Leaf peeping is like a masterclass in color theory. Up close, autumn’s trees look like paint palettes daubed with bright, warm acrylics, and fallen leaves look like little brushstrokes on the earth. A bird’s-eye view, on the other hand, paints the whole autumnal picture, transforming the fiery fall landscape into a mural that stretches as far as the eye can see. This year, spice up leaf-peeping season by taking in the scenery from the basket of a hot-air balloon soaring high above the trees. From New Mexico to New York, stick to these ballooning hotspots for a panoramic fall foliage experience you’ll never forget.
1. Green Mountains, Vermont
The Green Mountains are, in fact, green for much of the year. Once summer starts to fade away, however, they take on leaf-peeping season’s fiery color scheme. Highlights of a hot-air balloon ride over the range, which belongs to the greater Appalachian Mountain range system, include gliding over Lake Champlain and trying to spot wildlife like moose, deer, and bears while letting the wind carry you overhead. If you can, organize a trip to the Green Mountains and a balloon ride with Above Reality Hot Air Balloon Rides of Vermont this October. Trust us.
2. Albemarle County, Virginia
Albemarle County might not ring a bell, but its claim to fame and Thomas Jefferson’s former home, Monticello, probably does. Monticello Country Ballooning launches from various sites in and around Charlottesville, where the fall foliage is spectacular, especially in mid-October. While both sunrise and sunset flights are possible year-round, leaf-peeping hopefuls should opt for a sunrise ride to see the foliage ablaze in the first light of morning.
3. Letchworth State Park, New York
Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park seduces visitors year-round with its waterfalls, rock walls, and dramatic Genesee River Gorge. Surrounding it all are ancient trees that absolutely stun when dressed in their fall best. The only balloon company licensed to take off from within the park, Balloons Over Letchworth launches its riders a stone’s throw from Middle Falls. As a bonus, riders will catch a glimpse of the Genesee Arch Bridge, a 235-foot railroad trestle, as they fly over Upper Falls. The weather can be fickle in October when the foliage is at its peak, so be sure to consult your weather app before booking.
4. Taos, New Mexico
Albuquerque takes its ballooning seriously with an annual International Balloon Fiesta, but if leaf peeping is your priority, it’s hard to top Taos. Better known for its ski resort and historic pueblo, Taos also has a wealth of fall foliage and its own ballooning culture. Pueblo Balloon Company operates throughout the year, thrilling riders with aerial views of the Rio Grande and panoramas of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. If you catch the ballooning bug after your ride, plan to come back October 25-27 for the Taos Mountain Balloon Rally, where you can enjoy more leaf peeping from the ground — when you aren’t transfixed by the colorful hot-air balloons floating overhead.
5. Black Hills, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore may have made the Black Hills famous, but come fall, America’s most impressive presidential bust has some competition in the surrounding scenery. The region’s ponderosa pines turn bright yellow and light orange like they’ve been dipped in sunlight. Thanks to Black Hills Balloons, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the mountains, valleys, and lakes of the Black Hills, Badlands, and Wind Cave National Park, as well as the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. Champagne, light snacks, and a souvenir certificate are included.
6. Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Just 25 miles outside Philly, Bucks County feels worlds away from the big city, trading its skyscrapers for tall trees that make for a much nicer view, particularly come autumn. There are several ways to take in the foliage here, from walks to train rides to scenic drives, but soaking in the landscape from above is easily the most exciting. Book a ride with the US Hot Air Balloon Team to soar over rolling hills, farms, and vineyards dotting the tree-studded landscape. Stare out into the distance, and you might even be able to see the outline of Manhattan.
7. Colorado Springs, Colorado
Even amid mammoth landmarks like the red rock formations at the Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak, the highest summit of the Front Range, it’s the humble aspens that steal during autumn in Colorado Springs when they turn a brilliant gold. Fortunately, you can see it all on a fall balloon ride. Adventures Out West hosts sunrise excursions that put riders eye to eye with the Southern Rockies and offers a whole new perspective on the trees below.