The characteristic cooling of temperatures come October means the beginning of the highly anticipated leaf-peeping season. Families will embark on road trips in just about every part of the country—from the Catskill Mountains in New York to the Sierra Nevadas in California, from the Colorado Rockies to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and beyond. Fall foliage makes for the perfect excuse to go for a scenic drive, and there are a few routes that are especially epic for kids.
If you were to drive straight through without stopping, it would take you two hours to drive the full 50 miles of the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana. But, of course, you'll want to pull over periodically to marvel at the wildlife as this area is home to mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bears. Searching for animals near Logan Pass—the highest point of the park, at 6,646 feet—is like an epic game of I Spy. You'll want to go in September, after the busy summer season and before the weather takes a downward turn. Fill up on fuel and road trip snacks at Montana Coffee Traders in the charming little town of Whitefish before starting the journey through brilliant groves of aspens, western larch trees, and vibrant mountain shrubs. There are no gas stations along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
West Elk Loop Scenic & Historic Byway, Colorado
Every autumn in the Colorado Rockies, America’s most spectacular aspen grove delivers a stunning display of gold, orange, and crimson against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Prime leaf peeping takes place between mid-September and early October, and with the number of national parks and recreation areas along the route, kids shouldn't get too bored of the backseat. The season provides ample opportunity for outdoor activities and fall festivals in the Gunnison-Crested Butte Valley.
From Gunnison, the 204-mile drive heads north on Highway 135 to Crested Butte, continues on the gravel Kebler Pass Road (County Road 12), and links with Highway 133 near Paonia Dam. Complete the loop back around to Gunnison by going south on Highway 133 and east on Highway 92 toward Blue Mesa Lake and the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. At Highway 50, go east back to Gunnison through Curecanti National Recreation Area or west to the main entrance of the national park and Montrose.
Golden Road, Maine
For a famous fall foliage route in rugged Maine, try this 20-mile logging road near Baxter State Park. At the western end of Golden Road, the Penobscot River drops more than 75 feet per mile through Ripogenus Gorge, a haven for white-water rafters (who time their rides to the scheduled releases from Ripogenous Dam). A much-photographed view of Baxter’s Mt. Katahdin can be found from Abol Bridge footbridge. The best time to go is between mid-September and mid-October.
About a two-hour drive away, the Moosehead Lake Region also delivers a spectacular drive under gorgeous tree canopies and along unpaved logging roads with peek-a-boo views of water. Consider stopping at The Forks, a white-water-rafting hub, and at the Attean Overlook for an incredible view of the Moose River Valley that stretches all the way to the Canadian border.
You can complete the 154-mile drive from Duluth to Grand Portage in a single day, but it's best to allow time for a detour or a family hike. Tracing the shore of Lake Superior along Highway 61 and Old Highway 61, North Shore Scenic Drive can be especially vibrant between the Caribou and Sawbill trails around Lutsen, where there are many sugar maples, and around Grand Marais to the north. For the kids, there's the Lake Superior Maritime Museum, Brighton Beach, and the Two Harbors Lighthouse to entertain. Mid-September to mid-October is when the leaves are most colorful.
Gold Coast, Michigan
Michigan's scenic Gold Coast is beautiful any time of year, but autumn is a particularly magical time. Brilliant fall color abounds and Traverse City (the region's main hub) is quick to show off why it's nicknamed the Cherry Capital (in a word: pie). It becomes the perfect base from which to visit vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula. A drive along the Gold Coast in late September to mid-October provides views of Lake Michigan's northeastern shores, old-timey fishing villages, and, of course, a colorful display of maples and oaks.
Route 112 in New Hampshire—better known as "the ‘Kanc"—is a 35-mile scenic byway that becomes one of the country's premier foliage viewing routes during fall. It leads road trippers through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest and, through two of the state's famous notches (known as gaps or passes in other parts of the country), to its highest point, at almost 3,000 feet. Go between late September and mid-October for the best autumnal scenery.
West of the darling town of Woodstock, make a pit stop at Kinsman Notch and picturesque Beaver Pond, a great spot for picnickers and photographers wishing to capture the reflections of fall foliage on the water.
Inyo National Forest, California
The West Coast is not without a smattering of fall foliage, either. Stretching from the eastern side of Yosemite National Park to south of Sequoia National Park, the Inyo National Forest covers 1.9 million acres of land and encompasses nine wilderness areas in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and White Mountains, including the John Muir Wilderness and Ansel Adams Wilderness. Late September to mid-October is arguably the most picturesque time to visit, when the area's rugged canyons, high peaks, and sprawling valleys are rich with color from the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods turning bright orange, gold, and red. It takes just over two hours to drive from Yosemite—where kids may want to stop and marvel at Half Dome and El Capitan—to Mammoth Lakes or June Lake, two popular resort communities.
Route 7, Vermont
Vermont is justifiably famous for its spectacular foliage season, but the southern part of the state often gets overlooked as a foliage hub—never mind that Route 7 cuts a gorgeous path through the charming town of Manchester, through the rolling farmland of the Green Mountains, putting their fiery-hued peaks on full display from late September to mid-October. At various points, the ribbon of road offers a sightline across several ridgelines dotted with vibrant maples and chalky birch, punctuated by a picturesque red barn.
A kid-friendly pit stop awaits at Hildene, in Manchester. This Georgian Revival mansion is the former home of Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. It housed only Lincoln descendants until 1975.
Route 30, New York
New York's Adirondack Mountains make up a vast expanse of forested wilderness renowned for its beautiful foliage season, running from late September to mid-October. The I-87 (known locally as the Northway) is the fastest way to cut through the region but the views are better off the beaten path on Route 30, a scenic byway that runs from Gloversville (30 miles west of Saratoga Springs) up to Rock Bay Island. Expect to lose your cell phone signal in places, but to be, in turn, treated to a feast of fall color and glimpses of the Pillsbury Mountain Fire Tower and Snowy Mountain Fire Tower. Continue north to Saranac Lake, then east to Lake Placid.
Glade Top Trail, Missouri
Missouri's only National Scenic Byway, the 23-mile Glade Top Trail skips along narrow ridge tops above rolling hills in the Mark Twain National Forest. In autumn, this drive is a kaleidoscope of brilliant oranges, pinks, and scarlets, thanks to the abundance of American smoke trees, an autumnal favorite in the Ozarks. Children and wildlife lovers may spy white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobwhite quail, roadrunners, and—if they're lucky—a collared lizard. Prime leaf peeping time is between late September and mid-October.
The Cascade Loop is one of the most well-known (and arguably the best) road trips in Washington, encompassing Puget Sound, the Cascade Range, and the Columbia River. Along its 440 miles, you'll encounter glacially sculpted summits, impossibly blue lakes, rippling mountain streams, a German-style village, apple orchards, and an Old West mining town. In October, big-leaf maples create a riot of golden yellow, deep red, and orange.
Plan your trip around Leavenworth's Oktoberfest if you're looking for some authentic Bavarian action. It's the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany, and it's perfectly kid-friendly, too.
The century-old Mohawk Trail—included in National Geographic's top 50 scenic routes in America—is a winding road that traces an ancient Native American route in the Berkshires. It'll lead you over hill and dale, past pastures and red barns, alongside lakes, and through charming towns with white-steeple churches and village greens. Make the drive up Mount Greylock, the highest point in the Berkshires, in October for a stunning view of the surrounding area and the Mohawk Trail below.
A quintessential taste of New England within driving distance of New York City, this route is set ablaze by autumnal shades a little earlier—typically in the final weeks of September. Any drive through Connecticut's Litchfield County will, in fact, lead you meandering along rolling, tree-lined roads that cross covered bridges and such, but try the Litchfield Hills Ramble, a 100-mile loop from Torrington to Winsted, Canaan, Kent, through New Preston, then back toward Torrington on the back roads. Along the way, you can stretch your legs with a family hike around Lake Waramaug or up Mount Tom.
Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona
Later in the season, from mid-October to early November, State Route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon—between Flagstaff and Sedona—erupts into shades of crimson and amber. The West Fork Trail is the closest thing Arizona has to a New England display of foliage. Nearby in Slide Rock State Park, Oak Creek Canyon explodes with color and you can visit the park’s apple orchard, which was planted in 1912 and is still cared for by park rangers.
Built as part of the New Deal to create jobs during the Great Depression, the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway links the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks and crosses the Appalachian highlands between North Carolina and Virginia. With a top speed of 45 miles per hour, the parkway’s lazy pace lets you soak in the gorgeous scenery, at its prime from mid-October to early November. Stop by the Blue Ridge Music Center (milepost 213) to learn about the region's rich bluegrass history—you may even catch a live show.