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Shenandoah National Park. One of the best national parks to visit in the fall, for sure. It helps that Skyline Drive (the scenic road in Shenandoah) is connected to the incredible Blue Ridge Parkway but even without that, it would be one of the best places to see leaves change in the US.
I’m actually really surprised I haven’t written anything about Shenandoah in the fall yet seeing as we were there in October 2020. We didn’t quite catch peak foliage in Shenandoah but we only had I think one whole day there.
The foliage definitely wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite peak yet. I didn’t love Shenandoah that much but we didn’t have much of a chance to hike because it was so busy. There are so many hikes in Shenandoah that look amazing though!
Next time though, because I do want to go and do some hiking there, I’ll have to take some of my own advice from here to make it even more enjoyable. So hopefully these tips for visiting Shenandoah in fall will help you have a better trip than us.
National Park Pass + Other National Park Deals
- If you’re planning on visiting multiple parks (3 or more) on this trip or within the year, I would highly recommend getting a national park pass. It’s $80 but will pay for itself in about three trips to parks. It’s so worth it and I buy one every year! They’re also great for gifts for the park lovers in your life.
- To help plan the best national park trip ever, this Ultimate National Park Planning Bundle is perfect! You get two ebooks and a planner, saving 50% by getting them as a bundle! If you want all the details, this is the bundle for you. Buy the Ultimate bundle here.
- This National Park Planner (one of the ebooks from the bundle above) is perfect if you just want some guidance in your planning. Buy the planner here.
- Get yourself a little National Park notebook to write all about your adventures while you’re on the road. These from Field Notes are all very cute! If you want one for all of the NPS sites (400+!) then this one is for you!
- Before your trip, get some national park apparel for your trip! Homage is donating 5% of sales from the national park collection to the National Parks Conservation Association this year. Buy national park shirts here.
- Consider reading some of these books set in national parks before your big trip, on your adventure, or once you get home to take you back to the parks until next time.
- Planning a big national park trip? Check out these other posts: National Park bucket list, Make the most of a National Park trip, National Park camping packing list, My favorite National Park hikes, More National Park hikes I love, Underrated National Parks.
It. Is. Busy.
Like basically everywhere above North Carolina on the east coast in fall, Shenandoah is extremely busy. We didn’t get stuck in traffic, even on a weekend, but parking, especially at any trailhead, was almost impossible.
We didn’t hike any actual trails there because of this and I can only imagine how busy those trails were if we couldn’t even find anywhere to park near them.
Avoid weekends if you can
A good way to avoid those crowds at Shenandoah National Park in October is to go on a weekday. It will be a lot less busy than weekends and if you have to go on a weekend, go as early as possible.
Even if you can only visit on a weekend and have a hard time finding parking at trailheads, you’ll still be able to enjoy the Skyline Drive fall foliage. There are plenty of pull offs where you can stop and enjoy the views in the park.
Pick a trail and do it early
One of the best ways to avoid crowds while hiking in Shenandoah in fall is to pick a trail you really want to do and to get there as early as possible. This way you’ll be able to easily get a parking spot and hit the trails with a little less stress compared to later in the day.
It can be very foggy
In the morning, it was nice and clear, if a little rainy. But by late afternoon it was so foggy it was almost hard to see the road. It may not be foggy every day but just be aware that it can happen and don’t be afraid to pull over to let it dissipate.
I would definitely try and avoid driving in fog at night because that sounds terrifying. It’s nerve racking enough in the fog during the day.
Hike part of the Appalachian Trail
If you want to hike without worrying about the crowds on more popular trails, find a section of the Appalachian Trail and hike that! We did this in a couple of spots and I really enjoyed it.
We did see other people on both sections but not enough that I would consider it busy at all. Plus, then you’ll have hiked part of the Appalachian Trail which runs through the park. It’s an easy place to access it.
It can be buggy
This might depend on where you are, weather, time of year, who knows but at visitor center at the north end of the park it was SO buggy. I don’t know if this is really a major concern, just something to keep in mind. They were mostly little gnat type bugs.
Peak leaf season in Shenandoah National Park varies
Shenandoah peak foliage can’t quite be predicted because it depends on factors like weather which can be all over the place, but you can kind of guess.
At higher elevations, peak foliage in Shenandoah will usually be the first week of October but at lower elevations it can be anytime in weeks 2-4 in October. This makes planning in advance and saving money more difficult but even catching it early is still beautiful.
Book hotels in advance
I know it’s almost impossible to know exactly when peak foliage in Shenandoah can be seen but I would still try and book your hotel or Airbnb in advance, at least a couple of months.
Waiting until the last minute, especially for weekends, can leave you with not so many great options. They may end up being either really not nice or really expensive. If you want to stay close to the park, which I would highly recommend, I would risk it and book in advance.
Parking can be tough
Parking can be very hard to find in Shenandoah in fall thanks to everyone else wanting to enjoy the Skyline Drive fall foliage with you.
Parking at trailheads can be packed and sometimes is out along the road and you have to walk way further just to get to the trailhead (which is fine but like, that’s so many people on the trail.) You may have to check back later for a spot or walk from further away.
There isn’t much you can do to fix the parking situation but having back up hikes in mind and hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail are good alternatives.
Dress in layers
It can be sunny and warm then cold, rainy, and foggy within an hour or two. If you’re not dressed in layers, you’ll at least want to have them with you in the car or your backpack if you’re hiking so you’re prepared when the weather changes.
Enjoy a picnic lunch
Instead of having to go in and out of the park to find lunch or to leave early because you’re hungry, bring a picnic lunch, or at least snacks, so you can enjoy them with a beautiful view of the Shenandoah fall foliage off Skyline Drive.
There are plenty of pull offs and overlooks to stop at and choose from, whether there is an official picnic area or not will just depend on where you are.
Consider splitting the park over two days
If there is a lot you want to see and do on your visit to Shenandoah National Park in the fall, then two days might be better for your visit. You could pick one hike for each morning to start really early then try some alternative hikes throughout the day.
You could split Skyline Drive in two and do one half one day and the other half the next day. If you don’t have two days, you’ll be able to see a lot in one day, you’ll just have to be more flexible with the crowds.
Best things to do in Shenandoah National Park in October
- Hike the 9.2 mile Old Rag Loop
- Hike the 4.6 mile trail to Upper Whiteoak Falls
- Hike the 1.1 mile Bearfence Mountain trail
- Hike the 3.7 mile Mary’s Rock trail
- Hike the 1.5-2.8 miles on the Hawksbill Mountain trail
- Hike the 1.6 mile Stony Man trail
Have you been able to enjoy the Shenandoah National Park foliage? When did you go? What did you do there? Was it really busy?