by Mountain House October 08, 2020

6 Great Hikes in the U.S. for Seeing Fall Colors

North America's host to perhaps the most famous displays of fall foliage in the world. That's especially true in southeastern Canada and New England as well as the Midwest, where the perfect brew of geography and climate creates optimum conditions for vibrant and varied fall colors after deciduous trees shut down photosynthesis and before they drop their leaves. But many other corners of the country - from the swamp forests of the Southeast and the draws of the Great Plains to the desert canyons of the Southwest and the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest - wear their own autumnal finery this time of year.

Ample as your opportunities are for taking in the show along scenic drives, nothing beats actually getting out into the crimson, burgundy, flame-orange, and yellow depths of the woods on foot. Here are six absolutely outstanding fall hiking options for world-class leaf peeping!

(1) Mount Battie Trail (Maine)

View from the top of Mount Battie Trail in Camden, Maine
Dudesleeper at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

The Camden Hills of Maine constitute some of the most significant elevations directly along the Eastern Seaboard, and their summits deliver famously awesome views. Those vistas reach their absolute zenith in the eye-popping department during the fall. To see for yourself, take the half-mile trail up to the stone tower atop 780-foot Mount Battie, where you can marvel at blazing fall colors running right up to the picture-perfect shores of Penobscot Bay. Who said that the best fall foliage hikes had to be long or difficult?

(2) The Ledge Trail (New Hampshire)

View from Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains
Mike Hansen (presumably, a.k.a. MHansen at en.wikipedia) / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The Granite State's easily on the short list of the best leaf-peeping destinations in the world, and the White Mountains - the highest range in New England - claim perhaps New Hampshire's finest overall opportunities for savoring fall colors. That's not only because of the extensive forests rich in colorful hardwoods, but also on account they're cast against truly grand-scale terrain. You can sample the autumnal glories of the White Mountains on any number of hiking routes, but one of the biggest bangs for your buck comes on the Ledge Trail, which climbs a mere 1.3 miles to the splendid vantage of Lookout Ledge.

From here, the multicolored canopies come cast against the skyline of the northern Presidential Range, the culmination of the White Mountains and the highest terrain in the Northern Appalachians. Feast on views of 5,367-foot Mount Madison, 5,712-foot Mount Jefferson, and 5,774-foot Mount Adams, the second-highest summit in the Presidential Range and gouged by the incredible King Ravine.

(3) Gregory Ridge Trail (Tennessee/North Carolina)

View from Gregory Bald mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains

I, Brian Stansberry / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The Great Smoky Mountains stand tall among the top leaf-peeping hotspots in the American Southeast, what with the range's long fall-color season and its incredible, globally significant diversity of trees and shrubs. One excellent adventure to undertake, say, in October - the culmination of the foliage show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - is hiking up to Gregory Bald, a classic Southern Appalachian grass bald lying at nearly 5,000 feet along the Smoky Mountain crest. It's a challenging, roughly 11-mile undertaking, but you'll see plenty of fall flair - from up-close broadleaf hues on the forest climb to whole vistas' worth of reds, oranges, and yellows painting the ridges and mountainsides from Gregory Bald's awesome vantage.

(4) Ice Age National Scenic Trail (Wisconsin)

View from the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in WIsconsin

MDuchek / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

Whether you're doing an afternoon day hike or a weeklong autumn backpacking trek, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail gives you a chance to revel in a Badger State double-header: excellent fall colors and a grab bag of amazing glacial landforms. This long-distance footpath links Interstate State Park in northwestern Wisconsin with Potawatomi State Park on the Door Peninsula in the east, with a huge southerly dip in between. The mostly volunteer-maintained, roughly 1,200-mile route is still being fully linked together, but needless to say you're not hurting for choices when it comes to leaf-peeping forays - from the esker-ridged Parnell Unit in the Kettle Moraine State Forest and the cliff-framed forests of Devil's Lake to the North Woods kettle lakes of the Chippewa Moraine.

(5) Snow Lakes Trail (Washington)

View from Snow Lake trail in Washington

The Enchantment Lakes Basin up in the Cashmere Crags of the Stuart Range, part of Washington's central Cascades, is easily one of the most acclaimed natural treasures in the entire Pacific Northwest. Unbelievably sheer walls and snaggle-tooth peaks rising over rockland tarns draw droves (and droves) of hikers and backpackers into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, but it's not just about stone and water: The sparse timberline tree cover here is dominated by the alpine larch, a high-country conifer with a very limited geographic range and a deciduous habit. Before it drops its needles, they turn a dazzling golden color that brings this glorious mountainscape to its most stunning guise.

Given the popularity of the Enchantments, recreation here is tightly regulated, with overnight permits required through the end of October. But the effort to get here - and the company you'll surely have on the Snow Lakes Trail, the main portal into the lakes basin - is worth it for that larch-fired show, which plunks you in the middle of breathtaking beauty in every direction.

(6) Maroon Lake Scenic Trail (Colorado)

Trail view of Maroon Lake at Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado
Image by chaileefung0 from Pixabay 

Here's another extremely popular trail that delivers knockout fall colors. They come courtesy of quaking aspen, the star foliage-turner in the Southern Rockies, but - as with the larches of the Enchantment Lakes - they're only part of a killer viewshed that comes gloriously dominated by the twin peaks of the Maroon Bells, the signature landmarks of the Elk Mountains and said to be the most-photographed summits in summit-spoiled Colorado. A mere 1.3 miles or so total, this easy, well-trammeled loop edges the jewel of Maroon Lake, the reflective waters of which give you something of a double-whammy, scenery-wise. A fresh October frosting of snow on the Maroon Bells above shimmering golden aspens is about as good as it gets...

Enjoy Fall Foliage Hikes This Autumn

The very best place for fall colors is hard to pin down and a topic for vigorous debate, but it's no stretch to say that, during their peak color season, any of the above routes rank among the best fall hikes in America. Remember, though, that awesome fall foliage hiking can be had in most parts of the country, even if the spectacle might be on a smaller scale than, say, what the mixed-hardwood forests of New England or the vast aspen groves of the Colorado Rockies can deliver. Bigtooth maples in an Arizona desert gulch, thickets of red mountain-ash in a Northern Rockies conifer forest, orange bald-cypress in a South Carolina swamp: small, localized patches of fall color can be lovely, too!

Keep in mind, of course, that the onset, quality, and duration of fall colors in any location will vary each year due to specific weather conditions. The good news is that any of the above hikes get you out into glorious natural landscapes sure to impress even if the foliage isn't quite at its most photogenic. Take a break on the trail with one of our delicious freeze-dried camping meals to recharge!


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