Fall in Virginia is undoubtedly beautiful, but is this really the best time to visit Shenandoah Valley National Park?
As we sit atop a large, jagged rock, facing the landscape, it’s hard to disagree. Our legs hang downward, braving a rush of cold, and we slip back against the moist slab. Our eyes dart behind us, to a flood of cars racing the road. In the fall, Shenandoah can get busy. Sometimes, I think everyone on the planet wants to visit, but I can’t blame them.
We glance up front and watch the panoramic view of golden leaves and lush, rolling expanses.
“This is beautiful,” you say, breath-taken.
Shenandoah National Park, a halcyon reserve just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington D.C., spans 200,000 acres of serene wilderness. As each season rolls in, the park transforms into a plane of solid greens or pure whites, but in the fall, Shenandoah is a multicolored reverie. The trees are tinted with fiery reds, burnt oranges, and rich yellows.
The park is gorgeous any season (trust me, I’ve visited a 100 or so times in the span of ten years), but in this post I want to give you the full lowdown on the best time to visit Shenandoah Valley, from the season to the month to the day to the hour. I also want you to get a sneak preview of what a typical Shenandoah experience is like. Are you ready?
When Is The Best Month To Visit Shenandoah National Park?
It’s late October, almost November. We wind across the Skyline Drive, a scenic byway that traces the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We suck in the clouds, the bosky wood, and the mountaintops. The first place we stop is the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, a small cabin-like building that is just as rustic as the name portrays. Inside is a slew of small-scale exhibits, presenting the park’s history of conservation, and a short orientation video, depicting the culture and tradition of Shenandoah.
The number of people huddled inside tells us this is a popular month to visit. Late October is close to peak season in Shenandoah and while I normally don’t advocate going to any attraction during peak season, this is really the best month to visit Shenandoah.
In the spring and summer and winter, you see a blanket of green or white. The views are nice every time, but the Virginia weather isn’t conducive to visiting quite a few months in a year (striking out a huge portion in our list). By August, the air gets a sweaty kind of hot. Thanksgiving break brings in a fresh crowd of families. By December, the air becomes a stiff cold.
Besides, centers, like the one we are in now, are usually closed in December. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and the Byrd Visitor Center close on November 25th.
If you are looking to camp in the area, come in September or early October (not November). Most of the campgrounds and facilities that provide food and supplies are closed by the first week of November. After all, November is when hints of chill start to set in.
If you just want to road trip along the Skyline Drive, I still think late October and early November are the best times to visit Shenandoah Valley.
When Are The Best Hours To Visit Shenandoah?
Shenandoah National Park is technically open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now, the park can close at anytime because of finicky weather (call 540-999-5300 to be sure).
Obviously, depending on the hour, your experience will be different. It takes 4-5 hours to run through the Skyline Drive (including stopping at overlooks and munching on picnic lunches) so I like visiting four hours before sunset. This guarantees that most of the visitor centers will still be open (they are typically open from 9AM-5PM) and that you get a one-of-a-kind view.
Tip: Enter the Skyline Drive from the North Entrance (Front Royal Entrance) for the best experience. This is the entrance closest to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (which gives you a low-down on all the history).
We drive on for a little longer before stopping at one of the sign-marked entrances to the Appalachian trail. The Appalachian Trail, the longest hiking footpath in the world, is a 2,200 mile long multi-state trail along the east coast from Maine to Georgia. We slip on mud-ridden hiking boots and head out towards the ragged underbrush. The towering trees mold together into a Midas palace.
Weekends vs Weekdays? Which Is A Better Time To Visit Shenandoah National Park?
Weekdays (Monday through Thursday) are the best time to visit. Why? There are less people so most of the animals don’t hide within the woods.
Walking further along, we see traces of deer and the imprints of fox. Beyond is a cascading waterfall, entrancing and angelic in the midst of a thicket of trees with lone, angry roots that jut violently from the ground. We scramble over damp boulders and tread further until we hear the rush of water from a larger, surging stream draped over a mammoth rock.
We head back to the road, meandering along the driveway. From the window, the trees appear to be strung together along the curls of the byway. A dark fur coat blends neatly into the shadows of the trees then twists forward, revealing the figure of a black bear. Deers jump across the road unabashedly and rabbits and their smaller relatives remain mostly hidden in the wooded hollows but sporadically dash out.
Should I Visit On Shenandoah Valley “Free Days”?
A lot of people think that the best time to visit Shenandoah Valley is on the “free days”. Yes, you can skip the $25.00 per vehicle admission on these days (Martin Luther King Jr. Day, First Day Of National Park Week, and Veterans Day). Would I recommend it? Not at all (and this is coming from a broke college student who loves free things).
I’ve visited a few times during Shenandoah Valley’s free days and I can’t even begin to describe how backed up traffic on the Skyline Drive was. The 35 miles per hour speed limit (which isn’t huge), I’m sure, plummeted.
I’m quite happy with the $25.00 fee, thank you. Now, back to driving.
We roll down the windows to hear the rustle of brittle leaves against the swirling breeze and the songbirds cadenced chatter. The forested road doesn’t wind to a stop just yet, but here we are, in the midst of woodland wildlife and sylvan beauty.
Ever been to Shenandoah Valley? Have you hiked along the Appalachian Trail? Do you agree that late October and early November is the best time to visit Shenandoah? Comment down below and tell me!