The Best Places to See Explosive Fall Foliage Outside of New England
Because autumnal glory knows no borders.
After a summer of heat waves and hot spells, the return of Pumpkin Spice Lattes couldn’t come soon enough. And while autumn may signal the start of apple picking, the switch from rosé to cider, and fall rituals like Oktoberfest, it’s also one of the best times of the year for road tripping across America. Yes, it’s leaf-peeping season, when drives are dictated by fall-color maps predicting when leaves will be at their peak.
For far too long, New England has seemed to be the epicenter of leaf-peeping (we get it, those foliage-framed covered bridges look great on Instagram). But—surprise!—other parts of the country are also blanketed in fiery fall foliage that extends across mountains and around lakes. From coastal highways to California’s old mining towns, here are the best non-New England spots to see the leaves change in 2023.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Fall colors are great. Fall temperatures? Not always so much. That's why if you prefer the climate-controlled comfort of your SUV, there's no better place in America for leaves than Shenandoah National Park. It's home to the famous 105-mile Skyline Drive, where you'll be enshrouded by a canopy of red, orange, yellow, and green. Aim for the park’s eastern border and you’ll find another famous drive: Blue Ridge Parkway, which climbs thousands of feet in elevation from its start in central Virginia to its end in Cherokee National Forest. Typically, leaves in higher elevations will turn color first—toward mid-September—and the lower elevations will transition as the season wears on.
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Yeah, it's a bit of an oddball place, but even in a state known for beautiful coastal scenery, no place tops the Upper Peninsula. Bordering three of the Great Lakes, a fall foliage drive through these parts will take you across the Mackinac Bridge and along the Keweenaw Peninsula. The best spot to catch great views is in the far north's Copper Harbor (with a quick detour along the kaleidoscopic Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore), but a drive through the vast wilderness on the way there is just as vibrant—and mostly uninterrupted. When you’re done driving for a bit, pull over for a seasonal brew by the fireplace at Houghton's Keweenaw Brewing Company.
It’s a given that fall foliage will be spectacular here, considering the city’s namesake shimmery golden trees, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be at all prepared when you actually see it. It's worth a trip to this resort town 160 gorgeous miles southwest of Denver just to spot bright yellows and oranges contrasted against regal, snow-capped mountains. Visit the nearby Maroon Bells, an iconic vista and the most-photographed mountain range in North America, then enjoy a gold-flecked bike ride up the Rio Grande Trail.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
America's most visited national park relies on more than just the Old West photos in Gatlinburg. Summer hiking and winter skiing aren't even the best reasons to go; the best time to visit here is the fall—especially mid-October through early November—when the Great Smoky Mountains explode into a sea of orange, yellow, and red. One of the best ways to scope that splendor is to hike to Looking Glass Falls. Plan out your visit with the Smokies’ Fall Foliage Prediction Map.
Upstate New York
While the final two weeks of September in the Adirondacks might be the peak of leaf-peeping season, festivals in the region run almost every weekend through October. A few hours south lie the New York Catskills, where the famous "Five State Lookout" in East Windham will have you scoping leaves in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—simultaneously. You can also summit the Catskills's 3,214-foot Mount Utsayantha for a 360-degree fall foliage experience. If you're not so active, there's a scenic skyride at Hunter Mountain that'll give you a nice, slow look at the changing colors to and from the summit.
The former gold-mining town sits in the backcountry of San Diego County, about an hour’s drive from the city and just north of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. You can hike the perimeter of Lake Cuyamaca, head uphill on the Volcan Mountain and Garnet Peak Trails, or challenge yourself to make it to Three Sisters Falls for a glimpse of SoCal’s best leaves. But Julian’s claim to fame is exactly what makes it truly shine as an unexpected fall gem: apple picking. Hit up the Volcan Valley Apple Farm or Calico Ranch Orchard, and don’t leave without passing by Julian Pie Company for apple pie with an unexpected twist of cherry, peach, or rhubarb. (Just be sure to check for wildfires, which can flare up around this time of year.)
Door County, Wisconsin
Door County has more than earned its reputation as “the Cape Cod of the Midwest,” with all the lighthouses, languid beaches, and leaf-peeping you’d get from a Northeastern escape planted firmly on the shores of Lake Michigan. Headquarter yourself in Fish Creek or Ephraim and sip cherry wine at Door Peninsula & Distillery before embarking on your foliage tour. From there, hike and kayak your way through Peninsula State Park. Hit up the spectacle that is Newport National Park (during the day, it’s an autumnal paradise; at night, the cosmos above make it abundantly clear why this was Wisconsin’s first designated Dark Sky Park). And don’t leave without photographing the scenic Cana Island Lighthouse amongst the foliage.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Alaska might seem a little far to go for fall foliage in the continental US, but by September, the throngs of seniors on tour buses are gone and you can enjoy the brilliant fall colors of America's North by yourself. A drive through the park not only showcases the bright hues set against Denali—the highest point in North America—it also gives visitors a chance to see moose, bears, and elks in their natural environment (which is even more beautiful than usual thanks to the leaves changing). Fall comes quicker in these parts, so plan your leaf pilgrimage no later than early October.
Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania
Cutting a jaw-dropping swath through central Pennsylvania’s Tioga State Forest, Pine Creek Gorge is lovingly known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Unlike its western counterpart, though, this place absolutely explodes with color come autumn. Here, you can soak in panoramic views while hiking in Leonard Harrison State Park or Colton Point State Park, or get wild on the 62-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail, a bike route that whips through the canyon and between charming small towns.
North Shore, Minnesota
One of the most stunning stretches of road in America, Minnesota's North Shore is a dream throughout all seasons—from the shores of Lake Superior and the town of Duluth all the way to the base of Minnesota’s tallest waterfall. Here, the colors shift into a rainbow that reflects off the choppy waters of Superior and sway collectively in seas of trees along 150 winding—often soaring—miles of adventure. Be sure to stop often—and even overnight. The beer scene here is one of America’s overlooked, especially when the fall specials drop.
Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
If you need even more proof that the West can go head-to-head with the Northeast during fall (or any time of year), look no further than Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho. During summer, it’s home to one of the most underrated beaches in the US, Orval Hansen on Redfish Lake, and during fall, the already-sparse crowds thin out even more as sunburst hues take over the trees that line the shore and stretch on for more than 2 million acres. The Sawtooth Scenic Byway has all the maples, aspens, tamaracks, and birches you need. And if you’re looking to stretch your legs a bit afterward, hike the Fishhook Creek Trail, a relatively easy jaunt, or the Sawtooth Lake or Bench Lakes Trails, difficult treks with highly rewarding payoffs.
The Ozarks, to those who only know them as the place where Michael Bluth breaks incredibly bad, is a mountain region that covers swaths of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma with a surrealistically thick blanket of trees dotted with serene lakes. And come fall, those otherworldly vibes get even more surreal when vibrant colors start popping off. For a greatest hits moment, cruise up the unbelievably scenic Talimena, a 54-mile stretch of road that manages to be the most scenic drive in two states.
Chuckanut Drive, Washington
Located just north of Seattle, in a state absolutely bursting with enough colors to make you rethink the notion of “evergreen,” the wildly twisting roads of State Route 11 pack the beauty in tightly. Each twist reveals new ways to frame the vivid oranges and yellows that pop against the dense pines. Head into Larrabee State Park for spectacular views, and don’t skip a pit stop at Taylor Shellfish Farms for fresh crab before resuming your drive past farmland, water, and mountains through what feels like a kaleidoscopic tunnel of trees.
Brasstown Bald, Georgia
Located about two and a half hours from Atlanta, Brasstown Bald is the highest point in the mountainous northeastern part of Georgia—and also its most beautiful vista. Perched atop the viewing deck, you can take in the kind of panoramic leaf-peeping only afforded by being nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. You’ll catch sight of changing colors in Georgia, both Carolinas, and Tennessee from up high, and if you really want to feel like you’ve got this gorgeous landscape all to yourself, take a little jaunt through nearby Anna Ruby Falls for some crisp fall air with a touch of mist.
Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas
Texas might not be the first state on the list when it comes to changing seasons, but down in Hill Country, there’s plenty of biodiversity. Located just two hours northwest of San Antonio, this breezy park is home to a collection of Uvalde bigtooth maples that turn all shades of red, orange, and yellow by mid-October. Stick to the East Trail to see the very best of the kaleidoscope and follow the park’s fall foliage report to make sure you visit on a good day. Beyond leaf-peeping, you can cast a line in the Sabinal River, grab your binoculars and look out for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, then enjoy some next-level stargazing after sundown.