Leaf Peeper Highways: Routes for Colorful Autumn Adventure
North America’s countless forests are dazzling with autumn’s brilliant color. Somewhere near you, the quickly passing show is within driving range for a road trip that is never to be forgotten.
Plan your fall adventure now to see the leaves at their best.
As a last fling before winter, trees paint themselves with splashes of luminous gold, red, bronze and orange that startle the eye. Fall road trips to see this stunning beauty are popular on the more famous routes where you can expect crowded highways, especially on weekends.
The journeys suggested here are some roads where you and your family can relax and enjoy the lovely scenes out your windows.
When are the best times to go view autumn’s colorful displays?
No two autumn seasons are alike and the onset of the brightest colors can only be generally predicted. The amount of cold, rain, length of night, richness of soil and species of tree affect when the leaves turn and how brilliant the colors are.
Check with your local US Forest Service office or state agriculture department for their best estimate of when to plan your road trip.
Fall Color Unveiled
What makes the leaf colors of the fall season so vivid?
When cold weather approaches, a tree’s nutrients need to be conserved in the roots for winter’s long sleep, making the branches drain away spring’s greens. As trees and bushes toughen up to survive winter, the more tender leaves are shut off, starved and fall away.
Autumn color is the result of this slow draining and decline. Poorer soils mean less nutrients are retained and result in more brilliant colors. The carpet of fallen leaves on the forest floor actually enriches the soil for the renewal of life in the new year.
Walks, hikes and bike trails abound along all these selected routes. Former railroad tracks along rivers and canal tow paths have been turned into level trails appropriate for any age or ability, bringing the added charm of multicolored leaves reflected in and floating on the waters.
For more side trips, accommodations and activities ideas for your trip, check public sites before setting out. State and National Park websites have plenty of fall color viewing recommendations and helpful staff are a phone call away.
Fall also is harvest season: Roadside farms, wineries, breweries and farmers markets are bursting with farm to table goods. Drink up some hot cider and treat yourself to a fresh-baked apple pie.
Bring your camera and prepare to “ooh and “ahh” all along these unparalleled highways to autumnal adventures.
• Upper Delaware Scenic Byway
This road winds along the Delaware River in southern New York, and has access points to cross the Pennsylvania border. Piercing the Adirondack Mountains and covering over 70 miles along State Route 97, this trip is a great choice for an afternoon adventure or can be extended for several days.
Canoeing, rafting and hiking trails along the river can deepen your experience with exciting activities. The upperdelawarescenicbyway.org website has resources for Natural Attractions, Side Trips, Arts, Recreations, Shops & Services, Dine & Stay and Museums.
• US Highway 40 Scenic
The name says it all: this short highway in Maryland is the only US Highway with the word “scenic” attached to it.
The lush and vibrant landscape deserves the title in every season, but especially in fall. Running east and west along the old “National Turnpike” from colonial days, the road travels through US history and is packed with autumn scenery. Get off I-68 at Fifteen-Mile Creek Road and travel though Green Ridge State Forest where the hardwood stands make a rainbow of fiery colors.
The “scenic” portion of Hwy 40 ends near Hancock and the highway blends into Interstate 70.
• Connecticut State Route 169
This route is designated a National Scenic Byway where flaming reds, golds and yellows burst around verdant farmland, hills and valleys. It runs from the bottom of Massachusetts south down to Norwich, Connecticut and follows another historic turnpike road from colonial times.
Plenty of places to stop and sights to see on this glorious highway.
• Essex Coastal Scenic Byway
When hoards are flocking to the coast of Maine, this quiet Massachusetts 90-mile seacoast route brings tranquility and history as well as autumn beauty.
Linking 14 coastal towns in the federally designated Essex Heritage Area, these communities have pride in their colonial architecture and history as whaling and seafaring ports. Dense forests and riotous fall color add to a great trip through America’s history and colonial past.
• Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway
Running 43 miles from Tellico Plains, Tenn. to Robbinsville, N.C., this canyon-winding and ridge-topping road became one of the most expensive highways to construct in both State’s history.
The Skyway traverses the Cherokee and the Nantahala National Forests with stunning overlooks and remarkable distance views. There are plenty of places to stay: accommodations from tree houses to mountain resort lodges are available to reserve as well as camping sites.
Roadside taverns and eateries feature choices all the way from fine dining to barbecue to tempt your appetite.
• Roan Mountain State Park
This route sits in east Tennessee and offers a beautiful alternative to crowded Smoky Mountain parks. Roan Mountain State Park includes the highest mountain in the state, 360-degree views of gorgeous colors sweeping across deep valleys.
The Appalachian Trail intersects the park and there are many side trips and hiking trails for every ability level.
• Lake of the Ozarks Loop, Missouri
All the areas around this lake are richly colored in fall. With plenty of things to do, side trips to explore, waterways to boat in and trails to walk, this loop drive offers delightful pastimes for travelers of any age.
Starting in the town of Versailles, begin your drive around the lake by driving south on Highway 5. Turn southwest on Highway 54 to the deep canyons and cliffs of Ha Ha Tonka State Park, where miles of trails and riverways create autumn enjoyment.
Travel west to the town of Preston and turn north on Interstate 65, where you can check out the shores of the Osage River and enjoy the Harry S. Truman State Park.
A right turn on Missouri Highway 52 travels back toward Versailles.
• Kettle-Moraine Scenic Drive, Wisconsin
This route through Wisconsin offers a meandering trip through six counties and a wealth of intense colors. The 115-mile drive winds around the Kettle-Moraine National Forest.
The area is named for the “kettles” or depressions left at the end of the prehistoric continental glacial moraine. The beautiful ponds and valleys are lined with thick, glowingly colored forests all brightly dressed for the season.
Green and white “Acorn Signs” guide you on the route and travel past historically preserved stagecoach stops and a working, water-powered mill. Bring the picnic basket and strike out on the hundreds of miles of trails to explore the unique geological kettles for yourself.
• San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway
Intense gold is the color of autumn in the aspens groves on this incredible road trip. In any season, this is one of the most intensely beautiful highways in the world.
As an “All-America Highway,” a designation reserved for especially lovely roads within the National Scenic Byways, this road has it all. A 235-mile loop with peaks over 14,000 feet, plunging canyons and cliffs, twists and turns through high mountain passes, lush meadows and rushing whitewater rivers in the canyons.
Here, you may catch glimpses of Rocky Mountain sheep and mountain goats. The whole landscape shouts with blinding colors in the pre-winter months. Since winter comes early in the high Rocky Mountains, be sure to plan carefully and check out weather conditions.
• Wasatch Mountains, Utah (Nebo Loop Byway)
Considered a photographer’s canvas, the Nebo Loop Byway comes alive in autumn. Stunning fall foliage offers a feast for the eyes.
The Nepo Loop Byway travels through the Uinta National Forest between Nephi and Payson, and crests over a pass near 11,925-foot Mount Nebo. Fantastic views of the Utah Valley and Wasatch Mountain peaks and canyons are framed with plumes of scathing yellow aspens and red maples.
Hikes using the paved, accessible trail to Devils Kitchen Geologic Area and a more challenging trek on the Payson Lakes trail offer popular walks off the Byway.
• Talimena National Scenic Byway
Traveling 54 miles through eastern Oklahoma’s Ouchita National Forest to Arkansas, this highway passes rolling wooded hills, western grassland valleys and canyons through historic western towns from America’s past.
While relishing the fall colors, imagine herds of bison roaming and keep watch for groups of deer and antelope.
• A Lone Star State drive through the “pineywoods”
Travel north from Austin or Dallas/Fort Worth to three state parks strung like a necklace along an easy back roads route:
- Cooper Lake State Park features trails around the lake, water sports and fishing within the shore of bright forest in fall.
- Lake Bob Sandlin State Park has lush woodlands punctuated with brilliant stands of red, gold, yellow and green trees mirrored on the glassy lake.
- Dangerfield State Park provides camping among thick, blazingly colored groves and waters.
• Panhandle Autumn Color Drive
West of San Antonio point your vehicle along Route 16 to the Medina River near Bandera. Admire the lazy waters, lovely fall foliage and tranquility.
Head over on State Route 337 towards Lost Maples State Natural Area in Vanderpool, where you may think you have landed in New England. Camp here, or go onto Garner State Park to enjoy canoeing, kayaking and fishing round out the trip of bountiful fiery colors.
Accommodations and dining are available in towns along this drive.
• Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway
Located near Elko, Nev., is a 12-mile drive through a stunning slot canyon sometimes referred to as “Nevada’s Yosemite.”
Aspens, maples and oaks turn wildly vibrant colors, framed by the stark Ruby Mountains, also known as the “alps of Nevada.” Deep side canyons stem off, bottomed with rushing creeks where campsites dot the meadows.
At the summit of the canyon, ridge trails branch out so visitors can explore the skyway. The summit offers expansive views of rolling cattle ranches and rows of mountain ranges framing the Great Basin country of Nevada.
Highways skirt both sides of the Ruby Mountains to roam on side trips.
• Santiam Scenic Byway
Fabulous autumn colors border the MacKenzie River Highway, where Oregon Highway 242 forms part of the loop route for this National Scenic Byway.
The circular route in central Oregon is open from June through November–a worthwhile adventure with vivid autumn coloring worth visiting before winter. The roadway along the river features an historic covered bridge, whitewater boating, and a Wild and Scenic River Overlook.
This is a land of contrasts: lush forests follow stark lava fields, snow-topped volcanic mountains and deep green valleys. The setting makes for memorable sunsets.
• Trinity River Scenic Byway
Located near Redding and Whiskeytown in the far north of California, this National Scenic Byway skirts south of the volcanoes of the southern Cascade Range, such as nearby Mount Shasta.
The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area hosts some of California’s most beautiful fall color displays. Head west from Redding on Highway 299 over Buckhorn Summit, where the Trinity River valley unfolds suddenly for an amazing overlook.
Autumn foliage framing the river is truly stunning. At the historic gold-rush town of Weaverville, trekkers can follow the highway out to the Pacific Ocean through the Trinity Alps or retrace the route back to Interstate 5.