Now’s the time of year to unleash your inner “leaf-peeper!” With the growing season giving way to autumnal wind-down, deciduous trees and shrubs are easing off photosynthesis and therefore production of grandly green chlorophyll, and showing off the crimsons, goldens, purples, burgundies, and browns of other pigments before shedding their leaves and settling in for the long barren haul of winter.
The perfect combination of botanical diversity, latitude, and climatic factors gives the northeastern United States and adjoining Canada perhaps the world’s most celebrated fall colors, but America’s got no shortage of other leaf-peeping hotspots: from the North Woods of the Upper Midwest to the canyons of the Southwest. Here’s a non-exhaustive look at some of the best destinations for leafy autumn palettes in the country!
The rich hardwood forests of the Catskills put on a heck of a show in autumn, and there’s no shortage of far-reaching prospects for soaking it all up: including the famous Giant Ledge (plus the nearby summit of 3,720-foot Panther Mountain) and the Five State Lookout.
The highest range in the Northern Appalachians, New Hampshire’s White Mountains offer soaring sweeps of valleys, slopes, and ridgetops that encompass several thousand feet of elevation, thus supporting an extended fall-color show. The Whites epitomize the legendary leaf-peeping for which New England’s celebrated the world over, and the Kancamagus Scenic Byway (the “Kanc”)—a stretch of New Hampshire Route 112 cutting the range between Lincoln and Conway—is one of the showstopper fall-foliage drives in the country.
Acadia is another New England must-see in the fall—well, anytime of year, but especiallyin the fall, when the broadleaf canopies of its bold coastal mountains come set against lovely Gulf of Maine seascapes.
The lushly sylvan Appalachian highlands of the Poconos—part of the vast Allegheny Plateau, and a prime swath of America’s eastern hardwood forest—becomes a multicolored paradise in the fall.
World-class tree diversity and impressive topographic relief amid one of the loftiest and burliest ranges in the Appalachians make the Great Smokies a super-popular hotspot for Southeastern leaf-peeping. Indeed, October tends to be the second-most popular month in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the most-visited in the U.S.). It’s typically a nice and drawn-out show, too, kicking off early on the high summits and ridge crests and traveling downslope to the coves and valleys.
Think the South lacks fall color—outside of the Appalachians, anyhow? Think again. The marvelous Okefenokee Swamp flares this time of year with red maples and blackgums, but a unique deciduous conifer (and the iconic tree of the Southeastern swamplands)—the fluted bald-cypress—adds to the spectacle with its rusty needles.
The varied autumn hues of the rough Ozark highlands—contributed by oaks, hickories, maples, sumacs, sycamores, and other broadleafs—can be absolutely gorgeous, and given the southerly latitude they don’t tend to peak till late October or early November.
Much of Michigan’s big and lightly settled Upper Peninsula serves up top-class fall colors. Some especially eye-catching displays go down a stone’s throw from Lake Superior in the rumpled Porcupine Mountains—an important refuge for Midwestern old-growth forests.
Some of the most dramatic scenery in the Midwest comes where the rugged Driftless Area—which escaped the smoothing-over of the continental ice sheets in the most recent Pleistocene glaciation—cradles the broad roll of the Upper Mississippi. Marvelous fall colors here unwind from bluff-top wood to the bottomland forests of the riverbanks and many islands. Prime leaf-peeping awaits at spots such as Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin, Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa, and the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest in Minnesota.
From the Medicine Bow Mountains on the Wyoming border to the San Juans, the Southern Rockies of Colorado come chockablock with spectacularly blazing forests of quaking aspen come fall. You’ve got no shortage of postcard-perfect leaf-peeping destinations, but the Elk Mountains are easily one of the most celebrated spots. After all, they’re in the aptly named town of Aspen’s big backyard, and they contain two of the most photographed Fourteeners in Colorado: the Maroon Bells, spectacular year-round but all the more so when they're overlooking trembling golden canopies.
Among the scenic pinnacles of the Cascade Range, the Enchantments—part of the Stuart Range of the Wenatchee Mountains, and protected in the popular Alpine Lakes Wilderness—attain an ethereal beauty in fall, when yellow copses of subalpine larch smolder against jagged peaks and tarns.
The Pacific Northwest may be dominated (superlatively) by conifers, but that only makes the fall colors of the scattered hardwood trees and shrubs more precious. The western reaches of the Columbia River Gorge, the greatest break in the Cascade ramparts, include lovely displays by big-leaf and vine maples, Oregon ashes, huckleberries, and other deciduous species firing against the dark green of all those Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, and red-cedars.
The famous defile of Oak Creek Canyon outside Sedona isn’t only eye-catching for its sedimentary cliffs: In the fall, the canyon’s sycamores, box-elders, cottonwoods, and other riparian deciduous trees more than hold their own with the red-rock splendor looming above.
It may be a fall-color show on the early and the brief side compared to many of the above Lower 48 destinations, but the Alaska Range tundra and taiga of Denali in its autumn golden and red, set against the greatest mountainscape in North America, is definitely a Fall bucket-list spectacle.
So wherever your autumn adventure takes you, enjoy the view! And make sure to prepare for the journey with camping and backpacking meals to sustain you and your friends.