America's Best Places to See Fall Colors (That Aren't in New England)
Leaf peeping knows no borders.
At the risk of sounding like we’re turning into our parents (hey, maybe we are), we kinda secretly pine for the magical time of year when cider’s everywhere, the air chills, and we make fun of people for leaf-peeping while simultaneously planning drives using fall-color maps.
For far too long, the conversation about where to find the best dense patches of chlorophyll-deprived trees has focused on New England. Yes, leaves look nice with covered bridges in the background. The humble people of Massachusetts have made sure to talk about it every other sentence for years. But trees are popping off across the rest of the country, too. Here are our favorite non-New England leaf-peeping spots for 2021.
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 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, higher elevations will turn 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 for it when you see it. It's worth a trip to this resort 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, North Carolina/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' 3,214ft Mount Utsayantha for a 360-degree fall foliage experience. If you're not so active, there's a chairlift at Hunter Mountain that'll give you a nice slow look at the changing colors.
When East Coast natives become West Coast transplants, they’ve just got to complain—about traffic. About perky people. And, most of all, about the lack of seasons. The first two will simply have to be dealt with, but for the lattermost, there’s Julian. 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 (plus the Julian Pie Company for a slice!) so that no autumnal stone goes unturned. (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 if you’re currently 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—but also affords a chance to see moose, bears, and elks doing their thing amid the turning leaves. Fall comes earlier ’round these parts, so aim to make 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 by 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 speeds through the canyon and between adorable small towns.
Minnesota’s North Shore
One of the most stunning stretches of road in America, Minnesota's North Shore is a dream in all seasons, spanning the shores of Lake Superior from 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. Possibly overnight. The beer scene here is one of America’s overlooked, especially when the fall offerings drop.
Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
If you need even more proof that the Midwest 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 at Orval Hansen on Redfish Lake—and during fall, the already-sparse crowds thin out even further as sunburst hues take over the trees that line the shores and stretch on for more than 2 million acres. Foliage road trip sound like the move? 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 those colors start popping off. For a greatest hits moment, hit 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 green of the pines. Head into Larrabee State Park for some great views, but don’t skip on 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 2.5 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 on high, and you'll be able to do it pretty safely: Only 90 cars are allowed in the lot at a time to keep you safe from that virus-who-will-not-be-named. If that’s still too crowded for you, take a little jaunt through nearby Anna Ruby Falls for some crisp fall air with a touch of mist.