Fall Foliage Across America
School has started again, work’s in high gear, and that summer vacation is all but a distant memory. But before packing up your gear ’til next spring, think about taking one last family camping trip — the timing is actually ideal with less traffic on the roads, cooler temperatures and the beautiful change of colors the season provides.
And, to fight the popular misconception that the only real leaf peeping for fall foliage can take place in New England, we’ve provided you with journey tips starting in the West and ending in the East on places you can go within just a few hours’ drive of major U.S. cities to catch stunning once-a-year glimpses of autumn leaf colors.
Seeking the New England leaf-peeking experience in the West? Start with the Cascade Mountains, which run through British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. This range is particularly beautiful in autumn. Because snow falls on the mountain tops by late October, the Pacific Northwest has an early season that starts in late September.
According to Carol White, co-author of “Live Your Road Trip Dream,” “The towering peaks of Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and more form an awe-inspiring backdrop to the deciduous trees changing color as they play hide-and-seek between the evergreen firs and hemlock. Tumbling creeks, crashing waterfalls and great hiking add to any fall trip to the Northwest.”
Located just 88 miles north of Seattle, the Bellingham-Mount Baker region is another desirable locale for the outdoorsy family, with lots of beautiful colors to see around the Chuckanut Mountains, Galbraith Mountain, Lummi Island and Birch Bay. The area offers a range of trails and paddling in its many waterways. Tent and RV-camping options can be found in close-by Larabee State Park, Birch Bay State Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
At the highest elevations in the Sierra Nevada, you can see fall colors in Northern California before the season officially starts. According to John Poimiroo, California travel expert and californiafallcolor.com blogger, “Sabrina Campground is one of the earliest to show in September, although campers can enjoy being surrounded by spectacular color through mid-November in Yosemite Valley.”
Poimiroo advises that it’s best to plan your trip by elevation and time of month as well as looking back at the previous year for a good indication of what to expect this year. “The largest splashes of spectacular color are in the Eastern Sierra, although beautiful color can be found in Plumas County and along the North Coast,” he says.
Being just three to four hours from Sacramento or San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is a popular choice for late-autumn displays of rose-colored dogwoods, orange black oaks and yellow big leaf maple.
Los Angeles/San Diego
In a diverse place like Southern California, where on the same winter day there are people bike riding at the beach in shorts while others ski at higher elevations, you’re sure to find the same variety when it comes to fall colors. There’s no shortage of golden yellow splashes in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, northeast of San Diego, where the main fall color tree is black oak. In the Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area (San Bernardino County), you’ll find a vista of the same black oaks nestled in pines.
Palomar Mountain State Park in San Diego County also features a nice autumn vista of bracken fern in the meadows turning a rich golden brown against the dark green of adjacent forests.
For a truly hidden gem of characteristically fall activities, like the picking of more than 13 different types of apples, travel to the camp and hiking grounds of Tehachapi Valley, which is situated between the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert and only two and a half hours north of Los Angeles.
Another quick weekend getaway that can make you feel like you’ve traveled farther outside L.A. than you really have is Lake Arrowhead. Ninety minutes east of downtown L.A., Lake Arrowhead sits a mile high in the San Bernardino National Forest with color that arrives in late September and lasts through early November.
Leaf peepers residing in Phoenix and throughout Arizona usually flock to Flagstaff to catch the season’s abundance of red, orange and yellow leaves. The Flagstaff area (two-hour, 20-minute drive from Phoenix), which has a number of RV and tent campgrounds and hiking trails, offers a rich variety of foliage from such trees as maple, ash, aspen, oak, sumac, chokecherries, currants and box elder.
Thirty miles south of Flagstaff, Sedona also offers several must-see scenic fall color locations for the state. Oak Creek Canyon is popular for visitors who enjoy fishing, swimming, hiking and camping. While every bend in Oak Creek Canyon has its own niche of plants and wildlife, the Canyon walls create a deep narrow side canyon that develops into isolated areas of Douglas fir, bigtooth maple, Gambel oak and Arizona walnut. It is these side canyons that have the fall season colors of red, gold, orange, pink and yellow. Inside Oak Creek Canyon, you can also visit Slide Rock State Park (originally the Pendley Homestead), which is a 43-acre historic apple farm located inside Oak Creek Canyon.
Regardless of where you spy fall colors so close to the Rocky Mountains, chances are the vibrant yellow, red and oranges you see come from aspen tree leaves. Changes in aspen colors typically start in the last two weeks of September and continue into early October.
One aspen color viewing point that’s fun for an outdoor group can be found at Breckenridge, which is 90 miles west of Denver. This Victorian town is surrounded by hundreds of miles of hiking trails and the White River National Forest (home to multiple campgrounds, including Peak One, Windy Point and the Tiger Run RV Resort). Steamboat Springs (three hours northwest of Denver) is another popular place in Colorado to see the aspen leaves change. There is camping throughout the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and the Flat Tops Wilderness Area for backcountry hikers, as well as RV camping near the Yampa River.
Estes Park, Colorado (about one hour northwest of Denver), also has convenient options for outdoorsy travelers seeking fall colors. Especially of interest to campers starting this year is Hermit Park, located in Estes Valley. The site, which was previously a privately owned corporate retreat, encompasses 1,362 acres and includes hiking trails, cabins, RV and tent campgrounds, wetlands, a group campground and spots for special events.
The town of Estes Park also holds an annual Elk Fest the first weekend of October, celebrating Wapiti, the American elk that call Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park its home.
Chicagoans may suffer through some pretty numbing winter temperatures, but they’re also treated by Mother Nature to a spectacle of autumn colors and fun viewing locations — all reachable within about two hours. Ninety miles away in Utica, Illinois, leaf peepers can enjoy the fall colors at Starved Rock State Park’s overlooks along the Illinois River. The park offers camping, horseback riding and fishing.
Another popular resort area that caters to campers is Lake Geneva, located between Chicago and Milwaukee. The Lake Geneva area is rich in nature preserves, hiking paths and bicycle trails, including the 21-mile Geneva Lake Shore Path (where in addition to wilderness and fall colors you can also literally pass through the backyards of multimillion dollar estates). An hour east of the city, you can also find fall colors among sand dunes at the Indiana Dunes State Park.
Regardless of whether you call Houston, Dallas or any other city in Texas home, you only have to drive a few hours from anywhere in the state to find true fall colors. One of the best-known locations to “find autumn” is Lost Maples State Natural Area (located in Vanderpool), which offers a number of outdoor adventures and a foliage report from October through November to keep leaf peepers informed.
In East Texas, state parks in the Pineywoods and post oak belt — including Daingerfield, Martin Creek, Lake Bob Sandlin and Martin Dies Jr. state parks — also show off displays of reds, oranges and golds in maples, various oaks, sweetgums and elms.
In the Panhandle, the cottonwoods can put on a nice yellow to golden show in Palo Duro Canyon as well as in Caprock Canyon State Park and Trailway. Caddo Lake State Park (Karnack, Texas) also delivers a late-autumn scene that’s worth seeing, where the trees turn a rust color and provide a unique contrast to the Spanish moss and swamp setting.
Changing colored leaves can’t hide in the South’s largest city. Whether taking an in-town “vacay” to catch some fall colors or traveling a few hours in any direction, residents have more than their fair share of scenic spots from which to choose. Driving in-state, all within two hours of Atlanta in various directions, Callaway Gardens, Cloudland Canyon State Park, and Tallulah Falls are scenic destinations for fall foliage that also cater to the hiking, camping and overall outdoor enthusiast. Staying closer to home, Atlantans can also find similarly scenic arrays of color at the Lake Lanier Islands and Stone Mountain Park.
And, for anyone in the Deep South who hasn’t yet discovered the secret that is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — it is a must-visit during the fall, given the park’s awe-inspiring colors. Located less than a four hours’ drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, or Atlanta, the park attributes its fall colors to its diversity of more than 100 species of native trees, the vast majority being deciduous.
Just one state over, the fall colors in Alabama’s northern mountains begin in mid-October and then sweep across the region — peaking from early to mid-November. Alabama-bound leaf peepers will find yellow poplars, scarlet dogwoods, orange maples and golden hickories. One place to find them that’s worth the drive is located right off of Interstate 20 west from Atlanta: Cheaha State Park. Surrounded by the Talladega National Forest, this foothill of the Appalachian Mountains holds the reputation of being the highest point in Alabama.
One of the most notable destinations on the East Coast and within a short driving distance of Washington, D.C., is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. And, as Tim Loftus, Program Manager for REI Adventures advises, it may actually be best to wait until autumn to make the trip.
“Camping in that area in the summer can be less comfortable with the hot temperatures and humidity. The fall offers much more of a mild climate as well as beautiful colors and foliage throughout the park,” said Loftus.
Visitor travel to any of the national parks, including Shenandoah, is also less in the fall. Loftus cautions that although the roads leading to the area may be heavily trafficked with drive-by leaf peepers, it’s still worth the trip once you’re off the highway, as you’ll find many of the campgrounds and trails less populated.
Several notable areas in Maryland that offer a balance between fall colors and great hiking and camping include the Greater Cumberland region, where you can find Cunningham Falls State Park and Catoctin Mountain Park; Douthat State Park situated at the top of the Chesapeake Bay; and Westmoreland State Park, which offers not only great fall colors but also unique cliffs that edge the Potomac River.
Given that some New York workers commute from distances as far south as the greater Philadelphia area, there are many fall leaf-peeping locales that are just a convenient few hours’ drive whether you leave from either city.
On the Pennsylvania side, the area in and around State College, Pennsylvania, home to Penn State University, is a favorite for leaf peepers (four hours from New York, three hours from Philadelphia), where you can take a hike for breathtaking views on Mount Nittany or mountain bike in Rothrock State Forest to see leaves up close. Within 20 to 30 minutes of Philadelphia, areas such as West Chester offer the beauty of fall colors and outdoor activities with charmed historical tours like its Brandywine Valley Covered Bridge Trail.
Another place located in the vicinity of New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., that has beautiful fall foliage is Hershey, Pennsylvania. Known as being “the Sweetest Place on Earth” and the birthplace of the Hershey chocolate bar, leaf peepers can stay overnight in the Hershey Highmeadow Campground’s facilities for RVs, tents and cabins.
Robert Reid, Lonely Planet guidebooks’ U.S. travel editor, also recommends the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which he says is “closer to New York than New England and is often overlooked.” Located on the tristate border of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and 80 miles from Manhattan, it has 70 miles of tree-lined trails full of fall color, complete with river views, quartzite and 18th-century homesteads to check out.
And, whether you’re bounding for fall colors in an RV or looking to hike, another amazing area for the seasonal spectacle near Manhattan is the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York. In this area, Doreen Orion, author of the humorous RV-travel memoir “Queen of the Road,” shares that fall colors vie with gorges and lakes. Of the many campgrounds that dot the Finger Lakes region, Orion parked her RV at Spruce Row Campground & RV Park in Ithaca.
For many native New Englanders, a unique way to experience the famed fall splendor that’s in your own backyard is to plan a trip as if you were going on an expedition to discover one of the national parks out west or even an international trip. To truly experience the gems only a local would know, you may want to hire a guide.
REI Adventures offers one such option with a guided Appalachian hut-to-hut hiking trip that takes leaf peepers who also want to experience the outdoors through the dramatic peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The program explores famed sections of the Appalachian Trail as the fall colors unfold. Within the same general area, New Hampshire also offers Mount Washington Valley, located in the shadow of the Northeast’s largest peak, Mount Washington.
Visitors can discover not only the leaves changing color, but also 26 classic New England towns and villages. North Conway, one of the better known towns, has more than 10 campgrounds within a 25-mile radius.
Doreen Orion also comments that other places not very far from Boston to “peep leaves” in a memorable way are Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island, where there are campgrounds right on the ocean and “the park itself is awash in fall colors.” Adventurers who are willing to go two to three hours farther north will also find amazingly stunning colors at Moosehead Lake.
So as you can see, no matter where you live, you’re not really very far from a fall color adventure.