It’s a time-honored American tradition…as the trees start to turn, thousands of spectators drive, hike and bike their way through the brilliant fall colors. But while this tradition usually calls for a jaunt through New England, did you know that there are equally satisfying experiences scattered throughout the country? We checked in with “foliologist” Scotty Johnston, who has been leading fall foliage tours and other excursions for the Connecticut-based Tauck World Discovery for 47 years.
According to Johnston:
“The peak starts in the latter part of September in the more northerly regions of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. It moves in three directions: down south, down slope, and down east. It moves down south, and as a rule of thumb it moves at about 25 miles per day. As it moves south, it also moves down slope. The higher elevations get the cold snap quicker and sooner. Finally, it goes into the valleys.”
With those rules in mind, the key is tracking down areas with deciduous trees—those broad-leaf trees like maple, oak and elm that lose their leaves in the fall. The other important factor to find places that have a pronounced cold snap, which increases the vibrancy of the colors. So if you’d rather skip the East Coast jaunt this time around, there are plenty of other options for leaf-peeping. You just have to know where to look.
They don’t call it Aspen for nothing. Located high in the Rocky Mountains, Aspen, Colorado is awash in golden yellow in the month of September. The area is known for its quaking aspen trees and white-barked aspen trees, mixed with the rich hue of the evergreen trees. Because of the altitude, the foliage comes in on the early side, around mid-September. Even better, because this is shoulder season for the ski resort, hotel rates drop as much as 50 percent (starting at $100 per room per night) and restaurants offer discounted menus.
For just a few dollars, you can take the Burlingame Lift in Snowmass Village or the Silver Queen Gondola in Aspen up the mountain, and hike or bike down to enjoy the scenery. www.aspensnowmass.com
One of the most scenic spots in Aspen is Maroon Bells. Here, 14,000-foot snowy peaks are surrounded by National Forest lands filled with aspen groves and wildflower fields. There’s limited car access, but you can take a bus to the area for a day of hiking or biking. For the most brilliant scenery (and hopefully fewer crowds), get there early in the morning and pause to take in the view across the crystal-clear Maroon Lake. www.allaspen.com/
If you’re in the mood for an adrenaline rush, get a hold of Aspen Expeditions. With a guide firmly strapped to you back, you can paraglide off the top of Aspen Mountain for a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the foliage. 970-925-7625, www.aspenparagliding.com
Despite their northern position, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island have late foliage, due to the fact that the Atlantic Ocean keeps the weather more temperate. The leaves don’t turn until late October or so, but once they do, this natural destination comes alive with color. Sugar maple trees are a big deal here (just look at the Canadian flag), as are yellow birch and deep green firs, while bright red mountain ash berries speckle the countryside.
You can keep track of Nova Scotia’s fall foliage through its “Leaf Watch” Web site, which tracks the changing weekly from Sept. 20 through the beginning of November. For example, in late September of last year, the areas of Port Hastings and Inverness County, it tracked that 25-50 percent of leaves had autumn color, 20 percent of which were red, 40 were yellow and gold, etc. The site reported that in the Margaree Valley, the asters were in bloom with some frost, transforming the pastoral Cape Breton Island roadsides into a vivid red. https://novascotia.com/
While a driving vacation isn’t the most unusual of activities, driving in the rugged parts of Cape Breton Island will make you feel like an adventurer. The 185-mile-long Cabot Trail loops around the northern tip of the island, with craggy cliffs that drop sharply into the Atlantic. Bikers, hikers and kayakers flock to this area, while visitors come for whale watching, sampling the local seafood and simply taking in the breathtaking fall scenery. A portion of the trail is located in the protected Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which is renowned for its hardwood and softwood forests. https://www.pc.gc.ca
Did you know that even grape vines take on an autumn hue?
In Napa Valley, harvest season is when the grapes are plucked and the grape vine leaves explode into vivid reds and yellows. Napa’s Mediterranean-like climate makes the fall season one of the nicer times of year to visit, with October temperatures ranging from the low 70s in the day and dropping down to the low 50s in the evening.
Matt Lauer has done it. Chelsea Clinton has done it. And even Peter has done it.
Make your foliage viewing a real experience with a hot-air balloon ride with Napa Valley Balloons. You’ll get sky-high views of rolling vineyards and rambling old oak trees. And what’s a wine country hot air balloon ride without a champagne breakfast at the end? Balloon rides start at $215 per person (this is a promotional online rate) 800-253-2224, www.napavalleyballoons.com
If you’d prefer to stay earthbound, why not go the real old-fashioned route? The Napa Valley Wine Train travels an old rail line between Napa and St. Helena. Sit back, relax with a glass of cabernet, and roll alongside miles of vineyards, where the plucked vines are changing into bright autumn colors. There are several types of train rides available, including a gourmet, multi-coursed luncheon paired with local wines (like a tureen of Maine lobster and avocado paired with a 2005 chardonnay). There are also tours that include stops at specific wineries and moonlight rides (you’ll have to forego the foliage viewing on this one). Scenic round-trip excursions start at $49.50 for adults. 800-427-4124, www.winetrain.com
That’s right, even the plains of the Midwest have a spectacular array of deciduous trees that burst into fall colors. Take advantage of this autumn beauty before Illinois’ notoriously frigid winter sets in.
Head to the Chain o’ Lake State Park in Spring Grove (north of Chicago) which has long been a mecca for lake-goers. The 6,000-acre park is home to an array of oak, hickory, cherry, elm, and spruce trees, among others, in the 6,000-acre park. Besides drawing in avid boaters, this area boasts several hiking, horse-riding and biking trails (and skiing in the winter). 847-587-5512, https://dnr.state.il.us/
On the way from Chicago, stop by Richardson Farm, which claims to have the world’s largest corn maze. This year’s maze theme commemorates the Chicago Bear’s 2006 NFC championship—that’s right, an aerial view of the maze shows the Chicago Bears logo, and etchings of rowdy football players. If that’s too intimidating, try the smaller Quarterback maze, with quizzes to help you reach the end goal. 815-675-9720, www.richardsonfarm.com
Come fall time, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is awash in brilliant autumn colors, with more than 100 species of native trees changing color. At the highest elevations, between 4,500 and 6,000 feet, leaves begin to change in mid-September with the yellow birch, American beech and mountain maple. The colors peak in late October when the sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum and dogwood turn to gold, orange and deep red
To avoid some of the crowds, try a drive on the eastern side of the park into Cataloochee. The 35-mile route from Cosby, Tennessee to Cataloochee is one of the more scenic drives—just take route 32, and about 20 miles into it you’ll reach the border of North Carolina. Keep in mind, the road becomes mostly unpaved and gravely, and it winds uphill for a while, so stock up on your ginger chews if you’re prone to motion sickness. Once you reach the end, you’ll be in one of the prettiest sections of the Great Smoky Mountains where you can embark on a long and quiet hike amongst the lush foliage. 865-436-1200, https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm
The park is home to several spectacular waterfalls. To get to these spots, you’ll hike through the dense forests—pack a picnic so you can enjoy a waterfall-side lunch after your morning hike (keep in mind these areas can be slippery!). The 25-foot Grotto Falls can be reached by the Trillium Gap Trail, which is a moderate 1.5-mile hike. On an easy hike that’s under a mile long, you can follow Walk Deep Creek and Indian Creek Trails to reach both Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls. https://www.nps.gov/
Looking for more travel ideas?
- What about The “Grand Dame” Hotels of Our National Parks?
- Want to get out of reach of cell phones and computers? Look into an Off-the-Grid Immersive Vacation.
- And for more outdoor adventures, check out our National Parks section.