How exquisite is the decay that comes with autumn! Drive through Shenandoah National Park this weekend and thrill to the gorgeous glory of this paradox of seasons that marks an end to summer’s balminess and the beginning of a long winter sleep. Yes, everything will turn taupe and sullen in a few weeks and the woods will nod off under a skin of frost and snow and – soon enough – ice. (It will still be lovely, especially once the clear silver-blues of winter arrive, but that’s another season.)
It’s October, though, and still party time in these mountains. Sleep and rest and the quietude of winter will come along in due time, but this week these woods are loud and obnoxiously glamorous, like ill-behaved but beautiful celebrities wearing feather boas, big hats, silk ties, and lots and lots of costume jewelry.
Red! How many different words are there for this most fiery of colors? Carmine, scarlet, ruby, cherry, candy apple – they’re all here, polka-dotting the hills of Shenandoah National Park right now. In the area around miles 18 and 19, the hills to the east of Skyline Drive are dappled here and there with trees the shocking vermillion of poinsettias. Some trees on those particular mountainsides have already shed their leaves, so these smears of red stand out like cardinals on a winter landscape. In most places in the Park this week, these dollops and smears of red (mostly maples and some ambitious Virginia creepers shimmying up tall trees of every kind) intermingle nicely with the oranges, golds, yellows, and greens of hickories, oaks, ashes, and pines. All along Skyline Drive, seriously red maples – one at a time, for maximum impact – stand and salute you as you motor by them, like Beefeaters at the Tower of London.
At Fishers Gap Overlook in the center of the Park, the gap’s north-facing hillside is positively alive with color – to call it a riot is no overstatement. Sunlit trees stand proudly on their slope, so flashy they put the 96-count box of Crayolas to shame. Even though the central portion of Shenandoah, where Fishers Gap lies, is past proverbial peak, the views from its overlooks and summits are just getting started. Oranges are spectacular throughout this Blue Ridge park: certain mountains at its heart are rusty and nubby with treetops, reminding you of freshly baked, yet-to-be-iced carrot cupcakes – little bumps of carrot-hued hickories and pineapple-tinted maples lending texture to the view. Sassafras has pulled out all the stops this year, absolutely blazing, the colors of a bonfire. If you have the chance to drive south through Marys Rock Tunnel near mile 32, do so: as you exit the tunnel, the view expands crazily, a kaleidoscope of yellow, gold, and Key lime. Low Gap, at mile 8, was all ebony and chartreuse on Thursday – ebony from the trunks of the tulip trees that amass there and chartreuse from their leaves, making that stretch of Skyline Drive as hushed and holy-seeming as a Gothic cathedral. By Saturday, that same sanctuary will be glowing gold, the tulip trees’ leaves burning like a thousand lit candles.
It’s all carnival colors up there now – circus-poster shades of red, gold, orange, yellow, and green. Add all that to the cornflower blue of the sky and the pale but psychedelic purple of asters that are still blooming – becoming in some places brighter as they fade – and what you get is a festival of color.
It will feel like Shenandoah National Park has gone into party mode and donned these bright jewels and garments just for you. Drive safely, of course, watching for crossing wildlife, visitors, and other cars – but don’t miss a single mile of it. Soon enough Old Man Winter will arrive in a gust and these colors will be the stuff of photographs, poems, and memory.
The fall color report will be updated next Friday, October 30, 2015.
Plan a Shenandoah National Park Fall Getaway:
Last Updated: 10/29/2015
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