By Melissa Hart on September 17, 2020 in travel
Autumn: The word evokes chilly afternoons spent cheering at football games, spiced cider sipped around evening bonfires, and of course, picture-perfect vistas blanketed in red and gold foliage. Every year, millions of tourists, nicknamed leaf peepers, travel to our country’s most forested regions to gaze at fall colors and explore parks, hiking trails, and towns along the way.
Fall foliage tours offer beauty, adventure, and the opportunity to bond with family and friends, not to mention Instagram-worthy scenery. Need tips on how best to plan for leaf-peeping success? We’ve got you covered, from where to stay and what to eat to how to ensure arrival at your destination when leaves are their most vibrant.
How to Plan a Fall Foliage Trip
Striking out in pursuit of autumn colors? Follow these tips to ensure a successful fall foliage trip.
Predict the peak
Trees change color when the days grow shorter. The decrease in sunlight halts chlorophyll production so that a leaf’s green hue fades and gives way to reds, oranges, yellows, and purples. Conifers such as firs and pines retain their green, while the leaves on broadleaf and deciduous trees turn fiery shades before they become brown and drop to the ground.
Mother Nature can be capricious. Temperature and ground moisture affect peak fall foliage seasons in different ways year to year, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly when all the trees in a region will turn. However, interactive fall foliage prediction maps approximate when you can observe the stunning show of colors from state to state in any given year.
As a general rule, autumn foliage appears in Canada and northern states in September, and color moves south until November. Each autumn newspapers in various regions of the country put out regular reports geared toward leaf peepers as do local and state government websites.
If social media’s more your speed, visit Facebook pages devoted to photos and information about statewide fall foliage, or follow “fall foliage” feeds on Twitter and Instagram for up-to-the-minute reports and pictures. Apps are available for download as well; they offer tips on everything from where to find beautiful leaf color to how to identify individual tree species.
Reserve lodging early
Leaf-peeping is big business. It pours billions of dollars into local economies, thanks to tourists who need places to eat and sleep during tree-themed road trips. Advanced reservations for lodging or camping spots are prudent for some areas of the country and critical for others.
Tourism guilds suggest that leaf peepers book hotel reservations a few months in advance, while some state parks recommend reserving cabins and yurts as far as 13 months before a vacation. Camping offers another way to experience fall foliage up close — say, right outside your tent. As with hotels and bed and breakfast lodgings, reserve sites early. However, if you’ve missed the window of opportunity, check out one of thousands of free campsites across the country. (Just make sure to follow local regulations about campfires and leave no trace.)
Do you prefer a hybrid of comfy lodge and campground? Try glamping, with thousands of sites across the country that offer creative rentals such as tipis and treehouses outfitted with beds and simple amenities.
Cruise scenic byways
The Federal Highway Administration maintains a map of national scenic byways, perfect for those who want to plan a road trip around fall foliage in any part of the country. Check out this list of state scenic byways and you may just discover spectacular autumn landscapes in your own backyard.
Some leaf peepers opt for a self-guided tour of a particular region of the U.S. by car, courtesy of a brochure or smartphone app. Others prefer to travel by train, bus, or even bicycle or boat. Fall foliage motorcycle rides are popular; these can be self-guided or with an organized tour group.
Regardless of how you choose to travel, make sure to pack delicious, fall-themed snacks for the adventure. Pumpkin-spice snack mix is easy to enjoy on the road, as are dried apples, apple cider donuts, spiced nuts, and roasted pumpkin seeds. And don’t forget a thermos of Nutella-spiked coffee or homemade apple cider.
Remember to stretch your legs
Physical activity helps ward off road fatigue and allows you to mingle with locals and observe wildlife. Consider planning your autumn expedition around one of the many harvest festivals around the country. Check out a corn maze, a pumpkin patch, or a U-pick farm that allows you to pick your own apples, grapes, or sunflowers.
You may also want to lace up your hiking shoes and head for the trails, or jump on your bike to pedal tree-lined roads across the country. If you’re into water sports, you can explore a variety of routes through lovely landscapes via kayak or canoe.
The pursuit of gorgeous photos can fuel physical activity. Get up before dawn to capture magical landscapes in the early morning light, and note that clouds and rain can also create striking images. (Just make sure to respect wildlife, local flora, and safety precautions in your pursuit of a great pic.)
The Best of the Best Fall Foliage Routes
Have you decided to embark on a fall foliage road trip this year? Here are some of the best scenic drives in the country. These adventures provide ample opportunity to bask in the autumn sunshine and savor breathtaking views.
- Flint Hills National Scenic Byway in Kansas
The Flint Hills National Scenic Byway showcases bright yellow cottonwoods. Various byway adventures take visitors to birding hotspots, historical landmarks from life on the frontier, and sweeping vistas of the Tall Grass National Prairie Preserve.
- Grand Mesa Byway in Colorado
The Grand Mesa Byway offers gorgeous scenes of white-barked aspens with golden leaves, plus an abundance of nearby lodges and hiking trails. In the town of Mesa, stop by any store for a brochure with a self-guided tour of the area’s numerous barns.
- Great Smoky Mountains Byway in Tennessee
Look for yellow birch, red maple, hobblebush, and beech trees on the Great Smoky Mountains Byway. Also consider other routes through the Smokies including the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which boasts trails that lead through old-growth forest to a waterfall.
- Illinois River National Scenic Byway in Illinois
Drive the Illinois River National Scenic Byway to see the fall colors and take time out to hike the trails and explore waterfalls around Matthiessen State Park. Birders will relish a visit to the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, home to waterfowl, bald eagles, and migrating trumpeter swans.
- Jacob’s Ladder National Scenic Byway in Massachusetts
Jacob’s Ladder National Scenic Byway is a 30-mile route through the Berkshires foothills with access to the Appalachian Trail. Leaf peepers who love the arts can check out the world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and catch a concert at the Tanglewood Music Center.
- June Lake Loop in California’s Eastern Sierras
The June Lake Loop offers splendid gold and red color from aspens, cottonwoods, and willows. Visitors can enjoy a multitude of opportunities for outdoor recreation, from cycling to boating, climbing, and bouldering. Other regions in California boast sugar maples and American sweetgums long into November after leaves in other parts of the country have faded.
- Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri
Visitors to Lake of the Ozarks can drive around the 100-mile lake to enjoy the display of maples, hickories, oaks, and ashes, as well as numerous bridges (including a swinging bridge). Plan for enough time to take a hike and explore both the Bagnell Dam and the 1930s-era Willmore Lodge.
- Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania
Visit the small towns and harvest festivals around Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains and take time out for a Float and Feast kayak trip on the Susquehanna River. Byways throughout the state offer landscapes painted with red, orange, and yellow hues.
- Upper Peninsula Drive in Michigan
The Upper Peninsula Drive treats visitors to the blazing colors of maples and oaks. It also offers opportunities to explore lighthouses and a bird observatory. Take the Toonerville Trolley train and boat tour for an up-close look at wildlife and forests of beech and maple, birch and ash, and black cherry.
- Mount Hood Scenic Loop in Oregon
Vine maple and big-leaf maple provide plenty of color on Oregon’s Mount Hood Scenic Loop. Visitors can kayak and windsurf on Hood River, enjoy live music and refreshments and U-pick opportunities on the Hood River Fruit Loop, and explore the 1930s-era Timberline Lodge and Ski Area crisscrossed with wilderness trails.
Regardless of the fall foliage adventure you choose, a few strategies can ensure a successful trip. Plan your route and reserve lodging early, research options for transportation and activities, grab your camera, and prepare to be dazzled by the autumn colors.