Fall Foliage Driving Tours: The Best October Road Trip

Think October and you probably imagine a color: vivid orange, from Halloween pumpkins and the vivid leaves of a highland forest. While you can find excellent fall color in almost every part of the country, from the mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to streamside groves in Utah and California, for drivers “fall color” means touring along New England country lanes or winding over Blue Ridge Mountain passes in search of the most intense red and gold maples, yellow birches, and purple dogwoods.

The actual times and qualities of peak fall color has to do with weather and elevation (summer rains followed by cold fall nights makes for the best displays). So timing is everything–leaves are at peak condition for only a few days, usually one side or the other of October 1st, starting earlier in the north and later in the south.

Beautiful red fall foliage at sunrise in Shenandoah National Park.
Autumn sunrise in Shenandoah National Park. Photo © tonda/iStock.

To see peak fall color, heading north to south, you can follow the leisurely flow of changing leaves; coming from the south to the north, you’re bound to cross the peak color at least once. More help: most “fall color” states, especially in New England, have online or telephone hotlines where you can get day-by-day status updates about the color of the leaves. Another thing to keep in mind: all month long, “leaf peepers” fill all the available B&Bs, motels and hotels to capacity, so plan ahead if you want to stay overnight.

Appalachian Trail Leaf Peeping

In the eastern US, wherever you start there’s no better route to follow in your quest for fall color than the legendary Appalachian Trail, which snakes along the crest from Maine down to Georgia. Early in October, make your way to the White Mountains area of New Hampshire, where a drive up Mount Washington will give you a grand overview of the heart of New England. Moving south, cruise through Pinkham Notch or over the Kancamagus Highway, and spend some time in idyllic Hanover, home to Dartmouth College. In Vermont, take a hike through Gifford Woods or Granville Gulf, then drive along the Green Mountains via Route 100 into Massachusetts, where quaint towns and villages dot the Berkshires. Between the Berkshires and the outer fringes of New York City, US-7 makes a leisurely run south across the western edge of Connecticut, where towns like Salisbury and Kent are welcome rest stops amidst the fall color scenery.

The Kancamagus Highway winding between fall foliage.
Fall along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Photo © Jen Rose Smith from Moon New England Road Trip.

Though the changing leaves aren’t always as intensely colored as those in New England, October is a great time to take a drive along the middle sections of the Appalachian Trail, within a day’s drive of Washington DC. Running through Delaware Gap and the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, past the Civil War battle fields at Gettysburg and Antietam, then on to the historic town of Harpers Ferry, this driving route offers much more than leaves to see. In Virginia, the route is better known as the Skyline Drive, and the forests of Shenandoah National Park are home to cascading waterfalls and high-flying hawks as well as offering stunning autumn color. In the valleys below, detour down to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Charlottesville or Woodrow Wilson’s Staunton.

Overview Blue Ridge Parkway map from Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip
Map overview from Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip travel guide.

At its southern end, running across western North Carolina and northern Georgia, the Appalachian Trail route rises to its highest heights along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic drive through the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey Mountains. Starting near the nostalgic Americana of Andy Griffiths’ fictional Mayberry (in real life: Mount Airy NC), the route winds past beautiful mountain hamlets before detouring down to the delightful small city of Asheville. The Blue Ridge Parkway ends up at the magnificent forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular park in the US, which is at its scenic best (and busiest!) during the October fall color season.

Aerial view of fall foliage along Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Fall foliage along Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo © Rick Berk/iStock.

Note: For tourists concerned about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, as of the time of this posting (9/24/18), the majority of North Carolina is ready for visitors, with some areas in the southeast corner of the state still recovering. VisitNC.com is an excellent resource for travel updates, road conditions, and which destinations or events have been impacted.

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October Fall Foliage Driving Tours pin with a photo of autumnal New England.