Summer's end signals the last days of warm weather in most areas. But it also means the return of fall's dazzling colors in full display as trees begin to turn for the season. You can plan entire trips around leaf peeping, whether it's heading to a national park for unimpeded foliage or planning a drive to take in the dazzling orange, red, and yellow hues that dominate the landscape. And while the pastime is popular enough to drive crowds to well-known viewing destinations, there are still plenty of under-the-radar options for getting your fix. Read on to see which secret places in the U.S. experts say are the best to see fall foliage.
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A trip to Southern California doesn't necessarily have to be all about palm trees and the beach. Inland areas of the state also have an autumnal charm of their very own, especially in the town of Julian.
"This town is just an hour east of San Diego, where you will get to enjoy all the classic fall activities you didn't know were possible in this part of the U.S.," says Kimberley DeLauro, founder of Ready Aim Travel. "Julian is famous for its delicious fresh-baked apple pies, as well as orchards where you can pick your own apples. Anywhere you step in this town, you are surrounded by the beautiful hues of fall, even if you decide to just enjoy them from the window of a cute log cabin cafe."
It's not hard to believe a city with Denver's reputation for nature appreciation would find something to love about the turning of the leaves. And according to experts, a quick loop in the car can get in some of the best fall scenery anywhere in the U.S.
"A surefire way to get a glimpse of fall color is to head for higher elevations and take a whiff of the crisp mountain air," Jen Young, chief marketing officer for Outdoorsy, tells Best Life. "Thanks in large part to the state's Aspen tree population, Denver is within an hour's drive of some of the most scenic fall settings in the U.S. Two of my favorites: The Lariat Loop Scenic Byway from Evergreen to Bergen Park and down through the cute mountain town of Golden and the Peak to Peak Byway connecting Black Hawk to Estes Park—otherwise known as the backyard to Rocky Mountain National Park."
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Even though it's known for its summering community, those who hang around Mackinac Island long enough into autumn will be treated to gorgeous foliage as the last bits of warm weather wave goodbye.
"While we all know and love the summer season here on Mackinac, the island has just as much to offer in the fall months as well," says David Jurcak, president of operations at Grand Hotel. "Visitors will enjoy some of northern Michigan's most stunning autumn foliage on the island through early October, making it one of my favorite times of year to experience this special place."
If you're looking for a unique perspective, rise before the sun and get out on the water for a kayak tour of the island and take in views of its famed limestone formations, including Arch Rock which towers above a maze of underwater rock.
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Litchfield Hills, Connecticut
It's fair to say that New England overall holds one of the best reputations for fall foliage. But while many leaf peepers head much further north into Vermont and New Hampshire, the southern corner of the region still puts on a dazzling seasonal color show.
"Located in northwestern Connecticut, Litchfield Hills will be sure to fulfill your fall foliage fantasies with its impressive hikes, dense forests, and endearing towns," says Xanthe Steer, travel blogger and owner of Places Unpacked. "Visit from late September until the end of October to witness the woods ablaze with firey leaves floating down to dewey, textured paths."
"Litchfield rests among the hills of the Berkshire Mountains offering a depth of mesmerizing views and rustic hikes filled with sparkling waterfalls, bridges, and summits. But we know the autumnal feels come from more than just the foliage, which is why the eclectic mix of historic buildings set among cozy boutique cafes and inns is what makes this area the perfect harvest haven," she says.
Brooklyn, New York
It's safe to say that New York isn't called the Big Apple for its association to fall weather. However, the same green spaces and parks that draw in millions of visitors a year put on a dazzling autumnal show that's enhanced by their big city backdrop.
"Call me crazy, but having spent many of my formative years in Brooklyn and chasing photos of the most beautiful trees during autumn, this is actually a secret place in the U.S. to see fall foliage at its best," Becca Siegel, co-owner of Halfhalftravel.com, tells Best Life. "When you picture fall foliage, you probably picture rolling hills and mountains or tree-lined country roads. But fall foliage is completely picturesque when the trees turn red, orange, and yellow against the historic brownstone homes of neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and in Fort Greene Park, where spectacular yellow foliage lines pedestrian pathways and is most vibrantly seen in the early morning and before sunset."
Between checking out the borough's vibrant dining scene and museum offerings, visitors can also take time to walk through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, finished off with a stroll through nearby Prospect Park.
If you're hoping to cross any major historical sites off of your bucket list this year, experts say the beginning of autumn can make Gettysburg that much more special of a trip.
"The temperatures are pleasant in autumn, and it's an especially lovely time to visit," travel expert Leslie Carbone of Sancerres at Sunset tells Best Life. "The battlefield is dotted with large, stately trees that bring a welcome sense of peacefulness. And when they're decked out in the golden oranges and russet reds of fall, they add a transitory beauty that reflects both the sorrows that the Park honors and the hope of renewal."
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Bar Harbor, Maine
Even though New England may be a top destination for leaf peepers, it can pay to get further up north where the crowds begin to thin out. And on Maine's northern coast, one town stands out for its natural beauty among visitors and locals alike.
"I had the pleasure of working summers in Bar Harbor years ago and fondly remember staying through the fall just to experience the changing of the leaves and the most beautiful scenic drive of the Bold Coast National Scenic Byway," Heidi Ferguson, a travel expert and former flight attendant, tells Best Life. "If you love drives up the coast, stopping along the way at mom-and-pop restaurants, and watching the waves crash against the scenic shores all while admiring the stunningly beautiful harvest gold leaves and red colors of fall, then this is the trip for you. I have returned to this spot many times over the years, and the drive never gets old."
The Pacific Northwest is known for its easy access to nature, making fall foliage season much more enjoyable. However, to get the most out of it, experts suggest basing yourself out of Portland, Oregon and hitting the road for a uniquely beautiful autumn experience.
"Pack up a picnic, hit the Historic Columbia River Highway, and get ready to fall in love with the lush, colorful displays of nature along the route," says Young. "Starting 20 miles outside of Portland in Corbett, the road heads east toward Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls, Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and a few other scenic stopping points suitable for leg stretching and picture snapping."
Young adds that there's one way to make the trip even more enjoyable. "Take a weekday off work and have the road all to yourself. And if you'd prefer to stay close to the city, there's no better quick weekend getaway than heading for the hills at Forest Park and hitting the trail along the Pittock Mansion Hike, which rewards visitors with 360-degree views of the entire city. Soak in views of Portland below and sneak a peek of Mt. Hood if the weather is clear."
Fort Payne, Alabama
If there's anywhere in the country that gets robbed of regular fall colors, it's the deep south. But locations like Fort Payne, Alabama make it possible for locals and visitors to take in the foliage change without having to get on an airplane or drive for days.
"I drove here with my children because it was the closest place to Florida to get a true look at fall foliage without having to travel by air," says Ferguson. "It borders the Appalachian mountains and isn't too crowded. Perfect for us Floridians who miss the seasons."
"You will find a lot of other state parks and scenic byways along the Fall Color Trail. We went in late September through early October, and it was glorious," she adds.
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Virginia is steeped in as much history as it is natural beauty. Now, with the state's burgeoning wine and brewery scene, autumn can provide just one more reason to book a trip.
"Charlottesville and its surroundings are always beautiful, but their magic truly shines once the foliage starts changing color starting in early October," Diana Vicheva, a travel expert and editorial manager at Expo Travel Group, tells Best Life. "You can enjoy the oak leaves' brilliant hues by strolling along the historic streets of Charlottesville. And explore the University of Virginia's campus, where you will find gorgeous old trees—sycamores, ash and maple trees, oaks, and the ginkgo next to the Rotunda, just to name a few. You could also feast your eyes on the vibrant foliage views during the 'golden hour' right before sunset while having a cocktail or local specialty at one of Charlottesville's rooftop bars and restaurants."