A leafy drive in Nashville, hikes in the Appalachian wilderness, a spin on a scenic Colorado byway: There are many ways to savor autumn while being mindful of pandemic travel precautions. Below are six fall outings, in Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, Tennessee and Colorado, replete with apple cider doughnuts, a highway ghost and sightings of otters, beavers and wild turkeys.
Nashville: Percy Warner Park and Radnor Lake
Fall in Nashville is the most vibrant season, and there is no better way for an immersion in the season’s rich reds, corals and ochers than a drive along the canopied blacktop through Percy Warner Park, just 9 miles south of downtown. Tag on a hike around another Nashville gem, Radnor Lake, and you have the makings of a dazzling day trip, all within the confines of the city limits, and a perfect outing during the pandemic. Both parks abide by the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance on social distancing, and numerous trails in both parks make it easy to avoid crowds.
Percy Warner Park and Edwin Warner Park — on the National Register of Historic Places — span 3,131 acres of wooded hills, open meadows and streams. The adjoining parks, which opened in 1927, offer hiking trails, mountain bike paths and bridle paths. However, a slow-rolling, scenic drive through the mature deciduous forest during peak fall is nothing short of stunning: The sun strobes through the trees above drivers, who share the roadway with hikers, cyclists and dog walkers. Once inside the park, the tulip poplars, dogwoods, black cherry, sassafras and pawpaw trees are breathtaking. Given the park’s designation as a nature sanctuary, it’s not unusual to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, Eastern chipmunks and coyotes.
The road — a roughly 4-mile loop — can be found at the Old Hickory Boulevard entrance. You’ll pass the tall wooden lookout that oversees the grounds (and beyond) of the annual Iroquois Steeplechase, which was canceled this year because of the pandemic, and along the route are scenic overlooks.
You can also enter Percy Warner via Belle Meade Boulevard. This is the main entrance with a ceremonial-style arch and dramatic limestone steps reminiscent of a European allée that was designed by landscape architect Bryant Fleming, who also designed the early 20th-century Cheek Mansion at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens.
From the Belle Meade Boulevard entrance, you can find trails like the Warner Woods trail, a 2 1/2-mile unpaved walking path that traverses the interior of Percy Warner, as well as a 5.8-mile stretch of paved pedestrian trail.
Next, set your GPS to Radnor Lake State Park off Otter Creek Road, another of the city’s natural jewels, about 7 miles east. Because Radnor Lake does not allow food, it may be wise to first swing by a Nashville standard, Mere Bulles, just off Old Hickory Boulevard, for their famous crab bisque, available to go (call first). You won’t regret it (or forget it).
The sublime glassy Radnor Lake pulls in photographers from around mid-Tennessee who often arrive early enough to shoot the morning brume that rises from the lake. Here, too, you can glimpse plenty of wildlife: deer, turtles, turkey, eagles, owls, waterfowl and coyotes; ranger-led programs throughout the year include canoe floats, night hikes and wildflower walks.
All the trails are blazingly colorful during autumn, often heightened on cloudless days by an azure sky.
One trail — Otter Creek Road Trail — is an accessible milelong stroll that hugs the curves of the lake and is paved for those in wheelchairs. Black gum, American beech and other deciduous trees line the trail, offering some respite from the sun. Still, hikers are close enough to the water to catch glimpses of lake inhabitants like beavers, minks and otters. For more experienced hikers, Radnor Lake’s strenuous Ganier Ridge Trail delivers a gorgeous view of downtown Nashville.
— Colleen Creamer
Six drives and hikes to try this fall
Massachusetts: The Berkshires
Fall is far and away my favorite time in the Berkshires.
This autumn, the region offers opportunities to alternate new trails with old favorites. But first, a few planning tips. I recommend the BNRC Berkshire Trails app from the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. You could spend a wonderful week wandering Berkshire County’s backroads, using this app to guide you from one secluded wonder to the next.
Note, too, that many leading cultural venues — including the Clark Art Institute, Hancock Shaker Village and The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former home — are not only open but are surrounded by paths and gentle trails on which it’s easy to socially distance, and to sidestep that tough Berkshires call: culture or nature?
Most important, check Massachusetts’s strict quarantine rules before you leave home. Oh, and dress brightly — it’s hunting season. And watch out for bears.
Start your day at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, my hometown, where Jess Lamb (who previously practiced her craft at Joe Coffee on E. 13th St. in Manhattan) and her colleagues create the county’s richest-tasting lattes with beans from Barrington Coffee and milk from High Lawn Farm, both in nearby Lee. Then drive west to Pittsfield State Forest (free).
Around 30 miles of trails lace this roughly 11,000-acre realm, which once formed part of Mohican and Mohawk hunting grounds. Later, the Shakers settled here. Their graves, former settlements and dancing sites can still be found among the stands of sugar maple, oak, birch and white pine.
First-time visitors should head to Berry Pond. At around 2,150 feet, it’s the state’s highest natural body of water. My mother and I often came here to pick blueberries, so imagine my surprise when I learned that it was named for William Berry, a Revolutionary War hero.
A network of steepish trails or a scenic one-way loop road, built by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, can take you up (the road is curvy and narrow; pedestrians, cyclists and motorists should keep a close eye out for one another). Enjoy the spectacular westerly overlook, then head downhill to the pond for a view of the season’s colors, pleasingly doubled by the water’s mirror.
The world’s most mouthwatering cider doughnuts still come from Bartlett’s Orchard in Richmond. So busy was their farm shop this summer that they’ve instituted weekend online ordering and curbside pickup for the fall; you can still pick apples in the orchards behind the shop. From here, drive or cycle to Parsons Marsh, a BNRC property in Lenox that opened in 2018. A trail and boardwalk (free; one-third of a mile each way; wheelchair accessible) wind through a woodland worthy of Tolkien’s Galadriel, and wetlands even now bursting with life. Along the marsh’s edge you’ll find haunting examples of the still-standing dead trees known as snags — fine lookouts for raptors — and your own tranquil views (see the beaver lodge?) from the deck at the boardwalk’s end.
Then head to Bousquet Mountain, site of my first childhood ski lessons on Drifter, a gentle slope that’s now also the start of the three-season Mahanna Cobble Trail (free; 1.4 miles each way; elevation gain, around 750 feet). Mahanna Cobble opened in June. It’s the newest stretch of the BNRC’s High Road initiative, a long-term plan, inspired in part by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain, to use both old and recently cut trails to reconnect Berkshire landscapes and communities.
— Mark Vanhoenacker
Ohio: Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Any road that gets you close to the Cuyahoga River is worth traveling, particularly in mid to late October, when the leaves erupt in a breathtakingly beautiful display. Snaking its way along a roughly 80-mile U-shape path before emptying into Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga plays an outsize role in the story of Northeast Ohio; it was vital to Cleveland’s industrial growth before the many fires along its waters made it infamous, helping to prompt the passage of the Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. These days, after half a century of cleanup efforts, it is held up as an ecological success story.
But the river itself is often overshadowed — particularly in the fall — by its tangential allures: the 87-mile-long Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, whose light, crushed-stone surface is brightly mottled with autumnal leaves; the waterfalls (around 100 in total) and rock gorges that pop with the warm colors; the Old World farms and markets, such as Heritage Farms and Szalay’s, where people flock for pumpkins, apple butter, roasted sweet corn and, yes, the annual fall corn maze.
The valley’s unexpected grandeur is nowhere more evident than in and around Peninsula, a postcard-esque (and postage-stamp-size) village that is, in many ways, the heart of the 33,000-acre national park. From the small train depot, board the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (there’s even a Fall Flyer train) for a memorable view of the foliage.
Roving the area by car (or on bicycle) will lead you past dozens of worthwhile trails. A personal favorite — the completion of which has become a familial Christmas Day tradition — is a hike that links the Haskell Run and Ledges loops and includes some of the valley’s most distinctive features. Beginning near the Happy Days Lodge, built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the trail wanders beside a 19th-century cemetery, over gentle streams (via footbridge crossings), near bat caves, and past the dramatic Sharon Conglomerate rock faces of the Ritchie Ledges, formed from the sand and quartz deposited by ancient streams — all while immersing you in the richest of fall colors.
— Stephen Hiltner
West Virginia: Spruce Knob
While many traditional foliage tours are done from packed trains and buses that follow well-worn railways and roads, fall tourism this year demands a novel approach. And with travelers forced to chart their own course, some of the best places to take in the autumn colors are those that cannot be reached at all on the standard guided excursions.
One of the most rewarding options for those living in and around Appalachia is to forgo the winding roads at lower elevations and peer down at the landscape from atop Spruce Knob, the tallest peak in both West Virginia and the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Nestled within a 100,000-acre section of the surrounding 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, Spruce Knob rises above an all-but-unspoiled tract of forest extending out in all directions.
The drive to the peak requires resolve and care. From a base point near Judy Gap, West Virginia, a serpentine drive up Route 33 narrows to a 9-mile stretch of old forestry road, with several blind curves and switchbacks, barely wide enough to pass traffic coming down, and with no guardrails protecting against steep drops down the mountain slope. The path is not treated to remove ice or snow.
At the top, however, visitors are rewarded with a wealth of options for taking in the scenery. About 1,000 feet from the parking lot is a two-story observation tower that provides an even higher vantage from which to survey the surrounding area. And the easy, half-mile Whispering Spruce Trail leads visitors along a gravel path that circles the tower for panoramic views across both sides of the ridge.
For another option, partway up the route to Spruce Knob, the road divides, allowing drivers to pull off by an overlook far enough down to avoid clouds and haze, but high enough to provide a striking view.
The drive through miles of national forest and up to the mountaintop is a passageway to a genuinely remote part of the East, and the Spruce Knob area offers visitors a menu of possibilities for savoring the auburn colors of fall. And in a celebration of continuity in an otherwise unfamiliar year, Monongahela, officially designated on April 28, 1920, is commemorating its centennial.
— Zach Montague
Maine: Grafton Notch
A fall excursion to Grafton Notch from Portland, Maine, includes not just colorful swaths of foliage but a Shaker community, a ghost and a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The area’s glacial gorges, waterfalls and caves add further intrigue to the predominantly beech, birch and maple forest. Not to mention, a fall drive and hike support both sanity and social distancing.
Before heading out, check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website for its COVID-19 recommendations, which include carrying a mask and practicing social distancing when passing people on the trail. Maine visitors should check Keep Maine Healthy for the latest COVID-19 testing and quarantine guidelines.
The nearly two-hour trip from Portland begins with 10 miles of surprisingly vibrant leaf peeping on Maine’s primary artery, I-95 North. At Gray, Route 26 North heads inland to New Gloucester where it passes the last active Shaker community in the country, founded on Sabbathday Lake in the late 1700s. Though closed to the public for 2020, the historic buildings and farmlands of Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village can be easily viewed from the car.
Next comes the township of Poland, namesake of the Poland Spring bottled water company and home to the Poland Spring Resort. It is also the territory of a ghost called the Route 26 Hitchhiker, which is said to manifest as a young lady wearing a fancy dress. It’s rumored she died in a roadside accident on her wedding or prom night, and while she may ask for a ride, she’ll likely disappear from the car before reaching the destination.
Past the Oxford Casino and views of distant mountains, Route 26 parallels the Little Androscoggin River through Paris to Snow Falls, a popular pull-off for the waterfalls and picnic area. In Woodstock, the Mollyockett Motel is named for a Native American Algonquin princess who is the source of many legends. The mountain views and foliage increase around Greenwood, birthplace of L.L. Bean’s founder, Leon Leonwood Bean, and home to the Mount Abram Ski Area & Bike Park, popular in fall for the lift-accessed mountain bike trails.
Food and lodging can be had in Bethel, founded in the fertile Androscoggin River Valley in 1796, and at the Sunday River ski resort in nearby Newry. Continuing through Bethel on Route 26 North, The Good Food Store and Smokin’ Good BBQ (try the smoked beef brisket or pulled pork/chicken on a bun) is a popular stop. From there, expect excellent foliage on the last stretch to Bear River Road and the 12 miles of the Grafton Notch Scenic Byway leading to the Appalachian Trail parking lot. On the way, Mother Walker and Screw Auger falls are worth a visit, and Grafton Notch Campground on the Bear River is a great option for overnight camping.
The Appalachian Trail parking lot in Grafton Notch State Park connects a number of hikes, including one of the toughest sections of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail: the Old Speck summit, elevation 4,180 feet, which can be reached on a 3.8-mile hike.
— Melissa Coleman
Denver: Guanella Pass, Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway and more
One day trip to a stunning, high-alpine cirque allows you to bear witness to a whole spectacle, from aspens to tundra. It begins with a drive west on Route 285 and a turn north at Grant onto Route 62. About 5.5 miles up the 11-mile road to Guanella Pass is the Abyss Lake Trail. This challenging 7.5-mile, 3,000-foot hike passes through numerous stands of aspen, and, for the first few miles, the trail is wide enough for social distancing. Then it climbs more steeply up along a creek leading to the treeless and Lilliputian plant landscape of the 12,650-foot-high Abyss Lake. Look for moose and pronghorn antelope along the way.
If you’d rather stay in the comfort of your car, continue driving on the Guanella Pass Road through the aspen forest. The gravel road climbs to 11,700 feet, with views of Mounts Bierstadt and Evans above a sea of flamboyantly tinted fall willows. At the bottom of the pass road, alongside I-70, is the old mining locale of Georgetown, with an old-time railroad offering daily rides through the aspen forest. Plan for the round-trip drive from Denver to take about four hours.
For a shorter tour, drive roughly 30 miles south out of Denver on Route 85, which takes you directly to the Waterton Canyon parking area, where it intersects with the end of Colorado Highway 121. This moderate 6-mile hike on a dirt road, alongside the South Platte River, swirling with fishing holes, is also ideal for bicycling and horseback riding. The popular trail — known for up-close big horn sheep viewing — has plenty of toilets and is rimmed with huge cottonwood trees that blush as ripe as lemons in the fall.
But the state’s oldest road trip, with brilliant foliage and Continental Divide viewing, is the four-hour, 149-mile Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway from Estes Park through the Gold Rush mining country to Black Hawk. One stop could be Nederland’s antediluvian Goldminer Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Or, near the town of Ward, a 5.5-mile hike loops around the well-traveled Brainard Lake — but don’t forget you’ll be hiking above 10,000 feet.
— Jon Waterman