Washington DC is full of historic sites, museums, parks and is one of the top dining destinations in the country. You could easily spend weeks here and never tire of the bountiful options for things to do! But if you’re the type who loves a good road trip and beautiful fall foliage, a trip to Shenandoah Valley for its famous Skyline Drive is a must. I was lucky enough to spend two and a half months in Washington DC in the fall of 2016 and one of the things that was at the top of my to-do list was to plan a road trip out to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the peak viewing times for fall foliage.
It paid to wait a little later in the season since the leaves are starting to turn in @shenandoahnps now. Weekends get pretty crowded but it's worth it to walk through the beautiful paths and to enjoy the scenic views of #SkylineDrive. I love looking for little details in nature and the way the light plays through the leaves. ❤️??#autumn #shenandoah #virginia #shenandoahnationalpark #sonbahar??#findyourpark #shennps #centennialyear #makingmemories
There are four entrances to Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park. This page will tell you the major highways that lead to each of Shenandoah’s entrances. I’d recommend either exiting or entering at Thornton Gap (in the middle, near the best viewing for folliage) if you’re not planning to drive the whole thing. For a short (2 mile) and easy hike, drive 14 miles south to the Upper Hawksbill trailhead, one of the highest points in the park.
It takes about 3 hours to drive the entire 105 miles of Skyline Drive without stops, but there are numerous lookouts to pull over and places to stop for hike or picnics if you’d like to take a break. Hikes range from beginner to advanced with rewards like panoramic views, wildlife, and waterfalls. You can request free hiking maps from any of the ranger stations when you enter or preview them here. It generally takes about 90 min to 2 hours to get to Shenandoah from Washington DC, depending on which park entrance you use.
If you’re spending more than a week in Washington, DC, particularly in the fall, definitely be sure to check out Shenandoah National Park’s Fall Color Reports for tips and a weekly update from park rangers. In 2016, the peak weekend was October 23-23 and I visited both that weekend and the week after, which was still quite beautiful, in my opinion. Note that your entrance fee ($20 per car when I visited) is good for a full week, so you could space out your visits for two chances at peak foliage views and complete different sections of the drive each time.
A few resources for autumn leaf peeping:
- Shenandoah Mountain View Webcam – a real-time look at the foliage in Shenandoah, helpful to see when the color is peaking
- 10 Beautiful Fall Hikes near Virginia Wineries – While I wouldn’t necessarily make a trip specifically for the wine (I honestly was not all that impressed with the wineries we visited) it can be kind of fun to combine a beautiful fall hike with a stop for wine tasting afterward!
- If you ARE a wine lover, check out this list of Virginia Wineries worth the drive from DC or one perhaps of Virginia’s Craft Beer Trails.
- Leaf peeping in Alexandira, VA – Alexandria is not Shenandoah, obviously, but this list gives you ideas for historic Alexandria including on the way to Mount Vernon and has a nice guide to some of the types of trees and their leaves that you’ll see.
If you don’t have time for a day trip out to Shenandoah, there are tons of beautiful sites around the city of DC as well. Rock Creek Park is beautiful for a run, walk or drive and the trees along the Mall and tidal basin are quite colorful too. Arlington Cemetery, Mount Vernon, Seneca Park and the National Arboretum are all great options not too far from the downtown DC area.