Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley offers stunning vistas of the seasonal pastoral countryside.
There’s no better time to venture into the Shenandoah Valley than autumn. The mountain forests are alive with orange, yellow and crimson foliage. The farms are harvesting their pears, apples, and pumpkins in fields of gold, and the vineyards are gathering grapes from the vines to produce next year’s vintage. The Shenandoah Valley remains temperate until mid-November, so there’s still time for a fishing, rafting or camping trip. Here are 10 reasons to visit the Shenandoah Valley right now.
Drive the Long and Winding Scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
You’ll be mesmerized by the panoramic views of Virginia’s Piedmont and Allegheny Mountain range from Skyline Drive, a road that runs along the summit of the Shenandoah Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. There are multiple entrances into this popular national park. The northernmost entry is in Front Royal, Virginia, along with central locations at Thornton Gap in Virginia’s Piedmont region, and further south at Swift Run near Massanutten Ski Resort. Skyline Drive ends at Rockfish Gap (which is also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a national park road that continues south into North Carolina). It takes about three hours to drive the entire length of Skyline Drive on a clear day. No matter what section of this curvy road you drive, don’t miss the legendary sunset to see those blue ridges that inspired the name.
INSIDER TIPTry to arrive early or later on the weekends; the roads can get pretty busy in the fall. Weekdays are best.
Stay in Shenandoah Valley’s Sophisticated Inns or Cozy Lodges
There are dozens of charming inns tucked into the mountainsides of the Shenandoah Valley. Many are members of Select Registry, so they’re quite luxurious, like the 2017 winner of Best New Historic Hotel in the USA, The Georges in Lexington, Virginia. Others offer unique accommodations like the treehouse-style cabins at The Iris Inn in Waynesboro. Shenandoah Valley innkeepers always send you off for the day with a satisfying breakfast, and in many cases, welcome you in the evening with a glass of Virginia wine. Another option is lodging inside Shenandoah National Park. Check out the newly renovated Skyland where you can find rangers leading tours, go stargazing, and sample their Mile-High Blackberry Ice Cream Pie.
Learn Some New Skills in the Shenandoah Valley
One way to optimize your visit to the Shenandoah Valley is to use the Fields of Gold website to tailor your trip to your specific interests: farms, artisans, breweries, vineyards, cideries and other attractions. Nearly every participant offers a tour or program where you can learn something new. Some of the more intriguing: learning to grow lavender at White Oak Lavender Farm, hand spinning yarn at a Posey Thisisit Llama Farm, and soap and cheese making at A Better Way Goat Farm. All the farms have markets or barn sales where you can pick up local delicacies such as homemade bread, eggs, fresh-cut flowers and fall produce like squash, pumpkin and cauliflower.
Explore the Four Caves in the Shenandoah Valley
There are four unique caverns in the Shenandoah Valley—Luray, Shenandoah, Skyline, and Endless Caverns—all offering tours of the glittering rock formations. Inside, whether it’s scorching hot or freezing cold, the temperature remains 56 degrees year-round. Hear the Great Stalacpipe organ in Luray’s Cathedral-like spaces; experience “total darkness” in Endless Caverns; walk beside Rainbow Lake in the Shenandoah Caverns; or see rare anthodite crystals at Skyline Caverns. These caves and caverns are especially family friendly, and everyone enjoys learning about the history of these natural wonders.
INSIDER TIPThe huge complex at Shenandoah Caverns includes the American Celebration Parade, a museum filled with giant floats used in inaugurations and other parades, along with Route 11 Potato Chip factory, a wholesale market, and tastings. Their Yellow Barn is filled with an eclectic mix of vintage displays from department stores.
Tour Four Presidential Homes in the Shenandoah Valley
Four Presidents lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and each of their estates offers enlightening tours. Thomas Jefferson’s famous domed Monticello was the inspiration behind the design for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. America’s fifth president, James Monroe, lived on a tobacco farm called Ash-Lawn Highland. Both of these homes are in Charlottesville. Visit James Madison’s Montpelier with its exquisite gardens in Orange, Virginia. Woodrow Wilson was born and raised in Staunton, Virginia, and his childhood home is now his Presidential Library. Besides impressive architecture, you’ll find original furnishings, books and art treasured by these famous Americans. Learn how these pivotal statesmen and their families made their mark on our enduring documents and institutions such as the United Nations, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Fall Is Harvest Season in the Shenandoah Valley
Go apple, pear, and pumpkin picking at the orchards and farms in the Shenandoah Valley. Fall is when the trees and fields are bursting with produce. Many towns in the area celebrate the harvest with events like Cider Week Virginia and the Heritage Harvest Festival. Any day of the week though, Shenandoah Valley orchards welcome visitors to pick their own or stop by their markets for freshly baked fruit pies and cobblers.
Visit a Craft Brewery in the Shenandoah Valley
Check out Shenandoah’s BeerWerksTrail for a list of the region’s 15 breweries, including big names like Devils Backbone, and microbrewers like The Friendly Fermenter and Three Notch’d Valley Collab House. Other craft breweries operate out of farms, like the historic Swover Creek Farm Brewery. The Virginia Beer Museum in Front Royal has a traditional biergarten and offers a fun dose of beer history. Shenandoah Valley breweries serve as gathering places, where brewers host outdoor barbecues, brewing classes, trivia games, and beer/food pairing dinners. Many of the breweries host musical performances on the weekends.
INSIDER TIPCyclists that want to try biking between breweries on the Valley’s pastoral country roads can find a list of rides on Bike the Valley, Brake for Brews.
Drink Exceptional Wine in the Shenandoah Valley
The Shenandoah Valley is fertile ground for growing grapes, and visiting this region, with its concentration of Virginia vineyards, compares to an excursion in Northern California. Shenandoah wines continue to earn accolades, and the Valley has become a regional wine leader on the East Coast. Although the majority of vintners here grow modern varietals like Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, some are experimenting with local products, like blending grapes with apples and pears at North Mountain Vineyard, or blueberries at Wolf Gap Vineyard in Edinburg, Virginia. For a list of vineyards with tours and tastings, check out the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail.
Take an Invigorating Hike on the Appalachian Trail
Shenandoah National Park claims 105 miles of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, affectionately known as the AT. Many of the hikes in Shenandoah National Park have trailheads that originate on the AT. Shenandoah National Park provides “AT Experiences” with discounted rates on accommodations on “Lodge-to-Lodge” hikes from Skyland to Big Meadows Lodge and Lewis Mountain Cabins. One of the Shenandoah’s most popular offerings is Twilight Hiking—when a Shenandoah Mountain guide leads hikers on a two-hour trek as the skies darken, and wildlife comes out to forage. For those seeking a vertical challenge, climb Old Rag Mountain—the rocky cliffs and steep paths carved into this famous peak will get your lungs pumping. Besides the workout, the scenery will take your breath away.
Ride the Crazy Curves of Shenandoah River
Over the centuries, the Shenandoah River has inspired art, poetry, and song heralding its mystical beauty. This 55-mile river cuts a wide swath through the Shenandoah Valley beginning in Rockingham County, Virginia and continuing through mountain and field to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Over the centuries, erosion has altered its path, and today the Shenandoah River has a unique, recurring S shape as it moves toward its terminus at the Potomac River. The Shenandoah has always attracted people seeking recreation, especially fishermen and boaters. In the early fall, the river is still warm enough for lazy tube rides, gentle raft trips, rigorous kayaking tours, as well as canoe camping along the banks. Pick a day trip or a multi-day adventure.