition, park rangers here have contributed their favorite autumn trails to the foliage listing compiled by the Virginia Division of Tourism.

The listing includes trails in woodlands at the edge of the nation’s capital in nearby Washington to glowing vistas above the Shenandoah Valley along the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains.

One way to view the beautiful foliage is to arrange a trip with Backroads Bicycle Touring. Another way is to bicycle across the heartland of Virginia on the state’s bicentennial trail.


Over the years we have often started tours by cruising the Potomac River to a wooded 30-acre estate, George and Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon home.

A 20-mile bicycle trail along the Potomac River from Capitol Hill to Mount Vernon also offered many views. And canoeing gave us another perspective.

Arlington National Cemetery on the Virginia side of the Potomac is a popular place to visit when leaves turn color. Also popular is the Unknown Soldier, the grave of John F. Kennedy and the tombs of about 200,000 servicemen and women.

The Arlington House, which was Gen. Robert E. Lee’s home, is a national memorial.


Cobblestone Streets

In Alexandria, along the way to Mount Vernon, cobblestone streets and 18th-Century townhouses help re-create the mood of long-ago autumns in American history.

After waterways and biking to a rental car, we pursued autumn by driving west for 70 miles, following Virginia 7 across the northern part of the state to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley.

The Shenandoah is remembered in Indian legends and song as “daughter of the stars.” About 200 miles of spectacular scenery reaches south through the valley and along the Blue Ridge crests.

Vineyards, too, are part of the fall foliage scene. So are apple orchards and roadside stands offering Virginia apples and fresh cider.

In Winchester, near the northern edge of the Shenandoah Valley, Washington’s office is a museum, as are Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters and Abram’s Delight, a limestone house built in 1754.

We started touring the Shenandoah vineyards at Winchester Winery and Cedar Lane Vineyards.

Afterward we traveled southward along Skyline Drive, following the highest crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but often dipping west to parallel U.S. 81.


Another tourist place is the Shenandoah Caverns off Interstate 88 at Exit 68.

National Forest

George Washington National Forest near Harrisonburg has more than a million acres of shimmering fall colors with more than 900 miles of hiking trails.

Darwin Lampert lives in Luray and was one of the first employees of Shenandoah National Park. He likes the valley’s low country at the beginning and end of the fall season.

“Generally,” he said, “there is a good mix of colors by now. Lots of yellows from the oaks, and brilliant, shiny, almost metallic reds from black gums and tupelo. This is when red maples come into their fall best.”

A hiker’s map is offered at visitor centers along Skyline Drive. Lampert favors Thornton Gap and Old Rag Mountain Trail.

Forest Service official Tom Wright recommends Crabtree Falls Trail, which leads to the highest falls in the Blue Ridge, tumbling 1,200 feet in five cascades.

Autumn foliage colors include the tones of maples, oaks, dogwoods and redbuds. Wright also is partial to Big Slosh Trail, toward the West Virginia border off Virginia 675.


Story Book Trail is for the physically disabled, a six-foot-wide paved trail to an overlook of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Wilson Birthplace

Woodrow Wilson was born in the Shenandoah Valley at Staunton, now known as an art center and vacation destination. His birthplace is a restored mansion set in a glowing boxwood garden.

Accommodations range from Thornrose bed and breakfast at Gypsy Hill to the Sheraton Hotel and Country Club overlooking woodlands and the 17th green of the golf course.

A double room with king-size bed at Thornrose is $50. For information and reservations, telephone (703) 885-7026. Sheraton has a golf package for $85 nightly, including room and greens fees for two. Call (703) 248-6020.

At Waynesboro we were a few minutes from where Skyline Drive continues south as Blue Ridge Parkway. The two roads join near the Holiday Inn-Afton Mountain, which offers one of the grandest views in Virginia.

In winter you can step from the inn to the ski slopes. On a bright autumn day the mountains and valley are an artist’s palette of pinks and reds. View rooms for two are $75 a night. For Holiday Inn reservations call (703) 942-5201.

Shenandoah Art Center

The Shenandoah Valley Art Center in Waynesboro offers workshops, classes, art exhibits and performing artists throughout the year. Continuing are art and science exhibits at the Swannanoa University of Science and Philosophy.

Blue Ridge Parkway leads into the color fantasies of the Southwest Highlands Daniel Boone country. The Southwest Highlands is noted for its arts, crafts, museums, log cabins and theater, as well as the views. Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area offers Virginia’s highest peak at 5,729 feet. “Grand Canyon of the South” is a 1,600-foot-deep gorge in Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky border.

From the Southwest Highlands we have driven such middle roads as Virginia 460 and 360 east to Richmond. This central-south area of the state encompasses plantation country and memorials of the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

Within Richmond are such attractions as the restored home of former U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, the museum of Edgar Allan Poe and the centerpiece state capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson. It’s a contemporary city of shaded boulevards, streets lined by shops and boating on the James River.

Colonial Williamsburg

Travel east to Hampton Roads and Tidewater. Autumn adds loads of charm to Colonial Williamsburg, the most famous 18th-Century town in America.

Nearby is Jamestown, which in 1607 became America’s first English settlement. You can recapture the feel of a 17th-Century autumn in Festival Park.

Autumn in this part of the state also can be a visit to Busch Gardens and 28 miles of Virginia Beach and its resorts.

Seashore state park official Scott Shanklin has mapped out routes from the beach to trails on which autumn foliage can be seen, including a 3 1/2-mile bike trail.

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, autumn colors tend to peak the first week of November, with the blazoning of dogwood, gum trees and varieties of oak.

This is a fairy-tale land where Blackbeard the pirate once roamed. You’ll see herds of wild ponies among the fall foliage.

For complete autumn trail information and a copy of the “Virginia Is for Lovers” travel guide, contact the Virginia Division of Tourism, 202 N. 9th St., Suite 500, Richmond, Va. 23219, phone (804) 786-2051.

To plan for an autumn bike tour, contact Backroads Bicycle Touring, P.O. Box 1626, San Leandro, Calif. 94577, (415) 895-1783.