Though Shenandoah is open year-round, and is renowned for its spring wildflower blooms, its greatest draw arrives every fall, when the leaves begin to turn. Fall is the season when the year's most spectacular colors are daubed, stroked, and splashed across the national park system. Varying hues of gold, umber, and rouge are mixed in with the dwindling greens of maples, beech, oaks, and the other hardwood species that make the season so colorful.
At Shenandoah, the staff has dedicated a full page on their web site to the wonders and beauty of the turning of the leaves.
Throughout the park, color changes are beginning to take place, with many trees changing into their fall wardrobe literally overnight! Trees that were completely green a few days ago have begun to show off their yellow, orange, or red leaves in just the last day or two. Deep purple dogwoods and reddish-purple sumacs are especially evident at the lower elevations, and the dark red Virginia creeper vines are very showy right now as they wind their way up trees, along rocky outcrops, and over the rock walls that line the Skyline Drive. Striped maples, small trees that are part of the forest understory, are beginning to show off their yellowy foliage along many of the park trails. These early color changes provide a sharp contrast to most of the trees in the park which are still quite green.
The Skyline Drive, America's first lengthy parkway, famously offers a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and gold each year from about mid-October to mid-November. The rule of thumb is that colors generally peak in Shenandoah during the last half of October. Catching the peak can be tricky, however, since this elongated park is north-south oriented and varies considerably in elevation.
Colors make their appearance up to several weeks earlier in the north and at higher and middle elevations (which can be 10-15 degrees cooler than adjacent valleys). The extended season in the south and at lower elevations offers extra options. There are lots of small trees and shrubs like sassafras and sumac that remain vibrant with color after the oaks past their peak.
Since oaks tend to shed their leaves late, their cinnamon-colored or rusty-brown leaves can contrast nicely with the abundant evergreen trees and shrubs. If you don't mind the heavier traffic, try to drive at mid-day when sunshine lights the leaves on both sides of the road. If you find the slow traffic too aggravating, and can find a parking place, try one of the park's many excellent trails.