In Search Of Fall Colors – Washington DC & Virginia
We were still in search of fall colors. We’d seen bits of them here and there in Maine and inklings of color on Cape Cod, but everything was peaking late and we just hadn’t stayed north long enough to see anything dramatic. Would we miss them completely this year?
Chasing fall colors is always tricky in an RV. Deciduous trees need exactly the right conditions to shed their green chlorophyll and unmask the carotenoids and anthocyanins that give them their brilliant yellow, orange and red colors.
Shortening of sunlight during fall starts the process, but in order to really “pop” the colors also need a succession of warm, sunny days followed by cool and crisp (but not freezing) nights. Too warm and the process doesn’t get started right, too cold and the leaves just drop without much color change. The precise combo of weather, moisture and other factors is why fall colors are never exactly the same year on year.
Most states keep track of all this online in “foilage maps” and there are many of them around. So for example there’s a predictive foilage map of the entire country HERE, a live tracker for the northeast HERE, and a tracker for Maine specifically HERE. If you’re chasing colors by RV those are the kind of maps you want to watch, and if you’re willing to be flexible in your travel plans (you might have to be prepared to freeze a little too) you’ll have a good chance of catching some good colors. We’ve seen lots of amazing falls this way in both the SE (Smoky Mountains) and the West (along Hwy 395).
But this year we just weren’t hitting it right. A warmer-than-usual fall had delayed fall colors all across the NE, so although we’d enjoyed the fabulous weather we’d also missed the change. Plus many of the spots we visited after Maine didn’t have the right kind of trees, so even though we stayed in New York through 3rd week of Oct we hadn’t really caught much of anything at all.
Our next stop wasn’t going to do it for us either, but the following stop would finally get us what we were looking for, in a place we hadn’t planned for and didn’t expect to find it. But first we were going to spend a few days in yet another big city, for the second time this year no less (most unusual for us). A quick visit back to the Nation’s Capital….
A Short (But Noisy) Stop-Over In Washington D.C.
Our last trip to D.C. was earlier this year around Memorial Day and it was a bit of an odd stay.
It was hot and humid that week and we ended up in a bug-infested campground that I did not enjoy…at all. Paul flew home to see his mom and I ended up hanging out with my best friend from College, so we didn’t really get to do much city sightseeing. We did enjoy a walk around the National Mall on a foggy morning with Polly which gave us a taste of the place, but that was about it.
Suffice to say we weren’t anywhere near “done” with DC.
Given our mediocre park experience last time, this time around we decided to stay north of town and park “the beast” at the RV Park that everyone recommends for visiting DC. Cherry Hill Park (full review coming) prides itself as the “closest RV park and campground to Washington, D.C”. It’s still around 45-60 mins from downtown which is not exactly “close” in my eyes, but it’s about the best you can get in D.C. And it’s pricey of course (everything around DC is), but it’s a very nice full-service park with good quality sites, plenty of trees, lots of dog-friendly touches and some lovely hiking trails.
The park itself hit all the right buttons, but despite all this I have to admit it didn’t exactly win us over. It wasn’t the distance to town or the $$ that bothered us. No, what drove us near stir crazy was the road noise!!
The park is located right on the corner of two major intersecting freeways which means the road noise is LOUD and CONSTANT. Massive trucks with exhaust brakes, car horns, and vehicles zooming by literally all day and all night long with only a line of trees to separate you from the traffic.
The noise was irritating to the point of distraction and so bad at night that if we hadn’t been in the slightly quieter corner of the park I don’t even think I could’ve slept! Definitely not the type of place where you just want to hang around your site and relax.
Still the location was a bonus. A bus straight from the RV park into College Park Metro Station where you can take the Metro (Green Line) 9 stops directly into the National Mall. You can even drive into town if you’re willing to brave the crazy DC traffic*, but public transport is really the easiest and most stress-free option. For a few days of intense sightseeing it was a pretty convenient stop.
In the end that’s exactly how we used it.
We stayed just a few days in D.C. exploring parts of the National Mall that we hadn’t seen last time. In particular we visited the African American History & Culture Museum** (amazing!), The Holocaust Memorial Museum (small but powerful) and walked from the Washington Monument all the way to 3rd Street. The downtown is impressive and harbors some incredible history. The monuments are both beautiful and poignant, and there’s enough museums to keep you occupied for weeks.
We enjoyed our second taste of the place and if we’d had more time we would have loved to explore some foodie options too. But once the week-end rolled round I have to admit we were more than ready to leave the noisy RV Park and seek some peace.
*Pro-Tip1: Parking Spots & Bicycles: If you decide to skip the public transport option and drive into town, you’ll save yourself a ton of hassle & stress by pre-booking a parking space using Parking Panda. It guarantees you a spot for a specific time and is well worth the few extra $$ IMO. Also, if you get tired walking around the Mall consider renting a bicycle from one of the 5 Capital Bikeshare Stations around the park. They’re super cheap (only $2-$8) and great way to cover some extra miles with minimal effort.
**Pro Tip2: Museum Pass: Visiting the African American History and Culture Museum is FREE, but requires a timed entry pass. Use this website to get a pass before you go, otherwise you may not be able to get in (crowds are truly crazy). You can check entry hours & requirements for other Smithsonian Museums HERE.
Traveling Into Virginia
Our drive around DC and further south was uneventful.
We chose to drive on a Sunday (always our preference in big cities) so traffic was tolerable and by the time we crossed into Virginia our memories of the Northeast already seemed to be fading away. We were in the South again, and although it was only a few drives from New York it felt like we were quite literally a world away.
I’m always amazed at how RVing does that for me. I have these intense experiences that immerse me completely into a place, and then within a few weeks I’m suddenly somewhere else. A whole new environment with different weather, different nature, different foods and a totally different vibe. Sometimes it takes many hundred miles to feel the difference, but sometimes I experience it in just a single, short drive (e.g. crossing from coast to desert).
I’m astonished at how often I feel that switch during our travels. We don’t drive much compared to most fulltime RVers, typically only around 5,000-8,000 miles a year, but even at this supremely relaxed pace I often wake up and forget where I am.
Our crossing into Virginia was the first time I really felt a big switch like that since the beginning of summer. We’d finally left the Northeast behind and were in the South again. An entire summer and fall of travel from New York State to Maine were now gone and part of history. This marked the beginning of winter and the last few months of 2017. My, how time flies….
A Random Destination En-Route
We didn’t really have a proper destination here either.
We’d mapped ourselves to FL and our only time-specific goal was to be in Miami for the holidays. So we’d broken down our remaining travel into 150-250 mile drive segments with 4-7 days to rest at each spot.
That’s a tad faster than our usual ultra-slo-mo pace of travel, but still slow enough that we have time to enjoy the journey without exhausting ourselves with too much driving or sightseeing. If we go much faster than this we find we weary and lose connection with the places we go. For us it’s the difference between fulltime RVing and vacationing. We love doing the latter, but it’s not the life we live on a day-to-day basis in the RV.
With the general route planned we turned to our fav RV camping apps (AllStays, Campendium and Ultimate Campgrounds) to see what parks looked interesting along the way.
We already knew where we wanted to stay in some of the more southerly destinations, but the section going through Virginia was completely new to us. So we zoomed in on the biggest green sections on the map, clicked on a few options and landed on a place called Pocahontas State Park (full review coming). We’d never heard of it but it rated well, fit our size and wasn’t too far off the highway. Done!
Peace & Fall Colors
The first thing I noticed as we entered the park was the peace. Blissful, romantic, deep forest quiet with the sounds of birds and the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot. Ahhhhhhh!
The second thing I noticed, rather simultaneously with the first I might add, was the fall colors. OMG!!! Brilliant, beautiful, captivating hues of orange and yellow with splashes of red and streaks of violet. It was intense and overwhelming in a most pleasing way. The colors were everywhere and when we parked “the beast” in her site she was wrapped in a blanket of pure, precious gold. Spectacular!
We’d driven over 900 miles from our northernmost point in Lubec ME, so far south that I’d given up all hope of finding fall, but we finally had! We’d found it in a random park on a random stop in Virginia. Who could’ve guessed?
This short stay ended up being our absolute fav on the route south. We spent our few days here doing literally nothing but basking in the supreme quiet and beautiful surroundings of our site and exploring the extensive trail system of the huge State Park. The on-site Museum was closed…we didn’t care. There were only few people around…all the better. And we never made it outside of the park to see the town of Richmond only ~20 miles away…oh well. But we LOVED our site. A nature bath for the soul and a tonic the mind. Truly rejuvenating and exactly what we needed after stays in two major cities back to back.
With fall colors crossed off the list and the month of November officially started we pushed further south to give “the beast” her yearly TLC and re-explore some of our absolute favorite places in SC & GA. Only a few drives and a few weeks until we get to Florida, but still several worlds of exploration to go.SPONSORED LINK:
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this blog post may be affiliate links, so, if you click on the link and make a purchase, I will receive a commission. Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. WheelingIt is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Lisa Cantrell says
Yea, so happy you found the colors! A friend from St Croix and FL came up in Oct to see the colors and saw them only in ME. Only last week did we start to see the really brilliant ones here in the Hudson Valley and even with many leaves already fallen they are worth the wait.
We too stayed at Pocahontas on our way north this spring and enjoyed it though our reason for not making our planned visit to Richmond was having to take our son over to the ER for what we feared was an eye infection and turned out only to be a sty.
I wish I’d known you were going to DC. We stayed at Cherry Hill our first months of full timing and although it provided us with easy access to Annapolis we had the same issue with noise. We didn’t mind it though because we’d just been at Anvil Campground near Williamsburg which is sandwiched literally between a highway and train tracks-very busy train tracks. But, I digress. We did not go to D from there having been multiple times with our son on spring vacations and always missing the cherry blossoms. This year we decided to try but stayed at Patapsco Valley State Park (Hollofield) in Catonsville, MD. It’s an hour drive away as well which you’d have to do with Polly. However, a friend told me a way f getting around the no dog rule on the DC Metro which would allow you to drive to Silver Spring and metro from the there. It’s not wonderful but would help in a pinch should you go again-as long as she is fully enclosed in a carrier (hard or soft) she can go. My friend has a springer-she uses a soft carrier with a stiff bottom and mesh sides.
We are headed to Jupiter, by way of St Augustine, this weekend but then out to TX, NM and AZ. Have you ever been to Big Thicket in TX? We plan to spend a month there as there seems to be a lot of good hiking and kayaking to be had. Enjoy your holidays. I understand about changes-we’ve had a number ourselves this year!
Outstanding tips, thank you! And no we’ve never been to Big Thicket in TX. We’ve actually only ever done a single visit to TX at the beginning of our second year on the road from FL to CA. We took I-10 most of the way although we made a few side trips to explore other areas. Lots we haven’t seen there.
Lisa Cantrell says
Oh gosh, I almost forgot-there is also an H Mart (do you know that huge fabulous Oriental market?) in Catonsville as well as a Lotte Market which was smaller but had plentiful Asian food and fabulous fresh veggies!
I was not prepared to like TX but loved it. If you decide to send any time there there is a nice boondocking site at Rollover Pass on the Bolivar Peninsula (I-10 to Beaumont then down 124 through Winnie to the Peninsula then west to the pass-there is supposed to be a $10 charge for staying over but the area to the right as you turn in is private property and the owner is gracious about parking-just look up the tide charts to make sure high tide won’t get to you. Also, fill with fresh water or have enough for the time you stay) When you leave head west and there is a free ferry that runs every 15 minutes to Galveston Island-takes semis so even your beast will fit. If you decided to visit Galveston for the day you can park the visitor’s center parking lot. I think Galveston did OK in Hurricane Harvey.
We also loved San Antonio in April-the weather was perfect and the Fiesta was on. We stayed out at Canyon Lake (Army COE site) which was nice but a bit of a drive BUT not too much of one and we were able to visit missions in addition to the Alamo, as well as Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock (FABULOUS hike when the flowers are blooming!) and the LBJ ranch. There is a lot to do/see in that area but spring when the Hill Country is in bloom is when I’d go. The other area we loved was Balmorrhea west of Ft Stockton but it’s closed right now, Davis Mountains is fantastic (and if you go don’t miss a visit to the McDonald Observatory) and Guadalupe Mountain has a number of wonderful hikes as well as an easy drive to Carlsbad Caverns.
I’ll let you know about Big Thicket area.
Shirley Heslep says
I wish I had known Virginia & DC were on the return trip. Bull Run Regional Park is very nice. It is only 30 miles from downtown DC or by metro which is 12 miles away. It is off main roads, in the woods but easy to get out to tour. Go to http://www.NOVAParks.com & checkout if your travels are in the area.
We live here in Loudoun County & are RVers. Headed to Naples end of December for the Winter.
Lisa Cantrell says
Haha I feel like I am bugging you but I just noticed you’re in Jupiter. If you’re at JD try to get up to Trapper Nelson’s, it is and he was fascinating. The visitor center has some good info. I’m sure you’re going to the lighthouse and hope you go to the Square Grouper-sitting and looking at the lighthouse across the water in the evening is wonderful. If you see two tall thin blonds on SUPs right there in the inlet it’s probably my sister and her friend and if the weather gets chilly go down to the water there below the gift shop at the lighthouse to see lots of manatees. There is also a small very popular local bar right next to the train tracks on Center St called Ralphs. (technically Ralph’s Stand Up Bar) It’s a fun place. Also, there is a wonderful dog beach south of town just before Juno. Polly will love it. We parked at friends but most people park along A1A there.
I found your comment about waking up and wondering where you are in your RV very much the same for me! It is a weird feeling for sure! We traveled from the Northwest to Cape Cod, and then back to So Cal over 7 months. Great trip!
Glad you finally managed to find fall colors – something I sincerely missed this year. Another collection of beautiful photographs. Love the photo of your RV surrounded by autumn gold… perfect and looks like a perfect campground.
I would second the comment above re Bull Run Regional Park. Mileage-wise, it’s not terribly far from DC, though the traffic in Northern Virginia can make even the most stoic individual lose their mind. But, the park itself is really beautiful, green, heavily treed, and offers full hook-ups, all for the comparatively reasonable price of $47 per night. The one big downside is they have a shooting rage at the park (skeet and trap shooting), so you can sometimes hear them firing. It’s obviously much more of an issue during the summer, but the range is open year round, so you may hear the gunfire during the cold weather months as well. Anyway, absent that issue, it is a great campground, and given the other two choices in the area (Lake Fairfax and Cherry Hill), we’ll most likely stay there when we return (DC is our home base, so we are there pretty regularly).
Bull Run will definitely be our choice if/when we make it back to DC. We’ve tried the other two in the area that you mentioned (Lake Fairfax and Cherry Hill) and we were not won over by either one, so I’m thinking 3rd choice he will the charm.
Anne S says
So glad you found colors. It was a strange year for them, that’s for sure. I was in NH in late October and the colors were brilliant, but later than I expected. Here’s to finding places that just make you want to stop and take it all in!
Barbara L Harper says
Another option for staying near DC is Pohick Bay Regional Park, 6501 Pohick Bay Dr, Lorton, VA 22079. It is about 25 miles from DC and very quiet. Fairly close to public transportation and just around the corner from Mount Vernon. We were fortunate to have found an abundance of fall colors on our trip down from Maine this year but the best we found was at Meeman Shelby Forest State Pk in Millington TN. We were gloriously enveloped in golden colors for our stay.
I hadn’t heard about that campground so that’s great to know! How wonderful that you caught fall colors that whole way too.
Sonja Barrie says
We stayed at Pohick (very nice quiet wooded park) for a week in October and got to DC by driving to the nearest subway station. We parked at the station and took the train in. We left the cats in the rig overnight and spent the night there, that was really fun but probably not so easy with a dog. We then went to Pocahontas for two weeks, that place is awesome! Don’t know if we are ahead of you or behind but we’ll be in Tampa the 1st December for a month then down to Miami to see clients so maybe/hopefully our paths will cross.
We’ll be in Miami by then. I’ll be flying home the beginning of Dec for a few weeks, but then we’ll be back in town.
Barbara Patrick says
Virginia in general can be very pretty and especially in the fall, you happened to come through when we were having nice weather. Glad you enjoyed your stay.
I am addicted to your blog perhaps because it’s on point with a little humor and it’s a great read. Although my husband and I have not taken that plunge yet we are on the heals of early retirement, I am in the process of reading all of your blog from the very beginning. I do have a question, you mentioned your route planning what do you use? Google maps? IMaps???? Just curious since I will be the one navigating and I like to know ahead of time the general area we are headed. So I am practicing because they say practice makes perfect. Thank you in advance and I really enjoy reading your blog and your campground reviews on YouTube.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy FL my home state
Bob McLean says
We were there (Cherry Hill Park) in May of 03, and there were so many cicadas that had come up at that time of the year, that we couldn’t even HEAR the road noise. We didn’t even realise we were so close to the roadway until the last day we were there as the bugs were dying off by the hundreds. (Well, *thousands*). It was a somewhat creepy experience. They were everywhere!
The park worked for us though, as we didn’t have a Toad, and were able to catch the bus at the gate and head in to the city for the day.
Amazing that the cicadas were able to drown out the road noise at that park. They must have been ridiculously loud! What an eerie experience indeed.
It is a shame you came east this year. As a long time Pennsylvania resident, I can honestly tell you that this year’s colors was substandard. We live directly across the street from a normally gorgeous red maple. This year it turned gold. Our ornamental pear trees are usually yellow – beautiful clear yellow. Not this year. They turned a muddy brown. If you look at your picture of the leaves on the ground, there is a bit of gold but there is a lot of just plain brown. I don’t think I saw any red this year which I really missed. I hope some time in the future you venture back in the fall and get a chance to see how beautiful it can be.
I think the warmer fall definitely dampened the colors this year. In Maine (right when we left) there was only moderate color change, but already lots of leaf drop. We saw a fabulous color change back in 2010 when we were first out East so I don’t feel too bad. There’s always next year…
A quick recommendation for your next Maine visit. We spent a month this summer in the newly reopened Megunticook by the Sea campground in Rockport on the Penobscot. The location was outstanding so close to Camden and Rockport Harbor and owned and managed by good friends Catherine and Scott. Never ran out of things to see and do. Kayakers paradise! So many highlights, dinner at Chase’s Daily in Belfast! What a great authentic town. Now we are settled into the nature coast in Western Florida and feeling Uber grateful for this traveling life❤️
Nice tip, thank you.
Glad you found your fall colors and shared them with us. Beautiful images! We really loved our time in Washington DC but must admit we were museum weary by the end of our stay. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Paul!
Yeah I’m with you on getting museum weary. We can only do so many in one day before we zone out with information overload and Washington DC has so many of them! It would take me months to go through them all at my pace.
OMG, I missed the fall colors completely this year. So jealous and happy that you got to see it in Virginia. That may well be the best time of year to be around there in that part of the country- fall. Fall in the Smokies can be spectacular. Well, there’s always next year to try to find the foliage again! ❤️
Hi! Love following your blog. Quick question- where and what do have done yearly as your TLC?
It’s a great question and I’ll be going through all that in an up-coming post. Stay tuned…
Lisa Cantrell says
Nina, I just came back to this because we stayed overnight in a campground in Salisbury NC that was fantastic and would be good in the future for fall colors and/or if you were headed to western NC. Dan Nicholas Park. Campground is on a lake surrounded by trees, several excellent spots for “the beast”, a nice hiking trail and pet friendly. (#26 would be my pick if I were you) There is no off leash area but I was told that when there are not a lot of people no-one objects to walking your well behaved (like Polly) dog off leash. There is a large field between the lake and beginning of the trail that I would think would also be fine. Very close to I-81 and town (which is cute) Another idea at least
Excellent. Cheers for the tip!
Lisa Cantrell says
one note NOT 26 but 28. That was a typo.