Fall Foliage Driving Tours: Best October Road Trips

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. Check this fall foliage prediction map to find leaves at their peak across the United States.

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.

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Other Fall Foliage Drives in the US

The Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee and Mississippi

Photo of the highway with fall foliage and a sign that reads "nature trail"
Natchez Trace Parkway. Photo © Anton Foltin/Dreamstime.com.

One of the best places in the South to see the leaves change, fall is a popular time to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway. Stark white cotton balls in bloom are a breathtaking contrast to the rich yellows and golds on the trees. This is also a great time of year to explore Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans, as the temperatures are cooler and the crowds have dispersed. Plan your leaf peeping trip along the Natchez Trace with help and updates from the National Park Service.

Alpine Loop in Utah

Photo of the mountains with fall foliage on Alpine Loop in Utah.
Alpine Loop View. Photo © Relato/Dreamstime.com
Aspens turn gold in the high country in late September-early October, followed by colorful displays of oaks, cottonwoods, and other deciduous plants in lower canyons. This can be a wonderful time to travel in Utah.

A great fall road trip is Alpine Loop. From its start at the mouth of American Fork, the road climbs through a stunning canyon past Timpanogos Cave National Monument. (Stop for a cave tour if you have most of the day to make this drive.) It then climbs to an 8,000-foot summit with views of Mount Timpanogos. Just past the summit, consider taking the turnoff to Cascade Springs to see spring water gush from the ground and flow down a series of lushly vegetated travertine terraces. Back on the main scenic drive, the road continues through a grove of aspen trees, passes Sundance Resort (worth a stop) and descends to Provo Canyon. Ticket booths at either end of the drive sell the required $6. Don’t aim for a winter drive here; snow usually closes the road from late October until late May.

Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon

View of a winding road with fall trees on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Historic Columbia River Highway. Photo © Paula Cobleigh/Dreamstime.com.
The Historic Columbia River Highway, also now known as U.S. 30, is made up primarily of two drivable, disconnected stretches that still preserve the magic of the old road, leisurely guiding you to many of the region’s highlights: panoramic viewpoints, roadside waterfalls, and trailheads that allow you to explore the breathtaking scenery in more depth. Plan to tour the Columbia River Gorge in late September to the middle of October.

Baraga to Copper Harbor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Keweenaw Peninsula on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo © Sne Hit Design/Dreamstime.com.
Planning a fall color tour of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula can be tricky, as the timing of peak colors is often unpredictable. The risk is that you’ll arrive a week early and be met with a landscape of midsummer green, or you’ll come too late and be greeted by a sea of bare trees. But the fortunate traveler is in for a real treat. If your timing is right, all you need to enjoy the glory of countless trees in their peak color is the will to get outside. The Keweenaw Peninsula from mid-September to early October showcases the best colors. A leisurely drive from Baraga to Copper Harbor (the base of the peninsula to the tip) is about 150 miles and takes about three hours.

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