Cover Story

The Roads Less Traveled

A Fall Color Tour of Virginia's Mountain Byways

by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer

Falling Spring Falls

Autumn is the time of year when everyone flocks to the mountains, often creating havoc on usually quiet byways like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. While the Parkway and Drive are great spots for leaf viewing, fall-foliage lovers who want to escape the crowds might consider a road trip this season on some of Virginia’s less traveled mountain byways. Drive one on a Sunday afternoon, or take a few days away from the hustle and bustle of work, and enjoy all three.

Route 220: Monterey to Fincastle

Known fondly as Virginia’s Switzerland, Highland County is the best spot in Virginia to enjoy fall foliage in solitude. With one of the highest mean elevations east of the Mississippi, Highland is also the least crowded county in the state, with a total population of just over 2,500. Here endless, serene pastureland and mountain views, grazing land, and occasional frame farmhouses and weathered barns greet the eyes.

The county seat of Monterey, elevation 3,000 feet, is a picturesque starting point for a Sunday drive through the Allegheny Highlands. Visitors can feast on

Sunday brunch at the historic 1904 Highland Inn on Main Street in front of a pot-bellied stove before heading south on scenic Route 220 through a long-forgotten realm, where time slows down and space opens wide.

Route 220 is a lovely, winding drive that follows the course of the Jackson River, one of Virginia’s premier trout streams, alongside isolated farms, past country stores, and through rocky river gorges. The nothingness here is sublime, and golden sugar maples and red oaks creep gently up the forested mountainsides.

Jefferson Pools

Gradually, 220 winds up Rocky Ridge as it passes into Bath County, sliding under sweeping autumn woods draped delicately over the roadway as the George Washington National Forest consumes the landscape here. Weary drivers should be sure to stop for a soak at the historic Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, where bubbly warm mineral water gurgles up from the earth’s interior in natural pools once visited by Thomas Jefferson and Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

From Warm Springs, it’s on to Hot Springs, home of the imposing 1766 Homestead Resort. For a little taste of Homestead cuisine without the hefty price tag, passersby can stop by The Homestead Market and pick up a picnic lunch, then head south through more open rolling farmland into Alleghany County. A good place to stop and enjoy dinner al fresco is at the picnic area alongside Falling Spring Falls, a steep waterfall that bursts out of a nearby spring. Thomas Jefferson once said he thought the Falling Spring Falls were as lovely as Niagara.

From Falling Spring Falls, 220 continues south through its curviest stretch as it leads precariously into the paper-mill town of Covington, where treasure hunters can explore the recently revitalized downtown district’s numerous antique shops. Route 220 joins with I-64 East for a few miles to Clifton Forge, an old railroad town, where one can pause to browse at the Allegheny Highlands Arts and Crafts Center on Main Street, home to the paintings, sculpture, and handcrafts of regional artists. From Clifton Forge, 220 curls past Iron Gate, the official start of the James River, through rolling river valley and past colorful mountain woodlands.

For a leisurely side trip before reaching Roanoke, history and architecture buffs can veer off 220 into Fincastle, the county seat of Botetourt. Some structures in the town date to the 1770s, including the log Crowder House on Church Street. From here, weekenders can head home or pick up another lovely scenic fall drive, Route 11, at Roanoke.

Route 11, South of Staunton

Route 11: Roanoke to Winchester

Route 11, which parallels I-81 from the top to the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley, is a serene alternative to the busy interstate and offers sumptuous views of golden rolling pasture and distant mountains. A good weekend trip for those who want to stop and see the sites begins at Roanoke. From city center, where drivers might want to pause for some goodies at the downtown Farmer’s Market, fall foliage seekers should head north toward the sleepy railroad town of Buchanan. Situated along the curling James River, this little village has seen a significant revitalization in recent years with little cafes, gift shops, and even a couple of bed and breakfasts on Main Street.

North of Buchanan, Route 11 curves past Natural Bridge, a perfect stop-off for families, as this tourist attraction is not only home to one of the world’s most striking natural wonders, it also offers hiking, miniature golf, caverns, a wax museum, toy museum, and monster museum onsite. Beyond Natural Bridge, this scenic valley road winds around Lexington, then north through more open countryside to Steele’s Tavern, home of the Cyrus McCormick Farm. From there, it’s on to Staunton, Queen City of the Blue Ridge. Those with some time to spend might consider an overnight stay in one of the city’s many historic B&Bs and spend an afternoon exploring Staunton’s five national historic districts, visiting the Woodrow Wilson birthplace, taking in a play at the Blackfriar’s Playhouse, or enjoying the autumn leaves with a stroll around the duck pond at Gypsy Hill Park.

As Route 11 bisects Harrisonburg and continues northward, the long blue line of Massanutten Mountain rises slowly to the east and parallels the road for the rest of the journey. Drivers can check out the interior of Massanutten Mountain at Endless Caverns, just south of New Market, or stop over at the New Market Battlefield, where 257 Virginia Military Institute cadets helped fend off advancing Federals in May 1864. Just south of Mt. Jackson is a postcard-perfect autumn view of Meems Bottom Covered Bridge on Route 720. Wine connoisseurs can enjoy a few moments of tasting the valley’s grape harvest at the region’s oldest winery, Shenandoah Vineyards, just outside Edinburg, and sip wine under a garden trellis with eastward views of the colorful slopes of Massanutten.

At the thriving little metropolitan community of Woodstock, explorers can continue on Route 11 north to the self-proclaimed antique capital of Virginia — historic Strasburg, where the Strasburg Emporium, Virginia’s largest antique center (or so it claims!) houses more than 60,000 square feet of old treasures, from washstands to wedding dresses.

North of Strasburg, one can explore the Civil War battlefield at Cedar Creek or roam the autumn gardens of Belle Grove Plantation, a 1794 stone house that was Federal headquarters for General Phil Sheridan during the 1864 battle. Beyond Cedar Creek, Route 11 becomes increasingly more developed, but history buffs should continue northward to downtown Winchester, where one can take a self-guided walking tour of the city’s historic structures, many of which date to the 18th century. Visitors can stop by the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center for a map of the Apple Trail Driving Tour, which leads one through the rolling countryside outside the city to orchards heavy with the autumn apple harvest and past local farmers’ markets selling fresh fall produce. It’s a luscious way for visitors to take a little bit of mountain fall back home.

Route 39: Lexington to Mountain Grove

Already designated a Virginia Byway, Route 39 offers not only quiet mountain scenery, but also numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation only steps off the road. Before beginning their westward trek, however, fall foliage seekers should consider a stroll through downtown Lexington. Because of its rich historic architecture and quaint hilly streets, the city was featured in the Civil War film Somersby. Highlights to hit include the recently reopened Stonewall Jackson House and the Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University.

From Lexington, 39 winds through rolling horse country past the quiet post office town of Rockbridge Baths, and into the depths of Goshen Pass, a fisherman’s paradise. With rocky, forested canyon walls that offer a brilliant maze of gold, amber, and scarlet hues in October and the boulder-strewn Maury River bisecting the gorge, the scenery here stirs the senses. There are numerous pull-offs for enjoying the views as well as parking areas for those who want to fish. Hikers can explore a variety of trails throughout the Goshen-Little North Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

In the sleepy town of Goshen at the gorge’s western edge, visitors can stop off for down-home-style cooking at Mill Creek Café or, if there’s time to spare, take a slumber along the railroad tracks at the Hummingbird Inn, a Victorian Gothic villa with expansive wraparound verandas on the first and second floors and sweeping green lawns and gardens. The inn has had its small share of fame, playing host to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935. Today guests can stay the night in Mrs. Roosevelt’s room or in one of the inn’s three other rooms, all with heart pine wood floors and some with fireplaces.

Those looking for the finest in local crafts can make a side trip off Route 39 into the little village of Millboro, where Sugar Hollow Creations occupies an old general store and offers everything from rustic-style mountain furniture to handmade quilts and candles. From Millboro Springs, 39 winds westward up Warm Springs Mountain. At the top, visitors can pause for sweeping blue mountain vistas at the newly constructed Dan Ingalls Overlook, which also provides access to the Warm Springs Mountain Trail, a gently sloping hike through autumn-streaked forest to rocky eastward-facing outcrops.

The westward slope of Warm Springs Mountain faces the village of Warm Springs, where 39 crosses 220. West of Warm Springs, 39 curls through the George Washington National Forest, past hiking and historic mansion tours in Hidden Valley and alongside Blowing Spring, an unusual mountain spring that shoots cold air out of the cavernous earth. At Mountain Grove, drivers can turn around and head home or venture north a few miles on Route 600 to the Bath County Pumped Storage Station Recreation Area, where a campground and picnic areas overlook serene ponds beneath Back Creek Mountain.


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