Written by Jayme Moye | FODOR’S TRAVEL
You don’t have to travel far to take in the phenomenon of fall foliage. All across the U.S., from New England to the Pacific Northwest, deciduous trees put on their dazzling display of color. In fact, leaf viewing is one of the easiest (and least expensive) ways to experience America’s awe-inspiring natural beauty. Check out our picks for the ten best destinations for fall foliage or get out there and discover your own.
When a world-famous town is named after a tree, you know it’s an extraordinary specimen. Aspen leaves turn a rich yellow hue in the fall and literally shimmer in the breeze when the sun hits them. The gold tones of aspens in autumn make for a picture-perfect contrast with the evergreens and craggy mountain peaks. While the ritzy ski resort town of Aspen is the place to see and be seen in the winter, it mellows during the autumn months.
When to Go: Aspen season is short. It kicks in during mid-September and peaks at the end of the month. The first week of October offers some decent viewing, but beyond that, there will be more leaves on the ground than on the trees.
THE CATSKILLS, NEW YORK
The 6,000 square miles in southeastern New York known as the Catskills are home to six major river systems, thirty-five mountain peaks over 3,500 feet, and the famed Woodstock festival. A year-round destination, the Catskills are at their most vibrant in the fall when yellows, oranges, and reds electrify the thickly wooded hillsides. Locals and visitors alike savor the fall harvest, when many of the region’s historic villages host festivals and craft fairs alongside the bountiful farmers’ markets and pick-your-own orchards.
When to Go: The last two weeks in September through mid- to late-October are prime time for fall foliage in the Catskills.
THE BERKSHIRES, MASSACHUSETTS
The essential escape for urbanites in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, the Berkshires provide world-class foliage viewing alongside notable art and culture. Narrow winding roads connect mountain hamlets set against a forested backdrop of crimson, yellow, and every hue in between, making for the most beautiful gallery-hopping or antiquing trip of your life. Or, spend the weekend at one of the region’s storied spas, soaking in the sweeping autumn views.
When to Go: Fall foliage season in the Berkshires begins in late September and typically peaks during Columbus Day weekend in mid-October. There’s still color to behold in late October, but don’t wait until November.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON
Cut into the Cascade Mountains and forming a natural border between southern Washington and northern Oregon, the eighty-mile Columbia River Gorge is already a sublime sight. Come fall, when the firs, cottonwoods, big-leaf maples, Oregon ash, and twisted pines start to show their colors, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Visitors can choose to take in the golden and bronze hues while driving along the Columbia River, hiking a variety of trails, or rafting or kayaking down the river.
When to Go: Mid-September to mid-October is the best time for fall foliage in the Columbia River Gorge.
GREEN MOUNTAIN BYWAY, VERMONT
The maple, birch, and beech trees lining this eleven-mile route bisecting Vermont put on one of the most dazzling displays of color in New England. The drive from quaint Waterbury, home of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, to Stowe, one of the most famous ski resorts in the east, passes through two state forests and three state parks. In Stowe, the ski area gondola offers a bird’s-eye view of the forested slopes and easy access to hiking.
When to Go: The northern Vermont leaf observation season begins the second week of September and peaks the first week in October.
ENCHANTED CIRCLE SCENIC BYWAY, NEW MEXICO
The dazzling eighty-three-mile loop starting and ending in Taos has become a fall foliage pilgrimage for aspen aficionados. Here, the aspens turn not only yellow, but also dark orange. The route encircles 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point, and the mesas and mountain vistas offer a unique southwestern perspective on autumn color. While aspens steal the show, there are also purple cinquefoil and cottonwoods in fiery shades ranging from bright red to yellow.
When to Go: Late September to early October offers the most vibrant colors along the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. The dazzling eighty-three-mile loop starting and ending in Taos has become a fall foliage pilgrimage for aspen aficionados. Here, the aspens turn not only yellow, but also dark orange. The route encircles 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point, and the mesas and mountain vistas offer a unique southwestern perspective on autumn color. While aspens steal the show, there are also purple cinquefoil and cottonwoods in fiery shades ranging from bright red to yellow.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS, NORTH CAROLINA AND TENNESSEE
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the U.S. for good reason. There are more than 100 species of native trees, including scarlet oaks, maples, sweetgums, and hickories, which put on a jaw-dropping autumn display of gold, orange, crimson, and purple. With 800 miles of scenic roads and hiking trails, you could spend days exploring these stunning forests.
When to Go: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ablaze in fall color from early October through early November.
UPPER PENINSULA, MICHIGAN
Michigan’s state forest system is the largest in the eastern U.S., encompassing nearly 4 million acres. Take your pick from one (or more) of the Upper Peninsula’s twenty-plus forested state parks. Ash, aspen, beech, birch, maple, oak, sycamore, and tamarack are the stars of this densely forested peninsula sandwiched between three Great Lakes. The tranquil waters, ranging in color from azure to navy, visually enhance (and reflect back) the trees’ already brilliant fall colors.
When to Go: The best time to take in the fall colors of the Upper Peninsula is mid-September to mid-October, with the peak happening in October.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MISSOURI
Central Missouri’s popular summertime lake getaway becomes even better in the fall when the crowds disperse and the temperatures pleasantly drop into the sixties. The surrounding Ozark Hills are at their most scenic come fall, when the forests ignite in shades of scarlet, gold, mahogany, and russet. Experience the color explosion while hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding at Missouri’s largest state park. Or take in the fall foliage on a yacht, at the wineries, during a round at one of the lake’s championship golf courses, or on a twenty-five-mile scenic drive.
When to Go: The last two weeks of October are the indisputable prime time for leaf peeping at the Lake of the Ozarks.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA
or the ruggedly self-sufficient, Glacier National Park is a dream fall foliage destination. By the end of September, all the park’s concessions have closed for the season, guests have gone home, and you pretty much have the entire park to yourself. This is one of the best places to see larch trees—deciduous conifers that turn bright gold in the fall before losing their needles. Yellow larch intermingled with evergreens set against the backdrop of the massive snow-covered peaks of the Continental Divide make for perhaps the most dramatic autumn scene in the U.S. Plus, wildlife abounds, with elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bears making their preparations for winter.
When to Go: Larch trees change color in mid-October. Everything else—maple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, and huckleberry—turn between early- and late-September.