It's still leaf-viewing time in the Blue Ridge.
But the last week of October marks the end of the best time for viewing the peaks and valleys of gold and russet leaves along the 105-mile Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park.
Little over an hour away by car, many people from the metropolitan Washington area have turned the fall trek to Skyline Drive into an annual event.
Front Royal, off I-66, is the northern gateway to the park and the most heavily used entrance onto the drive. Another popular entrance is via Rte. 211, which leads to Thornton Gap, 33 miles farther down the drive.
In the final days of peak coloration before the leaves fall to the ground, people have been pouring into the park at the rate of 60,000 to 70,000 a week, said Karen Wade, spokeswoman for the Shenandoah National Park. Visitors during the peak season account for more than a third of the total annual figure, Wade said.
Most people come from Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, although the park draws visitors from New York, New Jersey and the rest of the eastern seaboard.
Gretchen Boeren, a park naturalist in the Byrd Visitors Center on the drive about 70 miles south of Front Royal, said the past week had been extremely busy -- "real crazy, in fact," Boeren said. "I'll bet we've had over 1,500 people a day."
As a naturalist, Boeren often gives lectures on forest ecology and conducts hikes for park visitors, but the recent throngs coming to the Skyline Drive have been interested mainly in observing the foliage and preserving their memories of the autumm colors. "Today I mostly sold postcards," Boeren noted.
Local weekend visitors might content themselves with a leisurely 35 mph (the legal speed limit) drive along the winding road that has an average elevation of 3,500 feet. There are designated places to park along the Skyline Drive. Overlooks on the western side jut out in the direction of the Shenandoah Valley, with a view of Massanutten Mountain; on the east side they extend above the Virginia Piedmont. Names of the overlooks are rooted in the area's history. Thornton's Gap, for example, was named for a man who owned a large tract of land in the area during the 1700s.
Until last year, the twisting two-lane Skyline Drive had not had any major repairs since its construction during the Depression era. Today, visitors may encounter road workers and an occasional piece of construction equipment along the precariously narrow shoulder of the drive.
The park also has 500 miles of hiking trails, many of them starting at points near the overlooks. "We encourage people to park their cars, get out and walk on the trails," Wade said.
Of the park's nearly 195,000 acres, almost half are designated wilderness areas. "That's wilderness with a capital W," Wade said. The legal designation is a result of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which assures that the park will be maintained as an area where "man is a visitor who does not remain."
And in the wilderness? Wild animals, of course. "We have the largest population of black bears per acre in the nation," Wade said. Wild turkeys, chipmunks, gray squirrels and bobcats, along with 200 species of birds, have the run of the park. According to Wade, bobcats and bears, which she has seen during hikes in the park, are more shy than they are dangerous to humans.
Wade and Boeren were both hard-pressed to single out the most breathtaking view along Skyline Drive.
"That's really hard to say. Every area is so beautiful. There's a trail, an overlook and a vista for everyone," Boeren said.
"The overlooks are just one way of looking at the park. You walk down a trail a mile or two and and then you come upon a mountain -- each area is filled with beauty and mystery," she said.