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These 6 US Road Trips Are Some of the Most Beautiful You Can Take This Fall

Washington Colorado Virginia North Carolina Michigan New York Vermont Road Trips
by John Garry Sep 13, 2022

It’s almost fall in the United States, which means three reasons to rejoice: arboreal art shows, pumpkin-spiked everything, and this year, gas prices falling below $4.

After the national average for a gallon of gas reached roughly $5 in June, prices at the pump started declining every week, and according to travel-and-navigation app GasBuddy, the trend will likely continue. Cheaper car travel is excellent news for those experiencing wanderlust: opting for a road trip provides a hassle-free antidote to flying, an increasingly unpredictable prospect after this year’s airline snafus. And now, with the promise of plummeting prices, the cure is getting more attractive.

As forests change into fall finery, consider hitting the highway to savor the splendor. Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventures, harvest festivals, Oktoberfest celebrations, or striking tree-lined Main Streets, these are the best fall road trips in the US in 2022.

1. Head to a German-style Oktoberfest on Washington’s Cascade Loop

North cascade range in washington one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Dmitry Kovba/Shutterstock

If you want a best of fall list in road form, this Pacific Northwest road trip is it. Washington’s 440-mile Cascade Loop circles the state like a giant charm bracelet, sparkling with snowy peaks, salty shores, and emerald forests that turn kaleidoscopic in autumn. The journey can be completed in a quick two-day drag, but allow at least four to relax along the route.

The loop starts due north of Seattle, rolling east along green blankets of farmland to the Cascades’ pine-studded peaks. Stretch your legs on the hike to Bridal Veil Falls, a 4.2-mile trek to a waterfall with mesmerizing mountain vistas, before stopping in Leavenworth. By late September, the hills outside this kitschy city are alive with the sound of oom-pah-pah. Modeled after a German alps town in the 1960s, Leavenworth hosts an annual Oktoberfest with enough bratwurst and beer to make you believe you’re in Munich. If you’re planning an overnight stay, consider the uber-Deutsch Bavarian Lodge.

Mount Chikamin Peak Fall Snoqualme Pass Wenatchee National Forest one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Bill Perry/Shutterstock

After Leavenworth, the trail winds through the Wenatchee Valley, nicknamed the Apple Capital of the World. Join the fresh-apple frenzy at a u-pick farm like Stutzman Ranch (growing Fuji and Golden Delicious varieties) or learn about the fruit scene at the Washington Apple Commission. Be sure to visit the vineyards, too. Wineries abound around Lake Chelan, located one hour north of Wenatchee. In early October, visitors become part of the wine-making process at Crush — an annual festival where participants stomp recently-harvested grapes and get to taste the fruits of their labors.

Sun-yellow aspens light the treeline as the Methow Valley gives way to jagged peaks in North Cascades National Park, then harvest-ready farmland follows the Skagit River toward the bay lapping Whidbey Island’s shores. Be prepared to pull over during this final stretch of driving — scenic overlooks from the road are postcard-perfect.

2. Awe at golden leaves while navigating the Top of the Rockies Byway in Colorado

Colorado Highway 145 one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock

The 90-minute drive from Denver to the Top of the Rockies Byway might leave you breathless: the Mile High City is no match for these altitudes, which reach over 10,000 feet. The Centennial State’s tallest peaks await along this 100-mile adventure to aspen forests, pristine lakes, and scenic towns beloved by laidback nature lovers and ritzy jet setters alike.

Start your mountain meandering in Frisco, called the “Main Street of the Rockies” thanks to its pretty downtown framed by nearby peaks. After fueling up at Frisco’s lodge-inspired Rocky Mountain Coffee Roasters, continue to Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the US. Here, drivers can take a backseat on a scenic 2.5-hour train ride through the Arkansas River Valley and awe at Mt Massive and Mt Elbert, both of which shoot past 14,000 feet.

Piney Lake one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Adam Springer/Shutterstock

From Leadville, two equally-alluring options await. The first winds north toward Vail — a chic resort town with high-quality (albeit pricey) restaurants and shopping. Overnighting in the area (perhaps at the Austrian chalet-inspired Gasthof Gramshammer) affords time for dining on locally-sourced grub at Slope Room, ogling the 60-foot cascade on the hike to Booth Falls, and visiting the Vail Nature Center — a 1940s homestead with nature exhibits, walking trails, and tours.

Heading west from Leadville leads to Independence Pass, where dynamic mountain views make it impossible not to stop for photo ops. Aspen, surrounded by hills glinting gold with the town’s namesake trees, is a prized autumnal Elysium anchoring the byway’s end. Hike through aspen groves on the Cathedral Lake trail, handpick fresh produce from the Saturday morning farmers market, or get an altitude buzz from locally-made craft beer at Aspen Brewing Company.

3. Enjoy woodland hikes and historical sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina

blue ridge parkway north carolina road trip

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Two lanes, 469 miles, and a speed limit that rarely goes above 45mph: the Blue Ridge Parkway encourages drivers to slow down and appreciate fall’s foliage — an easy task when 100 species of trees change colors at elevations ranging from 700 to 6,000 ft. By mid-October, the parkway is a tie-dye of yellow-green, orange-red, nut brown and purple, attracting hordes of leaf chasers to trails along the route. Plan a few days to relish the experience.

For a north-to-south adventure, start near Waynesboro, Virginia, and pause at Humpback Rocks, a bald outcropping reachable via several paths, including the Appalachian Trail. Panoramas of rolling woodlands stretch for miles — a visual preamble of what’s to come.

fall foliage in Virginia one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

After a few hours of driving, the photogenic Mabry Mill, built in 1908, appears along the road. Snap an obligatory pic of the pond-side structure then stop inside the restaurant for pancakes (go for buckwheat, produced in an on-site gristmill) or a Southern-style supper. When it comes to photography, nothing makes a prettier picture than the Linn Cove Viaduct — an elevated stretch of parkway tracing North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. The S-shaped road is a modern marvel; it’s easy to see why it’s designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark.

Once in North Carolina, the show-stopping sites don’t quit. There’s the hemlock forest hike to Linville Falls, which flows into the “Grand Canyon of the East,” and the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s 1895 French chateau built on 8,000 manicured acres. Artsy Asheville is another must-see, with its booming restaurant scene, microbreweries, art-deco architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventures. Consider overnighting at The Foundry — the former steel forge once supplied materials for the Biltmore; it’s now an industrial-chic hotel.

The parkway ends near Cherokee, the eastern gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To honor the landscape’s original stewards, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, chronicling 13,000 years of the indigenous community’s history.

4. Explore scenic shorelines around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Upper Michigan one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Big Joe/Shutterstock

Forget Michigan’s mitten — fall is all about the Upper Peninsula (UP). Spend a long weekend skirting three Great Lakes and beaches, carving through old-growth forests, and eating your weight in pasties (a handheld pot pie delicacy popularized by 19th-century Cornish miners) to see why Yoopers (the nickname for locals) considered seceding in the 1970s. Life in the UP is worlds away from the rest of the US.

After reaching St. Ignace, roughly four hours north of Detroit, hop on a ferry to Mackinac Island. You’ll need to leave the wheels behind for this car-free jaunt — horse-drawn carriages and bikes are the go-to modes of transport. Most tourists stick to the island’s southern tip for its fudge stores and gift shops, but its jewel-toned forests are fall’s most magnificent draw. Rent a ride from Mackinac Island Bike Shop to pedal around 140 miles of trails snaking through thick woodlands to views of Lake Huron. When evening comes, rest your head at The Grand Hotel, which opened as a getaway in 1887 and retains its old-world elegance.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: John McCormick/Shutterstock

After returning to St. Ignace and grabbing a pasty from Lehto’s, zoom 80 minutes north to Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The 50-foot plunge at Upper Tahquamenon Falls is Michigan’s version of Niagara; in fall, the scene is prettier than a Thomas Moran painting. From here, it only takes 30 minutes to reach Whitefish Point, home to one of Lake Superior’s oldest-operating lighthouses (built in 1861). After the detour, glide along the sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Munising. For a better view of the colorful rock formations, book a 2.5-hour boat tour with Pictured Rock Cruises, which runs out of Munising through mid-October.

Rather than traversing the rest of the UP, cut through the Gwinn State Forest Area to Iron Mountain‘s abandoned Millie Mine — home to one of America’s largest bat colonies. Between September and October, it’s possible to spot the winged creatures at dusk, when they take to the skies for a nightly feast. As the moon rises, beeline for the cabins at Edgewater Resort and overnight along the Menominee River (marking the Michigan-Wisconsin border). The trip’s final leg grazes Lake Michigan’s breezy northern shores on the way back to St. Ignace.

5. Trade New York City’s cement for forests lining the Shawangunk Scenic Byway

Hudson Valley one of the best fall road trips in the US

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New York urbanites looking for leaf-peeper paradise need only drive 90 minutes north: the Shawangunk Scenic Byway passes through historic hamlets and sprawling nature preserves far removed from New York City’s steely shimmer. By late September, chestnut oak forests along this 90-mile journey go from summer green to burnt sienna — a shock of color that unfolds for over a month.

The byway splits into four separate sections, but for a brisk one-day adventure, stick to the Northern Loop anchored by hippie-dippy New Paltz. History buffs should begin at New Paltz’s Historic Huguenot Street — a 10-acre area with 18th-century stone structures built by French Huegenot colonizers — before perusing the cafes and antique stores at Water Street Market.

Mohonk Preserve one of the best fall road trips in the US

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From New Paltz, take Route 299 toward Mohonk Preserve — an 8,000-acre expanse for outdoor adventures (hike-heads will appreciate the steep climb to Bonticou Crag). Next, take Route 44/55 as it zooms past leafy Minnewaska State Park toward Route 209, lined with farms in harvest mode. Kelder’s, a u-pick produce operation with in-season pumpkins, concord grapes, and raspberries, is hard to miss — the world’s third-largest gnome hails the highway from its front lawn.

The byway continues onto Route 213, passing the 19th-century cement town of Rosendale (stop at Truss and Trestle for classic greasy spoon grub), then snakes along the Wallkill River toward Coppersea Distilling, a whiskey distillery with tours and tastings. Although the loop ends in New Paltz, think about finishing at the Victorian-style Mohonk Mountain House instead. The lakeside resort has been charming guests since the 19th century.

6. Cideries and gondola rides await along Vermont’s Green Mountain Scenic Byway

Kancamagus highway one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: yggdrasill/Shutterstock

Down-to-earth Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, is an attractive fall destination with craft breweries and locavore grub galore, but to make the most of fall’s arboreal brilliance, roll 30-minutes east around the 71-mile Green Mountain Scenic Byway. This loop connects six pastoral towns through a quilt of rolling farmland and a riot of fall color. Choose picturesque Stowe as a central home base for a two-day excursion.

Stowe a stop on one of the best fall road trips in the US

Photo: Don Landwehrle/Shutterstock

Stowe’s Main Street, lined with friendly mom-and-pop shops, leads to classic New England imagery: a white church spire pokes into eggshell blue skies, backed by Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. To see mountain views without putting in much effort, ride the Stowe Mountain Resort gondola (open until mid-October), which leads to hiking trails and a cliff-top restaurant. Mountain mavericks can also drive 45 minutes to Underhill, the starting point for a challenging 7.7.-mile loop trail that climbs above the treeline. After a day-long trek, call it a night at the Trapp Family Lodge (yes, The Sound of Music von Trapps). Once the site of their family home, the 2,500-acre property is now a year-round hotel singing with Austrian style.

Waterbury, an easy 15-minute drive south along the byway, is best for weekend munchies. Cold Hollow Cider Mill, founded in 1974 and operating out of an early 19th-century farmhouse, offers self-guided tours where guests watch the cider-making process — a visual appetizer before heading to the hard cider tasting room, restaurant, or bakery (be sure to try a cider donut).

Waterbury’s Ben & Jerry’s factory is less fall-forward but still worth a stop. Take a guided tour of the site to see the Vermont-based ice cream brand in action. If you’re looking for something more seasonally-appropriate, poke around the Flavor Graveyard on All Hallow’s Eve to spot ice cream concoctions laid to rest. Who knows? Perhaps the “dearly de-pinted” will rise from the dead to celebrate the season. It would certainly make a sweet surprise.

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