When, precisely, is “fall foliage season”? Well, that depends—not only on how far north or south you are, but also on the climate, the altitude, and the weather in any given year. It can also depend on how far you’re willing to drive and how good your timing is.
Taken altogether, these 16 road trips cover four regions, traversing some of the country’s finest leaf-peeping landscapes—from sea level up into the mountains. Pick one trip, or string some together. Collectively, they “stretch” the fall foliage season out from late August to mid-October.
For other great drive ideas—perfect for fall and other seasons—browse our collection of almost 300 Road Trips on BestoftheRoad.com. For fall foliage updates and reports, visit the U.S. Forest Service site. The Farmer’s Almanac also has a handy list of peak fall foliage dates across the nation.
The Northeast: Vermont, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania
In fall, the color palette includes far more than just shades of green in the state parks and national forest of Vermont’s Green Mountains. A trip north along the New Hampshire border and west up to Stowe, a ski resort with plenty of year-round offerings, won’t disappoint. You could also continue farther northwest for some time Knocking Around Burlington.
Southern New England and the Mid Atlantic have their own unique autumnal charms. A journey along the Connecticut River and the Coast features fall’s reds, yellows, and oranges reflected off the water—not to mention lots of opportunities to experience area history, arts, and culture.In Pennsylvania, you can drive from Philly to the Poconos, through Amish country to the Delaware Water Gap, and/or head west into Lancaster County for explorations of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
The Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio
A trip through Illinois and Indiana Rivers and Forests starts in the Shawnee National Forest and takes you across the Ohio River into New Harmony and Evansville, Indiana, each with their respective historic sites. You can then head north into Hoosier National Forest and beyond.
Alternatively, a Lake Michigan Circle Tour pairs urban sightseeing in Chicago with plenty of rural Great Lakes fall foliage scenery in both Michigan and Wisconsin.
There’s a dearth of evergreens in Ohio’s Hocking Hills, and this means an unbroken panorama of glorious deciduous-tree color. One of Rand’s newest road trips takes you through this unique region southeast of Columbus amid the Appalachian foothills.
The South: Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas
Even just one segment of the 469-mile trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, from Charlottesville, VA, to the Asheville, NC, packs enough color punch to last the whole year. But tackling the whole journey gives you an even better view through the so-called Window to the Region.
A shorter but still colorful trip along the Cherohala Skyway takes you through several small Tennessee and North Carolina towns and past scenic overlooks to Cherokee National Forest.
Eerie Ozarks, another new-in-2013 Rand trip, is seasonally appropriate for two reasons. First, it takes you through swathes of both Ouachita and Ozark National Forests—two seas of fall splendor dotted with both natural and historic sights. Second, it stops at a few eerie places along the way—just in time for Halloween.
The West: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State
The Independence Pass portion of the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway often makes lists of top fall foliage drives. The rest of this Colorado Rocky Mountain journey isn’t too shabby, either, with towering peaks, bighorn sheep and antelope, historic mining towns, glacial lakes, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventures.
The Colorado Mountain Circle Tour starts in Golden, CO, where you can toast the season with a beer after touring the Coors Brewery, to Estes Park, with its famous (and reportedly haunted) Stanley Hotel. Along the way you’re treated to the sight of golden aspen trees and the sound of bugling elk.
A drive in Oregon Trail Country takes you from Portland—with its many parks, gardens, and brewpubs—to Mount Hood National Forest and its seasonal colors. Alternatively, the Supernatural Pacific Northwest road trip—also new for 2013—travels west from Portland, up the Oregon coast and into Washington State, stopping at some of the region’s most scenic (and spookiest) sights. If you’d like to pair Seattle with some rural Washington State sightseeing, consider the Mountains to Sound Greenway Scenic Byway, which cuts across Mount Rainier National Park.