No autumn is complete without seeing the changing of the leaves. And sure, not everyone lives in a climate where the fall colors are mesmerizing, but that's why road trips were invented! Even if you live in a place that boasts exceptional autumnal hues, a road trip is the best way to experience this special season.
That's because some of the best places to go leaf peeping are not so much "destinations" as they are "journeys." For folks living in the U.S., there are hundreds of scenic byways across the country that provide unparalleled opportunities to experience the beauty of fall foliage. These routes are perfect for spontaneous Sunday drives or pit stops along a greater cross-country journey.
There are several designations used to honor roads distinguished for their cultural, historical, ecological, recreational or scenic qualities. The most common type of designation is the National Scenic Byway, though there are also state scenic byways, National Forest Byways and Back Country Byways. Another type of scenic byway is a National Parkway, which is a type of protected roadway within federal park lands that is managed by the National Park Service for recreational use. Sometimes a road can have multiple honorary designations. If a particular parkway or scenic byway is especially outstanding, it may sometimes be bestowed with the additional title of "All-American Road."
Not sure where to start planning your leaf-peeping road trip? We've listed a few of our favorites below, and you can find even more on the America's Byways website.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The crown jewel of spectacular autumn drives is the Blue Ridge Parkway. Established in 1936, the 469-mile parkway in the heart of Appalachia serves as a connection between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because its reach is so extensive and accessible, the parkway is consistently ranked at the top of the National Park System's most visited list.
San Juan Skyway
It sometimes feels like the eastern U.S. has a monopoly on leaf-peeping tourism, but it would be a disservice not to mention to golden colors that take over the West each autumn. Colorado, in particular, really knocks it out of the park with its fall foliage. One of the best places to experience this is along the San Juan Skyway, a 233-mile loop that guides you through the many wonders of the San Juan Mountains.
Upper Delaware Scenic Byway
Also known as New York State Route 97, the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway stretches 70 miles along its namesake river and the Pennsylvania border. Punctuated by "undulating hills, long valley vistas and rock cut landscapes," this byway is perfect for a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive.
Nestled within the Appalachian Mountains, the Cherohala Skyway runs 43 miles from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina. First opened in 1996 after decades of planning and construction, the byway's name is a portmanteau of the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests.
Mount Nebo Scenic Byway
This 35-mile loop runs alongside the Mount Nebo Wilderness Area, where diverse communities of aspen, spruce-fir, oak and juniper thrive along central Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Flanked by campgrounds, trailheads and scenic pullouts, the byway is a great place to spend a weekend in nature.
Talimena Scenic Drive
Spanning 54 miles from southeastern Oklahoma to western Arkansas, this National Scenic Byway cuts through the middle of Ouachita National Forest — the oldest established national forest in the southern U.S. In the fall, the gentle, rolling mountains transform into an impressionist-esque smattering of golds, oranges and reds.
Essex Coastal Scenic Byway
Twisting and looping 90 miles across 14 coastal Massachusetts communities, the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway is distinguished for its wealth of picturesque views, recreational opportunities and historic attractions.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
If you ever happen to visit Nevada's Great Basin National Park, a leisurely sightseeing tour along Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is an absolutely must. That goes double in the fall, when the area's sub-alpine forest of white-barked aspen trees descend into their famous autumnal golden hues.
U.S. Route 40 Scenic
This may be the shortest roadway on our list at just 9.5 miles long, but make no mistake — U.S. Route 40 Scenic in western Maryland never fails to pack a punch. What makes this little stretch so notable is that even though it's technically not a scenic byway or parkway, it's famous for being the only "scenic route" in the country designated by the U.S. Highway System.