America’s Oldest Mountains Are a Glorious Must-Visit for Autumn
Fall foliage for miles and miles.
I grew up on the Potomac River, a stone’s throw from George Mason’s historic home at Gunston Hall and just a few miles downriver from George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. But much of my family relocated up to the mountains near Winchester, Virginia, best known for its apples and hometown country music star, Patsy Cline.
It’s hard not to be drawn to those majestic blue peaks running down the western spine of the Old Dominion. Part of the Appalachian Range—and one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, at more than 1 billion years of existence—the Blue Ridge Mountains lure hikers, cyclists, leaf peepers, and fans of fresh air year-round.
My family heads to the Blue Ridge to see the first blooms of dogwood and redbud in the spring, when temperatures are nice and the parks and lodges have the lowest attendance rates of the year. But the high season around these parts is definitely fall, when visitors swarm to see the glorious, flame-colored foliage. Here, there’s a setting for every speed—so whether you’re cruising along the scenic Skyline Drive at 30 mph, or doing some extreme hiking on the Appalachian Trail, these are some of the most beautiful places to visit in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Located at the northern end of Blue Ridge, Shenandoah rocks a whopping 500+ miles of hiking trails on which to stretch your legs and catch a close-up look at wildlife being wild. Bears, wild turkeys, and deer are out in large numbers in the spring and summer; in the fall, it’s all about the cute little chipmunks. Hikers can cross the Appalachian Trail off their bucket list (about 105 miles of the iconic trail runs through Shenandoah), tackle sweeping summits, and go chasing waterfalls.
If you plan to camp out or book lodging in the park, reserve your spot a good year in advance—particularly if you’ve got your eye on October, the busiest time of year. For a great place to stay near Shenandoah, my family has been posting up at the rustic Big Meadows Lodge for decades.
Shenandoah surges in the fall months when many folks come out to do the Skyline Drive. The 105-mile highway runs through the park along the crest of the mountains and has 70 overlooks along the way—perfect for selfies or a panoramic portrait of the hazy blue peaks and fiery orange treetops. The drive has a 35 mph speed limit and is absolutely packed with cars, so come prepared with libations and a high-octane leaf-peeping playlist.
One slow-paced, less-crowded alternative to Skyline Drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway, boldly nicknamed “America’s Favorite Drive” (the Pacific Coast Highway could not be reached for comment). The full 469-mile parkway stretches from Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah, trails through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. More than 200 miles of this gorgeous road run through the Blue Ridge Mountains, at a meandering 45 mph.
Highlights along the Virginia stretch include the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, plus a number of overlooks with incredible mountain scenery. Pick a scenic spot for a picnic, like Mabry Mill (the Parkway’s biggest attraction, located at Milepost 176), or catch some authentic Appalachian mountain music in Southwest Virginia. If you have a need for speed, you can still access the unique attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway at various access points off the major north-south Interstate 81.
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About six miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Nelson County, Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical drop cascading waterfall in Virginia, and one of the tallest east of the Mississippi River. Crabtree has five major cascades, dropping over 1,200 feet. The first overlook is near the parking area and easily accessible, and experienced hikers can tackle the trail to the upper falls and additional four overlooks.
In the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, you’ll find Natural Bridge. Formed by a cavern collapse, the 215-foot tall limestone arch was once worshipped by the native Monacan tribe—until Thomas Jefferson waltzed in and decided he owned it, somehow. In 2016, it was designated the 37th state park. Stop to explore the nearby caverns, or hike the popular Cedar Creek Trail from Natural Bridge to the Monacan Village, and finally to see the 30-foot cascade at Lace Falls.
Should you ever find yourself driving on Interstate 81 near Roanoke, Virginia, one of the finer roadside attractions in the state is the Mill Mountain Star (also known as the Roanoke Star). The world’s largest free-standing illuminated star made its debut as a Christmas decoration in 1949 and quickly became the iconic symbol of this railroad town. Fun fact: It was dedicated by Roanoke native John Payne, who played Fred Gailey in the original Miracle on 34th Street.
Giant stars aside, this area also happens to be a bucket-list destination for cyclists, recently designated “a silver-level ride center” by the International Mountain Biking Association, so you know it’s legit. The extensive greenway system is great for casual riders and families, while the challenging terrain at Carvins Cove attracts mountain bike aficionados from across the country. Whether you bike, hike, or drive up, the view of the Roanoke Valley from the top of Mill Mountain is worth it.
Hikers can catch three of the most stunning vertical ascents on the Appalachian Trail in one 32-mile loop known as the Triple Crown (don’t panic, you can also do any of these hikes as a standalone from their individual trailheads). You’ll need some serious bouldering skills—and some climbing gear—to make it up the rock walls to Dragon’s Tooth, a 35-foot quartzite rock spire. Next, a moderately difficult hike will take you to McAfee Knob, a huge rock ledge offering incredible panoramic views of the mountains. (Hot tip: This is a not-too-shabby spot to watch the sunrise). The final gem on the last stretch of the loop is Tinker Cliffs, made of limestone that’s more than 250 million years old.
The highest peak in Virginia at 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers has one of only six living high-altitude spruce-fir forests—the only one of its kind in the state. The downside is that the thick forest and rhododendron thickets make it tough to get a bird’s-eye view of your surroundings. But ambitious hikers approaching the summit from the Massie Gap Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park may be rewarded with a different spectacular sight: wild ponies!
If you got really into the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, you’ll want to check out this region where music icons like Ralph Stanley, The Carter Family, and The Statler Brothers were discovered. Southwest Virginia is known for its Appalachian musical heritage, from old-time string bands and bluegrass to gospel and blues. The Blue Ridge Music Center—one of the major venues on Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail—is located at the bottom of the state off the Blue Ridge Parkway (MP213). You can usually catch a concert whenever the center is open, or tour the museum to learn about the history of music in the mountains. Come in August and you can catch the annual fiddler’s convention in the nearby town of Galax.
Want to keep the Blue Ridge Mountains party going but miss the comforts of a (slightly) larger city? Continue just a few hours southwest to Asheville, where you’ll find what is arguably North Carolina’s highest concentration of hipsters and a local culture to match. Hit the non-profit Center of Craft to check out boutiques and small-batch vendors; hang out at part vintage shop, part wedding chapel Fleetwood’s for rock bands, comedy nights, and old films; or really find your niche and try your hand at one of The Chop Shop’s butchery classes. You can always pop in and out of the festivities for a day trip deeper into the mountains or out to natural havens like Pisgah National Forest, and afterward, you’ll still have plenty of time left to get down to some classic bluegrass hits back in town.