The Best Places to See Fall Foliage in the United States
Every state welcomes the fall season in its own unique way, but nearly everyone can agree that one of the most magical parts of autumn is watching the leaves transform from lush green to bright oranges and deep reds. Like clockwork, we begin to reach for seasonal favorites like spiced lattes and hot cider, whip out our coziest sweaters and knitted scarves, and head outside to take in the cooler temperatures and scenery. Though travel experts generally agree that some of the best fall foliage can be seen throughout New England, that's not to say that there aren't other regions where crisper temperatures also result in colorful displays.
Samantha Brown, host of Samantha Brown's Places to Love on PBS, says that you can often find truly spectacular views of changing trees, from oak to maple and everything in between, by taking a short drive out west or up north. For those who call the Northeast home, Brown says there's no better scenic fall destination than Maine. "Maine is one of my all-time favorite places for year-round travel—come fall, there's plenty of water activities to enjoy that don't require getting wet," she says, noting that kayaking through the state's coastal region during the fall is one of the best way to take in the foliage. "Less crowds means a more low-key, relaxing experience."
National parks—including Acadia National Park in Maine, Ozark National Forest in Arkansas and the Massapequa Reserve in upstate New York—are also popular destinations for leaf peeping, but Brown says that there are plenty of nearby small towns with mountain views that are just as impressive.
With Brown's tips in mind, we're highlighting the best locations to take in prime fall foliage, and all the details you need to know should you decide to take a trip.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
The Kancamagus Highway—colloquially referred to as simply, The Kanc, by locals—takes you to an elevation of just under 3,000 feet at its highest point on the flank of Mount Kancamagus. Every year, leaf peepers across the country show up in full force to drive the winding roads and catch a glimpse of the brilliant foliage. Hiking trails, waterfalls, and quaint gift shops are all an exit off the route nearby the picturesque town of Lincoln.
Connecticut River Valley, New England
Protected natural zones along this winding waterway (visible from Routes 154, 82, and 434) stay vivid well into November. The Connecticut River Valley stretches southward for 406 miles through four states, designating it the longest river in New England. Along with the foliage, bed and breakfast inns, antique shops, and opera houses. If you don't feel like driving, you can always hitch a ride aboard the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat that embarks on a narrated, round-trip journey from the historic 19th-century Essex Station.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina
Trees lining this 469-mile Appalachian attraction go scarlet in succession, highest-elevation first. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina—and is divided into four districts stretching north to south: the Ridge region, the Plateau region, the Highlands region, and the Pisgah region. All of them provide stops along the scenic byway for your family to enjoy arts and crafts, music, and local attractions. And at a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, you can afford to cruise more leisurely past the cascade of sunset tones.
Pere Marquette State Park, Illinois
Pull over at Pere Marquette State Park, in Grafton, Illinois, to stretch your legs on a Technicolor hike. If you happen to make a stop along the wooded ravines and riverside roadways, keep your eyes to the sky for a sighting of our national bird, the bald eagle. Every year, hundreds of them travel to the area and nest in their winter homes.
Great River Road, Mississippi River
It's called the best drive in America with good reason: When cooler temps send a golden ripple across treetops, a drive on the Great River Road—a 10-state National Scenic Byway hugging the Mississippi River—becomes a glorious getaway. It takes four to 10 days to make the journey that includes national monuments, museums, and the Mississippi Flyway (a migration route followed by nearly half of North America's waterfowl and shorebirds, making it one of the world's premier spots for birding).
Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, Utah
This northern-Utah path shows off the varied terrain of Cache Valley, from limestone formations to rolling farmland, and peaks at an overlook of bright-turquoise Bear Lake. The Bear River Mountains are host to recreationalists of all seasons who find activities like rock-climbing, camping, trout fishing, snowmobiling, and skiing. During autumn, the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway offers a view of spectacular vistas that radiate the gold, amber and pumpkin colors of the harvest season.
If such an award existed, Maine would win the best in class for fall foliage, where brilliant orange hues begin popping up across mountainsides as early as September. Brown says there's no better place to spot peak fall foliage than in Ogunquit, a quaint beach town near the New Hampshire border. "For foliage lovers, the leaves begin to change colors in September and peak in October," she says, adding that autumn is also prime fishing season for lobster boats off the coast of Maine. "Ogunquit celebrates Capriccio for two weeks every fall—it's their annual autumn celebration, and it showcases local art, music, and hosts a city-wide kite flying festival."
Traverse City, Michigan
Brown calls this coastal town the "Caribbean of the North"—and with white sandy beaches bordering the shores of Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, you can see why. Due to its coastal locale, Brown says you can expect daily temperatures to crest just below 70 degrees in September, making it a prime spot to sprawl out on a blanket in the afternoon (some brave folks even take a dip!). "Polar bear plunges aside, this lake destination offers some of the most incredible vistas for fall foliage. A great place to experience this is at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore," says Brown. The 27-mile-long Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a wonderful way to enjoy the weather and take in all the colors around you.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
This national park is just a short drive from Akron and Cleveland, but it feels like it's a "world away from the city," Brown says. "In autumn, you'll see brilliant sugar maple reds and brown oaks along roads and hiking trails." If you're up for a bit of exercise, Brandywine Gorge Trail is one of the best places to soak up the park's natural beauty—you can hike up to the 65-foot Brandywine Falls to see panoramic views of fall foliage in each direction. And if you prefer to stay off your feet, hop aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic railroad, which offers thrilling rides around the park in summer and in fall.
Black Hills, South Dakota
If you've ever visited Mount Rushmore on a summer road trip, you're already familiar with Black Hills. Locals will tell you that fall is really the best time to visit, though. You'll avoid the rush at local attractions and find more availability at hotels and campsites in October and November. Plus, you might get to see elk, deer, and wild bison as its their mating season. "And then there's the fall colors," Brown says. "One of the best places to catch a glimpse is at Custer State Park, where brilliant gold leaves dazzle against a backdrop of granite spires, rolling mountains, and 1,500 grazing bison." At 6,000 feet of elevation, Mount Coolidge is the best place to take in all the views. Brown says you can see nearly 90 miles in the distance.
As far as national parks go, the Ozark National Forest is one of the best spots for fall foliage—and you can take it all in on the Highlands Scenic Byway in the heart of the forest. Approximately 35 miles long, there's plenty to see, including the Boston Mountain Range, the Buffalo National River, and the Ozark Highlands Trail, which contains many different tree varieties for you to peruse on your journey.
If you like to fish, visiting this lakeside park is the best way to spend a lazy Saturday outside in cooler temperatures. Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park is also home to other forms of wildlife, including elk and protected eagles, which you can spot while hiking, boating, or bicycling around its shores. Stay a night at the on-site lodge and wake up to dazzling red, yellow, and orange leaves on dogwoods and other tree varieties that blanket the hills around the lake itself.
Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania
There's nothing better than visiting hallowed ground during the Halloween season, and the Washington Crossing Historic Park marks the exact spot where George Washington crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in 1776. At this historical site, visitors can take in a full panoramic viewing of Bucks County at the top of Bowman's Hill Tower, which rises 125 feet into the air. An added bonus, the park hosts a colonial reenactment event where a pop-up market sells inspired crafts and goodies each October.
Nestled beneath the Chattahoochee National Forest, Vogel State Park is unique in that it's an ideal spot to take in prime fall foliage well into the first half of November. It's also family friendly: You can easily reach the park's Trahlyta Falls scenic viewing point by walking along the Bear Hair Gap Trail.
It's a picturesque location all year long, but fall brings a breathless sense of beauty to Grand Teton National Park, where you'll also get a glimpse of snow-capped mountains and wildlife traversing fresh lakes and forests. The National Park Service recommends traveling to the park in the third week of September, where you'll capture aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees as their leaves turn vibrant shades of red and yellow.
Love a Sunday drive? How about a drive that gives you the opportunity to take in more than 100 miles of pure mountain views at the height of foliage season? Skyline Drive winds its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where you can have an aerial view of the changing leaves from September through November. You can make a few pit stops along your journey by pulling over at designated overlooks like Stony Man to snap photos and enjoy the crisp air around you.