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9 Incredible Leaf-Peeping Trips That *Aren’t* in New England

Check out these autumn foliage hotspots across the United States.

A road winds through the autumnal trees during fall
Hi, I'm Jen!

Vermont travel writer Jen Rose Smith covers adventure, remote places, and traditional cuisine from a home base in the Green Mountains. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, American Way, Nexos, Condé Nast Traveler, Backpacker, AFAR, Rolling Stone, USA Today, and Outside Online.

Paintbox-bright leaves in red, orange, and yellow put New England on any leaf-peeper’s life list, but autumn foliage goes far beyond the northeastern US. Whether you’re strolling Colorado’s gilded aspen groves or road-tripping the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can watch the season kick off in nearly every corner of the country. These fall color destinations in the US offer travelers a front-row seat for some of nature’s most spectacular displays.

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

A gorgeous fall landscape at the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Enjoy mountainous views in Rocky Mountain National Park.Photo Credit: Hale Kell / Shutterstock

Colorado

Aspen groves turn golden starting in late August amid the summits of Rocky Mountain National Park, whose spectacular Trail Ridge Road goes all the way to 12,183 feet (3,713 meters) above sea level. The scenic spot is North America’s highest continuous paved route, and driving it can mean sightings of bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and more. Fall is also when elks gather for mating season, with males bugling and flashing massive antlers to attract prospective partners; you can watch the spectacle from mid-September to mid-October.

2. The Poconos

A fall scene in The Poconos.
The Poconos is a great spot for leaf-peeping.Photo Credit: MH Anderson Photography / Shutterstock

Pennsylvania

Red and orange leaves illuminate the gently rolling Pocono Mountains, starting in mid-September and building to an October peak. Since the mountains are two hours from both Philadelphia and New York City, you could road-trip the scenic Route 507 on a day-long visit. Or, stick around for fall activities such as scenic flights, hay rides, haunted houses, and harvest festivals. Year-round thrills include hopping in a stock car for a ride at Pocono Raceway.

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Viator
Fall in the Smokies is unrivalled.Photo Credit: ZakZeinert / Shutterstock

North Carolina and Tennessee

The Smokies is America’s most visited national park for a reason—notably: verdant spruce-fir forests, roaring waterfalls, historic Southern Appalachian homesteads, and year-round wildflower blooms. While the park is stunning no matter the season, fall has its own kind of allure, when viewpoints over the misty mountain range look out towards fiery-hued forests and even better sunsets. Start at the Newfound Gap's 5,046-foot-high (1,538-meter-high) peak, the highest point in the park accessible by car, then make your way down into the foliage.

Related: 8 Places You Must Visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway​​

4. Skyline Drive

A scenic road at on Skyline Drive.
Take a scenic cruise on Skyline Drive.Photo Credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Virginia

The 105-mile (169-kilometer) Skyline Drive follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park, passing hiking trails and 75 scenic overlooks. From mid-September through mid-October, falling leaves cover the ground in a thick blanket of gold, red, and orange that mirror an equally brilliant forest canopy. The park is just 75 miles (121 kilometers) from Washington DC, and it’s justifiably popular in the gorgeous autumn months. Crowds thin out on hiking trails, where fall favorites include the kid-friendly, almost 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) walk to Little Stone Man Overlook and the more challenging, 6.5-mile (10.5-kilometer) Jewell Hollow Overlook trail to Mary’s Rock.

5. Ozark National Forest

A visitor lays on a hammock at Ozark National Forest.
Ozark National Forest is especially beautiful in fall.Photo Credit: ksnyd_10 / Shutterstock

Arkansas

Just over an hour from Little Rock, Arkansas—and around 2.5 hours from the entertainment hub of Branson, Missouri—this 1.2-million-acre (485,622-hectare) national forest sees autumn displays in brilliant yellow and red. Whether you’re driving the Scenic 7 Byway, hiking, or off-roading, you’ll see changing leaves hit their peak from late October to early November. Beyond the national forest, visitors and locals flock to pumpkin patches, festivals, local wineries, and demolition derbies.

6. Lake Geneva

The sunset at Lake Geneva.
The sunsets on Lake Geneva draw in crowds.Photo Credit: Nemanja Tosic / Shutterstock

Wisconsin

While the lakeside resort of Lake Geneva (not that one) is popular among summering crowds, autumn brings multi-colored displays in mid-to-late October. Scenic drives abound, but there’s also the 26-mile (42-kilometer) Lake Geneva Shore Path hugging the waterfront; canopy tours and pumpkin drops; and a historic ferry that takes visitors on narrated trips across the water. Visiting is a breeze, as Lake Geneva is under two hours from Chicago, Illinois, and less than an hour from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

7. Columbia River Gorge

Visitors enjoy the view of a waterfall at Columbia River Gorge.
Columbia River Gorge is home to more than 50 waterfalls.Photo Credit: Bill Perry / Shutterstock

Oregon

More than 50 waterfalls tumble into the scenic Columbia River Gorge, backdropping autumnal displays in warm yellow and orange. Hiking tours are an active way to take in the displays, with trailheads accessible in under half an hour from the vibrant city of Portland. Alternatives include sailing trips on the river itself, and scenic flights that offer aerial views of the dramatic natural display. Fall foliage peaks in late September, but the show extends well into October.

8. Taos

Tennessee River Gorge, Tenneessee
Consider river rafting in Taos.Photo Credit: Piotr Kalinowski Photos / Shutterstock

New Mexico

Located between two national forests—Carson National Forest and Santa Fe National Forest—the historic artist colony of Taos is the perfect starting point for exploring New Mexico's fall foliage. Aspen trees turn golden from mid-September through mid-October, and road-trippers can maximize their views by taking the 83-mile (134-kilometer) Enchanted Circle scenic byway linking Taos with Questa, Angel Fire, and Eagle Nest. Peak leaf viewing also coincides with the Taos Fall Arts Festival, when the town’s many art galleries are at their creative best.

9. Catskill Mountains

A tent view of the trees in the Catskill Mountains.
The Catskill Mountains are known for camping, hiking, and biking.Photo Credit: mervas / Shutterstock

New York

Whether you’re taking a leisurely drive or tackling a combination zipline and waterfall hike, the Catskills are ideal for autumn exploring. Fall foliage hits its colorful peak between mid-September and early October, with favorite trailheads accessible in under three hours from New York City. Of course, the 52-mile (84-kilometer) Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway is a must, but opportunities to stretch your legs abound. Easy-going foliage hikes include Windham Path, the Catskills Visitor Center Loop Trail, and the 11.5-mile (18.5-kilometer) Ashokan Rail Trail. Nearby farms are another highlight: try apple picking at Wightman Fruit Farm, fresh pumpkins from Greenane Farms, and Hull-O Farms’ corn maze.

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