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A road trip is perhaps the epitome of the American vacation, regardless of the route you take. But a road trip through the nation’s most scenic and colorful fall foliage displays? That’s the epitome of an autumn American getaway.
The following eight drives — found in the Northeast, the Southwest and the mountain ranges in between — will immerse you in some of the best sites and experiences that the nation’s great outdoors offer this time of year. Most of them have earned a spot in the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program. Others are state-designated scenic byways.
If you’re new to road trips, don’t be intimidated. It’s impossible to screw one up — it’s about the experience and quality time with family and friends, or even just yourself. Remembering to pack road-trip essentials will make for smoother travels, though.
If you’re short on time this autumn, don’t let that deter you. The following adventures can be pulled off in an afternoon, or savored for days. The shortest drive is 37 miles and the longest is 469 miles, although several can easily be extended if you’re looking for a longer vacation.
1. Cherohala Skyway — North Carolina and Tennessee
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The Federal Highway Administration highlights this national scenic byway’s “mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage.”
The Cherohala Skyway stretches for some 40 miles between the towns of Robbinsville, North Carolina, and Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Along the way, the byway winds through two national forests for which it’s named, the Cherokee and Nantahala.
The leaves start turning as early as September in higher elevations and continue through mid-November in lower elevations.
Autumn recreational opportunities along Cherohala Skyway include outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and camping, thanks to moderate temperatures and little rainfall this time of year.
2. Blue Ridge Parkway — North Carolina and Virginia
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The National Scenic Byways Program recognizes 150 drives. A special minority are designated “All-American Roads.” That makes All-American Roads “the very best” of the roadways in the National Scenic Byways Program, says the nonprofit organization Scenic America.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is one such road. Travel its 469 miles in autumn and you’ll be treated to far more than turning leaves, says the Federal Highway Administration:
“The Parkway provides spectacular mountain and valley vistas, quiet pastoral scenes, sparkling waterfalls and colorful flower and foliage displays as it extends through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.”
The drive stretches southwestward from the center of Virginia, passing through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia and Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. It ends just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
For an extended trip, continue from there. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to 384 miles of roads with a leisurely average speed limit of 35 mph.
3. Woodlands Trace — Kentucky and Tennessee
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This 43-mile National Scenic Byway lies in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, which comprises some 170,000 acres of peninsula on the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. The recreation area has 300 miles of shoreline.
Besides brilliant fall foliage, Woodlands Trace features the Elk & Bison Prairie, Civil War sites and a planetarium.
4. Merritt Parkway — Connecticut
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This National Scenic Byway running through natural surroundings abounds with magnificent foliage in the fall as well as the spring, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Merritt Parkway is a 37-mile stretch of Connecticut’s Route 15. It runs through Connecticut’s panhandle, from the New York state line to the route’s intersection with the Housatonic River, near the Merritt Parkway Museum.
For a longer road trip, take Merritt Parkway’s Exit 38, which will put you on Connecticut’s fall foliage driving route Loop No. 1. This 115-mile drive will take you further into southwestern Connecticut. Area attractions include Lovers Leap State Park, situated on the Housatonic (pictured) in the town of New Milford.
According to Connecticut’s current fall foliage report, the state estimates its 2017 fall foliage season will peak from Oct. 5 through Nov. 8.
5. Olympic Trail — New York
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This state scenic byway spans upstate New York, including the Adirondack Mountains, stretching from Lake Champlain to Lake Ontario. Along the way, it runs through the village of Lake Placid (pictured), which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980.
Lake Placid also has been rated by Travel & Leisure readers as one of the best towns in America for fall colors. The magazine notes, however, that the entire 170-mile Olympic Trail puts on “a striking show of color” thanks to the trees that line it. They include:
- Red and silver maples
For even more autumn splendor, hop one of the Fall Foliage Trains on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
6. Mountain Maryland
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This state scenic byway runs through western Maryland, from the 2,900-foot scenic peak of Keysers Ridge to the city of Cumberland.
The 193-mile route is punctuated with mountain, forest, and river terrains as well as the state’s largest freshwater lake. Points of interest include multiple state parks and small towns like Oakland.
Oakland is another fall favorite recognized by Travel & Leisure, “thanks primarily to the blazing colors found just nine miles north of town at Swallow Falls State Park” (pictured). The publication continues:
“As the Youghiogheny River flows through rock gorges, the oldest stands of eastern hemlock and white pine — more than 360 years old — blanket the area in gold, orange, red, and that eternal green.”
7. Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway — New Mexico
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The Northeast might be known for its fall foliage, but you can find road trip-worthy displays of color far west of the Adirondacks and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Fodors’ top 10 recommendations last autumn included New Mexico’s Enchanted Circle, for example. The travel guide publisher says this looping byway, which covers some 80 miles, has become a pilgrimage for aspen aficionados this time of year:
“Here, the aspens turn not only yellow, but also dark orange. The route encircles 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point, and the mesas and mountain vistas offer a unique southwestern perspective on autumn color. While aspens steal the show, there are also purple cinquefoil and cottonwoods in fiery shades ranging from bright red to yellow.”
You’ll find the most vibrant colors along this byway from late September to early October, Fodors says.
8. Tioga Road/Big Oak Flat Road — California
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This National Scenic Byway runs through iconic Yosemite National Park (pictured), taking travelers through the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the highest automobile pass in California. Drive its 64-mile length, and you’ll experience an elevation change of more than one mile along the way.
The views range from glacier-carved granite peaks to Giant Sequoia groves. Its other trees also put on a show this time of year. Recreation.gov explains:
“Yosemite National Park and the adjacent Inyo National Forest are great places to view the deep reds of dogwoods, non-native sugar maples, spectacular aspens, and yes, even poison ivy and poison oak. With the arrival of fall, you might even have better luck reserving a Yosemite campsite.”
For a longer drive, just continue on into Inyo National Forest. Recreation.gov recommends the stretch of U.S. Route 395 between Lone Pine and Bridgeport and the many hiking opportunities along the way.
Do you have a favorite spot for watching the leaves turn in autumn? Tell us when and where you go by commenting below or over on our Facebook page.