It’s leaf-peeping season: Avoid the crowds on these scenic drives

It’s leaf-peeping season: Avoid the crowds on these scenic drives

Published September 15, 2023

7 min read

Come fall, there are many leaf-peeping opportunities in America’s national parks. But the great outdoors extends far beyond official park boundaries.

Here are six scenic autumnal drives winding through some of the United States’ wildest and most iconic landscapes, from state parks and national forests to scenic byways and charming mountain roads.

Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Scenic Byway

Wisconsin’s 70-mile Lake Superior Scenic Byway traces the coastline of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, one of only three national lakeshores in the U.S. From late September through early October, the route is awash with turning leaves (red maples, yellow birches) mixed with evergreens. See the best of them in Port Wing Boreal Forest and Houghton Falls State Natural Area, which feature several plunging waterfalls and gorges. 

About a third of the way through the route, seven miles from Bayfield, you’ll arrive at Frog Bay National Tribal Park, the nation’s first tribal national park. Here, on the sovereign lands of the local Red Cliff Indigenous people, visitors can hike along several short trails through old-growth forests and relax on the beachy shores of Gichigami (the Red Cliff people’s word for Lake Superior).

(One of these seven places may be America’s next national park.)

West Virginia’s Seneca Skyway

The autumn colors peak in mid-to-late October on West Virginia’s Seneca Skyway, a 300-mile loop through the Potomac Highlands. Highlights include the expansive Monongahela National Forest, which covers over 919,000 acres in 10 counties. In 2021, Watoga State Park became a designated Dark Sky Park

Seneca Rocks, a stunning formation with dozens of surrounding hiking trails, was once used by the U.S. Army for wilderness assault training. Stay in the wild without a tent by overnighting at the top of a 65-foot-tall fire tower in Seneca State Forest

(America’s newest national park is a haven for outdoor adventure.)

Arizona’s White Mountain Scenic Road

Despite its deserts and canyons, Arizona is one of the best places in the Southwest for changing leaves—if you know where to look. Start at 7,000 feet in the town of Pinetop-Lakeside, where giant maples offer pops of color between the world’s largest contiguous stretch of ponderosa pines. From here, travel through the White Mountain Apache Reservation on State Route 260, where the aspen leaves turn amber, crimson, and gold hues between late October and mid-November.

Stop at the Sunrise Ski Park for a leisurely chairlift ride up White Mountain to view fall colors from above. Journey further to Big Lake to see foliage at 9,000 feet. On the drive spot bald eagles, enormous elk, or bears foraging before hibernation.

South Carolina’s Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway

The leaves of red maples, box elders, and scarlet and black oaks turn late in northern South Carolina—usually from mid-October to early November. That’s the perfect time to take a spin along the 110-mile Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, (also known as Scenic 11), which traces the Blue Ridge Mountains. It takes visitors through six state parks, offering several overlooks for epic views. There are over 120 waterfalls along the drive. They include 420-foot Raven Cliff Falls, where a suspension bridge offers one of the two publicly accessible overlooks, and Lower Whitewater Falls, the highest set of falls in eastern North America, at 411 feet.

Minnesota’s Great River Road

Beginning at the Mississippi River headwaters at Itasca State Park, this 565-mile journey through Minnesota travels numerous state parks such as Great River Bluffs. Hike the King’s Bluff trail to discover sweeping fall views of the Mississippi River Valley from mid-to-late-September through mid-October. Along the way, you can overnight at Lake Bemidji State Park under a canopy of golden tamarack and katsura trees.

Break up the drive with narrated nature cruises on Lake Itasca, paddleboat rides on the Mississippi River, and scenic overlooks of red maple forests in Frontenac and Great River Bluffs state parks, which are prime spots for observing bald eagles and other birds. 

(See the northern lights as often as 200 nights per year in this national park.)

Idaho’s Sawtooth Scenic Byway

While evergreen pines are the most common tree along Idaho’s 116-mile Sawtooth Scenic Byway, you’ll also spot the western larch, one of just two conifers in the U.S. with needles that turn color in autumn. Amid the yellow branches of the larch, early October to mid-November also brings yellow aspen, golden cottonwoods, and sprinklings of orange birch and flaming red maple.

The drive runs through Idaho’s stunning Sawtooth National Recreational Area and Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness. It winds past the Boulder Mountains, dense with pine forest and populated by deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. Stay overnight in Salmon-Challis National Forest or Sawtooth National Forest, to glimpse the cosmos in the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, America’s first Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Reserve.

Cassandra Brooklyn is a New York City-based writer and tour leader who specializes in sustainability and the outdoors. She is the author of the guidebook Cuba by Bike. Follow her on Instagram and X.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *