When it comes to autumn leaf peeping, there are just two words on everyone’s mind: New England. With their dense hardwood forests, meandering back roads, picture-perfect small towns and quaint covered bridges, this portion of the original 13 colonies outshines all the other states in the union.
Or do they? Personally, after spending five years living on the road as a digital nomad, I take hearty exception to New England’s monopoly on fall foliage. I’ve found myself gob-smacked by autumnal beauty in places I’d never have expected, such as New Mexico’s high desert, or the far northern shores of the Great Lakes, or the flinty foothills along the Georgia-Tennessee border. And along with breathtaking displays of changing leaves, these out-of-the-way destinations have the added advantage of being far less crowded by other camera-wielding looky-loos.
This year, it behooves us all to find alternative destinations to indulge our seasonal travel plans. So as you’re planning your fall color tour, tree-t yourself (sorry — couldn’t help it) to the opportunity for exploring a brand-new side of the season in one of these highly underrated destinations for fall foliage.
This fabled drive through the beating heart of Appalachia is an autumn mood unto itself. The hollows in these ancient mountains trap heat within them that, when it rises to meet the cold mountain air, creates the effect of constant mist curling upward from the trees. (Hence the name “Great Smoky Mountains.”) In autumn, it’s a rare and wonderful sight. This region also features one of the longest running fall leaf seasons in the world, so you can take your time rambling from Cumberland Knob down to Maggie Valley.
The boreal forests of Northern Michigan are one of the best-kept fall foliage secrets in the country. The lush colors of golden birch, red maple, and bronze oak leaves are extra striking when set against the deep indigo of Lake Superior. A trip to Marquette, the Upper Peninsula’s only major city, offers endless autumn vistas from quaint downtown strolls to coasting along the lakefront bike path to hikes up Sugarloaf Mountain.
If you like your fall color with a side of wildlife, there’s no better destination than Jackson Hole. A trip through Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks offers the sight of bison, elk, or antelope herds grazing against the quaking aspen and Rocky Mountain maple leaves, as well as the chance to see those same fall colors reflected in the glassy surface of Jenny Lake. If you’ve got the legs for a steep hike up Snow King, Jackson’s centerpiece ski run, you’ll get the coveted sight of aspen gold set off by the pink blush of alpenglow on the facing mountain peaks.
Autumn in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “fields of gold.” Rather than a variegated mix of hardwood trees, you’ll lose yourself in layer upon layer of deep yellow aspen leaves, trembling in the brisk wind of the high desert. The 11-mile hike along Santa Fe’s Aspen Vista Trail will put you up close and personal with this unforgettable fall foliage display, or you can drive the High Road to Taos to explore the landscape more fully, along with the tiny historic towns along the way.
The Chattahoochee National Forest is a wonderland of color when fall arrives, with poplar, dogwood, oak, hickory, and maple trees painting the landscape in a haze of red and orange, mauve and bronze. A hike up Blood Mountain yields stunning views out over the Appalachian Mountains, as well as bragging rights for having summited Georgia’s highest peak on the Appalachian Trail. If you’re in the mood for a challenging drive, you can test your mettle against Dragon Eyes, a 77-mile double loop full of wicked curves and breathtaking views.
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