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The Best Leaf-Peeping Road Trips by Region

leaf peeping road trip
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Fall is calling… and that means it’s time to go chasing its glorious color. Fall foliage season in the United States spans September to early November, depending on where you are, and the colors range from maple-red to aspen-yellow. We’ve compiled some of the best road trips by region for passionate leaf-peepers.

One note: The timing of peak fall color can vary dramatically from year to year. Before planning your trip, check this foliage predictor map. And don’t forget to buy travel insurance! It’s a must for your autumn road trip. A solid plan can protect you in case of trip cancellations or interruptions, travel delays, covered medical emergencies, rental car damage, and more.

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The Best Fall Foliage Road Trips in the Northeast

Early-bird leaf peepers should make a beeline for northern Maine, where the best show begins in late September. Begin your fall road trip in the town of Sherman, and take scenic Route 11 north. Pause in Patten to take some photos of Mount Katahdin, the breathtaking terminus of the Appalachian Trail. (The Patten Lumbermen’s Museum is also worth a stop.)

Once you hit the Canadian border, it’s time to head back. Drive southeast to reach Aroostook State Park, Maine’s first state park. Hike up Quaggy Jo Mountain (derived from the Native American name "Qua Qua Jo" or  "twin peaked”) and take in the red-and-gold patchwork of the landscape.1  Round out your autumn road trip with the aptly named Million Dollar View Scenic Outlook in Weston, a section of Route 1 that offers a panorama of rolling hills, mountains and the Chiputneticook Lakes.2

In Vermont, a volunteer Leaf Squad sends in photos from around the state so you can see where the maples and beeches are changing. One of these Leaf Squad reporters is Darren Drevik, owner of the Phineas Swann Inn and Spa in Montgomery — which is a perfect starting point for this leaf-peeping road trip. It’s romantic, it’s accessible, and dogs are welcomed warmly. Montgomery has six covered bridges for photographers to swoon over, and it rests at the base of the Green Mountains. “In the Green Mountains, you can find a lot of forested hillsides sporting colorful foliage, mixed with farms, pastoral fields, and a few big peaks,” nature and conservation photographer Jerry Monkman tells the Explora blog.

From Montgomery, take Route 100 south. This winding road is known as one of the best fall foliage drives in New England, and offers not only beautiful scenery but farm stands, art galleries, the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, and the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in the town of Waterbury.

The Best Fall Foliage Road Trips in the Southeast

If you’re looking for some excitement in your leaf-peeping trip, take the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway from Virginia south to Cherokee, North Carolina. Sharp turns, dizzying ascents and dramatic overlooks mark this mountain drive, not to mention the occasional family of deer or black bears wandering by. Fall foliage typically peaks in mid- to late October, but varies depending on elevation. Check the National Park Service’s site before you go, so you’re aware of any road closures.

Photo opportunities abound on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Some of the best known are Mabry Mill, a wooden gristmill built in the early 1900s; Rough Ridge, a steep trail that ends with a “Lion King” stone outcropping; and Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi (don’t worry, you can drive most of the way to the top).

Alabama’s “Circle of Colors” Trail offers a chance to see lovely leaves late in the autumn, from late October into early November. It starts at Oak Mountain State Park, south of Birmingham, where you’ll find scenic overlooks, pretty lakes and even a petting zoo. Head north to reach Horse Pens 40, a privately owned park in the Appalachian foothills known for its ancient rock formations. The trail then heads west to Oneonta and covered bridge country (did you know Alabama has several covered bridges?), then takes you to waterfalls, canyons and a natural bridge. Get turn-by-turn directions here.

The Best Fall Foliage Road Trips in the West

Colorado is famed for its aspens, which turn to glowing gold each September. (Fun fact: a clonal colony of aspen in Utah called Pando is one of the world’s oldest known living things, as it’s believed to have been growing for several thousand years.) The challenge with planning a fall road trip to see the aspen is that the color only lasts about a week. “The best strategy is select travel dates in advance, but not destinations,” advises the Colorado Tourism Office. “Then go wherever the color is.”

One recommendation is the Flat Tops Trail, an 82-mile drive through river valleys and mountain passes that takes you to Trappers Lake, the place where in 1919 the modern wilderness-preservation movement was born. In southwest Colorado, take 62 west from the town of Ridgway to see the Sneffels Range and its attendant aspens, then head for Lizard Head Pass through the San Juan Mountains.3

How can you resist a drive called the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway? This fall foliage drive in New Mexico isn’t long — just 83 miles — but it invites drivers to dawdle and explore. Visit from mid-September to October for peak viewing of red oaks and golden aspens and cottonwoods.

Beginning in Taos, the drive circles New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak and passes the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, where the famed author lived for two years. Stop off at the Red River Fish Hatchery and say hi to the trout. You’ll also pass many art galleries and studios in the towns you pass and in Taos Canyon.

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