Updated October 1, 2018
Fall foliage is beautiful all over the world, but let’s face it, there are some places that are more beautiful than others. These special landscapes produce exceptional shades of scarlet, crimson, orange and buttery yellow that capture the essence of the storybook fall. I, for one, am always in search of that kind of experience.
The good news for travelers is that, according to the United States Forest Service, lots of spring rains and a really dry summer mean that this year in North America could be even more colorful than ever. If you’re thinking of planning a weekend away to do some “leaf peeping”, now is the perfect time to reserve, with many places still available.
Here’s a guide to 10 popular locations in the United States that are known for their exceptional fall foliage. I’ve included luxury and budget stay options with links to fit every pocketbook.
The Berkshires, Massachusetts
Located in the western parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut, the Berkshires is a highland plateau encompassing a little over 2,000 square miles. Bordered on the west by the Taconic Mountains and Housatonic River, it is interwoven with narrow country roads that coil their way through acres of pristine forest. Along with a wealth of picturesque, small towns offering local arts, culture and cider and donuts (!!), the area is deeply-forested with red maples, which adopt brilliant shades of crimson, scarlet and orange in mid to late September.
The Berkshire Mountains
In northern Berkshire County, one of the most popular driving routes for foliage enthusiasts is the Mohawk Trail, which climbs through the Berkshire Mountains, providing jaw-dropping views of the region’s scarlet oaks and fiery maples. Quarry Road is another 60-mile loop that is accessed via the Mount Greylock Visitors Center in Lanesborough. Climbing steeply over gravel and rocks, the road leads up the mountain to spectacular views of the higher-elevation sugar maples, which turn from yellow to orange and finally to red in the fall.
Litchfield Hills, Connecticut
Located at the base of the Berkshire Mountains, Litchfield Hills was named by National Geographic as one of the most scenic driving destinations in the country where it comes to fall foliage viewing. It’s the type of place you associate with traditional New England landscapes; winding country roads, small historic towns filled with antique shops, and old-style taverns and beautiful stone and clapboard houses.
Red barn in Litchfield, Connecticut
A popular driving tour begins on Route 7 and follows the Housatonic River, passing through Milford and on to Kent, which was awarded the #1 Fall Foliage Town in New England by Yankee Magazine. Giant sugar maples and massive oaks interspersed with birches, beeches and aspens put on a vibrant show beginning mid October and lasting into November. Connecticut has one of the longest foliage viewing seasons compared to its northern New England neighbors due to its more temperate climate.
Asheville, North Carolina
Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Asheville offers panoramic views of spectacular fall foliage as well as a thriving artists’ community and burgeoning restaurant and beer scene. Peak foliage viewing is a little later here, usually from mid to late October.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a short 50-mile drive from Asheville, puts on one of the longest fall foliage displays in the country. The kaleidoscope of color includes golden yellow poplar and hickory trees, orange sassafras and multi-toned red maples. The show begins at the highest elevations (roughly 5,000 feet) and works its way down the mountains gradually, providing weeks of sequential color.
Blue Ridge Parkway
According to the Romantic Asheville Website, which gives week-by-week coverage of the foliage as it develops, a drier than usual summer promises that this year’s show will be brighter than usual.
Green Mountain Byway, Vermont
Late September through October, this 11-mile stretch of Vermont’s Route 100 lined with maple, birch, poplar and sumac trees explodes with brilliant autumn color. The scenic byway runs between the northern Green Mountains to the west and the peaks of the Worcester Range to the east, between the towns of Waterbury and Stowe. A leisurely drive northwards along the route provides stunning views of intensely colored forests and saffron meadows while looping through tiny, historic villages and farmsteads.
Community church in Stowe, Vermont
A classic New England village located at the base of Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, Stowe calls itself “Fall’s Color Capital” and for good reason. In the fall, sparkling shades of gold, orange, crimson and maroon bedeck the town. An easy drive up the Mount Mansfield Auto Toll Road, offers stunning views of the area’s vibrant hues, silhouetted against a purple mountain backdrop. Check out Go Stowe/Foliage Central for regular foliage reports.
Colorado’s aspen trees are unlike any others, and in the fall they put on a vivid display. Leaves shimmering with gold in the sun, their stark white trunks paint a striking picture against the evergreen backdrop of the region’s jagged brown mountains. Peak foliage can be hard to predict, and is often short-lived, so it’s important to get your timing right.
The highly photographed Maroon Bells Mountains, situated southwest of Aspen, are a great spot from which to soak up all the colorful scenery. Stay in town (where hotel rates are briefly less expensive before the start of ski season) or reserve a campsite on the Maroon Lake, encircled by snow-capped purple mountains and oceans of golden-yellow aspens.
Taos, New Mexico
Another popular destination from which to view the changing foliage of the aspen trees, Taos offers thousands of acres of pristine forests ablaze with fall color. Here, in the dry climate of the high desert, warm days and cold nights mean that aspens turn not only yellow, but deep orange and shades of red as well. This makes Taos a must-see for aspen aficionados.
Green, yellow and red aspens in Taos, New Mexico
The 83-mile Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, which starts and ends in Taos, encircles the 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in New Mexico. The scenic route winds through a diverse landscape of red cottonwood forests set amidst grey-green spruces, dark green lakes rimmed by orange and yellow aspens and mesas clothed in deep purple cinquefoil that stretch all the way to the visible horizon.
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
Hundreds of species of native trees, including scarlet oaks, sugar maples, sweet gums and hickories change color from early October through early November in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is nestled between North Carolina and Tennessee. The transition occurs gradually over the 800 miles of scenic roads and trails, traveling steadily down the mountainsides and transforming the region’s forests into radiant shades of red, orange, purple and gold.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You could spend days in the park, exploring the breathtaking scenery, which begins early with the arrival of fall flowers, including asters, Joe-Pye weed and goldenrod. Check out the National Park Service site for up-to-the-minute information and webcam coverage of the foliage as it develops.
Luxury Stay: Blackberry Farm (TN) Budget Stay: Holiday Inn Club Vacations Gatlinburg-Smoky Mountain Resort
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Over 7 million acres of forest make for a brilliant splash from late September into mid October on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which includes the Porcupine Mountains, Traverse City, the Boyne Highlands and Mackinac Island. In these lovely places, the arrival of autumn ignites an explosion of autumn color amongst the native hardwoods, all set against a backdrop of dark green spruces, pines, cedars and other conifers.
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
At the end of September, dense groves of aspens, birches, maples, oaks, elms, hickories and black cherries gradually begin to transform the landscape into a multi-colored quilt of crimson, russet, golden yellow, purple and orange. M-119’s Tunnel of Trees, located about 35 miles from Mackinac Island, is one of the great forest routes in North America. Separating Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas, the 16-mile scenic road winds through thick hardwood forests, offering glimpses of Lake Michigan and affording access to lots of hiking trails among the majestic trees. Or, you can choose from one of 10 driving tours of the region available on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula travel site.
The Catskills, New York
Perhaps the most well known destination of all, upstate New York’s brilliant autumn show has been immortalized in films and literature for its iconic shades of dazzling scarlet, orange and gold that unravel slowly down the region’s deeply-forested hillsides. Highway 97, which connects Hancock to the tiny town of Port Jervis, is one of the most popular driving tours, affording stunning vistas from mid September to early to mid-October.
Saranac Lake, New York
Nicknamed “America’s First Wilderness,” this beautiful area is home to majestic oaks, sugar maples, white-trunked birches and beeches. The area is chock full of small towns and B&Bs, antiques stores, farmers markets and harvest festivals. There are even pick-your-own apple orchards, making for a storybook-like adventure.
McKenzie Scenic Pass, Oregon
In mid-October, this 36-mile route through the Mt. Washington Wilderness area (also known as Highway 242) is ablaze in color. The varied landscape includes ancient lava beds, waterfalls, snow capped peaks and majestic old-growth forests. The pass runs from the Willamette Valley to the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, winding through the university town of Eugene.
McKenzie Scenic Pass, Oregon
Near the top of the pass, lush groves of Douglas fir and red cedar provide a backdrop for deep red vine maples, a species of small maples native to western North America. Together with the black rock lava fields and stark white peaks of central Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, they provide a stunning contrast. The Dee Wright Observatory, built in the ’30s out of lava rock, offers spectacular 360 views of the mountains and changing foliage through windows specially designed to frame the peaks.
Budget Stay: Best Western Ponderosa Lodge
All photos: Shutterstock.com