With thousands of cars streaming by, drivers vying for parking spots, and pedestrians dodging traffic, the first overlook on Skyline Drive almost looked like a downtown street corner yesterday. The only thing missing was a hot dog stand.
"Everyone from the city and suburbs is here," said Hugo Bonilla, of Lamont Street in Northwest Washington, who drove out with his wife, Leah, and their 1-year-old daughter, Camille, for the autumn ritual of seeing the leaves change colors.
An estimated 26,000 people, the biggest turnout so far this year, descended on Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, hoping it would be a day when hickory trees turned to gold and oaks ended the year with a scarlet burst.
But the leaves didn't oblige the audience. What was supposed to have been the peak weekend of the year looked about as colorful as camouflage Army fatigues. Park rangers said a combination of warm weather and heavy winds this month dashed any hopes of a Technicolor weekend.
Ranger Phoebe Taff said turnout was still double the level of a typical weekend in July, in part because of the 65-degree weather and brilliant sunshine, in part because few visitors could guess how dim the colors would be. "How could they know," she said. "We didn't know."
Michelle and Chuck Sherman, a Burke couple, snapped photographs of the hazy landscape west of the Skyline Drive, even though they were disappointed in the leaves. They have relatives in California nostalgic for Virginia autumns, and were intent on sending shots of the trees.
"We came up for the leaves," Michelle said. "But it doesn't look like many have changed."
The shades of color didn't matter to Xiaowen Xu, a former engineering student at the University of Maryland. Her family was visiting from Beijing, and her father, a traditional landscape painter, wanted to see the Virginia mountains.
"We like it very much," she said, standing near a dozen picnics behind the visitors center. "We wanted to see the very beautiful view."
About 6,000 visitors were expected to browse inside the center. It was the first one on the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which starts in Front Royal and ends in Waynesboro, Va. Ranger Barbara Stewart said the throng turned otherwise predictable post cards of colorful fall landscapes into hot items.
Most of the customers seemed satisfied with the day, she said, but many wanted to know precisely why the colors didn't show this year. She resorted to a little spin control, noting that because many leaves were gone, visitors have a chance to see the terrain underneath.
"It is an interesting year," she insisted. "They can see how rugged it really is."
Because many of the trees at lower elevations still have leaves, Stewart and other rangers expect some color to emerge in the next week, even if it doesn't have the intensity of some years, she said.
"We need some cooler nights to help change the leaves," she said. "So, we've still got color to come."