It’s nice to see the fresh growth in the springtime after a long winter. It’s even nice to enjoy the bright summer weather and green panoramas throughout the countryside. But come fall, there’s a new breathtaking sight: brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges that paint the hillsides in an entirely new light.
One of the best ways to see these changes is by going on a fall leaf-viewing road trip across the U.S. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a drawn-out affair (unless you want it to be); even a few miles will do if you pick the right spot. Even better, it’s the perfect affordable travel option, as you can bring your own packed meals and enjoy a picnic along the way. Here are the six best foliage drives throughout the U.S. that are worth checking out this fall. (See also: 4 Affordable Autumn Destinations for Nature Lovers)
1. Colorado’s Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway
The Rocky Mountains are already one of the most scenic vistas in the world. But when you add in splashes of fall color from the Aspen trees, it turns into a gorgeous view that’ll send shivers down your spine.
The Peak-to-Peak highway runs 55 miles from north to south. It starts in the north in the scenic town of Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountains National Park, and heads south through Blackhawk and Clear Creek Canyon down to I-70. Along the way, you’ll pass several stop-worthy destinations, such as Nederland (with its most famous resident, the “frozen dead guy”), Eldora Ski Resort, and more hiking trails than you can shake a stick at. For best leaf-color viewing, head out in late September to mid October. (See also: 7 Beautiful Ski Resorts to Visit This Fall)
2. New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway
New England is legendary for its fall colors since almost the entire region is blanketed in a swath of deciduous forests. But if you want the best of the best, northern New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway (pronounced “kank-ah-mah-gus”) is where you should point your vehicle. The first two weeks in October is the best time to drive this route.
This 34.5-mile drive won’t take you too long to complete, but why not spend a bit more time in the area and stop along the way? There are plenty of hiking trails for friends and family members of all abilities, and at least four different waterfalls to explore along the way. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might even spot some of the area’s secretive wildlife, such as bears, deer, and even moose. (See also: 10 Ways to Enjoy Fall Camping)
3. Michigan’s M22
This 116-mile stretch of road has been voted by numerous newspapers and websites as one of the most scenic drives in America. Once peak fall colors hit during the first week in October, however, it takes on a whole new level of beauty. M22 snakes through scores of quaint cottage towns along the coast of Lake Michigan, starting in the south at Manistee and working its way along Michigan’s little pinky finger to Traverse City, the cherry capital of the world.
Make sure to stop at the Empire Bluff Trail (1.5 miles round trip) for an amazing photo of blood-red trees meeting a set of high bluffs that curve around a perfect view of Lake Michigan. There are also several lighthouses along or near the route, such as the Point Betsie lighthouse and the Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
4. Washington’s Cascade Loop
The Cascade Loop is a 440-mile long odyssey, and you’re sure to find plenty of adventures along the way. For many people, the loop starts just north of Seattle in Everett, Washington, before skirting up near the famous San Juan Islands. From there, it heads inland and parallels the Canadian border before dipping back down near the 55-mile-long Lake Chelan. The route then heads back to its starting location, but not before passing through the idyllic Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth. Other notable stops include Wallace Falls State Park, with its namesake 265-foot waterfall, and the wild west-themed village of Winthrop.
5. North Carolina and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is long: 469 miles, to be exact. It also snakes through a wide range of different elevations, slopes, and environments, so you’ll definitely see some color somewhere along the way between early October and early November.
The Parkway starts at Rockfish Gap in Virginia, and winds its way south to Cherokee, North Carolina. Make sure to stop and get a photo of the iconic Mabry Mill, a historical Appalachian sawmill, or check out one of the many bluegrass concerts that take place throughout the year.
If you’d rather stretch your legs a bit more after the long car ride, you’ll be delighted to hear that there are over 369 miles of trails off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Many of these trails head back to scenic waterfalls — perfect for the budding photographer in you.
6. California’s Wine Road
If you’re a wine lover, there’s no better place to visit than California’s Wine Road. Rather than a single, official route such as the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway or the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Wine Road is more of a loose collection of wineries and lodging options located throughout California’s famed Sonoma County. The Wine Road helps guide travelers through the backroads and byways to almost 200 individual wineries and 54 lodging options.
You could spend months exploring the area, however fall is one of the most beautiful times to visit. The vines pass from shades of green, on to gold, and finishing up with bright reds.
As if that wasn’t enough, fall is harvest time in wine country, and it’s the subject of much ado. You can check out the Wine Road’s farm-to-table dinners, harvest parties, crisp vineyard hikes, and, of course, wine tastings. All of this can get expensive if you’re not careful, however you can purchase a one-day tasting pass that’ll give you access to tasting three different wines at 60 different wineries, for a mere $35.