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.
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.