FALL COLOR HOT SPOTS
To enjoy an eye-popping explosion of fall colors, all you have to do is be in the right place at the right time. But where and when is that? To help solve that mystery, we’ll reveal our favorite locations and divulge a few tricks we’ve learned over the years. Some locations on this list might be surprising, but they all offer visitors a brilliant experience.
Alabama: Bankhead National Forest
Holding the 26,000-acre Sipsey Wilderness within its borders, Bankhead is a great destination for camping any time of year, but fall is when it’s at its most beautiful. Prime time is the third week of October through the second or third week in November, and some of the best spots follow Highway 33 and roads near Sipsey.
One of the prime hiking routes and prettiest canyons is the Borden Creek trail. Clear Creek campground features 97 sites adjacent to Lake Lewis Smith. A dense mix of deciduous and conifer trees provide shade and privacy — not to mention excellent fall colors. In addition to all the regular campground amenities like flush toilets and hot showers, Clear Creek also includes basketball, volleyball and horseshoe courts. Swimming, boating, water skiing, hiking and bass fishing are popular activities.
Bankhead National Forest, Alabama: 205/489-5111; /fs.fed.us/r8/alabama/forests/bankhead.
Arizona: Coconino National Forest
In northern Arizona, the Coconino National Forest includes four districts: the Peaks District, Mormon Lake District, Red Rock District and Mogollon Rim District (with elevations as high as 8500 feet), encompassing such a broad range of topography that the autumn color season stretches across more than a month.
The volcanic slopes traditionally explode with golden aspen, red sumac and multi-colored maples beginning at the tail end of summer, things get really hot during the second week of October, but traces of red, orange and gold loiter in lower canyons into mid-November. Early in the season, the best spots are the scenic drives and trails on the San Francisco Peaks, as well as the Wupatki/Sunset Crater volcanoes and Ruins Scenic Loop Drive. Dozens of campgrounds offer abundant places to pitch a tent or park an RV.
Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Arizona: 928/527-3600; /fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/.
California: Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Five Wilderness Areas and enough wide-open National Forest to satisfy the most hardened outdoor junkie can all be found within northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Lakes and rivers abound, so naturally boating and fishing are high on the list of things to do. Hiking trails never end, and the fall scene is alive with color. Autumn in the Alps (Trinity Alps, that is) begins at the end of September, when cool weather accelerates the onset of blazing colors.
Forty-two campgrounds are sprinkled across the Shasta-Trinity, offering a diverse experience ranging from waterside (lake or river) to remote mountain settings with primitive accommodations. The region around Mt. Shasta offers eye-pleasing fall colors that tend to coincide with the spectacle of waterfowl migration that gives visitors a chance to observe many species of ducks, geese, swans and raptors. So, whether you want to enjoy the wildlife or the landscape, this is the right place to be.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest: 916/246-5222; /fs.fed.us/r5/shastatrinity/.
Colorado: San Juan National Forest
How would you like to spend a couple of nights camped out in a fire lookout tower? You can do that at the Jersey Jim tower, with the rental rate at $40 per night. Or how would you like to explore the ancient ruins of a culture that mysteriously vanished over 700 years ago? These are just a couple of the unique adventures that await campers who come to the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado. And if you time your arrival just right, you can witness the blazing glory of whole mountainsides full of aspen turning to gold.
Stream fishing for high country trout, hiking the wild ridges, or exploring one of the four Wilderness Areas that pepper the region can bring you close to nature and deliver a big dose of adventure. With 46 campgrounds to choose from, and an endless rugged landscape for your enjoyment, you can’t go wrong if you go looking for fall color in Colorado.
San Juan National Forest: 970/247-4874; /fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/.
Georgia: Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
From late March to mid December the Chattahoochee River Campground welcomes visitors to come and enjoy some of the best hiking and fishing the area has to offer, at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. October is the best time to see fall color along the western side of the Chattahooche. Campers have 34 campsites to choose from, and the Appalachian Trail is close at hand, as are Horse Trough Falls and the Mark Trail Wilderness Area. This is only one of 20 campgrounds in the national forest where you can enjoy the best of the Georgia outback.
While in the area, consider taking the popular Russell-Brasstown Waterfall Tour, an excursion that takes in 11 scenic stops, a couple of state parks, numerous historic sites, Gerogia’s highest mountain (Brasstown Bald), and no less than four waterfalls.
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests: 770/297-3000; /fs.fed.us/conf/.
Kentucky: Daniel Boone National Forest
Located along the Cumberland Plateau in the Appalachian foothills, this is rugged country cut by steep ridges and narrow ravines. The forest is populated with maples, poplars, hickories, dogwood, sumac and sourwood. Each displays its own gallery of colors as the fall season arrives. October is a great month for the show to begin.
One of the prime attractions is the Natural Arch Scenic Area on Highway 927 west of Parkers Lake. A popular camping area is Cave Run Lake, 60 miles east of Lexington, with 172 tent and RV sites within walking distance of the lake’s sandy beach. While there, climb the Tater Knob Fire Tower to get a panoramic view of the countryside.
Daniel Boone National Forest: 606/745-3100; /fs.fed.us/r8/boone/.
Maine: Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is an ideal place for fall color. Lakes and ponds provide numerous fishing opportunities from shore or from a canoe or kayak. For larger craft, Jordan Pond allows electric-powered and non-motorized boating. For shore-side activities, 45 miles of carriage roads can be used for walking, hiking and biking.
Blackwood campground is open year-round, with reservations required from June 15 through September 15. Located along the lower route of Park Loop Road, the site provides access to many sightseeing places, hiking trails and fishing waters on Mount Desert Island.
Acadia National Park: 207/288-3338; /nps.gov/acad/.
Michigan: Ottawa National Forest
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is spectacular any time of year, but Fall brings out every color imaginable as the hardwood forests put on their finest. A popular route that combines fall color and lake scenery is the Stagecoach Road and the East Shore Road on Lake Gogebic.
Twenty-two campgrounds serve the Ottawa National Forest, and most are located on rivers or lakes, offering swimming, canoeing and fishing opportunities as well as hiking and general sightseeing. All the campgrounds feature picnic tables, fire grates and toilet facilities. Most provide potable water and have accommodations for tents and RVs up to 22 feet in length.
Ottawa National Forest: 906/932-1330; /fs.fed.us/r9/ottawa/.
Minnesota: Chippewa National Forest
The Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway is the hot place to be. This rustic slice of Minnesota features more than 1000 lakes and is a favorite drive for enthusiasts of fall colors and fishing.
Many of the 21 campgrounds in the Chippewa are open from mid-May through the autumn season. A few campgrounds are open year-round, although they provide no water or off-season garbage removal.
You can enjoy a little bit of everything in this area — sandy beaches, equestrian trails, canoeing, paved bike trails, boat ramps, interpretive trails and endless forest. Fishing enthusiasts can try their luck for walleye, muskie, northern pike, bass, trout and a number of panfish. There’s something here for every member of the family.
Chippewa National Forest: 218/335-8600; /fs.fed.us/r9/forests/chippewa/.
Ohio: Wayne National Forest
Ohio’s Wayne National Forest is blessed with a diversity of trees ranging from the American elm to ash and beech trees, black, butternut, scarlet and hawthorn oaks, poplar and red maple trees, and on down the list to witch hazel. Every one of these trees offers up a different color and brilliance that sweeps the palate from pale yellow to dark purple to orange and scarlet.
The Covered Bridge Scenic Byway in the Marietta Unit has five campgrounds, but individual sites are limited. Hune Bridge is located 12 miles north of Marietta, just off State Route 26 across the historic Hune Covered Bridge. Three campsites lie below the bridge, and this is the jumping-off point for canoeing the Little Muskingum River or hitting the 5-mile trail that leads to Haught Run.
Wayne National Forest: 740/753-0101; /fs.fed.us/r9/wayne/.
Virginia: George Washington and Jefferson National Forests
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests provide fantastic fall woodland camping opportunities. Campgrounds are divided into several categories. Some provide modern comforts and include tables, grills, potable water, restrooms with flush toilets and showers, and full RV hookups. Traditional campgrounds have restrooms and drinking water, and some offer showers, but no RV hookups. Primitive campsites (no showers) are for pitching a tent under the stars and enjoying the luxury of a vault toilet.
No matter which of the dozens of campgrounds you decide to visit, the scenery is fantastic, and fall colors are brilliant in season. Trout fishing is available at some locations, hiking and mountain biking trails abound, and some campgrounds are on lakes where swimming and boating add to the excitement.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests: 540/265-5100; /fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/.
Washington: Gifford Pinchot National Forest
This is ancient volcano country, with lofty cone-shaped remnants of an explosive era from the past. In these mountains, crisp weather turns the verdant green forest into a blazing parade of color as the huckleberry bushes turn red and the mountain ash puts on an orange show. Orange and red vine maple struts alongside the bright yellow big leaf maple.
Our favorite spot is the Takhlakh Lake Campground that rests at an elevation of 4,146 feet on the shores of a photogenic lake that reflects the image of distant Mt. Adams. And bring your fishing rod. There are more than 20 species of fish in 1360 miles of streams and more than 100 lakes to be found in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest: 360/891-5000; /fs.fed.us/gpnf/.