Fall is the ideal time to visit the mountains and valley to our west. In our September 2023 issue, we reveal where to go for great hikes and how to see the area by plane or by car. Plus, we’ve found the best places to eat, drink, and shop — and where to kick back and stay awhile.
There is no Shenandoah siren call like that of the fall foliage season, when bursts of crimson, amber, and gold transform the sprawling landscape into an autumnal wonderland that catches fire during those golden hours of dusk and dawn. This is when photographers, professional and amateur, come from far and wide to capture the brief-but-vibrant spectacle before winter’s chill erases its splendor.
Where to Shoot
To help map out some of the better fall foliage destinations, we spoke with seasoned area photographer Nick Palastro, who recommended the following spots.
Pinnacles Overlook: This Skyline Drive overlook near Luray offers a southern-facing view of Old Rag Mountain, Hot Mountain, and Hannah Run from an elevation of 3,320 feet. It’s an especially dazzling view during the fall season, Palastro says, when the colors appear to layer upon one another in striated splashes that trace the mountains’ ridges.
Mary’s Rock: Between Sperryville and Luray sits the trailhead for the Mary’s Rock Summit, a 3.7-mile round-trip jaunt with 1,210 feet of elevation gain. The turnaround point plants visitors at a rocky outcropping with westward views of Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain. The hike’s difficulty is considered moderate, so don’t forget to bring water and a snack along with your camera.
Hawksbill Summit: At 4,050 feet, the peak of Hawksbill Mountain is Shenandoah’s highest. Get to the summit and back by way of a moderate 1.7-mile round-trip hike, with 690 feet of elevation gain. From there, enjoy 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and await a sunset that will illuminate the valley below in dazzling sepia-toned hues. It’s a popular photography destination, so get there early to secure a spot (and bring a snack).
More recommendations: Peaks of Otter (Bedford), Crabtree Falls (Nelson County), Humpback Rocks or Dobie Mountain (near Lyndhurst), Apple Orchard Mountain (highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway), Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area/Passage Creek/Signal Knob (Fort Valley).
As for when to go, dawn and dusk, commonly known as “golden hour,” offer the most agreeable natural lighting for just about any camera. Your lens will thank you for not competing with a midday sky that will inevitably yield blown out, overexposed lighting. If things look a little underexposed after shooting at sunset, simply editing the shadows or exposure in the post-production process should do the trick.
Tips for Beginners
Will you need gear? Short answer: absolutely not.
Smartphone cameras have become increasingly capable photo platforms, but whether you’re using a phone, DSLR camera, or a mirrorless variant, the one must-have item to maximize a photography outing is a decent tripod, Palastro says. Stability is, and always has been, paramount to producing crisp images.
Next, use the built-in timer on your phone or camera, or, in the case of those who may want to limit human interference even more, bring along a remote shutter to take steady shooting to the next level.
Unless you’re a professional, there is no need to break the bank on cameras, lenses, or filters that cost thousands of dollars. Decent tripods and remote shutters can be found, together, for well under $100 and will help take your images to new heights.
If you want to dip your toes into professional photography, websites like Adorama or B&H Photo offer excellent deals on refurbished camera bodies and lenses that can get you started while maintaining a sensible budget. Local shops to consider include Ace Photo in Sterling and District Camera, with locations in Arlington and Burke.
Feature image of Mary’s Rock by Nick Palastro
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