Summer typically gets all the attention when it comes to road trips, scenic drives, hiking and all manner of miscellaneous outdoor adventure. But the truth of the matter is that fall is actually the superior season when it comes to said activities. The weather is far more tolerable, the mosquitos have waned, traffic has thinned and foliage is putting on an all-natural light show, transforming whole mountains into larger-than-life easels.
With summer in the rearview mirror, it’s prime time to hit the road — and the trails — on a luminous excursion. From New England to the Rockies, and lots of underrated destinations in between, these are some of the most beautiful scenic routes to take this season across the U.S.
The Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
Not to be biased, but my home state has some of the best foliage on Earth. Growing up, we’d drive into the White Mountains, which are not-so-white tints of orange and yellow this time of year, and marvel at the kaleidoscopic forests, teeming with scenic byways and hiking trails. You really can’t go wrong anywhere in this northern portion of the state, but the Kancamagus Highway, in particular, is a real showstopper of a route — rightfully designated an American Scenic Byway for its beauty. It zigs and zags for some 34 miles along Route 112, through the mighty White Mountain National Forest and its myriad gorges, waterfalls and rivers, steadily ascending to an elevation of about 3,000 feet. Folks come from all over the world to drive roads like these, aglow in tunnels of fragrant trees and free from modern development (i.e., fuel up before heading out, because there are no gas stations along the way).
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The remote wilds of the West Texas desert may not seem the most obvious destination for leaf-peeping, but in one of the most underrated national parks in the country, you’ll find your assumptions debunked and your expectations exceeded. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located near the New Mexico border in far western Texas, is one of the least visited national parks in the nation — home to the state’s tallest peaks and a vast expanse of diverse landscapes and terrains. Among them, McKittrick Canyon is a low-lying trail that meanders through mountains and over (mostly) dry riverbeds, into a surprisingly fruitful forest of deciduous trees. An easy, flat hike, the trail is especially popular in October and November, as the trees light up with hues of orange, yellow and red, in stark contrast to the cacti-filled Chihuahuan Desert. Pack a lunch and picnic at Pratt Cabin, a historic structure in the woods that’s just shy of five miles roundtrip.
Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Wisconsin
Boasting some of the most beautiful fall foliage in the Midwest, as evidenced by the spree of tourists in Door County this time of year, Wisconsin is rich with seasonal splendor and crisp outdoor recreation. For that same wow-factor foliage, minus the hordes, head a little inland to venture along the badass-sounding Ice Age National Scenic Trail, one of just 11 national scenic trails managed by the National Park Service. The mammoth (pun intended) trail stretches for a whopping 1,000 miles, carving its way along a once-mighty glacier that existed in this part of the continent several thousand years ago. Nowadays, wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers are out, and foliage is in, as is conveniently observed from any portion of the trail. A particularly popular portion can be found in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a 1.5-million-acre swath of trees, ponds and rolling hills, with endless trailheads scattered in its midst.
Crater Lake Trail (The Maroon Bells) in Snowmass, Colorado
When it comes to iconic mountain ranges, you can’t out-peak the Rockies. Essentially the North American Alps, they reach their pinnacle in Colorado, where mountain towns like Aspen and Estes Park boast thriving tourism industries anchored by the craggy behemoths. In Snowmass, the Crater Lake Trail takes high-elevation hikers to a showstopping view of the Maroon Bells, widely considered to be some of the most staggering peaks in the entire range. Starting from the Maroon Bells Visitors Center, the 3.5-mile out-and-back trail takes you to Crater Lake at the base of the Bells (two side-by-side mountains called the North and South Maroon Bells). En route, you’ll pass through aspen forests so golden they appear to glow.
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Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, South Dakota
Despite the name, the Black Hills of western South Dakota are actually quite colorful. It’s true of any hike or roadway in this popular road trip region, and come fall, one area that puts on quite a show is the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. The winding route weaves through hills and limestone cliffs for 22 miles, and through a sea of pristine forest lit up in hues of red, yellow and orange. This area is especially renowned for its waterfalls, each one accessible via easy hiking trails. Among them, Bridal Veil Falls is an impressive 60-footer that pours down over a natural, rocky amphitheater, made all the more striking by the foliage framing it.
Pig Trail Scenic Byway, Arkansas
It might be mostly rainbows in Eureka Springs, but throughout the surrounding forests of northwest Arkansas, the trees are just as vibrant. Amidst the hilly roads in the Ozarks, the Pig Trail Scenic Byway reigns as a must-drive mecca for leaf-peeping and lustrous overlooks. The route runs for about 19 miles, into forests so dense and deep that the trees form veritable tunnels over the narrow path of pavement. The byway is also near other scenic stunners, like Mount Magazine and the Ozark Highlands, and the portion of the drive that passes over the Mulberry River is well worth a stop to witness the babbling brook lined with floral color.
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park
The National Park Service has no shortage of staggering scenic drives, from Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road to Trail Ridge Road, which soars above Rocky Mountain National Park at 12,000 feet of elevation. On the East Coast, though, the reigning champ is Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, a sky-high roadway that traverses the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, crisscrossing the Appalachian Trail along the way. Spanning the entire north-south length of the park, Skyline Drive feels like something out of Mario Kart, as the road loops and weaves on its way above the clouds. From upwards of 70 overlooks, you’ll be able to take advantage of vast panoramas of foliage-filled valleys down below, from both the lush Piedmont region and the Shenandoah Valley.
Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, Oregon
Far sunnier than the west coast of Oregon, the light hits differently in the central part of the state, where the mighty Cascade range blocks mist and clouds from the ocean and casts a magnificent backdrop over the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. Starting in the town of Bend, the route winds its way through a spree of shimmering lakes, providing mirror-like reflections of gnarly mountains and trees so bright they seem almost cartoonish. The byway also roves along the Deschutes River, through Deschutes National Forest, into the shadows of 9,000-foot Mt. Bachelor, and near epic geological features formed by volcanoes and glaciers.
Tunnel of Trees, Michigan
Come fall, any route nicknamed the “Tunnel of Trees” is basically catnip for leaf-peepers. On the northern tip of Michigan’s mitten, one particular stretch of M-119 lives up to that fantastical name with a 20-mile stretch of narrow roadway under a canopy of color. Here, the trees are so tall — and the forest so dense — that they appear to form a ceiling over the pavement. In the fall, said leafy ceiling seems gilded in color, especially as sunlight trickles through and illuminates the lakeside landscape. The charming town of Harbor Springs is an idyllic setting for a stopover, too.
Brown County State Park, Indiana
Home to a massive 16,000-acre sprawl of rolling hills and fertile forest, Brown County State Park in south-central Indiana is among the largest state parks in the entire country, which means plenty of leaf-peeping to be had in the fall. Seemingly preserved in time, home to a smattering of quaint communities and endless trails, the vast park is great to explore on foot, on horseback or behind the wheel. Some of the more popular routes include State Road 135 North toward Bean Blossom, home to a rare covered bridge, and State Roads 46 East and 135 South from Nashville, Indiana, to the adorable — albeit haunted — town of Story. On foot, the state park contains more than 18 miles of hiking trails, from the two-mile CCC Trail to the North Lookout Tower, to the three-mile Taylor Ridge Trail, which skims a mountain ridge before descending into a lush valley. No matter the mode of transport, you’re sure to be awestruck the entire time by southern Indiana’s bright foliage at every turn.
Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park
You really can’t go wrong with literally any vantage point in Acadia National Park, one of the most popular national parks in the country, nestled off the craggy coast of northern Maine. Perched on islands near Bar Harbor, the views and vibes don’t get any more quintessentially New England than this, especially in the fall when the foliage transforms said islands into oceanic coloring books. The views from the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the first point in the country to see sunrise every morning, are bewitching, but the ultimate setting for autumnal serenity is Jordan Pond. Among the purest and deepest glacier-carved lakes in the Northeast, the pristine pond is surrounded by a (mostly) flat trail that hugs the shoreline. Along the way, listen and look for loons as the surrounding mountains cast luminous reflections off the stillness of the pond’s surface.
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