How fortunate we are in Southwest Virginia to boast a well-rounded calendar year. We mark winter for snowfall (seemingly less these days, but still a treat), and spring for flowers, rushing creeks and the tease of consistently warmer days. Summer comes with gardening and splashing in our refreshing lakes and rivers (though perhaps we would all forgo the humidity). When September approaches, the thrill of an evergreen summer crisping into a multicolor autumn is arguably the greatest anticipation of all.
During the summer, chlorophyll is king. It uses the sun’s energy to transform carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate tree food. It is also responsible for the color green. But when the days get shorter and temperatures get cooler, the leaves stop being chefs. The chlorophyll breaks down and the nutrients make their way to the branches instead. Pigments that have been present all along – yellows, oranges and reds – are no longer overpowered by chlorophyll and their hues begin to emerge.
Not surprisingly, leaf peeping, a term that’s been around since the early 2000s, is a multibillion-dollar industry in New England. But since we also live tucked in the same Appalachian mountain range as the northeast, we, too, can enjoy the beauty of the chlorophyll breakdown and peep some leaves in the comfort of our home community.
Peep by Hike
There are several trails throughout the Mountain Lake Wilderness in Giles County. For a big payoff with little effort, bypass the cinematically famous resort for approximately five miles (road eventually becomes gravel) to reach a small parking area on the left. The Wind Rock trailhead is opposite the parking lot and is part of the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. A quick quarter-mile stroll leads to a sweeping overlook. Pack a snack, perch on a rock and take in the scene from over 4,000 feet.
Closer to Blacksburg, Falls Ridge Preserve is a lesser-known hike off North Fork Road in Elliston and offers a more immersive foliage experience. There are two hike options. The Bradley Trail is a short loop trail that passes through several spring-fed waterfalls. If you’re up for a bit of a climb, the Chamberlain Trail branches off the Bradley Loop and ascends above the valley through dense forest. A lollipop loop at the top will circle you back down the trail and to the parking area.
Peep by Bike
Biking along the Catawba Mountain range is a popular choice for local road cyclists. Head out Mt. Tabor Road on the north end of Blacksburg and follow this all the way to the intersection with Virginia Route 311. Turn right, go two miles, then turn right on Blacksburg Road. This eventually becomes Catawba Road then Harding Avenue as it returns into Blacksburg. Visit http://nrvrc.org/cyclingguide/ for a comprehensive turn-by-turn list of popular road rides in the New River Valley.
If mountain biking is more your style, Pandapas Pond offers a diverse trail system for both beginners and those with an itch for black diamond challenges. For an easy pedal, simply head out Poverty Creek Trail from the upper parking lot and go as far as you like then turn around. More difficult trails spawn off either side of Poverty Creek if you’re feeling up for a bumpy climb.
Peep by Motor Vehicle
From downtown Pulaski follow U.S. Route 11 past Calfee Park, where the Pulaski Yankees play, and head up to the Draper Valley Overlook. There are parking areas and picnic tables on both sides of the road. The southbound side offers a small trail system welcoming hikers and mountain bikers alike. The ridgeline trail traverses by ruins of old Route 11 rest stop buildings.
For a longer drive, take U.S. 460 west out of Blacksburg and turn right onto Big Stony Creek Road just past the community of Pembroke. This windy ride dips in and out of West Virginia and offers several adventurous offshoots: Cherokee Flats day use area, Glen Alton and the Potts Valley Rail Trail, plus several pull-offs for access to Stony Creek itself. The road eventually leads to the Swinging Bridge Restaurant in Paint Bank.
Peep by Boat
Leaf peeping season wouldn’t be complete in the New River Valley without including an option that folds in our namesake. The weather often stays warm enough throughout October and maybe even early November to enjoy a paddle on the New River. Rent a kayak from Tangent Outfitters in Pembroke and choose any one of their float routes, each with varying classes of rapids. A favorite is the 7-mile Eggleston to Pembroke float. Most of it features undeveloped tree-rich shoreline and scenic towering cliff walls.
For a very off-the-beaten path option, Gatewood Park in Pulaski has kayak and paddleboard rentals from their boathouse (check fall schedule). Grab a craft and paddle the perimeter of the 162-acre reservoir all surrounded by dense forest, sure to be in full fall colors bloom. Mountain 2 Island, based at Rock House Marina on Claytor Lake, offers paddleboards and boat rentals for leaf peeping its 101-mile shoreline.
Experiencing fall foliage to its fullest can be as simple as a slow drive down the main streets of our towns. Like a flip-flopped parade, the tree-lined edges become the main event, showing off their motley splendor and winking the promise that it will all happen again next year, with comforting certainty.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is a writer from Blacksburg who feels fall foliage is most vibrant in the rain when the leaves are extra shiny.