It all comes down to chlorophyll, the green pigment in the leaves. Every autumn, as the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, two phenomena occur. One, as the production of chlorophyll slows and eventually comes to a halt, other pigments already present but obscured become visible: brilliant yellow and gold, and orange, crimson and purple. Two, and following closely behind, as the leaves turn beautiful and begin falling, the leaf peepers appear—in the woods, on the trails, on Skyline Drive and wherever autumn’s splendors may best be seen. Virginia has the deciduous trees, the mountain vistas to show them off, and the perfect fall temps to give us a stunning show.
“Veni, vidi, I took pictures for my Instagram page,” as Caesar might have said, if he could have gone leaf-peeping. Fortunately for us, we can.
Roundabout mid-October is when the colors usually start to show. While the right amount of rainfall delays leaf fall and makes for the most brilliant colors, too much rain will mute the palette, as will too many cloudy days, and too much or too little warmth. “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, peak 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 explains. 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. From mid-October on, you’ll see these changes start to occur. I’m sitting here seeing just a touch of change happening now, but most everything, especially the oaks and hickories are still green.”
“I expected this to be a very poor year until we began to get rain,” Coleman says. “The driest places in the forest where the color changes first—that is on the ridgeline and the rock faces—were already starting to change and lose their leaves. But based on the warm temperatures and the rain we’re having right now, I expect it to be a normal, if not lingering, beautiful fall.”
Typically the dogwoods and black gum change first, displaying brilliant reds, followed by the yellow of the maples, then the oaks and hickories with their warm rich brown colors. Meanwhile, Virginia creeper is turning multiple shades of scarlet. Let’s look at a few fine places to enjoy nature’s annual color display.
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 many of Wintergreen’s 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. From the trails, Coleman notes, “you can take short walks to the overlooks if you’re handicapped or otherwise—and you can just take the whole thing in—breathtaking splendor, it’s just incredible.”
“If you get on a west-facing trail [like The Raven’s Roost Overlook Trail] and look out across the Shenandoah, you will see the color change more quickly because of the geology—a week earlier there,” Coleman says. “You also can climb to the highest point in Wintergreen, Devil’s Knob, and look for 20 miles down the Blue Ridge to a breathtaking view. On east-facing trails like The Plunge and Cedar Cliff, the color changes take place later. “That’s because the Shenandoah is higher elevation and is a little more northern-zoned, plus the geology is different.”
The folks at Wintergreen make several recommendations for those eager to see the show. One is to try the most popular hikes: Humpback Rock, The Priest and White Rock Falls. Two, because the Blue Ridge Parkway gets crowded on fall weekends, it’s best to either drive it midweek, or to take alternate routes on Saturdays and Sundays. Three, it’s a good idea to check “The Foliage Report,” delivered by the Department of Forestry and posted on the Wintergreen website, to know what to expect on any given day.
For drivers, one sample itinerary loops through beautiful Nelson County. Leaving Wintergreen, it turns right to go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, going south for 15 miles to Route 56. Turning east on Route 56 it continues to Crabtree Falls, where a two-mile hike will lead to the head of the falls. Continuing down Route 56, it passes the Fitzgerald’s, Silver Creek, Dickie Brothers, Seaman’s and Saunders Brothers apple orchards. Heading north on Rt. 151, it winds across Brent’s Mountain. A left turn on Rt. 664 leads back to Wintergreen.
For walkers, The Nature Foundation maintains a full schedule of guided hikes. The moderately hard, 4.8 mile Journey To High Places Hike on October 20 at 2:00 p.m. will begin along Wintergreen’s neighboring trail system, the Appalachian Trail, starting at Dripping Rock and heading south to Reids Gap. The year’s final Journey To High Places Hike on November 3 at 1:00 p.m. will begin at Reids Gap and head to the summit of Three Ridges and back for a total of 9.2 miles. The cost for each hike is $6 for members and $10 for non-members. Hikers should bring water and wear hiking shoes or boots.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is long and skinny and runs for 105 miles, north to south. Color peaks first in the north, then in the south; the same phenomenon may be observed as one moves from higher to lower elevations.
“Autumn sure is taking her time in Shenandoah National Park this year,” the National Park Service reports, calling this year’s color show “a late bloomer. We might be saying she came on slowly at first, then burst out of the gate in mid-October. Or we might be saying she trotted leisurely through the first half of this tenth month, and was still trailing color in early November.” Right now, it’s too early to tell. But already in the Park’s north district, from mile 0 to mile 28 or so along Skyline Drive, as the elevation heightens, so does the color, as forest green gives way to lime green, chartreuse, and maize.
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. Allow seven or eight hours to complete it. Keep the kids close and within sight.
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.
“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.” All or most of Jefferson’s own tree plantings are gone, but no doubt if he were alive today, he’d be able to see how much has replaced them.
If designing Monticello taught Jefferson the value of trees, living on the mountain made him love a 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.
Monticello’s Falling Leaves and Winter Trees Walk, Saturday, October 22 from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. will ramble through Monticello’s forest, concentrating on identifying trees by their bark, fruit, seeds, buds, and habit. Jerry Therrien and Peggy Cornett will lead hikers along Jefferson’s original woodland passages. Binoculars are recommended, as are sturdy shoes suitable for muddy slopes and uneven terrain.
Winding up to Monticello from Route 53 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.
Perhaps the loveliest time of all to hike the trail is late in the season, when with most of the trees having already shed their leaves, the rich golden hues of the pignut hickories’ leaves are highlighted against the deep blue of the 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. Lush and constantly changing as this color show is, the Trail rewards revisiting throughout the fall. While in times past the leaves were gone by Halloween, now the season goes well into November, sometimes even to the end of the month.
According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, colors should peak between October 10-20 in western Virginia, between October 15-25 in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and between October 20-31 in the eastern part of the state. Go and see!