When many people think of fall foliage, images of Maine or Vermont come to mind, but some of the best fall colors in the US are waiting to be found far beyond New England. From the lake-filled Midwest to the South’s Appalachian range, the alpine landscapes in the Southwest to the vineyards of California, the options for marveling at leaves bursting in shades of gold, orange, and crimson are almost endless. While we suggest optimal viewing times to see the leaves turn in various locations, these are based on what’s typically expected. It’s a good idea to check weather forecasts and tap into local tips for the best viewing weeks in a specific year.
1. Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are a spectacle of color for several weeks. Since the leaves turn first at the higher elevations as early as late September, later at lower elevations, progressively through the end of October, you have a bigger window of time for leaf-peeping. The trees themselves also vary with the elevations, so you’ll be able to appreciate different tones above and below 4,000 feet. The Smoky Mountains are wonderful for hiking, so the best way to get out there is to amble through the forests ablaze in the color of carrots, lemons, and wine to a viewpoint to take it all in.
2. New River Gorge, West Virginia
West Virginia’s New River Gorge, the Appalachians’ largest river gorge, is beautiful at any time of year, but fall is particularly special. Its diversity of tree species — among them beech, birch, sumac, locust, and oak — light up in every tone from dusty yellow to deep claret. A good way to appreciate it is to take the one-and-a-half-mile hike on the Long Point Trail to an overlook that will give you a fantastic view of the gorge, the bridge that spans it, and those lovely, multi-varied trees. Since you’re a little further south here, the best viewing weeks are usually the last two weeks in October.
3. Taos, New Mexico
In a state as dry as New Mexico, you might not expect to see fall foliage. But aspen trees love high altitude, and Toas is nothing if not high. You’ll see the area’s groves of aspen trees light up the mountains in brilliant yellow and orange from the last week in September to the start of October. They’ll intermingle with evergreen ponderosa pines, making for a lovely mix of colors. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy your stay in Taos, including visiting the oldest continuously inhabited community in the country and enjoying some excellent New Mexican fare.
4. Aspen, Colorado
Aspen trees are the most widely distributed native trees in North America, and the US state they really thrive in is Colorado. That’s thanks to Colorado’s high elevation, the trees’ resistance to wildfires, and aspens’ tendency to be the first tree to repopulate any area that has been scorched by fire. And what better place to see them than in the town of Aspen? The best time to see the golden leaves of these white-barked trees is from mid-September to mid-October.
5. Napa and Sonoma valleys, California
Northern California’s mountainsides may be verdant all year, with their evergreen pines and redwoods, but in the wine country, its vineyards reflect the changing seasons. From Sonoma Valley to Napa Valley, the rows of grape leaves take on a bright golden hue. A good place to see it all is while driving along the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, as you’ll get an overlook of the valley to your west. It’s a stunning contrast to the green hills beyond. If you’re in Sonoma Valley, our favorite place is West Dry Creek Road, north of Healdsburg, where you’ll pass vineyard after vineyard with their leaves aglow in autumn yellow. The best times to see these hues are in October and sometimes lasting into early November.
6. Upper Peninsula, Michigan
To folks in Michigan, it’s no surprise that the Upper Peninsula is one of the best leaf peeping spots in the country. The region’s beech, birch, maple, oak, and hemlock trees light up in vibrant reds, oranges, and golds. Marquette is an ideal spot to take in views of Lake Superior and the multicolored landscape. If you’re feeling energetic, you can even summit Marquette Mountain for a sweeping vista. Yet further north, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, you get water in either direction, picturesque towns, and those brilliant colors. Go in late September to mid-October.
7. Door County, Wisconsin
Door County is already the perfect destination for a weekend road trip, and the fall is a particularly great time to visit. With spruce, walnut, and ash trees, along with various types of maple trees and plenty of evergreen pines added to the mix, the woodlands of Door County burst with an array of colors come autumn. Drive along Highway 42 and go through Peninsula State Park, enjoying stunning leaf views along the way. If you prefer to hike, you can walk along the bluffs in the same Peninsula park or trek to the Old Ski Hill Overlook in Potawatomi State Park.
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