Leaf Peeping at Sheanandoah: A Pictorial (Part 1 of 2) 1
Author thumbnail By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor

On Wednesday, October 22, 2003, I packed up my Pathfinder and headed to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, hoping to catch leaves at their prime in a midweek escape from suburbia. I also hoped to avoid weekend crowds. On Fall weekends, Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive can rival the worst rush hour traffic as citygoers flock to the park to take in its legendary fall color.

I was rewarded on two counts: many trees in the park are showcasing their best color of the season, and deer vastly outnumbered people in the park. I felt as though the trees were giving a dress rehearsal for a limited audience: mostly retirees and folks like me burning some vacation time. The true crowds would arrive on the weekend for the actual engagement.

I arrived at the northern edge of Shenandoah mid-afternoon on Wednesday, once again adhering to my strict policy of sleeping in on any day that’s part of a vacation. (That, and I didn’t make it to bed until 3 a.m. the night before.)

I had hoped to try hiking some new trails, but since it was late in the day and the days are getting shorter, I decided to start with an old favorite: Whiteoak Canyon trail, near Skyland Lodge. I knew the trail well, and figured there was a good chance I would be hiking in the dark. I enjoy hiking in the dark, as the woods take on a surreal atmosphere, but I didn’t want to tempt fate by hiking on a trail I was unfamiliar with - particularly since temperatures had already dipped into the upper 30’s by the time I reached the trailhead.

Even though temperatures were pleasant in the D.C. area Wednesday, I knew to bring plenty of warm weather gear to Shenandoah as temperatures at the higher elevations are typically at least 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding valley. The warm gear came in handy. Of course, it’s all about layering: I was bundled up at the beginning of the Whiteoak Canyon trail, but became warm by the hike back up (almost entirely uphill).

Shenandoah received quite a bit of damage from the recent hurricane, and had to temporarily close Skyline Drive to clear downed trees. Skyline Drive is now completely open, but portions of some trails, such as the Limberlost (a wheelchair-accessible trail that crisscrosses Whiteoak Canyon in two places), remain closed due to trail obstructions and trees that are just barely standing.

Not only was it cold, it was quite windy - and I watched nervously as trees swayed, moaned, and creaked along the trail.

On weekends, Whiteoak Canyon is one of the most popular trails in the park, with dozens of cars parked at the trailhead. Today, I was met with only two other cars and had the trail essentially to myself.

Knowing that the sun would soon set, I decided not to hike to the first fall, but to spend time photographing the river on its journey. One of my favorite spots at Shenandoah is a place I call “lunch rock” - aptly named because I have probably had lunch on this rock over a dozen times. It’s on the left side of the trail a little bit past the second foot bridge on Whiteoak Canyon trail. Several large boulders make a perfect resting spot, sitting right next to a bubbling brook with water cascading over several short falls.

The location is one of the most scenic in the park, and nature provides an excellent soundtrack of water bubbling and gurgling. I had skipped breakfast, so I ate my first meal of the day: a Sierra Turkey sandwich I had picked up from Panera Bread at the start of my journey, continuing a tradition I set last fall during a visit to Shenandoah.

Continue to Part 2…
Photos by M. Scott Smith.
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About M. Scott Smith

M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.

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Reader Comments

October 25, 2003
As always, great photos Scott! Glad you enjoyed the trip

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