Scenic Fall Drives in the USA
There is something incredibly nostalgic and remarkable about the season change. Every change affects us in its unique way, reminding us of our seen and unseen connection with nature. Hectic growing days of summer come to an end as the sun jumps over the southern hemisphere. Autumn is a magical time slice just before the annual slumber of our hemisphere. It is a time when leaves dance in the crisp breeze, sunlight slants lazily, and the sweet warmth of pumpkin spreads around. For me, there is no better way to soak in autumnal joy than to get outdoors. Driving is the easiest and comfortable way to feast your eyes on the spectacular fall scenery with your clan. We have beautiful scenic fall drives in every state, I think East Coast has definitely the prettiest ones. My heart always gets overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of nature’s montage of color. (and eyes are oversaturated by bold colors!).
The actual times and qualities of peak fall color depend on weather and elevation. Here is a link to an interactive fall foliage prediction map to plan your drive. https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/
I asked a few fellow leaf-peepers about their favorite fall experiences on the road. Here you got a great list of some of the gorgeous fall drives around the country.
Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, New York
– James Ian
I live in New York City, so it is an easy weekend trip for me that I do every fall, but even if you live further afield, it is worth the journey. The Hudson Valley is actually a large area, but my favorite part is the Mid-Hudson Valley, roughly between New Paltz and Kingston on the west side of the river and Poughkeepsie to Rhinebeck on the opposite side. Along this stretch of the river on the east bank, there are several historic mansions dating from the gilded age. You can visit the houses, but in fall, it is their expansive gardens and wooded areas that steal the show. Places like Mills Mansion and Clermont Mansion have huge areas you can walk around, complete with stunning fall color, and with access to, or views of, the Hudson River. It can get chilly, but I love to take a picnic and enjoy the views surrounded by the golden colors of fall.
I also love hiking in the Hudson Valley. A personal fall favorite is the Minnewaska Lake loop. About 2/3 of the way around the lake, going in a counterclockwise direction, is a short, poorly marked trail (but there are always a few other people there, so it is easy to find) that takes you to a lookout with absolutely amazing views over the forest and valley. This is one of my all-time favorite hikes to do in the fall to see the color. I also love visiting Mohonk Mountain House. You can stay overnight (which I recommend for a splurge) or get a day hike pass. However, I usually book the brunch, enjoy the mouth-watering buffet, and then get access to the grounds. There is another lake surrounded by fall foliage.
Alpine Scenic Loop, Utah
– Ashley Luke
This 20-mile drive is part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and is open till late October. The best place to start the drive is through American Fork that is less an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City. Besides beautiful autumn colors, there are chances to spot mountain goats, deer, elks, and maybe black bears. I was lucky to spot three mountain goats on the rocky hillside just off the road as I drove into the canyon. A little up on the canyon is the entrance to Timpanogos cave. If you are in a mood for an underground hike, this is one of the magnificent caves in the Rocky Mountains to explore.
After about 10 minutes up in the mountains, the colors appear almost instantly. My favorite hillside was lit up with bright red trees! It looked like something out of a movie. The road begins to narrow as you go through the backside of the Alpine Loop. There are lots of great places to stop along the road. Be careful where you park your car. I saw lots of cars that were parked illegally with tickets sitting on their windows.
As I started to come back down the mountain, I stopped at the Sundance Resort (Robert Redford’s resort, also made famous by the Sundance Film Festival) for lunch and some great pictures. You can also take the chair lift to the top of the mountain here to get a great view of fall colors. To complete the loop from Sundance you will head down the Provo Canyon and past one of the tallest waterfalls in Utah, Bridal Veil Falls. This is where my favorite fall drive concludes. Read some of my other favorite road trips.
The Northeast Kingdom, Vermont
– by Karen Warren
If you ask me, there is no better place in Vermont for fall foliage than the Northeast Kingdom. The NEK, as it’s called locally, is located in the northeast part of Vermont bordered by Canada to the north and New Hampshire to the east. As an outdoor adventurer, I find hiking and biking in this area yields the best interactions with the reds, oranges, and yellows of the NEK forests. Lake Willoughby and Mount Burke are my favorite places to find fall splendor in the Northeast Kingdom. Burke Mountain area is only about 40 minutes away from St Johnsbury via highway 2 that passes through quaint backroads. Burke Mountain area offers many hiking and biking trails. The Kingdom Trails are a mountain biker’s mecca with trails for all ability levels. A $15 day-pass gives access to 100+ miles of multiuse trails with incredible local scenery. I also like to drive the toll road to the top of Burke Mountain and hike the trails on the summit for foliage views. I climbed the fire tower on the mountain for a 360 panoramic view of the surrounding area in flames of fall colors. Finally, when I have my fill of outdoor adventure, the charming town of East Burke is fun to explore. The Lake Willoughby is about 20 miles from Mount Burke. My favorite hike here is Mount Pisgah, a striking rock face carved by the glacier that created Lake Willoughby. The two-mile hike to the top is steep but the views from the lookouts make it all worthwhile. Looking down on the fjord-like lake and the colors scattered over the mountains as far away as Canada is stunning. If you prefer to enjoy the fall season with hiking, I will suggest these hikes in Northern Vermont.
Here are some of my personal favorites, each overloaded with cherished memories.
Skyline Drive, Virginia
Skyline Drive is a 105-mile long meandering road that runs through Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah National Park was our backyard when we lived in Richmond. Skyline Drive runs north to south and starts from Front Royal, but we had always driven it from the southern terminus towards Front Royal. Front Royal is about an hour and a half drive from Washington DC. It has several scenic overlooks with panoramic vistas of the valley, that looks like a massive watercolor painting. Old Rag, Big Run, and Hogback are my top favorites. If I have to choose one fall hike, it will be Dark Hallows Falls. A hearty country dinner at Big Meadows Lodge along with live music is a great way to relax after a busy day.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina
Blue Ridge Parkway is the best fall drive so far! It starts where Skyline drive ends and goes all the way to Great Smoky National Park. Come fall and this iconic 469-mile drive transform into an explosion of colors. We have driven the first 85 miles to Peaks of Otter several times, and it is just out of the photobooks pretty. A climb up to the Sharp Top Mountain is a must, especially when there is a shuttle to do all the hard work of climbing!
We had driven all the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park once. My favorite section is from Mabry Mill (milepost 176) to Grandfather Mountain (milepost 308).
There are so many places to stop along this section for short or long hikes to soak in the fall season. The access trail to an overlook for the famed Linn Cove Viaduct is at milepost 304. A detour to Mile Hile Swinging Bridge from milepost 308 is not to miss. Here is an excellent resource to plan your Blue Ridge Parkway driving trip – https://www.blueridgeparkway.org/parkway-map/
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
If you want to visit a national park for fall foliage, Great Smoky is the ultimate choice. There are so many scenic drives to choose from. Some of my absolute favorites for driving are Clingman Dome road, Roaring Fork road, and Rich Mountain road. Clingman Dome road is only 7-mile long that goes to the highest point of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A short half-mile climb goes to the observation rewarding climbers with sweeping 360° views. Roaring Fork road is a 5.5-mile one-way narrow drive that loops through old-growth forest, cascading streams, and historic buildings. Rich Mountain Road is an 8-mile one-way gravel road with picture-perfect views of Cades Cove below.
Cades Cove Loop is a classic 11-mile one-way road that I prefer to bike for an intimate and immersive experience. Cades Cove has an ethereal feel when fog or clouds roll in. Visit the National Park Service website for road conditions and link to their awesome app for park trip planning.
Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
Any road through San Juan National Forest is breathtaking for fall foliage extravaganza, and a 25-mile long section between Silverton and Ouray is just beyond words. There are many stories about the origin of its name, for me, it is Million Dollar Highway because of its scenery. This engineering marvel is incredibly beautiful in the fall season. It twists and turns through the deep Uncompahgre Gorge. It is a thrilling drive without the safety of guardrails along the edge of the cliff. Silverton is a charming town with a mining history.
Before embarking on Million Dollar Highway from Silverton, we hopped on the famed narrow gauge train to Durango, and it was a fun ride. Ouray also started out as a gold and silver mining town and now it is promoted as Switzerland of America.
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, Utah
As if Zion Caynon itself is not enough to enchant our hearts! Visiting Zion in the fall is a delightful experience. The stark contrast of deep blue skies, red rock mountains, and gold-hued cottonwood trees are simply captivating. My preferred way to enjoy this scenic drive is by taking a shuttle all the way to the Temple of Sinwava and then bike back seven miles to the visitor center. My favorite hike is Observation Point for stunning panoramic views of the canyons.
Mountain Loop Highway, Washington
This 52-mile scenic highway is close to home, i.e. Seattle, and I am looking forward to exploring it when fall foliage will be at its peak in the second week of October. Mountain Loop Highway weaves through North Cascades, and I have heard great raves about it.
Some of the highly-acclaimed drives which I did not get an opportunity to explore yet and are on my list for the near future:
- Going-to-the-sun Road, Montana, 50 miles
- White Mountain Trail, New Hampshire, 100 miles
- Moose Path Trail, New Hampshire, 98 miles
With a content heart and refreshed spirits, it is time to snuggle in a blanket with a book after dark. Here are recipes of my all-time favorite fall drinks.
Combine a bottle of red wine, 2 cups of apple cider, ¼ cup brandy, 2 tablespoon honey, cinnamon sticks, one orange sliced, cloves, and peppercorns in a large pot. Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. Pour it in a big mug and enjoy!
Classic Hot Toddy
Combine two cup water, ½ cup whiskey, honey, lemon juice, and cinnamon sticks in a large pot. Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. Enjoy the magic of fall!
Books I am planning to read this fall season
1. Upon that mountain by Eric Shipton
2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
3. We Cast A Shadow by Maurice Ruffin
Hope you are also excited about fall foliage and have one or maybe more favorite roads to experience it.
Happy Autumn and safe travels!