The 9 Best Road Trips in the U.S. to See Fall Foliage
EXPERTS SAY THESE DRIVES MAKE FOR A PERFECT WAY TO TAKE IN ALL THOSE DAZZLING AUTUMN COLORS.
Deciding to take a trip by car can feel like a good decision any time of year, especially if you're trying to take in as much scenery as possible. But embarking on a road trip during the fall takes on a whole new meaning as the leaves change color to brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows for miles on end. And while there are plenty of popular and lesser-known locations that make it easy to experience the autumn hues in one place, taking the time to show yourself around an area with a drive can often be the best way to get in the seasonal spirit. Read on for the nine road trips experts say you should take to see the best fall foliage.
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Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway (Delaware)
While New England may get most of the attention for autumn-themed trips in the Northeast, plenty of other states a little further south offer a perfectly picturesque getaway with a fraction of the crowds later in the season.
"Wilmington, Delaware, with its prime Mid-Atlantic location, is perfect for autumn drives, whether a day trip or a weekend getaway," Shauna McVey, Delaware State Parks Public Information Officer, tells Best Life. "The area's prime season for turning leaves in this area is late October to early November," noting that it's just a short drive from New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
But any fall trip to town should also include a ride through the nearby Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway. "It's a spectacular journey through the hilly back roads of northern Delaware that winds its way by grand mansions and stately museums," McVey says. "Starting in the heart of downtown Wilmington at Rodney Square, and you'll soon find yourself passing the gorgeous landscapes of Nemours Estate, Winterthur Museum, Hagley Museum, and Longwood Gardens, one of the world's greatest gardens. You'll also ride through Brandywine Creek State Park, where long stone walls lead to picture-perfect trees turning to red, orange, and yellow. And if you need to get out of the car to stretch your legs, there are numerous activities, such as state-of-the-art biking trails."
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
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It shouldn't be a surprise that the national parks offer some of the best opportunities to view fall foliage anywhere. But even if you're not planning on camping, one site in particular can be worth viewing even from the comfort of your vehicle.
"One of my favorite fall foliage road trips is to venture through the beautiful state of Colorado," Michelle Snell, travel writer and founder of That Texas Couple, tells Best Life. "Rocky Mountain National Park is incredible during the fall months. Head out on Trail Ridge Road to see beautiful oranges and hues of golden yellow. When you reach the summit, you get a breathtaking view of the forest below with all of its changing colors. In addition, you get the bonus of spending time in the fun little mountain town of Estes Park."
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Siskiyou Region (California)
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California has some of the most varied climates and terrains within its borders. This includes a uniquely special area for viewing autumn foliage in the north.
"Autumn in the Siskiyou region is such a special time to experience fall colors and breathtaking views," says Heather Dodds, program director for Discover Siskiyou. "For the month of October and into November, Siskiyou is brushed with yellows, roses, oranges, and burgundies, as non-native trees typically peak in the first half of October, while native trees typically peak in the second half of the month. The color is particularly impressive when set against the backdrop of a snow-capped Mt. Shasta."
Just make sure you don't forget to take one crucial scenic break. "The 24-mile driving loop from Yreka to Scott Valley is particularly wonderful in the fall, with a mandatory photo stop at the Mormon Church in Etna. There, several exotics surrounding a steepled church put on a peak color display in mid-October that rivals any East Coast color."
The Scenic Byways of Utah (Utah)
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Utah's vast expanses of natural beauty aren't limited to one specific season. But according to Dolev Schreiber, a former camping tour guide and founder and CEO of DetourOn, fall provides an exceptional opportunity to appreciate all of it in a dazzling new way.
"Scenic Byway 12 toward Bryce Canyon National Park takes you through an aspen grove on Boulder Mountain and amazing views of Capitol Reef National Park," she says. "Don't miss aspen tree foliage at Pando. It's the biggest aspen grove—and possibly the biggest living organism—in the world. The roads are well-maintained mountain roads, you get amazing mountain and desert views, the days are usually warm, but not too hot, and nights are cool, but not too cold."
Besides the Goldilocks-style weather, you may be rewarded if your drive takes you past sunset. "This road trip passes in some of the U.S.' darkest skies with little light pollution so you can see the Milky Way every night. And along the route, you have lakes for fishing and boating, lots of hiking and biking trails."
Hocking Hills Scenic Byway (Ohio)
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Not all leaf-peeping expeditions have to be days-long treks. In fact, some easy-to-tackle drives can provide enough colors and autumn beauty in just an afternoon.
"Ohio's Hocking Hills Scenic Byway is a great road trip destination for anyone looking to see the gorgeous fall foliage," Nick Mueller, director of operations for HawaiianIslands.com, tells Best Life. "The 26.4-mile byway follows State Route 374 into the historic hills and passes the six non-contiguous sites of Hocking Hills State Park. You can take in the colorful leaves while exploring caves, waterfalls, and caverns when you feel like taking a break from driving."
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Tunnel of Trees (Michigan)
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Gazing down on a valley that looks aflame with orange, red, and yellow leaves can be a stunning sight. But when the colors are in reverse and towering over you, the sensation can be even more remarkable—and one Midwestern destination has the perfect drive to experience such a thing.
"One of my all-time favorite scenic road trips for viewing fall colors is northern Michigan's Tunnel of Trees," says travel blogger and author of On To New Adventures Linda Egeler. "This route stretches 20 miles from Harbor Springs to Cross Village along Michigan's M-119. The narrow roadway follows an old Native American trail and has breathtaking views of Lake Michigan. Travelers will experience hairpin turns, lighthouse views, and will pass by quaint, rustic cottages as well as newer million-dollar homes. Best of all, thick hardwoods line the route, with their leafy canopies entwining overhead. They become ablaze with brilliant red, orange, and yellow foliage during the autumn color season."
Adirondack Mountains (New York)
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While many might assume Yellowstone or Yosemite might top the list of the biggest parks, they would be wrong. At 9,375 square miles, Adirondack Park in New York is the largest in the contiguous U.S., equal in size to neighboring Vermont and three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Naturally, such vast expanses provide possibly the best opportunities to see fall foliage at its finest.
"Those who plan to vacation in the Adirondack Mountains during the fall hope to schedule their trip to coincide with the week that the leaves are at their most colorful—when the reds, yellows, golds, and rich browns against a backdrop of pines and evergreens are at their most vibrant, which is also known as 'peak,'" Jane Hooper, communications manager at the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid, tells Best Life.
The area's geography can also make "peak" a prolonged experience throughout the season. "The Adirondack region in upstate New York is very large, at over 6 million acres, with different elevations, temperatures, landscapes, and weather patterns," she says. "Generally speaking, the most abundant, beautiful color happens within a two-to-three-week window beginning the last week in September through Columbus Day, with higher elevations reaching peak first and the warmer valleys along Lake Champlain and toward the south reaching their peak just before mid-October. The Lake Placid/High Peaks and Whiteface regions are the first to put on their colorful display. As elevation decreases into the surrounding areas, regions including Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and the communities within the Adirondack Hub region, along with Hamilton County, are the next areas to reach peak color."
You can still sneak in some leaf peeping even if you're running late to the season. "The Lake Champlain region, closest to the lake, reaches its peak last. Generally, this happens a couple of weeks after the higher elevations primarily due to the lake itself, which moderates the temperature in the Champlain Valley," Hooper adds.
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Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway (Maine)
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It's hard to think of any area in New England that would disappoint for viewing fall foliage. But according to experts, locals know certain areas can leave an especially stunning impression on visitors if you're willing to make the drive.
"I absolutely love Maine during the fall because of all the beautiful changing leaves and the vast water that surrounds the area," Felix Billington, owner and tour guide of Magellan Motorcycle Tours, tells Best Life. "It is one of the most scenic places to be during autumn, especially when driving through Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway."
"This route tells you right in the name that it is something beautiful to behold. You get the chance to see trees on both sides of you and the sparkling water of Rangeley Lake," he says. "It is the perfect place for a road trip, as you are up high, looking down upon a vast land of fall colors. This is a must for anyone looking for a great fall road trip and to get some great pictures!"
Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina)
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At any time of year, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an impressive experience—which probably explains why it's the most visited site in the entire National Park System. But as leaves begin to change color, anyone driving through is treated to an impressive display of brilliant colors.
"My all-time favorite fall foliage road trip is along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina," says travel writer Polly Clover. "This scenic route takes you past incredible, colorful views during fall, with countless spots to stop to take in the scenery, spend time in nature, and hang out in charming mountain towns. My go-to route is Brevard, Bryson City, Asheville, and Blowing Rock, with as many stops as possible along the way."