As the temperature drops and autumn sets in, Mother Nature is painting the treetops in vibrant hues of red, orange and gold, and many people are planning their leaf-viewing vacations. Check out our 2016 guide to autumn's colorful displays and find out the best times and places to view the fall foliage in your area.
Leaves change around Walden Pond. (Photo: eflon/flickr)
Peak time: Foliage season begins in this region typically in mid-September and can extend through late October, but early- to mid-October is the best time to catch the fall colors. If you're heading to a coastal destination, peak viewing time likely will be in mid October.
Where to go: Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, inspired Henry David Thoreau, and when you see the autumn’s colors reflected in the water, you’ll understand why. The Catskills and Adirondacks are classic foliage destinations where you can catch several leaf peeping tours or simply wander among the vivid, leafy boughs on your own. Hike to the top of Hogback Mountain in southern Vermont and you’ll be rewarded with a 100-mile view of orange, scarlet and gold. The small town of Medfield, Massachusetts., is a quiet destination off the beaten path where you can walk six miles of footpaths through the gorgeous foliage at Rocky Woods State Reservation. New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest guarantees spectacular leaf viewing each year, especially during the first few weeks of October. Autumn comes a little later to coastal Maine, so head to Camden in early November to see the colorful islands of Penobscot Bay, or climb the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast at Acadia National Park and get a stunning view of the color-splashed landscape.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. (Photo: Upendra Kanda/flickr)
Peak time: Colors peak in the Southeast from late October to early November. Mountainous areas will begin showing color first, but autumn soon sweeps across the entire region.
Where to go: You’ll never fail to get breathtakingly colorful views with a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — there’s a reason it’s America’s most visited national park. If you’re looking to get a tour of what the Southern states have to offer, check out Alabama’s Fall Color Trail, which will take you from the scenic views of Oak Mountain State Park to Cheaha State Park, the highest point in the state at 2,407 feet above sea level. The overlook at South Carolina’s Caesar’s Head State Park offers one of the most stunning views of autumn in the Appalachians, and a hike to nearby Raven Cliff Falls offers an ideal photo opportunity where water cascades down the dramatic 400-foot falls surrounded by fall colors. The city of Asheville, North Carolina, is a great stop if you crave a hip urban setting surrounded by gorgeous foliage. Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Ocoee National Forest always has spectacular views for leaf peepers, especially during the third week of October. Arkansas’ Ozark Mountain Region also promises an array of crimsons, yellows and oranges that offers many stunning photo opportunities.
You can spot bald eagles and other birds among the leaves in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. (Photo: Cuyahoga jco/flickr)
Peak time: Early to mid-October is the best to for leaf peeping in this area of the country. By late October, the colors have typically faded and leaves are beginning to fall off the trees.
Where to go: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is home to some of the most gorgeous fall foliage in the country, framing the area’s more than 200 different waterfalls in a backdrop of spectacular color. Just 20 miles from downtown Cleveland, Ohio, sits Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a 33,000-acre preserve where you can spot bald eagles and other birds nestled among the leaves. The Illinois River Road National Scenic Biway offers the opportunity to see autumn’s splendor from a variety of viewpoints — from scenic bluffs to glistening waterways. Missouri’s Katy Trail is the nation’s longest rails-to-trails bike path, and it’ll take you through small towns and farmland and give you breathtaking view’s of the Midwest’s fall foliage.
Leaves begin to change around Belton Hills and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in Glacier National Park. (Photo: glaciernps/flickr)
Peak time: The fall colors are best viewed in early- to mid-October in Montana and South Dakota, while autumn really kicks off its show in central southern states in late October and even early November.
Where to go: They may be called the Black Hills, but this area of South Dakota is blanketed in a variety of colors every autumn. Leaf peepers looking for an overview of what the area has to offer should take a drive along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Biway. Montana’s Glacier National Park offers breathtaking views at all times of year, and fall is no different. Although the park is home to many evergreens, you’ll also see bright yellows and crimsons, which creates a stunning contrast among the greens. Nestled in the Missouri River bluffs in northeastern Nebraska, Ponca State Park offers gorgeous landscapes dotted with fall colors, and the Lone Star State has more to offer than just cacti — Lost Maples State Natural Area is a great place to see some of fall’s best oranges and yellows, especially in early November.
Fall starts early in Alaska's Denali National Park. (Photo: Alaskan Dude/flickr)
Peak time: Mid- to late October is the ideal time to see fall foliage in this part of the country.
Where to go: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area spans southern Washington and northern Oregon, and it’s the ideal place to see the colorful show put on by the area’s maples, cottonwoods and ash trees. The Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington is home to gorgeous creeks and lakes that reflect the colorful foliage, and Mount Rainier National Park boasts brilliant fall colors, thanks to its vine maples, huckleberry bushes and larch trees. Oregon’s 2.3 million-acre Fremont-Winema National Forest offers many scenic vistas of vibrant oranges and yellows, and Idaho's Teton Scenic Biway is a must-see with its variety of colors dotting the mountain range. You might be surprised to find so many hues in Alaska’s Denali National Park, but the area's breathtaking beauty gets much more colorful in the fall. Keep in mind that fall starts early and ends quickly in Denali, so make your way up there in late August to catch the park's brilliants reds and oranges.
West and Southwest
The Rio Chama in Abiquiu, New Mexico, is colorful in the fall. (Photo: Larry1732/flickr)
Peak time: Late September to mid-October is the ideal viewing time for the central west and Southwest’s fall foliage.
Where to go: Aspen may be known for its skiing, but every autumn the golden foliage of the town’s namesake tree makes the area’s slopes worth the trip even without snow. The leaves begin changing in Arizona’s Cococino National Forest as early as September, but the gold rush really beings in October. New Mexico’s Sangre De Christo mountains are splattered in orange, gold and yellow ever fall and offer a wealth of photo opportunities, and you can never go wrong with a trip to the Lake Tahoe area during this time of year. The fall color show lasts for weeks here, and the gorgeous foliage provides the perfect backdrop for the variety of outdoor activities available at Lake Tahoe.
Many states have their own fall foliage forecast websites, and you can learn more about the changing leaves and stay up to date on autumn's colors in your area with these sites, which we used for reference:
- U.S. Forest Services' fall color guide 2016
- The Weather Channel's fall foliage
- The Foliage Network
- Fall Foliage Prediction map
- Farmers' Almanac peak fall foliage dates
Editor's note: This story was originally published in October 2011 and has been updated with new information.