You owe the family a foliage trip this fall. Here's what to do.

Put down this paper, which has no pretty leaves in it, go to the telephone now and call the boss. This is Friday. Your Aunt Felicia's cat had puppies last night and you wont't be in until Monday.

Now pack the tent and leave. Because if you wait and you don't get to the Skyline Drive till afternoon, you will sleep tonight in Charlottesville. Or worse.

"People don't believe us," said the gas jockey in Warrenton. "There are no rooms anywhere. There are no campsites anywhere. There are no campsites anywhere. The mountains are full."

Take the case of Marylanders Stephanie Kelley and Kay Drummond, who left last Saturday to see the leaves. They had a cabin to stay at in the Shenandoah Valley, but when they got there they couldn't find the key.

Okay, try the mountains. No rooms at Skyland. No rooms at Big Meadows. No rooms anywhere near the park.

The rangers told us they were sending people to Roanoke, but they weren't sure they'd find anything there, either.

"The women drove to Harrisonburg. No rooms. They drove to Charlottesville. "No rooms within 30 miles of town, they told us."

So they bit the bullet and drove to Richmond, where at 12-30 they found "thenicest motel room I've ever stayed in," Kelley said.

Motels are out. Big Meadows, which is 20 miles south of Luray on the Skyline Drive, is taking reservations this week for next October. They haven't had an October vacancy for this year since June.

That doesn't mean you can't sleep there. With 256 campsites, all available on a first come first-served basis, the enterprising camper can be clearing Big Meadows acorns and rolling out his pack while his partner fixes lunch. Today. But get going.

This is the weekend for fall foliage in the Blue Ridge. Last weekend was premature, though the brisk north winds and scudding rafts of clouds left no doubt what season it was.

It was 30 degrees Friday night and 34 Saturday night. The first blush of yellow was on the poplars and sycamores and oaks. Ripe fruit fell from aging apple trees, left from the days before the park was a park.

A pair of Washington campers walked in the frigid morning air to their rented Pinto, to get more clothes.

"How'd you sleep?"

"Cold" they said. "We ate chocolate bars to keep warm."

Small sacrifice. There is no pleasanter place to watch leaves turn bright colors than from a campsite on the "Z" loop at Big Meadows, which looks out over endless miles of rolling, hardwork-bedecked mountainsides.

Last week the camp filled at 2 p.m. Friday, and a few vacancies came up again early Saturday morning. "Some people get cold or the kids get bit by bugs," said the ranger.

"But mostly folks who get here Friday are digging in for the weekend."

Big Meadows is ideal fall camping. It's roughing it a bit. There are no electrical hookups, but there's a fireplace at every site. And there's a huge dining room with fireplace at the lodge where frozen campers can thaw out, plus a tap room downstairs with bourbon aplenty and a World Series TV.

During the day you hike. My favourite trail is to Dark Hollow Falls, a 1 1/2-mile downhill jaunt through dim forest to a series of cascading waterfalls. The Appalachian Trail runs right through the park. You can walk as far as you like.

Last weekend we ran into a whitetail buck foraging along the trail. His flanks had turned from summer russet to winter brown. He eyed us dolefully until we were 30 yards away, then ambled off.

Sound good? Then leave. Now.