Autumn is here, which means changing foliage colors in fortunate corners of the country. Fall foliage is one of the great national treasures of the United States, but you can’t see it everywhere. Some places are definitely better than others when it comes to technicolor trees in September, October, and November.
You should strategically plan your travel if you want to see the leafy fireworks display. Many Americans are a shorter driving distance than they think from one of Mother Nature’s great shows.
Here are the 10 best places to view fall foliage in the U.S.A.
Stowe is a land of many nicknames. One of the best-known nicknames is “The Ski Capital of the East,” reflecting the most popular and renowned winter activity in this quaint New England village of cottages and church spires.
One of its other nicknames, however, is “Fall’s Color Capital.” Beat the skiers and come early to catch an epic display of fall colors throughout the season. There are plenty of hiking trails and campsites to enjoy, as well as spectacular views of sparkling treetops along Mount Mansfield Auto Toll Road.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
One of the autumn highlights of Shenandoah National Park, in northern Virginia an easy drive from the DC metro, is Skyline Drive. One of the great pleasures in the United States is taking a leisurely drive down the 105-mile stretch sheltered from the sun by a canopy of red, orange, yellow, and brown.
If you come early in the season, make sure to check out Blue Ridge Parkway, which climbs to the highest elevations of the park, where the trees turn the earliest. By mid-October, however, the entire park is exploding with color.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
There’s no bad time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the best places in the South to ski in the winter and hike in the summer. Our pick, though, is the autumn, when the Smoky Mountains really put on a show. The warmer southern climate causes the unfurling of the dramatic fall foliage to unfurl over the course of a luxurious 4-6 weeks.
Come anytime in the autumn months and you will see dramatic trees. Stay awhile, and you will see the drama play out in the trees. As an added bonus, you can visit the Old West town of Gatlinburg, making the Great Smoky Mountains in the winter one of the most Instagrammable pieces of dirt in the entire country.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Bar Harbor is a hotbed of tourist activity in the summer due to the beautiful scenery—not just fall foliage, but the Atlantic Coast, the perfect place for kayaking and North Atlantic whale watching.
Book far enough in advance to avail yourselves of some of the most spectacularly preserved historic hotels in the country, perched amid the yellow leaves.
Denali National Park, Alaska
There’s the glory of nature, and then there’s Denali on a whole different level. For obvious reasons, this treasure of Alaska, named after the indigenous moniker of Mt. McKinley, is more visited in the summer. But if you wait just a little longer—before Alaska goes into deep-freeze mode with round-the-clock twilight, you can catch one of the most spectacular leaf turns on American soil.
Because of the colder climate, Denali is where you can go to view fall foliage as early as August.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Cape Cod is one of New England’s most popular summer destinations, but its display of fall colors makes it well worth sticking around.
Catch some good weather, and the beaches will still be pleasant after a day scoping out yellow and orange trees amid a robust selection of tourist amenities, including world-class restaurants, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and a treasure trove of old New England history.
Chuckanut Drive, Washington
Route 11 just north of Seattle takes you into some epic fall splendor in the autumnal months. Washington state is known for its evergreen trees, which don’t turn, but the foliage along Chuckanut Drive intersperses evergreens with deciduous trees, blending deep greens in with the usual fall foliage colors of yellow and orange.
For veteran leaf-peepers, it’s a site not to be missed, especially sandwiched between several national parks, mountain ranges, oceans, and a short drive from a heritage city.
The Ozarks, Arkansas/Missouri/Oklahoma
The low-lying Ozark mountain range straddles three states and some historically impoverished territory. Remember, this is where Winter’s Bone, as well as the homonymous Netflix crime series, takes place.
But the spectacular sprawl of forests and lakes across the rolling hills makes this little-travelled byway one of the most beautiful places in the country to explore fall colors. The 54-mile Talemina Road crosses two states past some of the most beautiful autumn displays of orange, red, brown, and yellow that America has to offer.
This lumber-town-turned-resort for the rich and famous is actually named after its abundant seasonal trees. When autumn rolls around, the Rocky Mountain snowfall is preceded by a brilliant explosion of fall colors in the namesake trees.
While known for its ritzy ski lodges, it’s well worth making the trip to Aspen early to catch the fall foliage against the dramatic Rocky Mountains. Remember, this is some of the most expensive real estate in the country. The amenities are robust and opulent.
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Far less populated than Michigan’s Lower Peninsula—home of Detroit, Flint, and Ann Arbor—the non-contiguous Upper Peninsula is one of America’s great roads-less-traveled, a sprawling, wild wilderness and kissing cousin to nearby Canada. Much of this far-flung haven, surrounded on all sides by spectacular Great Lakes coastline, is covered by seasonal forests, which come alive with color as the weather gets colder.
Check out the Mackinac Bridge, Copper Harbor, or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for some of the best views … or just gas up, pick a direction and a lonely forest road, and start driving. There’s hardly a bad corner of the Upper Peninsula to leaf-peep in the fall.
About the Author: Paul Greenmyer