Branch Out of Your Fall Foliage Routine with These Alternative Leaf-Peeping Ideas

See America’s autumnal hues from trains, planes, boats, and more.

When pumpkin spice is in the air, it’s hard to resist the urge to hit the road for some wholesome, old-fashioned leaf-peeping. In fact, it’s so hard to resist that nobody actually does resist, resulting in clogged roads and minimal quiet in fall foliage hotspots from New England to the Pacific Northwest.

We don’t begrudge anyone for hitting the highways, orchards and small towns in search of brilliant colors. But there’s only so far you can go in a car. That’s why we’ve gathered some alternative destinations and activities to add to your autumnal repertoire of classic leaf-peepery. From the romance of the railway to adrenaline-pumping adventure sure to give you a rush while you get the perfect autumn photos, they’ll have you looking at fall-foliage in a different light… and sometimes from tremendous heights.

close up of woman sky diving over fall foliage
Skydive Danielson

Get a view from above with “Extreme Leaf Peeping”

Danielson, Connecticut
The perfect vantage point is key to unveiling an unforgettable autumn panorama – and what better vantage point is there than 14,000 in the sky as you hurtle toward the forest floor at terminal velocity? The team at Skydive Danielson are serving up equal parts autumn adrenaline and core memories as you plunge out of an airplane far above the Last Green Valley, a leafy National Heritage Corridor spread between stunning eastern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts. The high-speed rainbow rush offers views as far as Providence, Hartford, and Long Island.

hot air balloon floating above river
Photo by Keith Walters

Soar over the Finger Lakes

New York
New York’s Finger Lakes region is a prime destination for fall colors, but you haven’t truly taken in their beauty unless you’ve done it from the clouds. Balloons Over Letchworth brings a welcome dose of whimsy by loading you into a hot-air balloon, in which you’ll swoop past the magenta-blazed leaves to hover alongside the misty shoulders of Letchworth Park’s waterfalls. While you’re up there, you can scope out a colorful afternoon hike for when you land: There are 66 miles of foliage-dense trails below, including the park’s Autism Nature Trail that offers eight unique sensory stations for comfortable, accessible nature exploration.

Looking for something a little more adrenaline-pumping? Harris Hill Soaring in Elmira offers a unique blend of heart-pounding thrills and zen-like awe with its glider-plane excursions over Chemung County. Seated snugly in a two-seat, zero-engine glider, you’ll be towed far above the colorful treeline, then released to gently glide back to Earth alongside a skilled pilot.

golden trees along snoqualmie river
David_Johnson/iStock/Getty Images

Brave the rapids in Washington

Carnation, Washington
The Pacific Northwest is largely blanketed with pines and firs, but it’s not all evergreen in one of America’s greatest adventure regions. From the legendary valleys to the snowy peaks, the PNW is popping with color, and naturally the best ways to experience it involve getting a little rugged.

Just 40 minutes east of Seattle, the oohs and aahs come with a blast of adrenaline on the Fall Colors Kayaking Tour: Snoqualmie River Valley. Hosted by the savvy folks at REI, two-hour kayak extravaganza winds past brilliant leaf burst after another as you traverse roaring waters and spy an array of waterfalls. Afterward, stick around to cast a line: the Snoqualmie is known for its trout, and the guides at All Rivers & Saltwater Charters will make sure you don't miss a bite while staring blissfully at the leaves.

Oh, and save room for coffee and damn fine pie: You’ll dock a short drive from North Bend, which famously doubled as the town of Twin Peaks and boasts its fair share of high-quality diners.

moose wading in sprague lake, rocky mountain national park
Lowell Monke/Shutterstock

Hang out with elk in the Rocky Mountains

Estes Park, Colorado
Waking up to the crow of a rooster is so passé. Waking up to the piercing sound of a wild elk’s horse-like mating call? That’s a unique experience—and a quintessential one in Estes Park, Colorado. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the area boasts the second largest herd in America, so you can leaf and elk peep simultaneously while learning about elks' fall habits during the YMCA of the Rockies' fall elk workshops (multi-taskers rejoice!). The YMCA boasts a wide array of fall activities, and it just so happens to be a resort offering cabins, yurts, rooms, and camping bordered on three sides by Rocky Mountains National Park.

For extra magic, extend your stay long enough to dabble in the surreal scene of color spotting on September 29 and October 28, when The YMCA of the Rockies will offer guided full moon night hikes.

stars and planets over northern minnesota
Crystal Magiera/Shutterstock

See fall colors in the forests and the cosmos

Northern Minnesota
The nocturnal experts at the International Dark Sky Association have proclaimed the largest Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world is in Minnesota—and the state's North Shore presents a unique combination of rugged autumn-color spotting and serene stargazing. The area includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Provincial Park, which combine to showcase unfathomable visual wonders that can be tackled in comfort or via unforgettable outdoor adventures.

Throughout this expansive stretch of shoreline and forest, you can hit the fall colors from all angles. Experience one of America’s best road trips by car and watch the colors zip by along with lighthouses, lakeside cliffs, and rolling hills. Or paddle your way along the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where the icy waters of Lake Superior reflect the changing colors of the shore like the world’s coldest mirror. For a little comfort, set base camp in the town of Orr, where Birch Forest Lodge is nestled along the shores of Pelican Lake and 50+ islands are easily reached by kayak. And once night hits, keep an eye on the sky for a very different kind of autumn color: The Aurora Borealis, which adds a whole new dimension to the concept of fall colors.

fall foliage over rocky cliff
Pictured Rocks Cruises

Take a boat tour around a psychedelic lakeshore

Munising, Michigan
From the fiery sea of trees below the 18-story-high deck of Ironwood’s Copper Peak Adventure Ride to the isolated wonders of Isle Royale National Park, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is basically 16,377 square miles of peak foliage. And in the crown jewel for singular fall foliage is the stunning Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Here, the fall colors are perched atop massive walls of jagged, psychedelically colored limestone cliffs. They rise from the cold waters of Lake Superior, creating a surreal reflection effect showcasing the full spectrum of autumn wonder. For the very best views, brave Superior in a rented kayak or, if you’re not feeling the whole frostbite thing, book a spot on Pictured Rocks Cruises to see the iconic waterfalls, East Castle Lighthouse, Chapel Rock, and other jaw-dropping sights framed in a splash of vibrant color.

See hues that defy colorblindness

Multiple locations, Tennessee
Between Great Smoky Mountains National Park, alpine Gatlinburg, the Big South Fork National River, and other sweeping natural landscapes, Tennessee is a prime destination for autumn colors. And now, the Volunteer State has taken steps to ensure as many people as possible can experience them thanks to the installation of colorblind viewfinders throughout the state.

For a multi-whammy of autumnal awe, head to hip Chattanooga and take the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, where Lookout Peak offers an incredible view of Mother Nature’s leafy fireworks display. Head over to Blue Heron Overlook if you want to spy the foliage—including the Tennessee Valley and distant mountains—through one of advanced EnChroma® lenses, which are designed to alleviate red-green colorblindness and offer a wide spectrum of colors. The mountain also lures visitors to its Rock City Gardens, where the Enchanted Trail reveals waterfalls, a Swing-A-Long Bridge, and a panoramic view of seven states’ worth of fall foliage.

freight train passing through fall foliage
Boxcar Media/Shutterstock

Ride the rails for an old-school excursion

Various locations
Train travel and leaf peeping go hand in hand, offering up a double-dose of wholesomeness and a great way to kick back and enjoy the scenery without the requisite road rage.

The fall-foliage train rides offered at Blue Ridge Scenic Railway in Blue Ridge, Georgia, chug along the brilliant Toccoa River. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad cruises between Colorado and New Mexico and up a 10,000-foot pass offering up one of the best views in the Southwest. You can have a proper dinner train experience in Bardstown, Kentucky (bourbon included!), see a more colorful side of Sedona, Arizona on the Verde Canyon Railroad, or take the Mount Hood Railroad for views of the kaleidoscopic Columbia River Gorge before disembarking for an orchard tour in one of America’s great small towns. It seems that wherever there are rails and trees, there’s a prime autumn-color tour.

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Melanie Carden is a private chef turned travel writer. She’s equal parts adrenaline-seeker and Golden Girls vibes. You can find her trying new things, thrifting for treasures, grinding it out on a trail, or lounging on a picnic blanket—Aperol spritz in hand. She's fickle about social, but the sporadic nuggets are worth the wait—cricket tacos, anyone?