Each fall, the Blue Ridge Mountains commence a dramatic transformation as their gentle, muted-cobalt slopes explode into shades of amber, crimson and orange. The best viewing spot for this annual show? The front (or back) seat of your car. Here, RCI presents a series of high-altitude routes that, in total, cover 225 miles of Appalachian mountain country. For our northernmost point we’ve chosen tiny Front Royal, an hour west of Washington, D.C.; the southernmost spot is the cosmopolitan little city of Roanoke. The leaf peeping in between follows the crest of the majestic Blue Ridge down the length of the lush Shenandoah Valley. Along the way it passes caverns, vineyards, waterfalls, historic homes, small museums—even some top-notch restaurants. You can make the entire trip, or just use this as a guide to get you started. Either way you’ll discover a classic slice of perfectly seasonal and thoroughly local American pie.
FILL UP IN FRONT OF ROYAL
Just north of Shenandoah National Park, this town—the site of an 1862 Civil War battle—is the logical starting point of any Blue Ridge journey. For a town of its size, Front Royal has a couple of surprisingly good places to eat. Stop at Element for a bistro menu with lots of Virginia wines. Or try Vino 124, an informal restaurant run by Italian-born, Austrian-raised Christian Failmezger. The menu here marries Europe and the Blue Ridge: heaping salads, thin-crust pizzas and bruschetta piled with tomatoes from the garden.
A SKYLINE VIEW
Front Royal to Staunton, 105 miles
Start your day with breakfast at the Apple House in Linden, seven miles east of Front Royal. Apple butter doughnuts have been made here since 1963 from the same recipe.
Skyline Drive starts outside Front Royal and runs down the crest of the Blue Ridge. With the Allegheny Mountains and Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia Piedmont to the east, the winding, two-lane ribbon of pavement offers an ever-changing smorgasbord of views.
It also presents more opportunities for exploration than anyone could make use of: 75 scenic outlooks, 500 miles of hiking (including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail), bird-watching walks. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center offers advice on which treks might be best for the older set (including the handicapped-accessible Limberlost trail), for views (Mary’s Rock, with its 360-degree panorama) and for adrenaline seekers (Old Rag, with a two-mile boulder scramble).
Skyline Drive ascends quickly. The first great overlook, Gooney Run (milepost 6.8) has western views toward the Shenandoah Valley from 2,085 feet, and if the morning is misty (as it often is), only the highest peaks will rise like islands from the brume. Soon after, the forest closes in on the road. A few breaks in the woods offer glimpses of the surrounding landscape: Indian Run, presenting vistas of the Piedmont; and Range View, offering a rare shot southwest down the length and breadth of the range.
The Spottswood Dining Room, in the stone-and-wood Big Meadows Lodge, is virtually the only spot for lunch. Thankfully, it’s good, serving up roasted Smithfield ham and other country fare in a dining room with spectacular views.
Wooden guardrails, S curves, jaw-dropping views, must-photograph landscapes—the southern half of Skyline Drive is as dazzling as the northern. If photos and overlook stops are kept to a minimum, it’s possible to make it to the tasting cabin at Barren Ridge Vineyards, outside Staunton, in time to sip a glass of wine while watching the sun set behind the mountains.
Staunton is a redbrick town of 25,000 with a spectacular collection of Victorian mansions, a thriving arts community and a burgeoning gastronomic scene. Downtown’s hottest table is the haute-Southern Zynodoa, one of the first area restaurants to source ingredients from local farms and foragers. Or head to Byers Street Bistro, in a warehouse by the train tracks, for dishes like pan-seared salmon over corn-and-spinach couscous. For evening entertainment, look no further than Blackfriars Playhouse, where the American Shakespeare Center interprets the Bard in a replica of the Blackfriars Theatre.
BEAUTIFUL BLUE RIDGE
Staunton to Roanoke, 120 miles
The Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. It is a noticeably better maintained, more landscaped visual experience than the parkway: Grassy meadows are dotted with wild asters in the fall, and nearly every deliberately graded curve ends in a sweeping view. There’s also stunning engineering to admire, in cantilevered curves that cling to the mountainsides.
Since the parkway’s construction, many scenic vistas have become overgrown with rhododendrons and ground cover. But no matter—views from the road abound. A curvy stretch between mileposts 20 and 25 is particularly rewarding, first pointing drivers southward to behold a brilliantly hued north face, then looping around to display the mountain’s south side, then summiting at the 3,252-foot-high Bald Mountain Overlook (milepost 22). Three miles later the woods open to reveal a stone homestead with a garden full of sunflowers.
Charming, historic Lexington (exit at Milepost 45.6), home to the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University, has the kind of superlative, affordable lunch spots you’d expect in a college town. One favorite is Blue Sky Bakery, which serves house-made soups and focaccia sandwiches.
After Lexington, the parkway dips to its lowest elevation, 649 feet above sea level, at the James River, before climbing toward its most skyscraping Virginia stretch. By the Arnold Valley Overlook (3,510 feet, milepost 75.5), the most prominent feature of the occidental view is no longer the Shenandoah Valley; here in southwestern Virginia, the rugged Alleghenies approach the Blue Ridge, and vibrantly colored gentle slopes give way to craggy massifs. The parkway reaches its Virginia apex at Apple Orchard Mountain (3,950 feet, milepost 76.5), so named for the gnarled, wind- and snow-stunted, oxygen-deprived red oaks (as small as apple trees) adorning its crown.
It’s all downhill from here—literally, not visually—as the parkway ambles through the distinctive triple-top profile of the Peaks of Otter, traverses the Roanoke River Gorge and finally descends to Roanoke.
Element: 206 S. Royal Ave.; 540.636.9293
Vino 124: 124 E. Main St.; 540.635.2812
Apple House: 4675 John Marshall Hwy.; 540.636.6329
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center: Skyline Dr., Milepost 4.6; nps.gov/shen
Spottswood Dining Room: Skyline Dr., Milepost 51.2; 540.999.2222
Barren Ridge Vineyards: 984 Barren Ridge Rd.; 540.248.3300; barrenridgevineyardsva.com
Zynodoa: 15 E. Beverley St.; 540.885.7775
Byers Street Bistro: 18 Byers St.; 540.887.6100
Blackfriars Playhouse: 10 S. Market St.; 540.851.1733; americanshakespearecenter.com
Blue Sky Bakery: 16 Lee Ave.; 540.463.6546