Temperature, rainfall, elevation, and yes, fire, all influence the timing and location of fall foliage displays; check national park and state websites for peak color alerts and the best times to visit.
With the glowing golds of aspens and hickories, the burnt orange of sumac, and the vermilions and plums of oaks and maples, the turning of the leaves every autumn is one of nature’s most spectacular displays. Here is a guide to spots in the United States that offer particularly brilliant fall colors.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Spanning both sides of the continental divide, Rocky Mountain National Park glows with quaking aspens, their gold and copper canopies contrasting elegantly with their silvery trunks. Aspens thrive at elevations between 7,000 and 9,500 feet, so head to the lush valleys of Hollowell Park, Beaver Meadows, and Glacier Gorge, which are also home to pumpkin-orange cottonwoods. Nothing tops the hiking trail to Gem Lake, along which dense groves of aspen pop out against the red rock formations of Lumpy Ridge.
Fall is also rutting season for the park’s elk herds, which migrate down from the high peaks as the temperature drops; look for them along Bear Lake Road and in the Colorado River Valley on the west side. Don’t miss a photo op at Grand Lake, just outside the park boundary, with its deep green waters thickly haloed by fiery orange aspen.
Where to stay when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
The Taharaa Mountain Lodge, which is at the foot of Lily Mountain and just seven minutes away from the park by car.
Sequoia National Park
While the granite peaks and waterfalls of its northern neighbor Yosemite National Park may get all the press, the more dramatic fall colors can be found in Sequoia National Park. The area’s namesake evergreens don’t change color; instead, they provide contrast for the burnt orange and crimson blossoms that pop up on red dogwoods throughout most sections of the park.
Underneath the canopy of towering sequoias, fallen fern fronds blanket the forest floor with a bright lemon yellow. At lower elevations (in the park’s foothills), blue oaks turn garnet and amber as if to spite their name. In the southern Mineral King Valley—one of the park’s least crowded areas, and perhaps its best-kept secret—warm hues of aspen, cottonwood, and thimbleberry glow almost iridescent, framing the granitic basin of the glacial valley at 7,500 feet.
Where to stay when visiting Sequoia National Park
The long-standing Silver City Mountain Resort, which has 16 available cabins.
Early fall is a quieter, brilliant time to check out this laid-back mountain town, which has a colorful history as an outpost beloved by gold-miners, trappers, and homesteaders. (The Talkeetna Historical Society Museum is a good place to start.) For a closer look at a rambling old homestead, sign up for an ATV tour with Alaska Wilderness Adventurer; guide Dennis DeVore leads you five miles up the road to a homestead his family built in 1959. On a clear day, Denali—the tallest mountain in North America—is visible, but make sure to make time for the national park proper: By September, aspen and balsam poplar trees at the entrance are a brilliant yellow, and scrub vegetation (also known as the taiga) turns rust colored in cooler months, making for an impressive vista. For a look at fall colors from above, splurge on a stay at Sheldon Chalet, which is a 40-minute helicopter ride from Talkeetna—and where you can wake surrounded by the park itself.
Where to stay when visiting Talkeetna
The family-owned Denali Fireside Cabins & Suites is walkable to town.
Glacier National Park
Another national park with a variety of deciduous trees, Glacier National Park is awash with color for several weeks between mid-September and mid-October. The park is particularly famous for its western larch, a deciduous pine, which bursts into brilliant yellows before losing its needles.
To see the larches, drive Highway 2 on the southwest side of the park or hike any of the trails around Lake McDonald. Higher up, Montana’s mountainsides flame with the hues of a Tiffany lamp; see them from Ptarmigan Pass or the Going-to-the-Sun Road (which is less crowded during fall than it is in peak summer months). If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try seeing the leaves on a rafting trip down the Flathead River.
Where to stay when visiting Glacier National Park
The Swiss-styled lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge & Cabins, built 1913–14, occupies the scenic shore of the largest lake in Glacier National Park.
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Tahquamenon Falls State Park, on the Upper Peninsula, is best known for its Upper Falls: As one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi, it spans more than 200 feet and has a drop of over 50 feet. Downstream, you can find Lower Falls, which consists of five smaller waterfalls pooling around an island. Although hikers descend in summer to traverse the nearly 40 miles of trails, the park is resplendent in fall. Across its 46,000 acres, trees in practically all shades of yellow, orange, and red frame the dramatic vistas.
Where to stay when visiting Tahquamenon Falls State Park
The Magnuson Grand Hotel in the nearby town of Paradise has clean and comfortable rooms.
The crown jewel of Lake Superior’s North Shore, this 1,340-person town is the ultimate fall cornucopia—overflowing with delicious things to eat, see, and buy, and do. The lung-busting hike to Devil’s Kettle Falls at Judge C.R. Magney State Park will take you the better part of a morning, but the payoff is a mysterious “waterfall to nowhere.”
At Grand Portage State Park, just shy of the Canadian border, you’ll find the highest waterfall (70 feet) in Minnesota—only this one is far easier to reach. Another must: Make the 30-mile drive out to Poplar Haus, a rustic restaurant, lodge, and craft liquor store off the scenic Gunflint Trail, which winds through the colorful Lake Superior National Forest.
Where to stay when visiting Grand Marais
At the lakeside East Bay Suites, which is steps from the town center and—added bonus—dog friendly.
Acadia National Park
In autumn, the thickly forested peaks that slope down to the Atlantic in Acadia National Park are a colorful contrast to the blue sea. Some of the most photogenic views of the park’s craggy coastline can only be appreciated from a boat, but you won’t see its blueberry bushes turn lipstick red or the sumac flame scarlet unless you hike one of the park’s more than 100 trails.
The area’s best view is from the Blue Hill Overlook atop Cadillac Mountain—which at 1,529 feet is the tallest peak on the East Coast—and it’s worth the seven-mile round-trip hike for a look. Toward the base of the mountain (just off Park Loop Road), the 187-acre Jordan Pond provides a wash of color against two rounded hills known as the Bubbles, which offer a spectacular view of a multi-hued treeline in the backdrop. For a truly classic fall color experience, take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park and listen to the hooves clop over fallen leaves.
Where to stay when visiting Acadia National Park
The West Street Hotel, which opened on the Bar Harbor waterfront in 2012.
Visiting Lambertville (population: 3,797) is like getting two sweet towns in one, as it sits across the Delaware River from the equally charming New Hope, Pennsylvania (population: 2,527). To immerse yourself in nature, the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is five minutes from Lambertville on the Jersey side; here you can canoe, picnic, bicycle, hike, horseback ride, or fish for perch and pickerel.
On the New Hope side of the river, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is flush with colorful fall foliage. In October, the beech trees, black oaks, and maples turn yellow, red, and purple; come November, you can see wild senna, witch hazel, and juniper berries on Eastern red cedars.
Where to stay when visiting Lambertville
Lambertville House, which has 26 quaint guest rooms.
Leonard Harrison State Park
The 585-acre Leonard Harrison State Park sits smack on the east rim of Pine Creek Gorge, known as Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, which is 800 feet deep and nearly 4,000 feet across. Take the Turkey Trail Path one mile to the bottom of Pine Creek Gorge, which is especially stunning in fall when hardwood trees turn yellow, orange, red, and purple.
Where to stay when visiting Leonard Harrison State Park
Among the nearest lodging to the Pine Creek Gorge, Rough Cut Lodge offers a number of cabins and suites that are—despite the lodge’s name—clean and spacious.
Franconia Notch State Park
In the midst of White Mountain National Forest, along eight miles of I-93, are all the activities you could dream of, packed into one state park: Echo Lake at the northern end of the park; a two-mile, waterfall-dotted walk through Flume Gorge at the southern end; and a hike along the Appalachian Trail in between. Conveniently, the park is a short jaunt north off of the epic Kancamagus Highway, a scenic byway that curves 56 miles through dense foliage.
Where to stay when visiting Franconia Notch State Park
Lafayette Place Campground is the central camping site; if you prefer a freshly made bed, check into the charming Sugar Hill Inn.
Smugglers’ Notch State Park
One of four state parks located within Mount Mansfield State Forest, Smugglers’ Notch State Park is named for the narrow pass in the Green Mountains where Vermonters used to smuggle liquor from Canada during Prohibition. A mere 13 minutes by car from the town of Stowe—known as “Fall’s Color Capital”—the park is popular in all seasons, but comes most alive in fall, when the trees turn all shades of yellow, orange, and red.
Where to stay when visiting Smugglers’ Notch State Park
Bed down at the Trapp Family Lodge, which is still owned and operated by the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame.
Manchester, a 2,444-person town hugged by southern Vermont’s Taconic and Green mountains, shines most in fall. Sign up for a Vermont Fall Foliage Tour with Backroad Discovery: These three-hour guided tours run from the end of September through the end of October and include visits to an abandoned marble quarry, local farms and artist studios, a working alpaca plantation, and ye olde general stores, depending on where the leaves are looking their splashiest.
For DIY travelers cobbling together their own hamlet-hopping itinerary, be sure to build in stops at some famous covered bridges: The 117-foot Chiselville Bridge, spanning Roaring Branch brook in Sunderland, and the oft-painted, 166-year-old Bridge at the Green in West Arlington, are not to be missed.
Where to stay when visiting Manchester
The four-star Kimpton Taconic Hotel.
A small city in the Berkshires near the Vermont state line, North Adams is home to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), a 19th-century factory mill complex turned modern center for world-class art. But given the lush fall foliage, you will want to spend most of your time outdoors: Head to nearby Mount Greylock for hiking trails that lead to the highest point in Massachusetts. The summit, which you can also reach by car, features a 12,500-acre preserve, plus the 1930s Bascom Lodge for lunch, drinks, and even overnights.
The paved, 11.2-mile Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, meanwhile, follows the path of an old train line from Lanesborough to North Adams, providing views of the mountains, the Cheshire Reservoir, and the Hoosic River. There’s also the Cascades Trail, which makes for a fairly gentle walk close to picturesque downtown North Adams—with the payoff of a refreshing waterfall.
Where to stay when visiting North Adams
Check into Tourists, which was opened in 2018 by John Stirratt—the bassist with the Chicago alt rock group Wilco.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
With more than 100 species of trees, most of them deciduous, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has an impressive variety of fall color—and one of the longest fall foliage seasons as well. Yellow birches, beeches, and hobblebushes show flashes of color as early as mid-September in higher elevations—like those along the Sugarland Mountain and Appalachian Trails—and autumn wildflowers like coreopsis, goldenrods, asters, and black-eyed Susans add layers of other colors.
But the most spectacular show comes in October, with the deep plum and garnet hues of the hickories, sweet gums, and red and sugar maples. To get away from the crush of fall color fans at popular spots like Cades Cove, head east to drive the Roaring Fork nature loop and walk along little-visited Big Creek, or take in the sweeping panoramas from Balsam Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway on the park’s southeastern edge.
Where to stay when visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Blackberry Farm, which is on 4,200 secluded acres of hillocks, ponds, and gardens at the foot of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains.
Shenandoah National Park
For three days every October, Shenandoah National Park offers one of the more creative ways to celebrate the season: the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival (to be held virtually for 2020). Nature’s dazzling show starts earlier than that, however, in the high mountains around Swift Run Gap and Lewis Mountain; toward the end of September, Virginia creeper twines wine red and maples begin to flame throughout the area near Upper Pocosin in the national park.
The best—and most popular—driving route for leaf viewing is along the Skyline Drive Scenic Byway, which has no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks along its 105 miles. Bacon Hollow and Stony Man Overlook are among the best spots from which to take in the buttery yellow hickories, chili pepper–red oaks, and maples in every shade.
Where to stay when visiting Shenandoah National Park
The Oakhurst Inn, a companionable cluster of buildings from the 1920s located east of the end of the Skyline Scenic Drive Byway.
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