We all secretly pine for those magical fall days when cider is everywhere, the air chills, and we make fun of leaf-peepers while simultaneously planning drives using fall-colored maps.
There has been much discussion about where to find the best patches of chlorophyll-deficient trees for far too long in New England. Covered bridges do look good in the background with autumn leaves. It has been a recurring topic of conversation in Massachusetts for years. There are, however, beautiful trees in less common places if you would like to avoid the crowds. Here are our top 12 crowd-free destinations in the U.S. to experience fall foliage.
Best Crowd-Free Destinations to Experience Fall Foliage
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Kicking off our list today is Shenandoah National Park In Virginia. Unlike the fall temperature, the colors of fall are beautiful. You can see more leaves in Shenandoah National Park if you prefer the climate-controlled comfort of your SUV. The area boasts the 105-mile Skyline Drive, where you’ll be surrounded by a canopy of red, orange, yellow, and green. If you head towards the park’s eastern border, you’ll find another famous road: the Blue Ridge Parkway. It begins in central Virginia and ends in Cherokee National Forest after climbing thousands of feet in elevation. As the season progresses, the upper elevations transition first –around mid-September –while lower elevations take longer to transition.
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
While it’s an oddball place, no place in Michigan can compare to the Upper Peninsula even when it comes to coastal scenery. A fall-floral drive through this region, which borders three Great Lakes, will lead you across the Mackinac Bridge and along the Keweenaw Peninsula. The best view is in Copper Harbor in the far north, but on the way there it is just as interesting to drive through the vast wilderness. After driving for a while, pull over at Houghton’s Keweenaw Brewing Company for a seasonal brew by the fireplace.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina
It’s not just the Old West pictures that make Gatlinburg the most visited national park in the country. Winter skiing and hiking aren’t the only reasons to visit. This area is best visited during the fall, especially from mid-October to early November, when the Great Smoky Mountains explode with vibrant colors. The best way to see its splendor is to hike to Looking Glass Falls. Take advantage of the Smokies’ Fall Foliage Prediction Map to plan your trip.
Next, we have Aspen. Even though it’s obvious that the city’s shimmery golden trees will be spectacular in the fall, you’ll still be utterly surprised when you see them. The vibrant yellows and oranges against the regal snowcapped mountains at this 160-mile resort southwest of Denver are stunning. Enjoy a gold-flecked bike ride after seeing the Maroon Bells, North America’s most-photographed mountain range.
Upstate New York
Although leaf-peeping season in the Adirondacks peaks in the last two weeks of September, there are festivals virtually every weekend in the region until October. You can see leaves in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut simultaneously from the famous “Five State Lookout” in East Windham, just a few hours south. On Mount Utsayantha, 3,214 feet above sea level, you can also view fall foliage from a 360-degree perspective. Hunter Mountain has a chairlift that gives you a nice view of the changing colors at a leisurely pace if you’re not as active.
Door County, Wisconsin
Due to its lighthouses, languid beaches, and leaf-peeping scenery, Door County has earned its reputation as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Sip cherry wine while watching the leaves change colors at the Door Peninsula & Distillery before taking your foliage tour. Later, explore Peninsula State Park and hike. The sights of Newport National Park (while it’s an autumn paradise during the day, at night it is a true Dark Sky Park), are a must-see during your visit to Wisconsin. Don’t forget to photograph the picturesque Cana Island Lighthouse among the foliage before leaving.
Julian is next. East Coasters who move to the West Coast will inevitably complain about traffic. They’ll complain about the people. But the most common complaint they’ll have is that there are no seasons. As for the latter, there is Julian to the rescue. The former gold mining town can be found in the backcountry of San Diego County, about an hour from the city and just north of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
For great views of SoCal’s autumnal foliage, try hiking Lake Cuyamaca’s perimeter, the Volcan Mountain Trail, or the Garnet Peak Trail. Its claim to fame is exactly what makes Julian stand out as an unexpected fall gem: apple picking. Take a trip to Volcan Valley Apple Farm or Calico Ranch Orchard (plus a slice from Julian Pie Company) to ensure you are not missing anything autumnal.
Denali National Park, Alaska
If you live in the Continental United States, Alaska might seem too far away to see fall foliage, but you can enjoy the brilliant autumn colors of America’s North all by yourself by September. Driving through the park offers a chance to see not only the bright colors set against the stunning backdrop of Denali, but you will also find bears, elks, and moose making their way through the leaves, too. If you’re going on a leaf pilgrimage around here, plan it for the early part of October.
Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania
Pine Creek Gorge, nestled in Pennsylvania’s Tioga State Forest, stretches for miles along an impossibly wide gorge. While this place is not as colorful as its western counterpart in autumn, it does explode with color. There are 62 miles of the Pine Creek Rail Trail, a bike route that speeds down the canyon and between adorable small towns where you can soak up panoramic views in Leonard Harrison State Park or Colton Point State Park.
Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
The Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho is further proof that the Midwest can compete with the Northeast during fall (or any time of year). In summer, the underrated redfish lake beach at Orval Hansen is one of the most popular destinations in the country-and during fall the already sparse crowds thin out even further with sunburst hues spreading across the 2 million acres of trees lining the shoreline. Is a foliage road trip in order? Maples, aspens, tamaracks, and birches abound along the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. After you’ve hiked Fishhook Creek and stretched your legs, you might want to cross your fingers for Sawtooth Lake or Bench Lakes Trails, both challenging hikes that are highly rewarding.
Minnesota’s North Shore
One of the most scenic drives in the country, it extends from Duluth to the base of Minnesota’s tallest waterfall. Colors mix here, reflecting off choppy Superior waters and swaying through the trees along 150 winding, often soaring miles of adventure. Stop often to take it all in or consider staying the night. It is an overlooked beer scene in America, especially when the fall offerings arrive.
Closing out our list is the Ozarks. For those who think of the Ozarks only as the place where Michael Bluth broke incredibly bad, the Ozarks are a mountainous region that covers parts of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. It is dotted with serene lakes and a thick blanket of trees. During the fall, when the colors start to pop off, the otherworldly feel becomes even more pronounced. You can enjoy one of the most scenic drives in both states on the 54-mile Talimena, a 54-mile stretch of road that manages to be one of the most scenic drives in both states.
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