The Ultimate Leaf Peeper's Guide to Fall Foliage Hikes

The best way to take in the autumnal splendor? Go for a walk in the woods.

All across the United States, chlorophyll is starting to break down in green leaves, revealing vibrant pigments and transforming verdant summer scenery into a red, orange, and yellow harbinger of sweater weather. It’s fall foliage season, baby! And one of the best ways to peep those leaves is through hiking.

If you’re ready to take a gander, now’s the time to start planning your jaunt. You can see leaves change pretty much anywhere in the US, but getting the most out of a brilliant foliage-focused hike requires at least a little bit of knowledge and forethought. Whether you’re a seasoned trekker or simply want to see the annual autumn extravaganza while moving your body, a well-prepared hike promises a good time.

man looking at yellow leaves
True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

When to go foliage hiking

Peak fall foliage occurs at different times in different parts of the US, due to factors like latitude, elevation, climate, and tree species. In the northern states and higher elevations, mid-September to mid-October is prime time. Mid-latitude states, like those in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, typically peak in mid-October, while southern states and lower elevations shine in late October to early November. On the West Coast, you can spot some fall colors in October, mainly at higher elevations. Timing varies from year to year, and predictions—like those made by this interactive fall foliage forecast map—are based on past years, so checking local foliage reports is your best bet for the most accurate forecast.

No matter where or when you hike, remember that “peak foliage” is entirely subjective. Even partially turned and past-peak leaves can still dazzle with their dramatic colors. Late-season hikes may even reveal “snowliage,” an utterly unique combo of snow and fall foliage particular to high elevations.

Hiker in Grand Teton National Park in the fall

Where to go foliage hiking

If your goal is to view some foliage, you might consider heading to the highest hill with a lookout point. After all, a 360-degree panorama from a summit or ridgeline hike is hard to beat. But spectacular fall foliage can be seen at all heights. For shorter, more accessible hikes, walk along lakeshores, ponds, rivers, and coasts for views of vivid leaves mirrored in the water (double the autumnal delight).

In terms of geographic location, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire are classic leaf-peeping locales for a reason. New England’s wide range of elevations and microclimates makes it home to many deciduous trees, including maples, oaks, birches, beeches, and hickories. Each of these tree species has unique chemical compounds that contribute to their fall leaf colors.

To see the best fall colors in New England, consider hiking around Mount Mansfield in Vermont’s Green Mountains, or explore New Hampshire’s White Mountains via Franconia Ridge. In Massachusetts, you’ll find day hikes of all stripes in the scenic Berkshires region. You can also check out the Precipice Trail in Maine’s Acadia National Park for glorious views of the coast alongside a leafy color show.

Luckily, New England is hardly America’s only place to peep some leaves. New York is not exempt from autumn’s charms: Breakneck Ridge, accessible from NYC, begins with a short scramble that yields panoramic views of the Hudson River Valley followed by a meandering forest path. Virginia has the Priest Wilderness, a 5,900-plus-acre reserve, where about 5.4 miles of the Appalachian Trail cut through groves of yellow poplar, ash, chestnut oak, and scarlet oak. Observation Point Trail in Utah’s Zion National Park is an unexpected autumn treasure. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, try the Alum Cave Trail or Clingmans Dome for panoramic views from the observation tower. And though you won’t see a symphony of red and orange, almost any hike in Glacier, Grand Teton, or Rocky Mountain National Park proves that golden yellow aspen groves can carry their own show. The Midwest’s fall colors also really punch above their weight; just look at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for striking fall scenes in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, home to one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.

hiking boots on colorful leaves
flyzone/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Planning your hike

Fall foliage brings out even the most reluctant of hikers, which can interfere with finding a parking spot. If you can, you’ll want to attempt to avoid crowds; start your hike early in the morning, go on a weekday, and don’t wait for ideal weather conditions. A moody, foggy forest can be an ideal viewing scenario for that vibrant color palette—just save the ridgeline hikes for clear weather, as fog could obscure the view.

If an afternoon or weekend hike is your only option, no worries. Truncate your mileage so you don’t end up hiking in the dark and then revel in the shared humanity of hiking alongside like-minded vegetation voyeurs. Just make sure the trail is open (some parks adjust their hours to account for fewer daylight hours) and have a backup plan if your trailhead is so congested you can only circle the lot.

woman walking on trail in the autumn woods

But parking is only part of the foliage hiking journey. Ensuring you know your hiking route is a good safety measure at any time and is particularly important during the fall season, when fallen leaves can obscure paths and make navigation challenging. Pay attention to trail markers; following designated trails can prevent you from getting lost or stumbling off a cliff. Plus, staying on trails reduces the likelihood that you’ll harm delicate soil and plant life or disturb wildlife. Be sure to download your map or bring along an old-school paper one—AllTrails and other GPS apps are great tools, but useless if you lose cell service.

Fall weather can be unpredictable, and sunny mornings may turn into cold, rainy afternoons. Changing conditions demand that you dress in layers. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer made of polyester or merino wool. Add an insulating layer such as fleece for warmth. Top it off with a waterproof and breathable shell layer. Moisture-wicking underwear is your friend in both heat and rain.

If you’re in bear country, bring bear spray. Bring snacks, carry water, and make sure you actually partake in both throughout your hike. You’re less likely to notice your thirst and fatigue compared with warm weather hiking, so it’s important to keep on top of hydration. Also, be mindful that seemingly dry fallen leaves can trap moisture, increasing your risk of slipping and sliding.

And once you’re ready to hit the trail? Don’t forget to look up and enjoy the scenery—That’s really the whole point, after all.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Carrie Dennis is a contributor for Thrillist.