HOT SPOTS FOR LEAF-PEEPING
The explosion of color as green leaves turn gold, blood-red, chartreuse, deep purple, pumpkin orange, and other brilliant autumn hues — not to mention the sounds and smells of a fall forest — is one of the most spectacular natural phenomena of the year, and the geographic diversity of the United States offers a variety of landscapes for appreciating it. We consulted travel experts, tour operators, and leaf-peeping guides to compile this list of some of the best places to visit in the fall to enjoy the changing colors while they last.
LAKE PLACID, NEW YORK
The Adirondack Mountains boast a wide assortment of color-changing trees, including sugar maple, birch, oak, aspen, and beech, making the fall foliage here among the most diverse in the country. Lake Placid is an ideal spot to appreciate the autumn rainbow reflected into its waters. Other views appear along the 170-mile Olympic Trail byway, which runs through the village of Lake Placid, and Route 86, which runs northeast along the cliffs of the Au Sable River. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad offers a fall foliage train tour (including an open-air car). A visit in early to mid-October promises the best part of the color change.
Whitefish is the gateway to Glacier National Park, and both the town and the park are excellent places to see fall colors. Drive along Highway 35 on the lake's east side or kayak or canoe out on Flathead Lake — the largest natural body of freshwater in the West — for views of Big Mountain and the surrounding forests. The trees here include maple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, huckleberry, and evergreens, as well as unusual larch trees — deciduous conifers that turn bright yellow in fall and drop their needles in mid-October. Most of the other trees show their best colors in September. The whimsically named Going-to-the-Sun Road over Logan's Pass is the park's most popular driving route. It’s open only part of the year, and you might have it all to yourself, because high season ends in late September.
Known for its ritzy ski resorts, Aspen in autumn has a much more relaxed vibe and fewer crowds than winter. The mountainsides are blanketed with the yellows and golds of the aspen trees mixed with evergreen pines. There's plenty of hiking to be done, including Cathedral Lake and Maroon Bells, the most photographed mountains in America. To enjoy the yellow aspens by car, drive up Castle Creek Road. Go in the second half of September; by mid-October, the show will be almost over. For a consolation prize, hang around town for a celebrity sighting during the Aspen Film Fest in late September.
ENCHANTED CIRCLE SCENIC BYWAY, NEW MEXICO
New Mexico may not spring to mind when thinking of autumn colors, but the mesas and mountain vistas of the Southwest put a unique twist on leaf-peeping. This 83-mile loop starts and ends in Taos — a worthwhile destination in its own right — and also passes Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest point at 13,161 feet. The colors are mostly golden aspens, but there are also purple cinquefoil and cottonwoods in various shades, plus a chance to spot elk, eagles, and black bears. Between late September and early October is the best time to visit, especially if you want to catch the Taos Fall Arts Festival.
CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK CITY
There's no need to hike into the wilderness to see the leaves change. While the Adirondacks and the Catskills in upstate New York present magnificent foliage, the same colors flourish in Central Park in New York City. Take a stroll along the Mall flanked on both sides by rows of American elms. It's one of the last remaining stands of American elms in the country, and one of the largest. Their branches form a yellow canopy over the walkway that is one of Central Park's most photographed features. For more leaf-peeping opportunities, stroll around the reservoir and pay a visit to Strawberry Fields.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON
This 80-mile gorge cracks open the Cascade Mountains on the border of northern Oregon and southern Washington. Cottonwood, maple, Oregon ash, fir, and pine trees make for a pleasing selection of fall colors. They are interspersed with some spectacular waterfalls, including Multnomah Falls, just east of Portland, and the 208-foot Wah Gwin Gwin waterfall. Go in mid-September through October.
SKYLINE DRIVE, SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA
This 105-mile stretch on the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains offers arguably the finest fall colors in the Southeast. The route runs through Shenandoah National Park and passes Luray Caverns and a number of local Virginia wineries, making for a delightful road trip. But the real attraction is the trees: yellow and orange hickory, purple dogwoods, red Virginia creeper, sumac, locust, sassafras, and more. It's an easy weekend getaway from Washington, D.C., and colors tend to peak in the second or third week of October.
KEWEENAW PENINSULA, MICHIGAN
With 7 million densely forested acres, practically everywhere in Michigan's wild and remote Upper Peninsula offers spectacular fall colors. There are more than a hundred deciduous tree species including sycamore, oak, ash, aspen, beech, maple, birch, and tamarack, whose brilliant colors are mirrored in the vast waters of Lake Superior. Colors generally start popping in mid-September and peak in October. While nowhere in the U.P. will disappoint when it comes to fall foliage, the Keweenaw Peninsula — Michigan's northernmost point — boasts long stretches of Lake Superior coastline dotted with historic lighthouses.
BELLEPLAIN STATE FOREST, NEW JERSEY
Because Belleplain is close to the ocean and enjoys moderate temperatures, the fall season is long, giving leaf-peepers plenty of time to enjoy the colors. The 21,000 acres of forest are rich with the colors of sweet gum, black gum, oak, red maple, cranberry, and Atlantic white cedar. The changing leaves are reflected in Lake Nummy, a 26-acre lake that used to be a cranberry bog. The forest is next door to Cape May, the country's oldest seaside resort town and another pleasant destination for viewing fall colors.
MOHAWK TRAIL, MASSACHUSETTS
This popular route through the Berkshires is known as one of the most beautiful autumn spots in the country. It passes several charming small towns flanked by red oak and maple that turn gold and crimson in October. For visitors who prefer to take the road less traveled, an alternative route is Jacob's Ladder Scenic Byway, a 25-mile stretch of Route 20 in the southern Berkshires.
Most of the fall colors of the West come from the beautiful golden aspens. Sedona has something a little different with scarlet-hued oaks and maples arrayed against the dramatic backdrop of burnt orange towering rock formations that typify this part of the country. Appreciate the landscape by car at Oak Creek Canyon, 3 miles north of Sedona or hike the 3-mile trail along Oak Creek — there's a reason it's one of Arizona's most popular hikes. The Verde Canyon Railroad tour also has open-air cars ideal for leaf-peeping.
DEEP CREEK LAKE, MARYLAND
Deep Creek Lake offers several driving tours to appreciate fall foliage from the road. Take Route 219 to the overlook in McHenry for a view of the surrounding hills and ski slopes. For committed leaf-peepers, the Historic National Road starts in Deep Creek Lake and traverses six states. Colors peak in early to mid-October, coinciding with the Autumn Glory Festival, which includes pumpkin chucking, sundae eating contests, parades, and other seasonal celebrations.
NORTH SHORE SCENIC DRIVE, MINNESOTA
The North Shore Scenic Drive winds through the Sawtooth Mountains and along the shores of Lake Superior, totaling 154 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border. The vivid colors of aspen and birch trees mingled with dark evergreen pines present a picturesque landscape of the Great White North. The route passes through seven state parks with waterfalls and hiking trails aplenty, plus historic lighthouses on the Lake Superior shore. Be sure to visit a local smoked fish house in one of the many small towns along the way.
GREEN MOUNTAIN BYWAY, VERMONT
Vermont is famous for its fall colors, and the Green Mountain Byway was the leaf-peeping recommendation cited most often by travel experts we consulted. The route runs 11 miles from Waterbury, home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, to Stowe, a ski resort town that bills itself as "Fall's Color Capital." Serving up a postcard-perfect view of a New England autumn, it winds through forests, meadows, and quaint farms and at times is only one car lane wide. The rainbow of leaves includes beech, poplar, sumac, sugar maple, red oak, sweet gum, elm, and yellow birch. The ski gondola in Stowe offers a nice view of the surrounding landscape, including Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield.
RUSSELL-BRASSTOWN SCENIC BYWAY, GEORGIA
The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest hugs the mountainsides of the southern Appalachians and turns multicolored each fall. The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway runs through it for 40.6 miles, passing Brasstown Bald, Georgia's highest mountain. Also along the route is the Bavarian-influenced town of Helen, where the lively Oktoberfest celebration is the longest in the country.
Massachusetts is brilliant with autumn colors every year. If you're more of a city dweller than a nature lover, enjoy the fall foliage in Boston, where the historic architecture is a lovely complement to the seasonal colors. Stroll along the Charles River and take to the water on the Swan Boats or head to the Public Garden for a memorable view of the fall colors against the backdrop of the city. Late September through mid-October is the best time to go.
LAKE GENEVA, WISCONSIN
It's a challenge to predict when fall colors will peak in brilliance, and the moment is fleeting. Lake Geneva offers autumn hues from early September all the way through November. This is because in the late 19th century, when Chicago's moneyed elite began building mansions on the shores of Lake Geneva, the landscape architects were instructed to plant trees that would showcase fall foliage for as long as possible. By car, check out Snake Road, a 3-mile stretch on the north end of the lake. For leaf-peeping on another level, enjoy the colors from a cruise ship or a hot air balloon.