Byline: Randy Mink Daily Herald Correspondent
Tawny oak leaves form a rustling carpet along trails littered with acorns. Chipmunks and squirrels scamper about, storing nuts for the winter ahead. On a crisp October morning, the hiker might discover a deserted log cabin or a crumbling cemetery, reminders of the hardscrabble mountain folk who settled this land.
Autumn in the Appalachians brings pleasant temperatures, relief from the summer tourist crunch and the South's most impressive fall foliage spectacle. Scores of harvest festivals spotlight mountain crafts, vittles and old-time music.
Trees start turning in late September and continue through October. Sumac, black gum and red maple accent piney slopes with balls of scarlet. Sugar maples paint the hillsides in fiery swaths of gold. The yellows of birch, tulip poplar, sassafras and hickory blend with the maroons of dogwood and sourwood to create a patchwork quilt that blankets the rounded heights and gentle valleys of the ancient Appalachian range, a chain that stretches from Newfoundland to Alabama.
Unlike the Rockies or Alps, the Southern Appalachians have a homey, down-to-earth quality. Few peaks rise above 4,000 feet.
In western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park, just two hours from Washington, D.C., is one of the most popular destinations for leaf peepers.
Perched in the clouds, it encompasses a quiet wilderness atop crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At numerous overlooks along 105-mile Skyline Drive, motorists get out to drink in views of hazy bluish ridges and the Shenandoah River twisting through farm fields.
Skyline Drive wriggles but has no hairpin turns and rock walls have been built above sharp drops. Because the speed limit is 35 mph, driving the length of the park takes a day if you stop to hike, picnic and take pictures.
Weekend traffic can be hectic, so weekdays are recommended for carefree vagabonding.
Skyland Lodge, at the highest point (3,680 feet) on Skyline Drive, offers motel rooms and rustic cottages with good views of the valley. A special treat in the dining room is blackberry ice- cream pie topped with fluffy meringue and blackberry syrup. Naturalist-led hikes and guided horseback rides start at Skyland.
At Waynesboro, Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds 469 miles to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Wooded areas are broken up by rocky fields with grazing cattle, bundles of hay, tipsy barns and split-rail fences.
A major stop on the parkway's Virginia section is Mabry Mill, a collection of pioneer buildings centered around a water-powered gristmill that local residents used until the 1930s. Visitors today go inside the mill to watch the gears, belts and pulleys as corn and buckwheat are ground, then scooped into souvenir bags that are weighed and tied. The weathered wooden mill presents irresistible subject matter for artists and photographers, especially in fall when flaming trees frame the mill and dapple the pond with their leaves.
A 60-mile skip west of the parkway takes the traveler to historic Abingdon. Settled in the 1770s, it is the oldest town west of the Blue Ridge. On Main Street stands Camberley's Martha Washington Inn, a white-pillared brick mansion with rocking chairs on the long veranda. All 61 guest rooms contain 19th-century antiques and reproductions.
As you travel northwest from Abingdon to the Virginia-Kentucky border and the Cumberlands, the mountains get higher and rockier, the roads curvier. A dramatic drive full of hairpin turns leads to Breaks Interstate Park, which overlooks a gorge carved by the turbulent Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River. Dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the South," Breaks Canyon ranks as the deepest (1,600 feet) gorge east of the Mississippi. The park embraces both Virginia and Kentucky.