America’s 15 best places to be this fall

by Amanda Machado

Though the busy summer season is coming to an end, September through November is one of the best times to travel in the United States. Autumn time means finally manageable weather in the desert, and crispy, cozy weather in the mountains. It’s the best time for apple-picking, for viewing the aurora borealis, and for finding slashed prices in luxurious getaway spots. And it’s the season for some of the country’s best Halloween and harvest festivals. 

We picked our fifteen favorites based on the following criteria:

  1. Has a special energy specifically in autumn  
  2. Has something interesting and unique other than just nice foliage
  3. Hosts at least one key autumn festival  

Estes Park, Colorado

Photo (clockwise, from top left): Tobias, the chosen rebel, Rob Lee

Key towns/areas: Fort Collins, Estes Park, Loveland, Rocky Mountain National park, Medicine Box Mountains, Horsetooth Mountains, Roosevelt National Forest, Pourdre Canyon

Festival: Autumn Gold Festival of music, bratwurst, and beer

Fall in the Rockies is probably the best time of year for its most scenic drives: the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, the the 236-mile loop of the San Juan Skyway, the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway, or the train ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. And come Halloween time, visitors stop by the Stanley Hotel to have a midnight drink at the (said to be haunted) billiards room or music room. The hotel provided the eery filming location for Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

Sonoma County, California

Photos all by: Sonoma County Tourism

Key towns/areas: Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Sebastopol, Bodega Bay, Petaluma

Festival: The Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival

In the fall, Sonoma’s vineyards bloom red, the wine and produce harvest seasons are in full-force, and the summer drunken crowds are gone. This is the season when you can actually have a conversation with a vineyard owner during a tasting, and you can find a luxurious, cozy bed and breakfast for half-off. You can also drive through canopies of foliage along Arnold Drive, or take a scenic boat trip down Russian River.

Salem, Massachusetts

Photo (first two, clockwise from top left): Wolfrage, Massachusetts Office of Tourism

Key towns/areas: Salem, Ipswich, Gloucester, Peabody

Festival: Festival of the Dead

With its eerie history of 17th century witchcraft, for all of October, this town is homebase for all things witch-y: haunted tours, witch circles, witch trial re-enactments, parades, daily Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expos, and ending with the Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball. And if the Halloween vibe isn’t your scene, nearby towns like Ipswich offer some of New England’s best apple-picking orchards, cider tasting, and pumpkin farms.

Puget Sound Area, Washington

Key towns/areas: Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Everett

Festival: Elliot’s Oyster New Year Bash features 30+ varieties of local oysters, as well as Alaskan Dungeness crab, a fresh seafood buffet, microbrews, and live music.

Though this season marks the beginning of the infamous Pacific Northwest rain, it’s also the best time to try Pugest Sound oysters. Local chefs pride themselves in offering oysters specifically from this area during this time of year. Pair them with any drink you’d like– Washington is probably one of the only states where you can find a local and first-class cider, wine, or beer.

Pocahontas County, West Virginia

Photo (clockwise from top left): Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Almost Heaven Wild Wonderful West Virginia, Jason Pratt

Key towns/areas: Marlinton, Hillsboro, Durbin, George Washington and Jefferson National Park, Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, the Falls of Hills Creek and Beartown State Park, Watoga State Park

Festival: The Roadkill Cook-Off: some delicacies can include armadillo tacos, squirrel gravy over biscuits and teriyaki-marinated bear.

This area in Fall has farmers markets, great fall foliage hiking in nearby parks (Watoga State park is the largest in the state and has over 10,000 acres of woodland to explore), and possibly even early snow at the popular ski resort on Snowshoe Mountain.

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Key towns/areas: Edgartown, Oaks Bluffs

Festival: Martha’s Vineyard Food and Wine Festival

This is another destination where “off-season” doesn’t mean dead. The area in the fall releases the summer crowds and leaves visitors with space and time to check out the island’s art galleries, bookshops, and harvest festivals.

Holmes County, Ohio

Photo (clockwise, from top left): m01229, Visit Amish Country

Key towns/areas: Millersburg, Berlin, Walnut Creek

Festival: Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival

This area is home to world’s largest Amish community (around 36,000 Amish live here, or around 40% of the county population), and autumn is a great season to let the scenery and culture take you back in time: visit local farms, try homemade foods from the harvest, or spend the day relaxing under a red and yellow tree, watching the horse-drawn buggies pass by.

Grand County, Utah

Photo (clockwise from top left): John Fowler, Photo: Ryan Smith, Photo: Protographer

Key towns/areas: Castle Valley, crescent Junction, Moab, Thompson Springs, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park

Festival: Moab Music Festival brings musicians from around the world to perform in red rock venues around Moab. Bailando With A View is the area’s annual salsa and bachata festival.

In Fall, the weather in the desert finally becomes manageable. This area has a wide variety of areas to hike, mountain bike, and rock-climb. Even setting up your tent in one of the campsites off the main roads still provides a surprising sense of isolation. And the generally clear weather also means there’s spectacular sky-gazing at night.

Leelanau, Michigan

Photo (clockwise from top left): Pure Michigan, Photo: Michael Patterson, Photo: Pure Michigan

Key towns/areas: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Leelanau State Park, Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City, the Manitou Islands, Lake Leelanau

Festival:The Hunt for the Reds of October” has wineries offering free tastings of the region’s best red wine. Part of the proceeeds go to the American Red Cross.

Michigan’s largest and oldest wine trail has made this region popular internationally, and in fall harvest time, the area’s 25 wineries come alive (in addition to its apple and tart cherry farms). And after days of drinking, the fall climate is still great for outdoor activities like kayaking, biking, and day hiking. 

Washington County, Tennessee

Photo (clockwise, from top left): Visit Northeast Tennessee, Storytelling Center, Patrick

Key towns/areas: Jonesborough, Johnson City, Kingsport, Watauga  Bristol, Cherokee National Forest

Festival: The National Storytelling Festival hosts the best storytellers in the country 

Autumn in this part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains offers great cycling, fishing, hiking, and rock-climbing before the weather dips down. As Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough has also done a great job of preserving its history. It’s also home to the International Storytelling Center which hosts its biggest event in fall. 

Montpelier Area, Vermont

Photo (clockwise, from top left): White Mountains New Hampshire, Vermont Vacation, White Mountains New Hampshire

Key towns/areas: Montpelier, Littleton, Jefferson, Plymouth

Festival: Vermont Arts 2015

Vermont’s tourism burueau offers a printable list of more than 20 drives around the state that take you through scenic forests, apple orchards, and historical attractions along the way. The nearby White Mountains are also commonly named one of the best places in the world to see autumn colors at their finest.  And the Montpelier arts community has earned the town recognition as being one of the best 100 small arts towns in the United States.

Leavenworth Area, Washington

Photo: Visit Leavenworth

Key towns/Areas: Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Wenatchee National Forest, Leavenworth

Festival: Oktoberfest

Leavenworth is famous for its superb rock-climbing on good weather days. For the rest of the  autumn season, you can find BBQ’s, farmers markets, outdoor dining, and local tastings (A scenic 45 mile driving loop from Leavenworth takes you through the area’s best food and wine). The town’s  bavarian-esque architecture also makes it a great place to spend Oktoberfest when you can’t make it all the way to Munich.

The Catskills Area, New York

Photo (clockwise, from top left): mtneer_man, marcianneliese , the turducken

Key towns/area: Kingston, Woodstock, Claryville, Hancock

Festival: Woodstock Film Festival or the Catskill Chill Music Festival

This area has six major river systems and thirty-five mountain peaks over 3,500 feet, in addition to several historic villages that host craft fairs and orchard openings for fruit picking. The foliage gets best from the last weeks in September through mid-October.

Fairbanks Area, Alaska

Key towns/areasFort WainwrightNorth Pole, Chena Hot Springs

Festival: Tanana Valley Potato Extravaganza

Fall is one of the best times to try your luck at seeing the Northern Lights. Fairbanks is often considered one of the best places in the U.S for a viewing since visitors don’t have to venture to far away from the city to catch a sighting. Check the Geophysical Institute’s website for updates, because they vary widely day by day.  And if you return to the city with no luck, the area still has stunning foliage and nearby hot water spring pools to ease the disappointment.

Kent County, Delaware

Photo (clockwise, from left): Tory, Jim Lukach, Five Furlongs

Key towns/areas: Dover, Harrington, Milford

Festival: Punkin Chunkin World Championship has participants build their own trebuchets, catapults, and air cannons to see who can chuck a pumpkin the farthest distance (world records are above 2,000 feet).

Any of this area’s local fall festivals are worth a visit: the Sea Witch Halloween & Fiddler’s Festival, the Delaware Saengerbund Oktoberfest, the Bridgeville Apple Scrapple Festival, the Bayside Arts & Jazz Festival, There’s also the Wings & Wheels Fall Festival showcasing vintage planes and classic cars, and the Delaware Wine and Beer Festival featuring local wineries and breweries.