Cover Story
Head for the Hills

Story by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer


Mabry Mill

 Mabry Mill

If you’re wondering where to go to see the best fall color, head to the changing elevations of Virginia’s mountains — where scenic drives, peaceful hikes, and quaint mountain towns provide a weekend’s worth of fall fun.

When it comes to viewing fall foliage, a drive through changing elevations affords the best chance of catching color at its peak somewhere along your route. The following suggestions offer not just spectacular scenery, but a taste of Virginia mountain culture at its colorful best.

Route 250: Charlottesville to Monterey

Before I-64 served as the main westward route through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Route 250 was the major byway, and today it remains a scenic, mostly rural route that one can take west on a fall week­end to enjoy the display of autumn leaves, high-elevation vistas, and side trips through historic towns. From Charlottesville, 250 climbs the slopes of the Blue Ridge gradually, bypassing rolling farmland with gold-tinged grass and curling up the eastern slope of Afton Mountain.

Before cresting the mountain, be sure to stretch your legs at the Rockfish Gap Country Store, a former fruit-packing shed turned into a country store in the 1960s. In addition to a full array of local antiques, paintings by Virginia artists, and a variety of home décor and gardening items, the store also has a nice selection of wine, cheese, ciders, crackers, and snacks, so pick up some picnic supplies for the trip.

From Rockfish Gap, where one can also access Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, 250 descends toward Waynesboro, passing the remnants of old hotels and tourist attractions from the days before the Interstate. From Waynesboro to Staunton, 250 becomes a busy highway again, but don’t skip the drive. With its brick sidewalks, iron-lamppost-lined streets, and eclectic architecture, Staunton lives up to its name as “Queen City” of the Shenandoah Valley. It has five National Historic Districts, some of which you’ll traverse as you glide through downtown. Consider stopping for a picnic lunch at Gypsy Hill Park with its duck pond, playgrounds, and scenic, shaded picnic areas.

From Staunton, 250 climbs again, this time into the wild landscape of the Allegheny Mountains. As you head west, the fall color displays are less and less interrupted by signs of civilization until the highway enters the George Washington National Forest, curling up the eastern slope of Shenandoah Mountain toward the remote reaches of Highland County. Known fondly as Virginia’s Switzerland, Highland County is perhaps the best spot in Virginia to enjoy fall foliage in solitude. With one of the highest mean elevations east of the Mississippi, it is also the least-populated county in the state with just over 2,500 residents. Here 250 follows the route of the old Staunton to Parkersburg Turnpike, which was built in the 1830s and ’40s as part of a national movement for improved roads, particularly into the nation’s backcountry areas.

The best view of this drive is probably from the top of Shenandoah Mountain at the Highland and Augusta County line, where an overlook affords views to the west of as many as five ridgelines on a clear day. Civil War buffs will appreciate this stop as well. There are remnants here of trenches Confederates constructed in April 1862 in an effort to defend the city of Staunton and the Turnpike from invasion by Union forces from the west. A trailhead for the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, a 30-mile ridge-hugging hike along the spine of the mountain, is here as well.

View from Sitlington Hill

After descending Shenandoah Mountain via a curling route west, Rt. 250 continues through tiny mountain communities like Headwaters with its country store and post office and then toward the more famous village of McDowell. Here, on May 8, 1862, Confederate forces positioned on Sitlington Hill above McDowell fended off a Union attack under Generals Robert Milroy and Robert Schenck. You can explore some of the McDowell Battlefield via a 1.8-mile round-trip hike to the top of Sitlington Hill or check out the exhibits at the Highland Museum and Heritage Center in McDowell. The landscape at McDowell represents the most well-preserved Civil War battlefield in the east, as it remains virtually unchanged from its appearance in 1862.

From McDowell, 250 courses along a scenic mountain stream, then up over Jack Mountain, the last mountain of this trek, into the county seat of Monterey, elevation 3,000 feet. With a handful of craft, antique, and gift shops, Monterey offers an opportunity for browsing as well as a chance for a home-cooked meal before heading home again. Consider stopping by the 1904 Highland Inn on Main Street for dinner or at least for a good sit in one of the inn’s front-porch rocking chairs.   

Skyline Drive: Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap

Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive is likely to be busy during the peak fall color of October, but if you skip the very northern end of the drive, which draws loads of visitors from the D.C. metro area, you can avoid some of the crowds. Jump on at Thornton Gap, just west of Luray via Rt. 211, head south through Marys Rock Tunnel, an engineering wonder when it was built in 1932, and past the prominent face of Stony Man Peak, a few miles to the south. An uphill but moderate trail to Little Stony Man Cliffs (about a mile round-trip at milepost 39) offers a short hike to lovely views of Massanutten Mountain. And when you come back down, you can enjoy lunch at Skyland, the lodge built by naturalist George Pollock in the 1890s as a mountain retreat well before Shenandoah National Park was ever created. Today the glass-walled restaurant offers sweeping if sometimes hazy blue views of the Shenandoah Valley.

View from Hawksbill Mountain

At milepost 42, there is a mostly level, scenic woods walk through the former hemlock forest known as the Limberlost. The hemlocks are mostly gone now, thanks to the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid, providing a new landscape of low-growing successional forest that is loaded with birds and white-tailed deer. If you’re lucky, you might even encounter a black bear here. There are lovely mountain views to be had from the summit of Hawksbill (elevation 4,051 ft.), the park’s highest peak. The Upper Hawksbill Parking Area offers the most gradual climb to the top, where one can see 180-degree views of the Shenandoah Valley, Skyline Drive to the north, and the rolling landscape of the Blue Ridge foothills to the east.

One of the most popular stops on the drive is Big Meadows (milepost 51). Here the Park Service has recreated a mountain meadow, which it keeps intact by burning off the brush every few years. At dawn and dusk, the wide meadow, often peppered with wildflowers and berries, is teeming with wildlife, mostly white-tailed deer by the dozens. Black bears are also a common sight here, particularly near the campground. Be sure to sample the park’s signature blackberry ice cream at the Big Meadows Wayside.

If you’re up for a longer hike, the Milam Gap Trail, just south of Big Meadows, provides hiking access to Camp Rapidan, the former fishing getaway of President Herbert Hoover. An almost four-mile round-trip hike, the trail has several scenic stream crossings, small waterfalls and wading pools, and access to some of the historic camp buildings if you time your hike to coincide with the ranger-guided tours. (For tour times or to schedule a bus ride to the camp, call 540-999-3283.)

Another worthwhile spot, a little less traveled, is Bearfence Mountain at milepost 56. For those who don’t mind a little rock scramble, this round-trip hike of less than a mile offers 360-degree views at the summit. South River Falls (milepost 63) also provides one of the park’s loveliest and least-traveled hikes. At two and a half miles round-trip, this trail leads to a falls overlook where the less adventurous can turn around, or one can continue down to the base of the falls, where a rocky pool offers a wading spot and a cool mist on warm days. Below South River is the park’s Swift Run Gap entrance, where you can exit onto Rt. 33 toward Harrisonburg or Stanardsville.

Blue Ridge Parkway: Tuggle Gap to Cumberland Knob

While the Blue Ridge Parkway is undoubtedly the most popular place in the state for a fall color drive, trying to hit the Parkway on the peak day could be a challenge. The better option is to pick a long stretch of the Parkway with varying elevations, thus providing several opportunities for finding color at its height. To avoid the crowds that typically flock to popular areas south of Charlottesville and in the Peaks of Otter area, one can access the Parkway at Tuggle Gap just west of Floyd off Rt. 8 and head south toward Rocky Knob (elevation 3,572 ft.).

The Rocky Knob area of the Parkway is arguably one of the most scenic sections in Virginia with its bald, grassy bluffs and split-rail fences lining the road. While several overlooks here offer ample opportunity for long-distance views to the east and west, consider hiking a portion of the Rock Castle Gorge Trail, a 10.8-mile loop that drops from the top of Rocky Knob to the depths of the gorge at 1,700 feet, thus providing nearly 2,000 feet in elevation change and varying fall-color vistas.

From the Rocky Knob Campground, the trail descends for three miles through a cove hardwood forest loaded with color. At the base of this trail, the hike intersects an old roadbed, which follows Rock Castle Creek. Here the hike is mostly level and the trail blanketed with soft gold, amber, and scarlet leaves from overhanging maples, oaks, and hickories. It passes through an old Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, now used as a backcountry camping area, and also passes by an old homestead (privately owned) and remnants of turn-of-the-century home sites. This hollow was once occupied by subsistence farmers and cotton and timber mill workers.

After 2.8 miles, the trail turns right, heads back up the mountain, passing through a boulder field and a stand of towering Catawba rhododendron. At Grassy Knoll, the hike parallels the Parkway for the next 3.5 miles and is steep in sections, though the stunning views of the gorge and surrounding boulder-heavy countryside are well worth the extra effort. After descending Rocky Knob, the trail leads back to the campground where you began.

While the Rocky Knob area has a scenic picnic area as well as many grassy knolls perfect for enjoying an outdoor lunch, the Chateau Morrisette Winery, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near milepost 171, is another dining option. In addition to wine tastings (check out their sweet mountain laurel varieties that taste just like fresh grape skins), one can enjoy lovely mountain views from an elegantly set table and lunch on a Black Angus burger topped with hickory-smoked bacon and cheddar. Chateau Morrisette is one of Virginia’s premier wineries, now producing more than 100,000 gallons of wines each year.

The most-photographed scene on the Blue Ridge Parkway — historic Mabry Mill — is just south of Rocky Knob, and there is a restaurant here as well. Restored in the 1940s and ’50s, the mill was built in 1910 by Edwin Mabry, who operated it until 1936. This water-powered gristmill also provides power to a wood-working shop as well as to a sawmill. You can take a self-guided walking tour of the mill complex or join a guided 30-minute tour. Guided tours run regularly throughout the day on weekends from May through October, and in fall-color season, you can also see various demonstrations here from apple butter making to chair caning. The mill also has grinding demonstrations as well as a blacksmith hard at work in the smithy.

After touring Mabry Mill, take a quick jaunt off the Parkway to the little hamlet of Meadows of Dan, just south of the mill complex. Fun spots to hit include the Poor Farmer’s Market, which carries fresh produce, milled flour, deli meats and cheeses, garden implements and décor, as well as ice cream and local crafts; and Nancy’s Candy Company Factory Outlet Store, where you can pick up some chocolate and fudge for the road. The Mountain Meadow Farm and Craft Market is a relatively new addition to the shopping scene here and carries a variety of locally made crafts at much cheaper prices than the gift stores on the Parkway. In the fall, the market has a corn maze.

As the Parkway descends from Meadows of Dan, the scenery gradually shifts from long mountain vistas to a largely forested landscape of maples, poplars, chestnut oaks, dogwoods, and red oaks on a high plateau. Ten miles south is an observation tower at Groundhog Mountain, from which one can view the bull-shaped head of Buffalo Mountain. The Park Service also has a display here on Appalachian rail fences, including picket, snake rail, buck rail, and post and rail. Just past Groundhog Mountain on the right is the preserved home of “Aunt” Orlene Hawks Puckett, who lived in this little cabin until 1939 when she was 102. A midwife, Puckett delivered more than 1,000 babies over the course of her life and bore 24 children herself, though none of her own lived beyond infancy.

As the Parkway continues south toward the North Carolina state line, views are mostly of rural farmland, much of it leased to area farmers by the National Park Service to maintain the historic agrarian landscape. And just before the Parkway heads into North Carolina is the Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213, a must-stop no matter the season. While the Music Center has regular evening entertainment at its amphitheater, you can also enjoy daily mid-day concerts by area musicians right inside the museum, a perfect way to settle in and relax before the long drive home.

For more information

Blue Ridge Parkway

(828) 298-0398


Shenandoah National Park

(540) 999-3500


Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau

(800) 342-7982


Highland County Chamber of Commerce

(540) 468-2550



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