If you’ve ever caught yourself wondering whether this fall is quite the same as the last one, the answer is: probably not. Every fall is different – and while all of them are beautiful, it’s true that some are more splendid than others. Each year, several different factors influences the complex biological process of the changing of the leaves. Small differences in these factors can lead to variations in many aspects of the fall season, including the timing of the color change, the length of the season, and the intensity of the colors.
Wondering how you can plan you fall “leaf-peeping” when the season is so unpredictable? Read on to learn more about what factors influence the display of fall leaves, and what we’ll be doing to help you stay right up-to-date with the exciting developments of fall in the Shenandoah Valley. We’re keeping our finger on the pulse of the season from right here in Front Royal.
Last week, we mentioned that cool temperatures, as well as shortening days, trigger the process by which the leaves on a tree begin to change color and die. While the length of the days stays constant from year to year, the temperatures can vary widely. You won’t really see leaves starting to turn until the cooler temperatures arrive. The onset of cooler weather is a major factor in determining the beginning of the leaf-peeping season.
Even once cooler temperatures come, the weather conditions of the fall can vary. You might see an unexpected warm spell, an early freeze, clear and sunny days, or pervasive cloudy weather and rain. Each of these weather conditions will result in differences in the fall foliage display. Generally, cool temperatures that remain above freezing tend to generate the most brilliant displays of fall colors. In addition, sunlight increases the production of anthyocins, the chemicals responsible for the red colors of the fall. A sunnier fall will result in more vibrant reds than an overcast and rainy season. An early freeze can dampen the display, and strong winds or rain can cause leaves to fall more quickly, shortening the season.
Well before the arrival of fall, spring and summer conditions will have set the stage for the foliage display. If the summer has been particularly hot and dry, the trees will be more stressed, and the splendor of the colors will be somewhat dimmed. A stressful summer may even cause some of the leaves to brown or fall prematurely. A late spring is often associated with a delay in the arrival of the vibrant colors of fall.
Introducing: Leaf Report 2020!
With so many factors affecting the condition of the fall leaves, it’s impossible to predict exactly how the season will develop. The good news is that we’re here to help. Discover Front Royal's Leaf Report 2020 is a super informational tool for all things fall in our area and is excellent as a tracking tool to help you check the condition of the leaves from far away - complete with a 'Live Leaf Cam'! We’ll be updating this page frequently with reports and images from the Front Royal area to help you stay up-to-date and plan your visit. Don’t forget to follow us for updates, and more fun fall information and tips.
It’s a simple, natural change that takes place in many places around the world every year. And yet it’s also one of nature’s greatest masterpieces. It’s the changing leaves of the fall. It’s not uncommon to hop on a plane and cross oceans to visit ancient monuments, great masterpieces, and famous landmarks. But some people are so captivated by the sights of fall, that their favorite kind of sightseeing is the chance to revel in the autumn splendor of reds, golds, and oranges. The word for these lovers of fall is “leaf-peepers.” The name of the pastime is “leaf-peeping.” And nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, Front Royal, Virginia is a leaf-peeper destination par-excellence.
Just one fall visit to the Shenandoah Valley will be enough to explain why the area is such a sought-after fall destination. The tree covered slopes of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains are like a canvas under the hands of a master craftsman; each year they come alive with a new, yet familiar, work of art. From Skyline Drive, atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, you can see mile after mile of trees ablaze with color for miles and miles. October remains Skyline Drive’s most visited month of the year, proof of the enduring popularity of these fall foliage vistas. Situated at the northern entrance of Skyline Drive, Front Royal makes a great home base.
Reds, Oranges, and Yellows – Where Do They Come From?
A good way to understand the process of the fall leaf change is to think about it from the perspective of the tree. As a tree, your job (like pretty much any other living organism) is to grow larger, sustain yourself, and reproduce. To perform these important jobs, you need energy. While animals get their energy from eating food, trees make their own “food” from sunlight, air, and water.
But trees can’t get their energy from just “raw sunlight.” That’s where the leaves come in. They’re the food factories of the tree. It’s their job to transform sunlight into usable energy. However, keeping the leaves alive also uses up some of the tree’s energy. In the winter, there’s not enough sunlight for the tree to keep growing and supporting the leaves. So each year, trees go into a kind of hibernation. They stop growing. They stop reproducing. They rely on food stores. And their leaves die and fall off.
So why the crazy colors? In order to transform sunlight into tree food, leaves use a chemical called chlorophyll. It’s the chlorophyll that gives leaves their green color. As the days grow cooler and shorter, chlorophyll decreases. And as chlorophyll disappears, the other pigments in the leaves to shine through: oranges and yellows. If it wasn’t for chlorophyll, we’d see those oranges and yellows all the time.
Meanwhile, the combination of bright sunlight and cool air triggers the production of another chemical called anthocyanin in many trees. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what the purpose of anthocyanin is. One theory is that it helps the trees to extract all the possible nutrients from the leaves before they die and fall off. However, we do know that anthocyanin is responsible for the shades of red that combine so beautifully with the oranges and yellows of fall.
Fall in Front Royal and the Shenandoah Leaf-O-Meter
So, this year, when you’re out leaf-peeping and enjoying those stunning fall scenes, you’ll have a better an idea of exactly what’s going on in nature. Stay tuned for the next post in our fall series. We’ll be introducing an exciting tracking tool to help you follow the change of seasons and plan your trip to the Front Royal area and the Shenandoah Valley.
Shenandoah is absolutely gorgeous right now. But its beauty changes season to season: from autumn leaves, to frozen water falls, to flowering rhododendron, to amazing vistas, to picture- perfect swimming holes. Front Royal Brewing Co. sits right here at ground zero. Our home town and namesake is where the legendary Shenandoah River actually begins – the north and south forks come together on the edge of town to begin their journey north as the meandering Shenandoah. But we’re also where the Skyline Drive begins, and where the Shenandoah National Park ends. When you decide to come here, you’ve come to the perfect spot to experience this amazing region.
You have many good options, from a picnic on the Skyline Drive to hikes on Old Rag and the many other justly-famed mountain trails in the Shenandoah Valley. Numerous blogs, apps, websites, and travel guides can tell you all about these popular destinations.
But since we are about being local here at Front Royal Brewing Co., we thought we’d pick the brains of some of our best local customers to give you options you may not have thought of. Front Royal Brewing Co. is a hiker haven of sorts. Our landlord offers “Base Camp Front Royal,”which is a free shower-locker-laundry facility for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. For most of the summer you’ll see these hikers sitting at our bar, spinning yarns about what they’ve seen and done in the mountains. But for many of our local customers, these mountains have been their personal playground for a lifetime.
One such local is Chris German. Chris’s day job is guiding people on river trips down the Shenandoah, but his real passion is discovering amazing hikes and places to go in these marvelous mountains. Here are his favorites, all right here a few miles from Front Royal. Note: we don’t give all the details you may need for some of these trips, so check the links and your favorite hiking site for more information. We like Hiking Upward.
Best For: View, Easy Hike; 4-7 Miles
This is the quintessential hometown hike. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone from Front Royal who hasn’t taken this beautiful and easily-accessible day-hike. You can turn it into a two-hour out-and-back walk that almost any reasonably healthy adult of any age can handle, or you can shuttle from one end of the ridge to the other and hike all day. You’ll meet extended families, couples on dates, serious rock climbers, and hiking aficionados from all over the east coast. It truly has something for everyone.
The culmination of the hike is, of course, Buzzard Rock (the name comes from the population of buzzards, gliding on the updrafts), an outcropping extending for several hundred yards along the ridge, with sheer drops on the west side of 300 feet or more. Hence the rock climbers. They seem to always be there, with their ropes and gear – and fearlessness. The views are awesome. To the west is Fort Valley and the Massanutten Range, a beautiful wilderness area that has the look and feel of Colorado, not Virginia. To the East is the town of Front Royal and the surrounding farms and countryside. There’s even a somewhat surreal view to the north of the fish hatchery and its many round ponds.
The eastern trailhead (3087 Mountain Road, Front Royal, VA) has a somewhat limited parking lot, and during peak season, cars will sometimes overflow and park on the road. DON’T be tempted. The police do ticket. If the Mountain Road lot is full, try driving around the mountain to the western trailhead at Elizabeth Furnace. The hike from there is longer and more strenuous but even more beautiful. (If you have two cars, you can also shuttle-hike from lot to lot). Another word of caution. Many sites also list the Buzzard Rock Overlook hike, which is not the same as either of the Buzzard Rock hikes described here. The Overlook hike also leaves from Elizabeth Furnace, but takes you west of Passage Creek up the Massanutten ridge towards Signal Knob, with a view of Buzzard Rock to the east, but not a trip to the rock itself.
Best For: Falls, Swimming; 3-9 miles
This is the perfect summer hike, in swimming attire. Falls to gaze at, pools to swim in, water slides to make you squeal. But if you’re out here in winter, it’s also a fabulous winter hike. Look for a day when temperatures have been in the teens for several days and you’ll be amazed at the frozen water falls. Awesome!
Overall Falls, if you do the full trip, is an 8 mile loop. But you can customize it to your liking. It includes the highest waterfall in the Shenandoah National Park – a 93 foot drop. But it also includes three more falls, spectacular in their own right – one at 63 feet, another at 36 feet, and one more at 29 feet. This area is also prime bear habitat, so keep a sharp eye. The stream going over these falls is low volume so the hike is best in spring when water flow is high.
The hidden surprise on this hike is a series of swimming holes, off the beaten track, that include pools deep enough to dive into off the rock cliffs, gentle water slides you can scoot down on your rear, and a myriad of other small pools to lounge in. Much better than a manufactured water park off the beltway!
You can start this hike from the top or bottom; however, we suggest beginning at the bottom at the Thompson Hollow trailhead. The swimming area is about a mile up the trail from Thompson Hollow. After a mile, the trail comes to a T intersection. Swimming area is down the mountain to the right. Continue to the left to get to the falls.
GOONEY CREEK SWIMMING HOLE
Best For: Swimming; 50 yards
While we’re on the topic of swimming; holes, we have to tell you about this one. A classic you won’t find on any trail guide. Gooney Creek is a small but beastly creek dropping straight out of the mountains into the Shenandoah River – kayakers adore this creek after a spring rain. But at its mouth, just before it empties into the Shenandoah, it offers up a beautiful, deep, wide swimming hole with rock cliffs and an Olympic-sized pool that’s perfect for an August day. If you need to cool off after a day of hiking definitely check this out.
To get there, take VA 340 south from Front Royal about 5 miles to Gooney Creek Campgrounds. Walk about 50 yards upstream to the swimming hole.
LITTLE DEVIL STAIRS
Best For: Strenuous Hike, History; 6 miles
Locals like this hike for two reasons. First, it’s a mood thing. Try it on a misty, foggy day. The clouds hang in the valleys and shoulders of this valley, as if an artist put them there. The hike follows a deep draw into the mountain, along a small creek and over a series of natural rock stairs. Very cool experience.
The second reason, though, is a touch of local history. Early last century, Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive was private property, owned by thousands of mountain people - farmers, herders, lumberjacks, hunters. Hundreds of years before that, immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent of Europe had migrated into those mountains to eek out a living and became the authentic Appalachian Mountain people many of us have heard or read about. But during the New Deal, this region was appropriated by the Federal Government and the locals were force off their land – many settled right here in Front Royal. About two miles into this hike, you’ll come across grave sites these early mountain people left behind as well as a Park Service marker, memorializing their experience.
SIGNAL KNOB OVERLOOK
Best For: Driving to View, 0 hiking miles
We’ll close with a drive-through. For those of you who may be tired of hiking but still want an amazing Shenandoah experience, you’ll need to plan ahead a little for this one: wait till sunset. From Front Royal, drive south on the Skyline Drive just a few miles to Signal Knob Overlook, which gives you a perfect west-facing view of the sunset over Signal Knob. Absolutely spectacular! What local teenager wouldn’t love to end a picnic date sitting on the wall of the overlook, holding hands, watching those hues of red, orange and purple fade into night. Even a middle-age couple would love that!
And when you’re in Front Royal, stop by Front Royal Brewing Company. We’re always churning out new beers and even offer what we call our Trail Series: new, cutting-edge brews straight from our experimental cellar. They come in limited supplies, but are just perfect after hiking and swimming in Shenandoah. We also have amazing food every day and live music on the
weekends. Hope to see you soon!
Celebrating Spring was not the same here in Front Royal last year. Locals and tourists alike missed wandering through the spectacular Shenandoah National Park, taking in the stunning scenery and enduring rugged outdoor adventures. As a popular destination for weekenders in Warren County and nearby regions, drivers could travel the 105 mile road in about three hours. Those three hours did not account for the temptation to stop, look, picnic, play or simply explore so much of what is Skyline Drive.
But finally, the Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive and all trails are now open. Everyone needs a change of scenery, especially after a year of confinement. If you only have one day to spare, consider a day trip from Front Royal to some amazing nearby destinations - small towns, wineries, challenging hiking trails, and gorgeous mountain landscapes—all within three hours of the entrance to Skyline Drive.
Soon rumbling motorcycles will come in from I-66 transporting cruise riders, the Harley riders and young-at-heart senior riders. Cars will park on the side while waiting for an order from Spelunker’s. We will see the magnificent landscape dotted with flowering dogwood, redbud, and wild plum trees. We will travel the trails artfully displaying colorful azaleas, pink-and-white mountain laurel and hundreds of wildflowers strewn on the forest’s floor.
Updated March 8, 2021
Now that the Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive, and all trails are open, please recreate responsibly by following the guidelines below. Park facilities are beginning to open for the spring season. Please refer to our operating hours for more information on opening dates and hours for visitor centers, dining areas, lodges, campgrounds, and picnic areas.
When recreating, please follow local area health orders and recreate responsibly by keeping social distance, wearing a face covering when social distance cannot be maintained, avoiding high risk activities, and staying home if you feel sick.
The CDC has offered guidance to help people recreating in parks and open spaces prevent the spread of infectious diseases. We will continue to monitor all Park functions and recommend that visitors adhere to CDC guidance for mitigating risks associated with the transmission of COVID-19 and take any additional steps necessary to protect public health.
Be sure to plan. Before visiting Shenandoah National Park, plan to keep safe.
To help navigate the park, download the Park App, as well as the offline content, before arriving in the park.
Details and updates on park operations will continue to be posted on our website www.nps.gov/shen and social media channels: https://www.facebook.com/shenandoahnps/, https://twitter.com/ShenandoahNPS, and https://www.instagram.com/shenandoahnps/. Updates about NPS operations will be posted on www.nps.gov/coronavirus. Please visit www.goshenandoah.com for updates about park concessioner, Delaware North’s operations.
As the weather gets warmer and the dangers of the coronavirus are lessened, grab a picnic basket filled with your favorite foods. Do not forget the blanket, insect repellant and a few rain ponchos. Your day to tour Skyline Drive awaits.
It may have been a silent spring last year, but the roar of excited crowds and fragrance of nature’s beauty beckons you to take a must-take road trip this Spring.
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