Fall Foliage Road Trips
Check out our suggestions for fabulous fall foliage road trips throughout the United States.
I once dreaded the end of summer freedoms and the ever-shortening days. But now I eagerly await the crisp weather and dazzling changes during fall foliage season. While leaf peeping is best done on foot —the better to engage all of your senses — you have to get there somehow, so here are some suggestions for fabulous fall foliage road trips throughout the United States. Check out our Best Fall Foliage Road Trips.
In the Northeast, New England reigns supreme for fall-foliage viewing. Such states as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York all offer picturesque, bucolic settings to watch this colorful phase of photosynthesis. Autumn leaves in many other states are equally brilliant, but New England is blessed with rolling, forested terrain and quaint towns — both of which accentuate the leaf-peeping experience.
Top road trips in Maine include Route 17 from the coastal city of Rockland to the state capital of Augusta, and routes around Sebago Lake, northwest of Portland, and Baxter State Park, in north-central Maine.
In Vermont, try an 88-mile loop in the center of the state along Routes 100, 107, 12 and 106 through Gaysville, Barnard, Woodstock, Ludlow and Killington.
New York’s Hudson River Valley has been drawing leaf peepers since the advent of the United States. On the best days, you can see 5 states from the elevated panoramic view at the famous Captain’s Inn Point Lookout on the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
Connecticut is laced with old timey country roads, including U.S. Route 44 through Natchaug State Forest and State Route 154 through Old Saybrook.
Other northeastern highlights are New Hampshire’s White Mountains, including the town of Jackson; New York’s Adirondack and Catskill mountains, and the Finger Lakes region; Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, Lancaster County and Laurel Highlands; and New Jersey’s Whitesbog Village, on Route 530.
Panoramic View of Fall Foliage from Old Rag Trail in Shenandoah National Park
Old Rag is one of the most popular and strenuous hikes in Shenandoah National Park, but it’s absolutely worth it for the 360-degree views it offers of the Appalachian Mountains. Gabby Beckford, a travel photographer for PacksLight.com, says you’ll see lots of rock at the beginning of the hike, but once you top out the view is exhilarating. “The gray gives way to miles upon miles of the gradients of fall,” she says. “Virginia has a lot of high but rolling peaks, so the colors look even more beautiful as they change. Old Rag sticks out as one of my favorite hikes because of the contrast of rock on your way up and the sudden ocean of soft yellows and oranges once you summit.”
Most people don’t equate North Carolina with premium foliage viewing. But most probably don’t know that Mt. Mitchell, in western North Carolina, is the highest mountain in the eastern United States (6,684 feet), and that the surrounding Pisgah National Forest harbors vast expanses of deciduous trees. Other leafy road trip opportunities include a drive through waterfall country on US Route 276, south of Asheville, and anywhere along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which stretches from Virginia to North Carolina.
Other Mid-Atlantic highlights include Maryland’s Gambrill and Cunningham Falls state parks, Sideling Hill area on Interstate 68; and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
Fall Foliage in Potawatomi State Park, Wisconsin
There are scores of places to spot gorgeous color this fall. But some are more photogenic than others. We asked a handful of professional photographers from around the country where they’ve seen the best fall color. Lauren Danilek, for example, a freelance photographer based in Colorado, recommends the portion of Wisconsin's 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail in Potawatomi State Park. Wisconsin's forests get deep, rich fall color in shades of yellow, red and orange.
Destination Door County
The Midwest also comes alive with radiant foliage in the fall. The coup de grace of Midwest autumn road trips is the Lake Superior Circle Route, which includes scenic stretches of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.
The Hocking Hills of southeast Ohio unfurl their colors on the western slope of the Appalachian Mountains.
In Wisconsin, the glacially carved Kettle Moraine State Forest, east of Madison, offers prime viewing — and hiking along the Ice Age Trail —in early fall.
Aspens Turn Gold Around Crested Butte in Colorado
Kenosha Pass is one of the most popular places to leaf peep in Colorado, thanks to its close proximity to Denver and huge aspen groves that turn gold in fall. Denver photographer Michael Ciaglo says the areas around the parking lot can get crowded, but you can find quiet areas if you’re willing to hike even a short distance along the Colorado Trail, which crosses the pass and runs 485 miles from Denver to Durango in the state’s southwest corner. Ciaglo also recommends hiking around Crested Butte, shown here, where you'll find Kebler Pass. It's harder to reach from Denver but worth the effort. Closer to Colorado Springs, you'll find incredible golden views around the lesser-known mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor.
The Rocky Mountains offer stunning fall colors, although early snowstorms can impact road trips any time after Labor Day. The aspen trees in and around Aspen, Colorado, turn a warm golden hue in the fall. The Maroon Bells, a pair of peaks in the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, southwest of Aspen, provide an idyllic backdrop for fall photography. In an effort to preserve the natural experience, traffic is restricted on September weekends on the main access to this area, Maroon Creek Road. But you can reserve a spot on the local shuttle buses for guaranteed access.
When to Go
Prime viewing dates vary yearly based on weather. In general Mother Nature’s autumn show kicks off at the Canadian border and makes its first appearance in New England states such as Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in early September. As the month progresses, the colors wind their way down South where the final hues fade away in early November.
Leaf peeping is serious business in many states, so expect crowds on peak weekends and, to the extent possible, sneak away midweek to have more of the experience to yourself.
The US Forest Service offers regular updates on where and when to catch the best fall colors. To make the most of your fall foliage road trip, slow down, stop frequently for photo ops and interact with locals along the way.
Travel writer John Briley’s travel features have appeared in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Caribbean Travel & Life and Dallas Morning News.