Crisp air, panoramic views, brilliantly colored ash and poplar trees: The exhilarating route to North Carolina's Mount Mitchell State Park—the highest peak in the Eastern United States—is a destination in itself. The scenic 78-year-old Blue Ridge Parkway is just one of the country’s great autumn drives.
The fall foliage season, when the changing palette of deciduous trees is in blazing bloom, is now starting. And the way to maximize your intake of color is to map out a driving route. In September, October, and—in some spots—even November, color seekers can visit 31 states and drive more than 3,000 miles of national scenic byways, plus thousands of other scenic roads.
Some nature lovers, like former Shenandoah National Park guide Hazel Mills, can’t wait to buckle up and get up close and personal with the purple dogwoods and deep burgundy leaves of the Virginia creepers. “It’s like a basketful of fall chrysanthemums in every color,” she says. “Red and yellow, purple, and deep burgundy. When the afternoon sun hits the hickory, it looks exactly like gold, absolutely breathtaking.”
Others, like Mike Boutin, owner of Maine-based Northwoods Outfitters, like to take country drives surrounded by mountains bursting with yellow beeches, scarlet maples, and purple witch hazel around Moosehead Lake. He also loves one of the season’s biggest local adventures—back-road moose safaris. “It doesn’t get better than pulling over to see a huge brown male moose crash through a riot of bright red and yellow leaves,” says Boutin.
Certain areas of the country—the Northeast corridor, the Southeast, along the Appalachian Mountains, and much of the Midwest—produce the most striking and vibrant colors because of mild autumn days and cool (but not freezing) evenings. If daytime temperatures are too warm for an extended period of time, colors are less intense.
If you’re planning a fall foliage trip, choose your route based not only on the timing of nature’s fiery color display, but also around available activities. Horseback ride through the orange hickory trees in Shenandoah National Park. Or stand beneath a quivering golden aspen at Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra while peering through a dusty window in Bodie, the best-preserved ghost town in California.
But no matter where you are, the way to cover the most ground—and take in the biggest eyeful of color—is behind the wheel. Here are some of our favorite fall color drives.
Michigan's Gold Coast
Starting Point: Traverse City
The Route: 100 miles.
What to Expect: Lake Michigan’s northeastern shores have charming coves, towering sand dunes, and tiny fishing towns. Drive along Grand Traverse Bay, where, in the fall, fiery-hued maple and oak leaves stand out against green pine, fir, and spruce trees.
Where to Stop: The lakeside villages of Peshawbestown, Omena, and Northport; Inspiration Point, for views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands; the 19th-century Grand Traverse Lighthouse; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Don’t Miss: Visit Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farm, in Northport, to pick apples from among 250 heirloom varieties.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia & North Carolina
Starting Point: Roanoke, Virginia
The Route: 500 miles.
Where to Stop: North Carolina’s artsy city of Asheville; scenic Price Lake; mountain towns such as Blowing Rock, Floyd, and Galax, home to the Blue Ridge Music Center, which showcases the area’s bluegrass tradition.
Stay: The eight-room Black Walnut Bed & Breakfast Inn (Asheville) was created by the architect behind the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore Estate.
Starting Point: Portland
The Route: 450 miles.
What to Expect: The upper reaches of U.S. Route 1 are filled with seaside mansions, striking foliage, and lighthouses set on craggy peninsulas.
Where to Stop: Cape Elizabeth, for lobster rolls at the Lobster Shack at Two Lights; Acadia National Park’s five-and-a-half mile Sargent Mountain Loop hiking trail; off-the-beaten-path coastal towns such as Stonington and Bath; Kennebunkport, for its historic feel and low-key clam shacks.
Stay: The light-filled Inn at English Meadows, in Kennebunk, is an ideal base.
Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Starting Point: Seattle
The Route: 350 miles.
What to Expect: The northern coast of this still-wild, 5,000-square-mile peninsula is inhabited by elk, cranes and sea otters.
Where to Stop: Olympic National Park’s scenic Hurricane Ridge, for some of the best views of the park’s eponymous snowcapped peaks; Lake Crescent, for a hike to the 90-foot Marymere Falls; Cape Flattery, known for its Sitka spruces and misty coves.
Don’t Miss: On the way back to Seattle, the historic seaport of Port Townsend is lined with Victorian houses and has a thriving boat-building industry.
The Route: 197 miles.
From Bentonville, head east to the funky town of Eureka Springs, full of gingerbread houses and art galleries. U.S. Highway 62 and State Highway 21 then lead past spectacular hardwood forests on the way to the town of Jasper. En route, you’ll find hand-thrown pottery at Osage Clayworks, and have the chance to float in a small boat 10 miles along the Upper Buffalo National River, framed by 500-foot-high bluffs and dense flame-tipped oak forests. Once in town, treat yourself to the Ozark Café’s pecan pie. If you continue along Highway 21 to pick up Highway 16, you can visit the 86-acre Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, in Fayetteville, before riding I-540 back to Bentonville.
Where to Stop: Bentonville highlights include the art-filled 21c Museum Hotel; fried chicken and waffles dinner at Tusk & Trotter; and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in 2011.
Moosehead Lake Region, Maine
The Route: 75.2 miles.
Foliage Update: maine.gov
Visit the spectacular foliage of Maine’s largest lake, Moosehead. Start at The Forks, Maine’s white-water-rafting hub, then to Jackman, deep in the North Woods. Stop at the Attean Overlook for an extraordinary view of the Moose River Valley all the way to the Canadian border. Head to Rockwood on the shores of Moosehead Lake and spend the night in Greenville. In the morning, drive beneath spectacular tree canopies on unpaved logging roads.
Where to Stop: Overnight at the luxurious Blair Hill Inn; book a moose safari, white-water raft or hike to Moxie Falls, and take a scenic floatplane tour for a bird’s-eye view of Moosehead Lake.
The Green Mountain and Mad River Byways, Vermont
The Route: 23.9 miles.
Foliage Update: foliage-vermont.com
Vermont is known as the mecca for serious leaf viewers in the eastern United States. Drive on one-lane highways meandering through valleys and mountains painted glorious shades with yellow alder leaves, purplish-red pin cherry, and brilliant orange and red maple trees. Begin in Waitsfield, where the Mad River runs, continue through Waterbury, and end in Stowe to see Vermont’s highest colorful peak, Mount Mansfield.
Where to Stop: Visit Cold Hollow Cider Mill for a tour and cider tasting; dine at Michael’s on the Hill, with panoramic views of Green Mountain; and shop for local products at Cabot Annex, home of eight specialty shops, including Cabot Cheese, Danforth Pewter and Lake Champlain Chocolates.
Lake Placid, New York
The Route: 45 miles.
Foliage Update: iloveny.com
The Adirondacks, the largest natural wilderness region in the eastern United States, offers a dazzling palette of autumnal colors in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, designated “forever wild.” Start in Lake Placid and go northeast on Route 86 along the high cliffs of the Au Sable River to view the sugar maples, American beech and yellow birch trees’ dazzling color display. Pass Jay and Keene, continue up the mountain along Cascades Lake, then head back into Lake Placid.
Where to Stop: Overnight at the Lake Placid Lodge; take the Whiteface Mountain gondola ride; attend the annual Flaming Leaves Festival in October; and go to Santa’s Workshop in Wilmington.