Mention “leaf peeping” and you’re likely to find two types of people: Those who love it, sometimes to the point of obsession, and those who don’t know they love it. For the uninitiated, leaf peeping is an informal term used mostly by Americans to describe our often annoying habit of stopping to admire and endlessly photograph fall foliage. Nobody seems exactly sure where or when the term originated but, by the turn of this century, it was used in an episode of The West Wing. If that doesn’t legitimize the term, then hearing it on The Sopranos a few years later surely does!
Typically, it’s associated with New England and eastern Canada, where dense forests mark the change in seasons by turning color. The phenomenon has brought tourists (and their money) to the region for decades, becoming a major economic engine. Though sometimes crowded, it is a wonderful way to get outdoors and commune with nature.
Where to Find the Leafs to Peep
New England does not have a monopoly on autumn’s hallmark spectator sport! Just about every state (except maybe Hawaii) has some park or forest land where you can enjoy fall colors and cooler temperatures. When you are looking for that pop of bright gold against deep crimson, try to find a mixed forest, where a variety of trees grow together. Trees turn different colors depending on species, and sometimes at different times depending on several factors, including elevation. And remember that some trees, like firs, spruces and pines, are evergreen. They don’t change color, but provide a nice background for the bold colors of aspen, ash, and maple trees.
When to Go Leaf Peeping
Now that you know what to look for, you might wonder when to go. The hard reality is that Mother Nature is notoriously hard to predict. One cold snap can bring on the fireworks early (which may happen this year), and a warm spell can delay fall colors by weeks. In most regions, leaves begin changing color when the weather starts to cool in October. A handy rule of thumb is to aim for Columbus Day, or the second week of October. Keep in mind, though, the further north you go, the earlier leaves change. Higher elevations will also see fall colors before lowlands.
There are several web sites, listed below, to help you plan when to “head for the hills” for the best chance of catching the fireworks. If you can be flexible, you’ll have a better chance of seeing the fall displays at their peak. On the other hand, in areas where leaf peeping is popular, autumn is anything but a slow “shoulder season.” Hotel rooms and campgrounds are often filled up months in advance, with the best spots booked as much as a year in advance. We’ve relied on the mid-October rule of thumb and, though we don’t always hit the season’s peak color, we have never been disappointed and managed to have someplace to stay.
The Best Road Trips for Fall Color
There’s nothing like experiencing autumn’s color up close and personal! Pack up a picnic lunch and pile into the family car for some quality time appreciating Mother Nature. Get off of the interstates and onto local highways and byways. Meander down country lanes, and take those interesting side roads, because that’s often where beauty lies hiding.
Be sure to allow plenty of time for pit stops along the way. You’ll probably need a break from all that leaf peeping, especially if there are pint-sized peepers along for the ride. From galleries and museums, to mom and pop shops and diners – and even the occasional amusement park – you’ll be discovering the often overlooked grandeur of small town America. For planning and inspiration, here are a few of our favorite and most highly rated road trips for fall color across the country!
New England ranks the highest for leaf peeping, thanks to plentiful forests and mountain ranges. Just about any mountain range you can name will be a great choice: Pennsylvania’s Poconos, the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York, Massachusetts’ Berkshires, and the wide-ranging Appalachians. Our favorites are Vermont’s Green Mountains and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. They deliver a one-two knockout punch of family fun and fall color.
New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway has garnered worldwide fame for leaf peeping with plenty of covered bridges and beautiful waterfalls. Two loops through the mountains take you past Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England, the stunning Flume Gorge, and the Silver Cascade on the Sacco River. Neighboring Vermont’s Enticement Highway becons with beautiful views, as well as Ben & Jerry’s original ice cream factory (with tours and tastings!), chocolate and cheese makers, and world class ski resorts like Smuggler’s Notch and Killington. Both routes are filled with charming New England towns that will have you reconsidering your home address.
Leaf peeping dreams come true at the Great Smoky Mountain and Shenandoah National Parks, and the Blue Ridge Parkway that connects them. Filled with spectacular views, dramatic waterfalls, and quiet woods, the parks are natural wonderlands with lots of picnic and camping areas, hiking trails, and parking areas so you can get out and enjoy the scenery.
The parkway is a National Scenic Byway, and America’s longest linear park, stretching 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. Keep an eye out for the picturesque Mabry Mill around the halfway point. Stop in for displays and demonstrations of Appalachian life and culture, and live mountain music on Sunday afternoons (Memorial Day Weekend through the end of October). You can also explore the Roots of American Music exhibit at the Blue Ridge Music Center and museum at milepost 213, near Galaxa, Virginia.
Can’t make it this fall? Watch the seasons change on the Shenandoah National Park webcam!
The Black Hills of South Dakota and the 14 cascades in Wisconsin’s Marinette County Waterfall Tour are great places for fall color. Our pick, though, is Michigan’s Gold Coast when it turns to actual gold – and red and brown and orange – every autumn. From Grand Rapids to Traverse City and along Grand Traverse Bay, there’s plenty to see and do. Inland, Manistee National Forest offers scenic drives and serene lakes. Along the bay shore, leaf peeping gives way to vistas of Lake Michigan. Don’t miss the drive out to the Old Mission Lighthouse, exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole!
The Ozarks bring fall color to middle-America with dense Oak forests and two peak leaf peeping seasons. The northern areas in Missouri tend to peak in early to mid-October. In Arkansas, peak color comes later in October and can stretch into November. The Sylamore District of the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas hosts one of the best fall foliage drives in the area. The 26-mile Syllamore Scenic Byway winds past limestone cliffs, river views, and historic towns like Calico Rock. It was a steamboat landing on the White River in the 1800s, and a booming railroad town in the early 1900s. Mountain View is home to the Ozark Folk Center State Park, where traditional music and folkways are preserved and celebrated. There is striking color underground here, too, at Blanchard Springs Caverns. There are several Forest Service tours available, and reservations at least 24 hours in advance are recommended.
You might not think of the American West for fall color, but the Four Corners States – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona – are mountain states with large forests. The country’s largest aspen grove bathes Gunnison, Colorado, in fiery reds and yellows, while New Mexico’s Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway winds around Taos with more aspens and cottonwoods. The 84-mile loop through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains circles the highest peak in the range, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak. While you’re leaf peeping, you can stop at the Angel Fire ski resort and take the chairlift to the resort’s 10,677-foot summit for views of Eagle Nest State Park and the striking Moreno Valley. The loop starts and ends in the historic pueblo of Taos, with fine dining and world-class galleries and museums.
From Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to the Sierra Nevadas of California, you can find fall color in every Pacific state. Among the best is Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge where pines and firs mix with Oregon ash, cottonwoods, and maples for a rich tapestry of fall color. The looming Mount Hood and iconic Multnomah Falls provide even more dramatic views on the historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway. The 70-mile trip between charming Troutdale and The Dalles combines fall color with show-stopping sights like Horsetail Falls and the Bridge of the Gods. A great place to start or end is at the Columbia Gorge Discover Center & Museum in The Dalles. Besides walking trails and scenic overlooks, the museum includes displays on the region’s unique plant and wildlife, and 11,000 years of cultural history.
Fall Foliage Predictions
While it’s hard to get Mother Nature to stick to a schedule, there are several websites where you can see predictions for all of the autumn color:
- Smokey Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map covers the entire country, and takes meteorological forecasts into consideration for its maps. There’s also a great explanation of the science behind the color.
- Weather.com’s Foliage Maps track current color conditions in several regions.
- New England Today’s interactive calendar has predictions for the area east of New York.
- The grand-daddy of them all, the Farmer’s Almanac has state-by-state list of probable dates for peak color.
We’d love to hear about your favorite fall drives! Where do you go, or where would you love to visit? Let us know with a Comment. Planning your own leaf peeping autumn getaway? You can Save this post to your Pinterest board, or share it with friends. As always, thanks for reading!
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