From leaf-peeping and apple picking to wine festivals and winding mountain roads, fall is a perfect time to explore the Old Dominion.
Even native Virginians fall in love all over again with the Old Dominion in autumn. Forests are aflame with color, the smell of simmering apple butter is in the air and farmers' fields are filled with plump pumpkins and hay wagons. It's a perfect time to take the road less traveled and explore the bounty of the state-from wine and music festivals to leaf-peeping along one of our scenic byways such as Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Pick your own apples or pumpkins, go hiking in Shenandoah National Park or just relax and enjoy the scenery. On Sept. 29 (National Public Lands Day) and Nov. 10-12 (Veterans Day weekend), national parks are free to the public. (http://www.nps.gov/findapark/feefreeparks.htm).
Not sure where or when to go to see the best fall foliage? There's an app for that. Well, actually there are a couple of apps for that, as well as pre-mapped foliage routes on the Virginia Department of Forestry website (www.dof.virginia.gov/fall). Virginia Tourism (www.virginia.org) has a free iPhone app for all of the state's attractions and festivals, while Yankee Publishing offers a free app called Foliage Leaf Peepr that covers most of the East Coast. Whether you take a day, a weekend or an extended vacation, here are a few itineraries you'll fall for:
One of the most popular scenic drives in the nation, the 105-mile Skyline Drive (www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/driving-skyline-drive.htm) has 75 scenic overlooks and is packed during peak foliage season. Live life in the slow lane as you meander through the mountains at 35 mph, and be sure to keep an eye out for deer and other wildlife.
Apples and Art: The northern entrance to the drive is located about 75 miles west of Washington, D.C. at Front Royal, accessible from I-66 or Route 340 and Highway 55. If you enter from this point, you may want to take a short detour to explore the "apple capital" of Virginia, historic Winchester. The town celebrates its heritage as the largest apple producer in the state with the 36th Annual Apple Harvest Arts & Crafts Festival (www.winchesterrotary.com) on Sept. 22 and 23, featuring tasty homemade treats from apple butter to apple pie, as well as a wide array of local arts and crafts. Even if you can't make it for the festival, you can pick your own apples and pumpkins or browse the bounty of the region at one of Virginia's biggest and best farmers markets at Marker-Miller Orchards (www.markermillerorchards.com).
Apples and Architecture: The southernmost entrance to Skyline Drive, located off I-64 at Rockfish Gap, is the closest to Richmond and the most direct route to Shenandoah National Park's popular resorts, Big Meadows and Skyland. On the way to the park, stop by Monticello (www.monticello.org) to see Jefferson's fabulous hilltop home surrounded by autumn color. Outdoor activities at the historic estate range from garden tours to guided hikes up Montalto.
To celebrate the harvest season, on Oct. 20, apple expert Tom Buford will guide visitors through a tasting of the wide variety of apples that were grown during Jefferson's day, and you can learn the secrets of Mary Randolph's historic apple recipes from Monticello's culinary historian, Leni Sorensen. Pick up a presidential tree or shrub for your own yard at the annual plant sale following the tasting. Just minutes from Monticello you can pick your own bushel at Carter Mountain Orchard, located on a historic tract of land once owned by the Secretary of the Colony of Virginia (www.cartermountainorchard.com).
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Stretching from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway (www.blueridgeparkway.org) is also one of America's top scenic fall drives. The southernmost entrance to Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap is also the northern entrance to the Parkway. The Virginia portion of the 469-mile route runs along the crest of the Appalachians, with several attractions and recreation areas along the way.
Bridge to Ridge: Head west from Richmond to visit one of Virginia's most famous landmarks, Natural Bridge (www.naturalbridgeva.com). Hike past Cascade Falls and along the Cedar Creek Trail to visit the Monacan Indian Village before hopping on the parkway at Whetstone Ridge and heading south. The 60-mile segment from Whetstone to the Peaks of Otter is a perfect slice of the Parkway's best scenery, from mountaintop views and waterfalls to meadows and river crossings. Grab lunch at the Peaks of Otter Lodge (milepost 86) after hiking or riding to the summit of Sharp Top Mountain (www.peaksofotter.com). Other popular parkway attractions include the historic and photogenic gristmill at Mabry's Mill (176.1) and the Blue Ridge Music Center (213).
Star City to Chateau: If you're looking for a combination of sophistication and outdoor adventure, the Roanoke Valley (www.visitroanokeva.com), cradled by Virginia's Blue Ridge, is a perfect jumping off point. Enjoy the world-class contemporary art at The Taubman Museum (www.taubmanmuseum.org), browse the boutiques and farmers market on the square or hike up Mill Mountain for your debut on the live star cam. Nearby Peaks of Otter Winery also hosts Peak Foliage Open House weekends throughout the month (www.peaksofotterwinery.com).
The Johnson family grows all the produce, from apples and elderberries to chili peppers that become their signature fruit wines. (Warning: the Devil Wine is hotter than you know what!) For lovers of the traditional grape, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Chateau Morrisette in Floyd County for the annual Black Dog Wine & Music Festival on Oct. 13 (www.thedogs.com) or stop by for a tasting and tour or lunch in the cozy restaurant.