Even those of us who’ve never owned a convertible see ourselves driving with the top down when we picture the perfect road trip. Blue skies, warm sun, music blaring: Somewhere in the history of car trips, summer became the quintessential backdrop. In the months that follow, however, when the leaves start changing and everything begins smelling of nutmeg and ginger, the open road becomes even more enchanting. From the season’s harvest to its holiday cheer, fall is the perfect time of year to plan a road trip. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Follow the foliage
Leaf peeping is one of fall’s great joys. The autumnal landscape is reason enough to plan a fall trip, and it’s best appreciated on a long scenic drive. Roadways across the country double as some of the finest leaf-peeping real estate, from the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia to the Green Mountain byway in Vermont. Or any old road in New England, really. Across the country, along Colorado’s San Juan Skyway, that red-orange palette found out east is replaced by leaves so yellow they look gold. And just imagine the national parks that run along the West Coast.
Prime leaf peeping is always a road trip away in the United States, whether you have a weekend or week-plus to dedicate to leafy photoshoots. Figure out when the fall colors will peak in your state or destination if your dates are flexible. And remember, road trips, especially scenic ones, are all about the journey: Budget time for back roads if it means better foliage.
Stop at apple orchards, corn mazes, and pumpkin patches
Fall signals the start of sweater weather, which means bundling up for some of the year’s best seasonal activities. Think apple picking, hay rides, fall fairs, and corn mazes, all of which make perfect stops for a road trip. Should you drive the Green Mountain Byway, for example, break up your leaf peeping with a detour to the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, where you can stock up on cider and doughnuts for the car. No apple orchards on your route? There’ll almost certainly be a pumpkin patch, possibly an epic one. Leave a little trunk space for your future jack-o-lanterns.
Keep the car cozy
Road-tripping at the height of summer sounds glamorous until you’re going 70 on the interstate, windows up, sun in your eyes, and everyone’s bickering over the right A/C temperature. Fall road-trippers, on the other hand, have every excuse to make their cars comfort-mobiles. Load up on blankets, pillows, wool socks, and whatever else will keep you cozy, even when the car is warming up. Pack a thermos each for endless refills of chai tea, maple coffee, hot chocolate, and warm cider. And stock up on car snacks that fit the theme. The farms, orchards, attractions, and festivals you stop at on your drive are a good place to start: Most peddle fall staples like cider donuts, kettle corn, caramel apples, and other (mostly) car-friendly fall treats.
Fall’s two biggest holidays set competing tones for the season. Thanksgiving is all warm and pumpkin-spiced while Halloween welcomes all things bone-chilling. A cozy car will be your sanctuary on a fall road trip, but you can have the best of both worlds by staying at a haunted hotel. The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining, comes to mind, as does The Equinox in Vermont, said to be haunted by Mary Todd Lincoln.
To really lean into the Halloween spirit, plan your road trip around a to-die-for ghost or serial killer tour, pick a highway with an amusement park that does fright night, or make a tour out of other haunted locales like bars or horror-flick filming locations.
Take Thanksgiving on the road
We tend to think of Thanksgiving as a homebound holiday, but there’s often travel involved, whether that means going to see relatives or welcoming them from out of state. It’s less common to travel over the Thanksgiving break, though it’s a trend we’d endorse.
If you’re planning to visit family for Thanksgiving, make a mini-vacation out of it by opting to drive rather than fly. Or, if your relatives live all the way across the country, consider flying into a closer city and renting a car for the last leg if it’s within your budget. Bonus points if you turn up with hand-picked apples for a homemade pie.
A road trip is also a fun idea for a non-traditional Thanksgiving. It’s hard to imagine the holiday without its signature meal, but there’s no rule about making grandma’s stuffing in a rented kitchen, or reimagining Thanksgiving dinner at a campsite if your idea of a road trip includes sleeping under the stars.
Whether you lean into the seasonal theme or not, September, October, and November are some of the most beautiful months of the year to explore the country, even outside of New England. Give a fall road trip a chance and see for yourself.