Autumn’s Paintbrush: Virginia’s Fall Foliage

"Country barn on an autumn afternoon., Stowe, Vermont, USA" “Country barn on an autumn afternoon., Stowe, Vermont, USA”

By Ken Wilson

Suddenly all the gold I ever wanted
Let loose and fell on me. A storm of gold
Starting with rain a quick sun catches falling
And in the rain (fall within fall) a whirl
Of yellow leaves, glitter of paper nuggets.

Robert Francis,
from “Gold”

You can take a drive, take a hike, walk out in the yard or just look out of the window. Any way or anywhere you look, you can’t miss them. Come autumn, when their leaves quit producing chlorophyll, the green fades, the latent pigments come forward, and deciduous trees turn into nature’s most spectacular glory. Too much rain, too many cloudy days, or too much or too little warmth will mute the color palette of course. But the right amount of rainfall, on the other hand, while delaying the process, will produce the most brilliant colors in the long run.

No matter what kind of weather year it is, by mid-October the show has usually begun. “If we get the right combination of warm temperatures and good moisture and cooling off gradually, we’ll get a long, extended, beautiful fall,” says Doug Coleman, a botanist by training, and the executive director of the Nature Foundation at Wintergreen Resort, which encourages the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of the natural and cultural resources of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. If those three factors conjoin, peeper season will extend through the end of November.

“The conveyor belt that takes the whole process along is the shortening length of day,” Coleman adds. As the days gradually shorten, “the photosynthesis period is shorter, and that’s what starts the slowdown of the chlorophyll process.” Moisture and temperature determine the duration and the intensity of color. “If you have an extremely dry period of weather, that will hasten the leaf fall, and if you have a warm, moist fall, the color will linger.”

“The colors are always there,” says Melanie Perl, a hiking guide and a volunteer in Shenandoah National Park who’s been exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains for 40 years. “But in fall, the leaf stops photosynthesizing, then it stops producing the chlorophyll, and so it no longer produces what is green, and so the true colors come through. Even the poison ivy turns a pretty red, and has a red berry.”

According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, colors in Virginia peak first in the mountains in the southwestern corner of the state, then move to the eastern shore along the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast lines. Higher elevations and northern slopes usually change first. Typically the dogwoods and black gum display their colors first: brilliant reds, followed by the yellow of the maples. Next the white ash trees turn yellow and light purple. Sweet gum leaves turn orange, red and purple, and the oaks and hickories show warm muted colors. The sassafras turns orange while the sourwood turns red. Sumac leaves sport both red leaves and deep red fruit clusters. Scarlet and red oaks turn crimson, and hickories turn yellow. As all these leaves drop and begin to decompose, they fertilize the soil, mulching the roots of their trees. Meanwhile, Virginia creeper is turning multiple shades of scarlet.

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is long and skinny and runs for 105 miles, north to south. One of Perl’s favorite spots to see the brilliant display in the park is Jones Mountain in Madison County. “There is a spot on Jones Mountain called Bear Church Rock,” she says. “It’s an 7.8-mile hike roundtrip, an out-and-back.” The reward? “Lots of yellow”—mostly tulip trees (also known as yellow or tulip poplar) and oaks.

Perl calls Hawksville Mountain, the highest mountain in the park at 4,050 feet, “another great hike. It’s a great place for fall colors; it has probably a 300-degree view looking to the west and north. You can do a quick out-and-back, a mile up and a mile back down, or you can incorporate the Appalachian Trail and do a three-mile loop. There are many options for hikes on Hawksville.” Along the way, hikers will see “lots of poplar, lots of oak, maples, sassafras, and mountain ash with a red berry on them.”

Old Rag Loop along Old Rag Mountain is the park’s most well-known trail, and one of the most popular and spectacular in the Mid-Atlantic Region. For that reason it’s also one of the busiest, and is best begun in early morning. But don’t start before daylight. Old Rag is a demanding trail requiring serious caution and adequate preparation—sturdy shoes, food and water—and light. Expect to take seven or eight hours to complete it, and keep the kids close and within sight.

Perl loves Humpback Rock, south of Shenandoah National Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway “It’s a beautiful place to get to a high point and look out over the mountains,” she says. “Even just taking a drive on Skyline Drive—oh my God—there is lookout after lookout where you’re driving along the ridgeline for 105 miles and just see beautiful views and great fall colors.” Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is an easy way to enjoy fall colors, but to beat the traffic, midweek is best. Traffic can be an issue getting into the park as well. Its northern end is the busiest, and backups before the northern entrance on Route 340 are not unheard of.

Wintergreen’s 11,000 acres are primarily mixed hardwood forest: oak, hickory, maple, and ash trees, with evergreens here and there, laced with 30 miles of hiking trails, some steep and rugged, some gentle and easy, as well as two mountain peaks: Black Rock, and Devil’s Knob. The latter is almost 4,000 feet high. Black Rock, where Wintergreen’s many homes are located, is encircled by a wilderness trail with spokes leading in and out of it, so that hikers can take one spoke out and another back in.  Wintergreen’s highest point, Devil’s Knob, offers breathtaking views 20 miles down the Blue Ridge.

The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen offers guided hikes through this splendor. Josh Palumbo will lead a Fall Foliage hike on October 21 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. for folks seeking answers to the why, what, and how of the changing season. A $3 payment is due at registration. Check the Virginia Department of Forestry’s “The Foliage Report,” posted on the Wintergreen website, to know what to expect on any given day.

Recommended Driving Tours
The Virginia Department of Forestry also recommends a number of Fall Foliage Driving Tours. In the Charlottesville area, begin at the intersection of Route 33 and Route 230 at Stanardsville. Follow Route 230 north. At Route 29, turn left. Follow Route 29/231 and signs to Madison, exiting Route 29 along Route 231 at Madison. Follow Main Street in Madison. At the Blue Ridge Turnpike (Route 231), turn left. Take Route 231 to Sperryville, Route 522.

For a tour beginning in Staunton, take Exit 222 on Interstate 81 near Staunton, and follow Route 250 to Monterey. The tour begins at the Highland County line. At Monterey, travel west on Rt. 250 to Hightown. Travel west on Rt. 250 to the West Virginia State Line.

For a Bath County Driving Tour beginning in Lexington, take Exit 191 on Interstate 81 near Lexington, follow Interstate 64 to Route 39. The tour begins on Rt. 39. Follow it through Millboro Springs. At Rt. 629, stay on Rt. 39 to Warm Springs, or turn left onto Rt. 629 and head to Clifton Forge. At Clifton Forge, follow Rt. 220 South to Roanoke.

Monticello and Carter Mountain Orchards
“I never before knew the full value of trees,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph in 1793. “What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown.” Jefferson’s tree plantings are mostly gone today, but he would love their replacements—and we still have his view. “Of prospect I have a rich profusion,” Jefferson wrote. “It may be successively offered, & in different portions through vistas, with the advantage of shifting scenes as you advance on your way.”

Just down the road from Monticello, Carter Mountain Orchards offers even more spectacular, drive-up views, with pretty near 360-degree views of Charlottesville, the Blue Ridge Mountains and towards Richmond. Apple tree leaves on the mountain itself should be turning orange by late this month.

Saunders-Monticello Trail

The trees are in their autumn beauty
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky

William Butler Yeats,
from “The Wild Swans at Coole”

Winding up to Monticello from Route 53 nowadays is the gently ascending, two-mile long Saunders-Monticello Trail. Instead of grand, sweeping views many leafers seek, it mostly offers a walk in the woods—but such rich and lovely woods they are. The first change regular hikers will observe here is the black walnuts and redbuds turning yellow—though not for long. In a good year, the sycamores and tulip poplars will do the same, while the black tupelos turn a deep and lovely red.  Next to change, pale yellow or just brown, should be the trail’s many oaks —mainly Scarlet and Red Oaks, but also chestnut oaks, a species of white oak. More unpredictable in their timing are the maples, which will show yellow, and sometimes red or orange. Sweet gums, persimmons, ironwoods, sassafras, cherries, mulberries and more may be seen as well. The leaves of Sassafras trees will turn orange, while those of Sourwoods and the Sumac shrubs will add red to the spectrum. 

The loveliest time of all to hike the trail is usually late October and early November when most of the trees have already shed their leaves leaving the rich golden hues of the pignut hickory leaves highlighted against deep blue skies. Underneath those vibrant hickories the paw paws turn as well: first yellow, then increasingly translucent. Along the ground at about the same time, the trail’s scattered witch hazel plants come into bloom.

They Know We’re Coming
Lush and constantly changing as this color show is, the Trail, the Park and all these scenic spots reward revisiting throughout the season. Recent studies—albeit still controversial studies—show that trees can alert each other to changes in their environment. Do they know we’re coming? Think about that for a moment: their multi-hued canopy, so awe-inspiring and so gorgeous . . . may just be their welcome.

Lo the leaves
Upon the new autumn grass –
Look at them well . . . !

William Carlos Williams,
“To Be Closely Written on a Small Piece of Paper. . . ”