Fall Foliage Trip Planning: The Complete Guide

••• Anand Goteti / Getty Images

The annual display of colorful fall foliage clogs scenic byways this time of year as onlookers travel for "leaf peeping" getaways. As the trees put on a memorable show for us, behind the scenes, it's due to the slowing of chlorophyll production. That's what's going on, you see: an un-greening of leaves that unveils the true colors that have been masked throughout the summer. As underlying pigments pop, lighting up the landscape, mountainsides and roadsides truly do warrant gawking.

And yet, it's not just the season's radiance that spurs travelers to road trip or even to fly great distances for a fall foliage getaway. Nor is it pumpkin spice everything! It's the crisp cleanness in the air that makes this one of the healthiest times of year for hiking, biking, and other outdoor pursuits; the sounds, scents, and tastes of this season of harvest; and the childhood memories fall invokes. When you visit a destination known for its fall foliage, you're also revisiting the part of yourself that knows days must be seized before cold weather snatches the fun away.

Here's our complete guide to planning the perfect autumn trip, to spot gorgeous colors across the country, and enjoy the season and crisp temperatures it offers before winter sets in.

Saranac Lake, NY, Fall Foliage
Denis Tangney Jr / Getty Images

Top Destinations for Fall Foliage

So, where will you go for a colorful escape? The U.S. has some truly standout fall foliage spots.

New England: No region of the country is more legendary for its fall colors than New England, and with six history-loaded states in compact proximity, the options for sightseeing and leaf-spotting are nearly limitless. Dense stands of deciduous trees that turn bright all at the same time make New England's hillsides fiery backdrops for days spent picking pumpkins and nibbling on cider doughnuts. Around every corner, there's something pretty to photograph, whether it's a white church, a covered bridge, or a gazeboed town green straight out of "Gilmore Girls."

New York State: New England's neighbor is no slouch when it comes to fall colors. Once you're out of NYC, it's tough to choose where to head for fall splendor: the Catskill Mountains or the Adirondacks, the Hudson River Valley or the Genesee River Valley, or the Finger Lakes region, where you can leaf-peep and sip wine. Travelers who spend time on Lake Champlain's New York and Vermont sides really maximize their opportunities to see awe-inspiring scenery.

Upper Midwest: It's not surprising that the Upper Midwest was attractive to westbound settlers from New England in the first half of the 19th century. The regions share climatic similarities, and fall is the most wondrous of four distinct seasons. Northern Michiganders, in particular, will tell you their foliage rivals anything New England has to offer. Michigan's Upper Peninsula, with its nearly 9 million acres of forested land, wows leaf peepers with its vibrant leaves and water features.

Blue Ridge Parkway: If the idea of one magnificent fall foliage drive excites you, you can't beat the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Plan on spending two days or more admiring the autumnal scenery from every angle as you follow this dramatic road, which snakes along the spine of the Blue Ridge: part of the Appalachian chain.

Colorado: Known for its stands of aspen trees, with their white-powder trunks and leaves that turn a shocking shade of yellow in the fall, Colorado promises leaf lovers five weeks of color starting in the north and progressing south as October days shorten. In a state known for dramatic mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and more hiking trails than you could ever explore, the arrival of fall adds an overlay of vibrancy that is simply stunning.

Fall Aspens in Telluride, Colorado
stphillips / Getty Images

When To Go

Timing is everything if you want to see leaves at their peak, so choose the dates you will travel thoughtfully. Keep in mind, though, that it is impossible to predict the exact progression of the season. As a rule, fall colors arrive earliest in higher elevations and the farther north you travel. In New England, for example, Connecticut and Rhode Island can still be green while the northern parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are already dazzling road-trippers. The earliest you'll see strong color anywhere in the U.S. is mid- to late September. The latest is the first week or two of November. 

Best Ways to See Foliage

Driving trips offer the most flexibility when it comes to navigating the autumn landscape. You can drive up mountains, steer along country roads, and check foliage reports to see where the scenery is at its best. A motorcoach trip can also be a good option if you prefer to sit back and admire the view. Don't overlook more unusual ways to leaf peep, such as aboard a cruise ship, historic sailing vessel, or tour boat. The contrast of blue water and orange, red, and yellow trees makes for striking photographs. For active travelers, this is a spectacular time of year for paddling, biking, and hiking trips. Fall's also a perfect time to fly high above the leaves on a zipline, aboard a ski-area skyride, or in a helicopter or hot air balloon.

What to Bring

Fall weather can be fickle, so pack clothing you can layer: T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters or fleece pullovers, a vest, a jacket. The later in the season you travel, the more likely you are to need a warmer outer layer and gloves. Keep in mind that while days can be sunny and warm, it's cold nighttime temperatures that rev up the fall color show.

You'll also want to bring along:

Helpful Tips for Fall Foliage Trips

  • Invest in a printed road map of your destination, not only because GPS service isn't always reliable in remote locations but because it will take you back to a time when finding your own way was half the fun.
  • Don't overestimate the number of miles you can cover in a day. With roadside attractions and fall vistas beckoning you to pull over—plus added traffic along popular routes—you might not make the time you expected.
  • Have snacks and drinks with you at all times. The best foliage routes aren't populated with fast-food joints.
  • Make hotel reservations far in advance for the busiest travel weekends in popular foliage spots, such as Columbus Day weekend in New England.
  • Make your trip about the myriad of fall sights and experiences—not just viewing leaves—and you won't be disappointed if Mother Nature doesn't quite cooperate.
Was this page helpful?