The last month of summer has slipped through our fingers. Soon, fires will be lit, crackling warmly in their grates. Outside, autumn leaves will turn shades of gold, butter yellow and burnt orange. In town, tree-lined streets and places such as Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal put on a colorful show.
Yet it’s outside the city, where concrete gives way to canopied trees and sprawling fields, that the true spectacle takes place.
People hoping to witness the quintessential display of fall foliage should travel to Shenandoah National Park, where Mother Nature never fails to awe or inspire. Here, just 75 miles from Washington, 200,000 acres of some of the country’s most scenic land is home to tens of thousands of living creatures, including 200 different species of birds. Throughout the park, hickories and birches, gum trees and blueberry bushes are but a few of the native plant species, and they burst with color every fall.
Hikers at Shenandoah National Park will delight in the 500 miles of rugged trails that score the terrain. For a less strenuous experience, hop in the car and venture down the park’s famed Skyline Drive. This 105-mile-long path affords some of the park’s most picturesque views. There are more than 75 scenic overlooks facing the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia Piedmont to the east. Pack a picnic lunch and take in panoramas that attract visitors from all over the world.
The meandering Blue Ridge Parkway is another renowned place to witness the fall season’s vibrancy. This 469-mile drive, carved through the Blue Ridge Mountains, connects Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the fall, visitors wind their way along the road, taking in the vivid canvas of sourwoods, black gum trees and poplars.
Dissuaded by crowds? Try hiking at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Virginia. Just an hour from D.C., this less crowded destination affords beautiful views of fall’s color from late September to November.
Closer still is Great Falls National Park, only 15 miles from the District. Lined with hiking trails along the Potomac River, this 800-acre park offers a number of stunning places for visitors to unwrap a picnic lunch and rest tired legs.
In any of these places, however near or far, large or small, the real beauty of the season is evident in the leaves’ ephemeral symbolism. Destinations like Shenandoah National Park or Sky Meadows give a beautiful burning glimpse of life’s fleetingness and renewal. In the coming weeks, plan your trip to witness this beauty firsthand — and remember to close your eyes. After all, it is the sound of the rustling leaves mingled with birdsong that sings on in memory, long after the last leaf has dropped.