Plan a Fall Leaf Peeping Getaway

The three-day Labor Day weekend, summer’s last hurrah, is right around the corner. Judging by the frenzy of back-to-school shopping, I’ll begin seeing grade-schoolers sporting backpacks nearly as large as themselves on neighborhood sidewalks any day now.

Peak leaf peeping season typically spans September, October, and early November, but conditions fluctuate from year to year.But the surefire sign that summer is nearly over is the changing of the trees. Among my favorite memories of growing up in the Pacific Northwest are leisurely late-summer evening strolls after dinner: the shadows long and just the tips of changing trees illuminated crimson and gold in the failing light, with crickets and frogs singing into the settling night.

Now is the perfect time to start making plans to create your own fall foliage memories. Peak leaf peeping season typically spans September, October, and early November, but conditions fluctuate from year to year. The regional foliage report links below begin adding regular color updates in early September.

While New England and upstate New York may be the best-known areas for leaf peeping, don’t forget to consider other parts of the country as well. Nature’s fall splendor can be enjoyed almost anywhere.


Northeast

With the arrival of autumn, the New England countryside becomes a kaleidoscope of color with beech, birch, and sugar maple trees turning golden and orange; red and swamp maples turning yellow or deep red; and ash trees turning a reddish-purple. In fact, New England is so renowned among leaf peepers that you can find several festivals in the region dedicated fall foliage.

Try the Northeast Kingdom Fall Foliage Festival held in several Vermont towns (September 27–October 2), the Warner Fall Foliage Festival in Warner, Connecticut (October 8–10), the Sunday River Fall Festival Weekend (October 9–10) at Sunday River Resort in Newry, Maine, or the Boothbay Harbor Fall Foliage Festival and Craft Fair in Boothbay, Maine (October 9–10).

The New England countryside is laced with blacktop ideal for road tripping leaf peepers. Among the stand outs are the Kancamagus Highway through White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire and State Route 100 running north-south along Vermont’s Green Mountains, but really, you can pick just about any road through the countryside and enjoy the spectacle. To take in the fall glory off the blacktop, visit one of Vermont’s many sugar shacks—the outdoor buildings used to boil down maple sap into sugar or syrup. Though the sugar season (mid-February to mid-April) is long over, sugar shacks are surrounded by maples and a brilliant fall display is almost guaranteed.

For a great fiery foliage drive in New York’s Adirondacks region, try the 65 mile stretch of NYS Route 9N from Lake George Village to Ticonderoga along the Lake George shore, and on to Westport on Lake Champlain. If your leaf lust isn’t satisfied, you can extend the drive west on Route 73 to Lake Placid in the High Peaks area.

Fall colors begin in northern Maine in late September with Long Island, NY, colors reaching their peak around the first week of November.

Great Lakes

With over 100 species of trees, including colorful oak, maple, and sycamore, Michigan and Wisconsin are great places to catch nature’s annual pageant. Leaves on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula start changing as early as mid-September and you can catch good color through the first week of October, while colors in the lower parts of the state peak around mid-October. Wisconsin color peaks around mid-September in the north and late October to early November in the southern part of the state.

For a postcard perfect fall drive, try Highway 41 on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which zigzags from Menominee to the Keweenaw Peninsula. You may also want to consider renting a kayak or canoe. Paddling around Michigan’s rivers, lakes, and streams is a great way to experience the fall colors.

The Wisconsin section of the Great River Road is serious road tripper eye candy any time of the year. The state’s many rural farm-to-market roads are an excellent way to tour the back roads. But, with over a million acres of public forest, Wisconsin’s Door County literally engulfs visitors in vivid autumnal glory.

Appalachia

When most people think of leaf peeping in Appalachia, they head straight for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the 1 million visitors the parks greets every October should be a pretty good indication that there is definitely some peep-worthy fall foliage here. For a scenic drive in the Smokies, try the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road.

Or, ditch the road altogether and hit the rails. Tennessee Central Railway Museum offers an all-day fall leaf peeping excursion from Nashville to Cookeville and back. Regular adult tickets are $52; $30 for children under 12. The more adventurous can opt to do their peeping from a hot air balloon, with flights lasting about an hour. Try Ace High Ballooning in the Nashville area. Tennessee typically sees fall foliage colors peak in late-October.

Rockies

Colorado isn’t just a ski and snow destination; the show of fall foliage is just as breathtaking. Leaf peepers in Colorado may not see the orange and red of fall foliage found in the more northern states, but they do see a truly stunning gold and yellow display from Colorado’s aspens. There are multiple scenic drives throughout the state perfect for getting your leaf peeping fill.

Try the 55 mile Peak to Peak Scenic Byway connecting Black Hawk and Estes Park, or the 205 mile West Elk Loop heading south from Glenwood Springs to Gunnison and back. Or avoid the traffic altogether and take Amtrak. Amtrak has daily trains on the California Zephyr route and the eight hour segment between Denver and Grand Junction offers gorgeous views of the Colorado countryside. One-way adult fare runs $46–91 depending on the day of the week. Colorado fall foliage typically reaches its peak from late-September to early-October.

Pacific Northwest

With the Cascade Range neatly bisecting Washington, fall leaf-peeping opportunities abound. Pick almost any mountain (with Mount St. Helens as the possible lone exception), explore the surrounding area and you’re sure to find exactly what you came looking for—fabulous fall colors.

The 440-mile Cascade Loop is a spectacular drive through several regions of the Cascade Range, though the North Cascades Highway section and the area around Stevens Pass offer some great viewing for those that don’t have the time to drive the entire loop. Highway 14 through the Columbia River Gorge is another gorgeous fall road trip excursion that provides an excellent opportunity to detour into Wenatchee for the apple harvest (mid-August–late October). The Wenatchee Taste of the Harvest Festival (September 18) features regional foods and wines, live music, activities for the kids, and a scarecrow contest.

Exploring the Cascade region by trail is another great way to take in the show. Trails in Seattle’s University of Washington Arboretum, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and around Mount Baker are all excellent choices. A word of caution for hikers: the deer hunting season starts in mid-October (except in the national parks). Be careful where you go and remember to wear orange or red. Fall foliage in Washington usually peaks in late-October.

Photos © Gayle Hart

Leave a Reply