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Leave Peeping at the Shenandoah

leah kirk

It’s not exactly what you would call riotous yet, but Shenandoah National Park is getting there. Day by day, tree by tree, this beloved national park is becoming the mosaic of color we’ve been waiting for all year. Some areas of the Park are more colorful than others – and this will continue to be the case – but expect to see plenty of autumn drama as you drive from Front Royal at mile 0 all the way down to Rockfish Gap at mile 105. The happy little maple that oversees Meadow Spring Parking at mile 33.5 is a swirl of cherry, orange, and lime, like a snow cone for a child who couldn’t decide on just one flavor. And sumacs are funny things. You might find a patch of the tropical-looking plants still green as poison growing right beside their brothers and sisters who have turned every color except green – poinsettia red, butternut orange, Golden Delicious yellow. A patch of sumacs at Spitler Knoll Overlook (mile 48) is especially dramatic, exhibiting just about every possible hue, like feather boas on Mardi Gras revelers.

Swift Run Gap is alive with chromatic splendor. A rogue maple just north of the Gap looks like an open box of Crayolas – Red Orange, Scarlet, Burnt Orange, Mango Tango, Sunglow, and tiny polka dots of Electric Lime. A dogwood just south of the turnoff for route 33 displays every color there ever was in the palette of red. Pulling off at Bacon Hollow Overlook at mile 68.9 on a foggy afternoon provided a Halloween vignette of grays, silvers, and blacks: crows flapping around and landing in a dead snag cawed haughtily, perfectly aware that they own the joint. "Keep moving," they croaked. "You have no jurisdiction here." Fog comes and goes, though; by Rocky Mount Overlook just two miles south, the fog was lifting and revealing south-facing mountainsides just beginning to turn maize and pumpkin. Hickories and birches, especially in the Park’s South District, glow golden-orange, one and two trees at a time, little fires of color in the forest.

A single phosphorescent yellow evening primrose hangs on fiercely on the west side of the Drive near mile 85. The scene-stealer this week, though, is sassafras. Sassafras trees, like sumacs, are the mood rings of the Appalachian woods. In the Park this week you can see the whole gamut of sassafras shades – single trees glittering jewel-tones of both crimson and green, startling as mangoes in every stage of ripeness, or dressing themselves in classic monotones like auburn, paprika, and Velveeta orange. A sassafras near Calf Mountain Overlook seven miles from Skyline Drive’s southern end glowed a luminous light red, like a glass of Pinot Noir on the Thanksgiving table.

Some of the best colors right now are between mile 23, near Mathews Arm and Elkwallow, south to Swift Run Gap, at mile 65.5. Here and there, hickories blaze golden yellow, the color of ripe mangoes. Thornton Gap is turning candy-corn colors branch by branch, tree by tree. The Stony Man area around mile 38 is starting to show its colorful side and should be even splashier this weekend. You might remember that last week old Stony Man got himself a henna rinse. Well, this week the old fellow seems to have gone back to the salon for streaks of paprika, cumin, and saffron.

Big Meadows is layered streaks of spice tones – sand art in a huge shallow glass bowl. Driving through the section of Skyline Drive around Lewis Mountain at mile 57 is like walking down the aisle of a cathedral with stained-glass windows in marigold tones. Swift Run Gap is dabbed with yellow and pops of red. Bearfence Trail is gorgeous, flaunting a mix of goldenrod, purple asters, and yellow foliage. A maple at Naked Creek Overlook blazes vermilion against a sea of lime green and lemon yellow.

But dryness is having an impact. Dryness like Shenandoah is experiencing now stresses trees, and their leaf colors exhibit that stress; some trees may shed their leaves before they have a chance to turn the vivid colors that back in early September they wanted to turn. We’re hoping for rain later in the weekend. That hoped-for rain could still resuscitate the colors of some trees.

Please know that this fall color report is not analytic, nor is it meant to be. If you prefer science over abstraction, you’ve got a friend in the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map, at