Thursday, October 8, 2015

Seven Autumn Hikes in the Blue Ridge

Fall color sunrise at Bacon Hollow Overlook
Fall is one of the most beloved seasons in the Appalachians for good reason: the haze of the summer finally lets up, skies turn blue with cirrus streaks, the morning air is crisp, warm apple cider is plentiful, and of course, the green Blue Ridge puts on a spectacular color show before shedding its foliage for the winter. Fall is the time for big views: when it's not raining, skies are usually quite clear. What it's usually not time for is waterfalls: with few exceptions (such as Whiteoak Canyon and Dark Hollow Falls), you can expect most Shenandoah cascades to be running near empty, although 2015 might an exception with recent heavy rains. But even when the skies are cloudy or the fog rolls in, limiting the views, there's still plenty of options: forest hikes are the most beautiful during the time when maples and poplars turn orange and yellow.

The panorama of golden ridges and rocky outcrops from Mount Pleasant is so spectacular it's almost unreal. Mount Pleasant is a bit of a longer drive from Charlottesville and an especially long drive from DC, but it's worth the effort to reach for it's nearly unrivaled Blue Ridge views. The loop hike involves some elevation gain to reach the peak, but can be done by most people who are reasonably fit.

Few Blue Ridge outcrops are as impressively sized or offer as far-reaching views as Spy Rock. No time is better to visit than mid-October, when big peaks like the Priest, Mount Pleasant, Maintop, and Three Ridges begin to exhibit their fall colors. The trailhead is poorly marked and difficult to find, so be sure to bring good directions and a map.

This gentle hike leads to sweeping views of the South District of Shenandoah and a peaceful stroll through the woods back to the Loft Mountain Wayside along the Appalachian Trail. There are few better ways to cap off this hike than to enjoy the pumpkin fudge sold at the wayside afterwards.

The colors of Whiteoak Canyon start changing early as the trail meanders down the slopes of Stony Man, Shenandoah National Park's second tallest peak. Come in early October to see the bright red of the maples and the eerie yellow of dying ferns. The Robinson River maintains a steadier flow than most other park streams, so the waterfalls in Whiteoak Canyon can be expected to have water even in the fall.

5. Old Rag
Old Rag needs no introduction: the rock scramble up this craggy peak is a Virginia classic. The best time of year to visit is undoubtedly autumn: the numerous tulip poplars dot the slopes of Old Rag and the floor of Weakley Hollow and make the area glow golden in the fall. Clear skies make the peak's far-reaching views even more impressive than during the hazier summer. Come on a weekday or start early to avoid the inevitable weekend rush and hiker traffic jams in the rock scramble.

6. Hawksbill Peak
The highpoint of Shenandoah National Park is a fine vantage point for gazing out over the sea of reds and yellows in the Virginia fall. The easiest path up is the 2-mile round trip from the Upper Hawksbill Trailhead; those looking for a longer challenge can combine Hawksbill with either a hike up Cedar Run or a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. If you come early in October, Hawksbill is one of your better bets for color.

7. Humpback Rocks
Humpback Rocks is a Charlottesville favorite, bringing hikers from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the top of an enormous outcrop in a mile. Color often sticks around here a little longer than it does in the park and Humpback is often still a pretty colorful hike into early November. For unbeatable lighting to accompany the fall colors, hike to the summit to catch a fall sunrise over the Piedmont.

Happy hiking!

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