Leaf peeper tourism starting to build steam

The fall foliage tourism season at Shenandoah National Park has begun. Leaf color change is progressing at just about the typical rate, said Patressa Kearns, park ranger at the 105-mile long park.

“The last time I was in the park was about a week ago,” Kearns said. “It was just getting started at that time. It’s still not very far along. Usually we don’t start getting color until early October, so I’d say it’s right on track. We’re supposed to get some rain coming up so that should help too.”

She said that year-to-date visitation in the park has experienced a 36 percent bump. Kearns said it was most likely due to the park’s centennial.

Kearns recommends getting an early start for those desiring to avoid the bulk of the jams, car and foot traffic alike.

“At Old Rag you can beat the rush by getting an early start. Most people tend to show up at 9 or 10 in the morning, some people even hike up there in the dark to be up there when the sun comes up, but I wouldn’t recommend that,” she said. “We always tell folks about Old Rag – if you can do it on a weekday, that’ll be a lot more fun. There’s one trail up there and you sort of have to wait in line but it’s absolutely gorgeous up there.”

Kearns said that the later weeks in October are when the traffic really picks up. Visitors try to visit as close to peak colors as possible, which Kearns said can be difficult to forecast.

“It’s hard to predict peak because it’s hard to predict nature. We’re a long skinny park that runs north to south so different parts of the park peak at different (times). … Fall starts at the top of the mountain and the higher elevations, and it moves north to south, unlike spring, which is the exact opposite.”

Kearns explained potential traffic issues related to swelling visitation at the park, most of which she said occurs around the Front Royal entrance due to Washington, D.C.,-area tourists.

“Sometimes we do have traffic issues on Skyline (Drive),” she said. “The park is busier up towards the north end and gets less crowded towards the south end. Sometimes we have a backup at the northern entrance. Traffic will sometimes back up out on to 340 and we try to get people to help with the traffic. It depends on the weather, if the weather’s bad that cuts down on visitation.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com.