43% of American travelers say viewing fall foliage is a favorite activity
As summer slowly sizzles away, the opportunity to discover the country’s best fall foliage drives arrives. Just around this time, it seems like every media source lists their “top 10” fall foliage areas around the country.
The Medical Bag has done its own research by searching for the best spots around America for your eyes to soak up the vibrant views and enjoy the hues the fall season offers. So, without further ado, we present the most colorful routes to cruise.
Towns to drive through include Bentonville, Eureka Springs, and Jasper, along US Highway 62 and State Highway 21, where you can feast your eyes upon spectacular hardwood forests featuring a kaleidoscope of colors. From Highway 21, you can pick up Highway 16 and ride along the Upper Buffalo National River, where you can stop and take a boat ride for a majestic view of flame-tipped oak forests jutting out of 500-foot bluffs.
Feather River Scenic Byway
Sacramento Valley erupts in color, and traveling through the Eastern Sierras, you’ll spot golden willows, yellow and orange aspens, and crimson cottonwoods. All this beauty is nestled among waterfalls, sapphire alpine lakes, and 12,000-foot-high snow-frosted mountain peaks. Notable lakes include Lundy Lake, June Lake, and Mono Lake. Also check out Mountain Lakes, where orange streaks slash the mountainside. Rock Creek Canyon is also a thing of beauty to behold in the cool fall season.
Yellow and gold tones struck with sunlight and shimmering in the breeze contrast with evergreens and rugged purple- and white-laced mountain peaks in the background. Colors include vibrant yellow and bold orange, which reflect off Maroon Lake located in the town of Maroon Bells. The foliage season is short, however, from about the second week of September until the end of the month.
Here you’ll find America’s largest aspen grove providing vistas of gold, orange, and crimson. Take Highway 135 to Highway 133 to Paonia Dam in Gunnison County. Then you can return via West Elk Scenic & Historic Byway along the Blue Mesa Reservoir and the north rim of the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park for additional exquisite views.
Grand Mesa Scenic Byway
Another notable driving route lies along Interstate 70 and boasts Plateau Creek’s picturesque canyon. Catch the view from 11,000 feet at Land’s End Overlook in Grand Mesa.
At the foot of the Berkshire Mountains in western Connecticut sits Litchfield Hills. Route 7 swings along Housatonic River from New Milford through Cornwall, where beech, birch, aspen, maple, and oak explode with orange, red, and yellow. The route has a special treat: you pass under 2 covered bridges for a quintessential New England experience.
Moosehead Lake Region
Maine’s largest lake, Moosehead Lake, sports spectacular fall foliage. The town of Rockwood sits on the shore of the lake. Stop at Attean Overlook for a panoramic view of Moose River Valley and you can see colors collide all the way to the Canadian border. In Greenville, you can drive below tree canopies on unpaved logging roads.
Hop on Route 1 from Portland to experience coastal Maine beauty at its finest. See striking foliage as you pass through the Old Port District, home of the Portland Head Light lighthouse. You can watch local fishermen return with their catch of the day among the backdrop of spectacular fall scenery.
Acadia National Park offers a rocky coastline, jaw-dropping foliage, and contrasting evergreens along the 40-mile stretch of Acadia Byway.
Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway
Red, gold, and, if you look hard, some deep scarlet leaves line Route 20 for about 35 miles in the southern Berkshires. Route 20 was built in 1910 to accommodate the first horseless carriages, so most of the traffic speeds along a parallel highway while you can go at a slower pace to enjoy the view.
These run across the northern stretch of the state’s mountainous region, serving up the same red, gold, and deep scarlet hues as mentioned above.
This is the only city on our list of the best places across the country to view fall foliage. Meander along the Charles River for glorious autumn color in the midst of a historic city landscape.
The largest state forest system in the eastern United States sprawls over 16,452 square miles. The Upper Peninsula region has over 20 state parks with dense forests filled with more than 100 different species of trees, including sycamore, tamarack, oak, birch, maple, beech, aspen, and ash, nestled among the Great Lakes. What makes this region so special is that the tranquil waters reflect back the fall colors of the trees, making for a picturesque landscape and inspiring picture-postcard setting.
Lake Michigan’s Northeastern Shore
Fiery red and gold maple and oak leaves pop out among the dark green fir, spruce, and pine. If you drive along Grand Traverse Bay on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, you’ll also experience the charm of small fishing towns, the towering sand dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and several cozy coves amid nature’s beauty.
Drive along the shore of Lake Superior, then through Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park for a bird’s-eye view of moose, white-tail deer, and beavers busy beneath the canopy of autumn leaves.
Lake of the Ozarks
Shades of russet, scarlet, mahogany, and gold collide in the Ozark Hills along a 25-mile drive. You can explore the majestic hues on horseback, mountain bike, or foot along scenic hiking trails. Wineries and the championship golf courses along the lake also offer spectacular views. For a unique sight-seeing experience, soak in the fall foliage by boat.
Glacier National Park
This is one of the few places in the nation to view larch trees; they turn bright gold before losing their needles and are nestled among evergreens with the huge snow-covered peaks of the Continental Divide as a backdrop. Huckleberry, cottonwood, aspen, maple, and birch also abound and astound. An added bonus is the abundant wildlife you may be lucky enough to spot roaming the park, including bighorn sheep, bears, mountain goats, and elk.
Want to experience a “Yankee” fall foliage tour? Travel along the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112), passing the White Mountains National Forest for 26 miles of world-class fall foliage. You can also drive along Route 302 and follow Route 16 in North Conway for sensational scenery. You’ll find more beauty at Crystal Lake on Route 153.
Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway
If you love fall aspens, you can soak in their dazzling display by taking the 83-mile loop that starts and ends in Taos. Aspens dominate with their bold yellows, but other gems include purple cinquefoils as well as cottonwoods with shades ranging from bright red to soft yellow. The route circles Taos, passing valleys, mesas, and mountains, including the highest point in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak, with an altitude of over 13,000 feet. What a view from the top!
Vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds pop in the heavily wooded hillsides. The Catskill region includes 6000 square miles in southeastern New York, boasting 6 major river systems, 35 mountain peaks with elevations over 2500 feet, and Bethel Woods, home of the famed Woodstock festival.
In upstate New York, the fall season features festivals and pick-your-own apple orchards to complement your leaf-viewing pleasure. There are 12 byways of beauty to travel along. The 170-mile Olympic Trail, which connects Lake Ontario to Lake Champlain, passes Lake Placid and is a standout. Forested mountains feature leaves exploding with various shades of yellow and red, including beech, maple, oak, and birch. A nice route starts in Lake Placid and heads northeast on Route 86, passing Au Sable River, which is lined with high cliffs that offer awesome views of sugar maples, American beech, and yellow birch trees. Adirondack Park is the largest natural wilderness region in the Eastern United States, 6 million acres strong, and is designated “forever wild.”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the most visited national parks in the country boasts an array of over 100 species of native trees, including hickory, sweet gum, oak, and maple, which provide a jaw-dropping display of purple, gold, crimson, and orange. You’ll find over 800 miles of scenic hiking trails and roadways to travel. It is a feast for your eyes!
The foothills region of western North Carolina offers the Appalachian Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway for further eye-feasting excursions.
Appalachian Fall Foliage Driving Tour
Discover a 56-mile southeastern drive featuring impressive Midwestern fall beauty. Route 60 in Marietta connects with Route 78 and the tour ends in Glouster. Before beginning, you may want to witness the gorgeous fall panoramas from the waters of Marietta, a quaint riverboat town. The Ohio River Scenic Byway offers equivalent views.
Columbia River George
The Cascade Mountains form a natural border between northern Oregon and southern Washington. Oregon ash, cottonwoods, twisted pines, and big-leaf maples show off their absolutely breathtaking hues. Gold and bronze can be spotted along the Columbia River via the Columbia River Highway, which is the first scenic drive designated a National Historic Landmark. The highway winds around 900-foot cliffs, where you can stop to overlook the river and valley. A bonus for taking the tour includes dramatic waterfalls, beautiful wildflowers, and deep gorges. You can also view the foliage by foot, hiking up Multnomah Falls (620 feet), or from the river floating in a kayak, canoe, or raft.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
This is a most varied byway. It is 68 miles long and passes through tunnels, winds by granite mountain peaks, and crosses over spiral “pigtail” bridges inside the Black Hills. The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is along the byway, and in fall, the structure is highlighted by the colors of autumn.
The Smoky Mountains
Why not travel to the most visited national park in America, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg? Start at Newfound Gap (the top of Old Smoky!) to observe a brilliant tapestry of foliage at 1400 feet above sea level and drive down the mountainside to Caves Cove, passing vibrant red mountain maple, pin cherry, and mountain ash as well as the fiery yellow American birch and beech. Then take the 11-mile loop around Cades Cove, offering panoramic views of fall foliage accented by waterfalls and babbling streams.
Green Mountain Byway
Maple, birch, and beech trees line an 11-mile route on Route 100, passing 2 state forests along one of the most dazzling displays of color in New England. You’ll see gold and yellow hues from hickory, poplar, elm, and birch trees, accented by a variety of red shades from sweet gums, red oaks, and sugar maples. Drive through Waterbury (where you can visit Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream factory). Other can’t-miss routes include the Green Mountain and Mad River Byways. Driving through Waterfront Park in Burlington along Lake Champlain provides spectacular views of golden leaves reflected off the lake framed by mountains in the background. And, of course, Stowe, the town that proclaimed itself “Fall’s Color Capital,” is home to one of the most famous ski resorts in the East, which offers a gondola ride for a bird’s-eye view of the fantastic forested slopes.
Blue Ridge Parkway
A kaleidoscope of vibrant colors dominates the landscape. You’ll find deep-red among the dogwoods, black gums, and sourwoods. Orange sassafras trees intertwine with yellow hickory and poplar. Even a few purple prizes can be found among the foliage. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds its way downward through southern Virginia and North Carolina and ends in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Winding its way through Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive provides a 105-mile scenic stretch passing 75 mountain-view overlooks that rule the region. Here you’ll enjoy the fiery red of sweet gum, red maple, and scarlet oak trees as they meld into the buttery yellow of sumac, locus, and sassafras. The abundant wildlife is a bonus; keep an eye out for black bears and white-tail deer.
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park
Skyline Drive, meandering through Shenandoah National Park and nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has been recognized as one of the top 10 scenic mountain drives in America. Deep-purple dogwoods, red Virginia creeper vines, and hickories sporting yellow and orange foliage are your reward for cruising along the crest of these majestic mountains.
North Olympic Peninsula
The 5000 square miles of the peninsula are inhabited by sea otters and cranes, while the forests are home to elk. Olympic National Park provides access points throughout the Peninsula for spectacular views. Hurricane Ridge enables you to view snowcapped peaks spiced with colorful leaves in the foreground. Driving along US Highway 101 also provides access to the gold, yellow, and red leaves of autumn. Other places to seek out include Lake Crescent and Marymere Falls; Cape Flattery, known for its Sitka spruces and misty coves; and the historic Port Townsend seaport, a town lined with Victorian houses and famous for its thriving boat-building industry.
Drive the Driftless Region loop along Highway 23, which starts and ends at Mineral Point, passing hillsides streaked with sumac, maple, twisted oak, and wild hickory ablaze with yellows and oranges along river valleys. Peninsula State Park in Door County is another option, with its 4000 acres of stunning foliage. Also check out the Hayward Lakes region for additional leaf-peeping pleasure.
From mountain peaks to seaside ports, these destinations offer a fabulous variety of activities for leaf-peepers.
Consult a popular travel guide for peak viewing times to map out your driving route and help plan your trip; many of these guides have special sections highlighting fall foliage routes. And each state’s visitor guides also spotlight the best places to view fall foliage.
- 10 best fall foliage trips in the US. Fodor’s website. September 25, 2013. http://www.fodors.com/news/photos/10-best-fall-foliage-trips-in-the-US#!11-glacier-national-park,-montana.
- Bosch H. 10 Must-visit fall foliage destinations. Forbes website. September 21, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestravelguide/2012/09/21/10-must-visit-fall-foliage-destinations/.
- Goldsmith M. America’s best fall color drives. Travel and Leisure website. September 2013. http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/americas-best-fall-color-drives.
- Hamman K. Top 10 fall foliage drives around the USA. USA Today website. October 2, 2009. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/travel/deals/inside/2009-10-01-fall-foliage-drives_N.htm.
- TripAdvisor unveils America’s top 10 fall foliage destinations. TripAdvisor website. 2010. http://www.tripadvisor.com/PressCenter-i3966-c1-Press_Releases.html.