There are few harbingers of seasonal change as dramatic as fall foliage. When entire hillsides of hardwood forests transform from varying shades of green into vibrant oranges, yellows, purples, and reds, summer is definitively over — no matter what the calendar says. As days shorten and nights lengthen, the changing leaves deliver a riot of color that demands to be seen. And travelers of all stripes oblige, pumping billions of dollars into the economies of rural areas where the changing leaves command their own festivals and celebrations.
Naturally, there are leaf-peeping aficionados whose routines are fixed. They've got the maps, the weather data, the thermos filled with coffee, the full tank of gas, and reservations at their favorite bed-and-breakfast made months earlier once the leaf-changing forecasts (yes, those exist) begin to take form. They're the ones who are already flooding your Instagram feed with soulful images of vibrant foliage (#autumnleaves).
If seeing them inspires a dual reaction — desire to join in the fun, fear that you've already missed it — worry not. Fall foliage is perhaps the most democratic natural phenomenon to witness. Unlike the recent solar eclipse, changing leaves take place every year throughout much of North America and over a relatively long period; we're talking weeks, not minutes. Better yet, the foliage is easy to observe. Unless you feel like hiking miles into the backcountry to enjoy leaf splendor in solitude, you can watch this unfold from the front seat of your car.
Interested? The first thing to do, suggests ecologist Amy Miller of the National Park Service, is decide which geographic region you want to go to, then check state forestry websites for foliage reports to plan your trip. In addition to New England, Miller also recommends the species-rich hardwood forests in the Great Lakes region (think Minnesota's Boundary Waters); the Appalachians and Smoky Mountains; and, farther west, the extensive stands of quaking aspens in central and southern Colorado.
"Driving Independence Pass from Buena Vista to Aspen is absolutely gorgeous when the leaves change," she says.
But first, the Northeast. New England has historically reigned supreme for leaf-peeping, with Vermont's storied sugar and red maples offering magnificent palettes that pair well with the state's ubiquitous covered bridges.
The forests in Maine's Rangeley Lakes region become "utterly spectacular in the fall," says Gale Ross, the state's fall foliage spokeswoman. "Many visitors come on coastal cruises; they arrive in port, rent a car, drive in any direction and are awed by the scenery."
Though the splendor's timing varies, "fall foliage begins roughly between late August to mid-September in Alaska and northern Canada and can extend into late November in the southern United States," Miller says.
"Leaves also tend to start turning earlier at higher elevations, with the color working its way down to lower elevations later in the season."
Still not sure where or when to go? Head to the Fall Foliage Prediction Map, hosted by Smokymountains.com. Using historical data and information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the map anticipates peak foliage throughout the Lower 48 from August through October, and prospective leaf-peepers can see where peak foliage forecasts align with their travel periods.
Travelers should note any recent weather abnormalities in their desired destinations, Miller advises.
Excessive heat or drought can stymie leaf coloration, just as wet temperatures can forestall it, and drastic wind events can whip the leaves from their branches before they have a chance to turn.
"Drought and/or extreme heat during the growing season can stress trees enough to cause them to turn color early, or to just turn brown and lose their leaves," Miller says. "Milder moisture stress may delay the onset of color."
And once you decide where and when to go, make reservations.
Lodging fills up fast with leaf-peepers and, in some areas, hunters. Most peepers rent a car or drive their own, though Amtrak employs its "dome car" on the Adirondack route, from Albany, N.Y., to Montreal, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 29. This car, which is first-come first-served, features an upper level with windows on all sides, delivering what Amtrak calls "panoramic views of magnificent scenery."
Having witnessed fall foliage throughout the northern United States every year for the last two decades, I can attest that this is no exaggeration.
Whether you make an annual pilgrimage to watch nature transform or it's your first time considering it, the experience is up there with watching Old Faithful — or a volcano — erupt.
Join in the awe. Drive a scenic byway in Colorado. Stop for a maple creemee in Vermont. (It's soft-serve ice cream.) Get gas anywhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and you're ensured a show.
If you fancy working up a sweat on your way to the foliage, there's no end of trails and locales happy to oblige. Consider Alaska's open tundra and Idaho's remote Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
But plan ahead. Although leaf season can stretch through November, once they're gone, they're gone.
Until the next year.
Maine's Rangeley Lakes Region: With six major lakes and hundreds of smaller bodies of water, this area in the mountains of western Maine is a lush destination that transforms into a fiery blanket of arresting colors every fall. visitmaine.com
Vermont's Mad River Byway: Come fall, Vermont's woods are aglow with the state's renowned fall foliage. The 36.5-mile Mad River Byway passes through a series of picturesque villages and climbs a mountain pass as it connects the villages of Buels Gore, Fayston, Warren, and Granville. madrivervalley.com
New Hampshire's Kancamagus Highway: Locals call this 34.5-mile highway "the Kank" and are just as likely to be found on the road as tourists, come foliage season. This rural scenic byway cuts through the White Mountain National Forest and has plenty of areas for viewing. kancamagushighway.com
Massachusetts' Mount Greylock Scenic Byway: This route through the Berkshires starts at Mount Greylock, elevation 3,491 feet and the highest point in Massachusetts, before descending 16.3 miles to North Adams. explorenorthadams.com
Virginia's Skyline Drive Scenic Highway: A 105-mile road through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, this National Scenic Byway is also a historic landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Better yet (for leaf-peepers), it's got 75 overlooks with views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont to the east. visitskylinedrive.org
Tennessee's Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park: With more than 100 species of deciduous trees, the park promises diverse foliage colors at varying times. This narrow road winds for a little more than five hours through dense forests in the most visited national park. www.nps.gov/grsm
Minnesota's Ely and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: This vast area — 1,090,000 acres — within the Superior National Forest offers extensive sightseeing options, especially for intrepid boaters. Those who prefer solid ground should establish base camp in Ely, population 3,450, and tour State Highway 1 between the town and the North Shore of Lake Superior. ely.org
Wisconsin's Peninsula State Park, Door County: The hardwoods in Peninsula State Park grow almost to the shore of Lake Michigan. Enjoy nearly eight miles of shoreline and scenic hikes and drives through what locals call "Wisconsin's most complete park." dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/peninsula
Colorado's Independence Pass, Aspen: State Highway 82 is one of the most breathtaking drives, for reasons beyond the scenery. As it switchbacks up to 12,095 feet, this 32-mile stretch takes visitors from the forests to the high alpine above the tree line and delivers nonstop views of vibrant aspen groves in every direction. aspenchamber.org
New Mexico: Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, Taos: Some might be surprised to learn of northern New Mexico's fall foliage, but exploring the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is a ritual for those seeking color and dramatic landscapes. This 85-mile loop connects Taos with the mountain villages of Red River, Eagle Nest, and Angel Fire. enchantedcircle.org
California's June Lake Loop: California's Eastern Sierra is a rugged and remote landscape complete with glacial lakes, hot springs, shark-toothed peaks, and forests of aspen that explode with color each autumn. The June Lake Loop goes from Mammoth Lakes west for about 15 miles with plenty of hiking, fishing, and sightseeing options along the way. visitcalifornia.com/attraction/june-lake-loop
Washington state's Cascade Loop Scenic Driving Tour: Take a long weekend to pilot the 440 miles on the Washington Scenic Byway. The route starts in coastal Everett, home of Boeing, before navigating through the Cascade Mountains onto the Columbia River Valley, through North Cascades National Park and eventually to Puget Sound. It immerses travelers in Washington's diverse landscape, which has magnificent fall foliage in September and October. cascadeloop.com
Oregon's Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway: The route connecting southwestern Oregon's Rogue and Umpqua river valleys is known as the "Highway of Waterfalls," but this time of year it could hold the title of "best fall foliage." The 175-mile route travels through thick forests, skirts Crater Lake National Park, and offers views of volcanoes. traveloregon.com
Alaska's Denali National Park: Fall foliage comes during the September shoulder season in Alaska, and the weather can range from sunny and warm to blizzards. Denali's colors go wild this time of year. Typically, motorists may not drive into the park; commercial buses are the main way to sightsee. But every May, the National Park Service holds the Denali Road Lottery. Winners are permitted to drive into the park during a period of four days in mid-September. www.nps.gov/dena