The Best Autumn Holidays for America's Fall Foliage • 12 Tours & Fly Drives
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The Best Autumn Holidays For America’s Fall Foliage

The Kancamagus Highway winding through autumn fall foliage, aerial view

Autumn has always been one of my favourite times of year. As a child I have happy memories of kicking piles of fallen leaves on my way to school. As an adult the Autumn colours still bring a smile to my face, and it should be no surprise that I now live in a house with beautiful Maple trees outside my window. I have joined the ever-growing group of so-called “leaf peepers”.

The UK has some fantastic locations for viewing the autumn colours; Cumbria’s Lake District, Snowdonia in North Wales, and The New Forest in Hampshire are great examples. However, they are all relatively restricted in size. If you want to take your leaf peeping to the next level, there is only one destination to travel to. The USA does most things on a grand scale and “America’s Fall Foliage” is no exception. With vast protected National Parks and State Forests, America is blessed with the landscapes and climate to give Autumn Watch an international appeal.

So which locations should you choose this Autumn to witness the best of America’s Fall colours?

New England in the Fall

New England is the classic Fall foliage destination. From north to south the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut make the change from green, through yellow and orange to vibrant red from September through to November.

The traditional towns of Stowe, Woodstock and North Conway are scattered throughout the Green and White Mountains among swathes of protected forest, whilst the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire is widely recognised as one of the best roads to follow for Fall Foliage. For those wanting to stay in one location then it is worth seeking out Franconia Notch State Park and Acadia National Park (New England’s only National Park) for stunning autumnal scenes.

A church in the New England, Fall Foliage
New England’s Fall Foliage

The aptly named Autumn Colours tour runs frequently from mid-September to mid-October and transports you, from the city of Boston, out into the colours of the New England’s forests. As a highlights package, it is difficult to imagine better as you are escorted through the Green Mountains to Burlington and Stowe before travelling along the Kancamagus Highway to North Conway and Acadia National Park. The insights provided by local ecologists and park rangers takes New England in the Fall to the next level.

Colours of Columbia River Gorge

The Pacific Northwest rivals the Northeast for spectacular fall foliage. The state of Oregon on its own is much larger than New England and there are plenty of great opportunities for leaf peepers to get their dose of colour. Around mid-October the colours are peaking along Columbia River Gorge to the east of Portland. Further south in the state the colours keep changing through November, but the concentration of Big Leaf Maples, Red Oak and Aspen trees along the Columbia River make a journey along the gorge a kaleidoscope of colours.

Autumn view of Multnomah Falls, Oregon, USA
Multnomah Falls, Oregon

The historic Columbia River Highway, away from the Interstate, is a beautiful drive at anytime of year, but during Autumn, this winding road threads its way along the hillside with stunning views across the gorge. Be sure to stop at Crown Point where the Octagonal Vista House provides elevated views across the treetops. Another great spot is the much-photographed Multnomah Falls, where the Autumn colours highlight the waterfall.

The best way to witness Oregon’s fall foliage is on a fly drive. You can begin by flying into Portland, but for leaf peepers to make the most of their time, Oregon partners perfectly with Washington State, where a visit to Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier are always rewarding. A Pacific Northwest Explorer fly-drive can be easily spread over a 2-week period and enables you to enjoy the Autumn colours across the region.

Autumn Scenes in Shenandoah

Washington D.C. is most famous for its Cherry Blossoms in the spring, but the city’s parks and the surrounding area are also perfect for leaf peeping in the Autumn. However, the most standout destinations for Autumn colours is Shenandoah National Park, just 90 minutes’ drive from Downtown D.C.

Being further south than destinations such as New England, prime time fall foliage reaches Virginia in October, with the higher elevations of Shenandoah National Park the first to change colour. Skyline Drive stretches for 105 miles through the National Park and is perfect for viewing the changing foliage. Hugging the ridgeline for most of the way, Skyline Drive offers 75 viewing points and pullouts each with a different vistas across the valleys below. Since the peaks are the first to change, in early October the valleys may still be green, allowing you to see the natural progression of the Autumn Colours. By late October the brighter colours will have migrated to the lower altitudes.

Autumn colours in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA
Shenandoah National Park

Being so close to a large city and other urban areas, weekends in Shenandoah during the Autumn can be busy, particularly at popular trailheads. However, if you can visit midweek or seek out the lesser-known hiking trails, then it is still possible to get away from the crowds. A great way to witness the Fall Foliage is to take a fly drive holiday that starts and ends in Washington D.C. enabling you to Explore the Capitol Region. After a couple of days in the city and a similar time in Shenandoah National Park you can make your way down to the Atlantic coast via Maryland and Delaware, before returning via historic Philadelphia and Gettysburg. It is a relatively easy drive and perfect for witnessing the changing Autumn colours across varying elevations.

Early Alaskan Autumn

The scenery around Anchorage undergoes a stunning transformation from mid-August into early September. Most of the summer cruise visitors may have already departed but this is actually my favourite time to visit. Winter may be approaching, but during fall season not only do you have the opportunity to enjoy the golden colours of the Cottonwood trees and the red colours of the Bush Blueberry, but above, you also have the chance to witness the green skies of the Northern Lights!

The road from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula is a great introduction to Alaska’s Fall foliage, with the colours prominent on either side of the road. Then as a special reward the Kenai Canyon displays the glacial blue river amongst the orange and yellow autumn leaves.

River Through Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park

Denali National Park is a must visit for everyone, but if you can time your journey to arrive at the end of August you will be rewarded with a carpet of vibrant colours that break out from the tundra. Just driving the Denali Highway is spectacular, but by boarding the bus into the National Park, the rangers can take you to the best viewing and hiking spots.

The Majestic Alaska tour has departures through August and into early September, when you can take advantage of off-peak prices and enjoy Autumn in Alaska. This expert guided tour visits Kenai Fjords National Park from Anchorage and spends time in Denali, giving you the best views of the Alaskan Fall foliage.     

Not New England in the Fall

New England’s Autumn popularity can also be a potential problem for some. If you are touring the small towns and villages of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire the last thing you want is several coaches getting in your photographs or booking out local hotels and inns. For those leaf peepers wanting to escape the crowds, the neighbouring states of New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are the perfect alternative.

New York’s Catskill Mountains and The Adirondack begin to show fall colours as early as the first weeks of September, whilst the Hudson Valley can keep its colours through to the beginning of November, giving New York State a long and colourful Autumn.

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest covers more than 500,00 acres with untouched hardwood forest. The scenic byways that criss-cross the forest offer plenty of opportunities to view the Fall foliage and yet remain traffic-free, even through the peak leaf peeping period of the first two weeks of October. The 27-mile Longhouse National Scenic Byway, loops around the forest’s reservoir was recently selected as one of the top 50 scenic drives in America by USA Today and is even more impressive in the Autumn.

Road through the Catskill Mountains in Autumn, New York State, USA
The Catskills, New York

Coopers Rock State Forest in West Virginia boasts some of the most iconic views for Autumn colours. With panoramic views over the Cheat River Canyon and more than 50 miles of hiking trails through the forest, it is a must go to destination for the casual leaf peeper. Only a short drive away from Coopers Rock is Valley Falls State Park where the Tygart Valley River flows through the carpet of fallen leaves during October.

A New York & Pennsylvania fly drive can include the best Fall foliage destinations in a two-week itinerary that avoids the crowds and makes the most of the abundant colours.

Colorado’s Colour

September is gold in Colorado. The state’s dominant tree is the Aspen, which turns from green to gold in the Autumn, creating swathes of gilded trees across Colorado. Whether you are in the urban centre of Denver, the red rocks around Colorado Springs, or the aptly named town of Aspen, you are almost guaranteed to have a view of Aspen trees in their Autumn foliage.

Just an hour from Colorado Springs is the Golden Loop Historic Parkway. This 17-mile circular drive not only takes you through the history of gold mining in the area, but, in the Autumn, provides beautiful views of the golden Aspen trees across the hills and mountains.

El Monte Motorhome, Colorado
Golden Loop Historic Parkway

The Colorado and the Canyonlands holiday provides the perfect way to witness Colorado’s changing scenery and vegetation. Beginning in Denver, you board the Rocky Mountaineer Train on its way to Glenwood Springs and then Moab, before joining a tour via Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks to Las Vegas. Once relaxed you can then drive back to Denver via the Grand Canyon, Durango and Colorado Springs. 

Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

One of America’s best kept secrets is the fall foliage in Utah. Well known for canyons and deserts, Utah’s large elevation changes also create perfect conditions for a variety of deciduous trees, creating a patchwork of colours. The various colours come from Maple, Aspen, Oaks, Hawthorn and various berry trees. Unlike Colorado’s shades of gold, in Utah you can see orange, yellow, red and purple, often all in the same area.

Gifford Homestead, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA
Gifford Homestead, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

North of Zion and Bryce Canyon Parks is Highway 143, also known as “The Patchwork Parkway”. This unassuming road traverses 4500 feet, passing through six different distinct ecological zones and guarantees fall colours throughout September. The road passes by highland wetlands and the Dixie National Forest. The 51-mile drive is fast becoming a favourite for Utah leaf peepers.

To explore the best of Utah and neighbouring Arizona consider following the Grand Canyon & Utah’s Mighty 5 self-drive route. This loop from Las Vegas takes you through many of the area’s most famous National Parks and other wilderness areas that come alive in Autumn.

Oklahoma’s Fall Festivals

Autumn comes late in Oklahoma, but it is no less vibrant and perfect for leaf peeping. November sees a move to cooler temperatures, Harvest, Halloween and Thanksgiving. It is also when the leaves will start turning.  As well as a variety of attractive Maples, Oklahoma is also home to Elms and Pistache trees that can create a patchwork of yellow and red in the Autumn.

Some of Oklahoma’s best fall foliage can be seen along the winding 54-mile Talimena Scenic Byway, nestled amongst the Ouachita Mountains. Pioneering the program of National Scenic Byways, this stunning route was created in the 1980s to showcase the vibrant autumn hues of the region. Meandering through the Ouachita Mountains, the Talimena National Scenic Byway unveils a picturesque landscape adorned with evergreen and hardwood trees, offering captivating panoramas at 22 scenic pullouts.

Talimena National Scenic Byway, Oklahoma
Talimena National Scenic Byway, Oklahoma

As well as the traditional nationwide festivals and holidays that take place in November, Oklahoma also plays host to some of their own unique festivals that correspond with the Fall foliage. The Bigfoot Festival kicks off the season in October followed by the Poteau Balloon Festival. Other favourites for locals are the Cordell Pumpkin Festival and the Beavers Bend Folk Festival. Grab a fresh apple cider and funnel cake, and enjoy the music with the backdrop of the colours in Beavers Bend State Park.

Did you know that America’s favourite road trip, Route 66, passes through Oklahoma and it can be timed perfectly to coincide with Autumn reaching the State? To give you more time in Oklahoma to see the Fall foliage consider diving Route 66’s eastern half before returning to drive the western section.

Fall Down Jackson Hole

As the days grow shorter and the nights last longer, the Autumn colours spread through Grand Teton National Park like wildfire. The Cottonwoods and Willow trees that line the banks of Snake River, as well as the Aspens on the higher slopes, bring a different kind of gold rush to the forests of Wyoming. Due to higher altitudes (similar to neighbouring Yellowstone National Park) Autumn arrives early in Grand Teton National Park and the leaf peepers of Jackson Hole have a limited season to witness the full range of colours, with peak fall foliage most often reaching them by the end of September.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Whilst the high peaks of the Tetons may already be covered with snow, the best of the Autumn colours can be viewed along the rivers and lakes of the National Park. Take a hike to Jenny Lake in the morning to view the red and yellow leaves illuminated with the backdrop of the imposing Tetons or stop by Schwabacher Landing along Snake River, where not only can you see the colours of the Cottonwoods and Willows, but you can also keep an eye out for beavers working on their dams.

The National Park Wonders tour begins in Jackson with a full day to witness the fall foliage, before heading into Yellowstone National Park where your expert guide can show you the geothermal activity with the backdrop of the colourful forests. The tour then continues across Wyoming to South Dakota where the Autumn colours are visible below Mount Rushmore.

The Golden Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited National Park, not least in the Autumn when the mix of Maple, Hickory and Oak trees display fantastic colours. Straddling the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina the Great Smoky Mountains reach as high as 6,000 feet above sea level, creating a gradation of colours from high elevations to lower valleys throughout the season.

At higher elevations Birch, Beech and Maple trees can begin changing colour around mid-September, with lower slopes changing colours by mid-October. However, the more protected valleys, where Red Oaks and Sugar Maples are more prevalent, will still be putting on a colourful show as late as November.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
Blue Ridge Parkway

With more than 500,000 acres, there is a lot of the Great Smoky Mountains to explore, however, The Foothills Parkway and the more famous Blue Ridge Parkway are perfect for a scenic drive through the fall foliage. For a perfect fly drive holiday that combines them both, consider the Blue Ridge Parkway scenic self drive holiday that combines the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks over a 2-week period. Fly into Washington D.C. and after viewing the monuments and museums, begin your journey south along the Appalachian Mountains, following the Fall colours from Virginia into North Carolina and Tennessee.

Great Leaves of the Great Lakes

Did you know that deciduous trees located near to shallow water, like rivers and lakes, will usually enjoy brighter Autumn colours and will stay colourful for longer? This is shown quite clearly around the Great Lakes area. Because the Great lakes create their own microclimate, the tree colours react differently to elsewhere. The large volume of water in Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, for example will retain the summer heat for longer than the surrounding land and so the trees around the lakes will keep their leaves for longer.

When planning your Fall foliage holiday, it is normally best to plan your route from north to south to see the best of the Autumn colours, however, around the Great Lakes it is best to keep to the shoreline. Be careful though, as the deep waters of Lake Superior are always colder than the other lakes, so the leaves will always fall earlier around that area.

Autumn colours by the lake, Great Lakes, USA
Autumn colours by the lake shore

Travelling around the Great Lakes by Motorhome is a great way to follow the changing Autumn colours, and to stay close to the shoreline. What can be better than waking up with a coffee and the best of the USA’s fall foliage? Flying into Chicago will introduce you to Lake Michigan, but quickly you can be out amongst the foliage as you make your way between Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Huron.  Alternatively, if you want to see the colours around Lake Superior, then it is best to travel clockwise and start with Lake Superior before visiting Lake Huron and Lake Ontario with a stop at Niagara Falls for good measure.

Urban Leaf Peeping

Whilst many of the examples so far have been focussed on National Parks and State Forests, it is still possible to view America’s Fall colours within some of its biggest cities. Boston is often the starting point for Autumn foliage tours, but within the city there are still plenty of opportunities for leaf peeping. Boston Common is a 44 acre green space that is home to around 700 oak, beech, chestnut, elm and maple trees. Elsewhere the historic Beacon Hill District has narrow streets and alleys lined by colourful trees in October and even into November and the leafy Boston Esplanade that stretches along the Charles River from Beacon Hill to Back Bay is perfect for a stroll under the falling leaves.

Central Park is a honey-pot location for New York leaf peepers as it is home to more than 18,000 trees, many lining the paths and walkways through the park. In late October and into early November following the Fall foliage has become so popular that the park’s conservancy even publish a dedicated map to help visitors see the best colours. From Manhattan, you can take the ferry across to Staten Island, where Urban Park Rangers give leaf peeping tours around the Clove Lakes Park.

Autumn Colours in Central Park, New York City, USA
Central Park, New York City

Why not combine the two cities on an Autumnal city break?  Boston & New York make a great pairing. Fly into Boston and spend a few days following the Freedom Trail and enjoying the Autumn colours, before boarding a train to transfer to New York City. You can even leaf peep from the train! Then you will have plenty of time to wander round Central Park and beyond before flying home from New York. No car required.

Over the Border… Colours of the Cabot Trail

America doesn’t have exclusivity on Autumn colours. It could be argued that just across the border in Canada there are even more trees, larger parks and less people, making Autumn conditions perfect for leaf peeping.

For example, forest covers more than 75% of Nova Scotia and these are not all evergreens. There are many species of Oak, Ash, blueberry and Maple trees that range in colour from yellow to purple throughout a Fall season that begins in September and runs through to mid-October.

Couple Hiking, Nova Scotia, Fall folieage
Cape Breton Highlands National Park

The best leaf viewing areas in Nova Scotia include Kejimkujik National Park and Cape Breton Island, home of Cabot Trail and the “Celtic Colours International”, a festival that combines Celtic music concerts with the peak Fall colours.

A self-drive holiday such as Highlights of Nova Scotia can be undertaken any time of year, but by setting out from Halifax in mid-September it will be possible to capture the Autumn colours at their peak.

Whether you are a “Professional Leaf Peeper” or an “Amateur Autumn-Watcher” then consider planning your next holiday to America this Autumn to coincide with the best Fall foliage.  

WRITTEN BY
Richard

Richard has more than 25 years of experience working within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.