White Mountain National Forest

White Mountain National Forest

Top Parks for Fall Foliage Drives

September 10, 2010, 11:02 am

Ah, yet another fall foliage season is upon us. Here at OhRanger.com, leaf-peeping is one of the most eagerly-anticipated rituals of autumn. Last year, we featured our favorite parks to visit to soak up the red and golden hues in all their glory. This year, we offer a slightly different twist on the annual fall foliage pilgrimage: The best fall foliage drives through parks and public lands.

Letchworth State Park, New York

A drive along Park Road in Letchworth State Park in Castile, NY offer spectacular foliage and a wealth of adventure and cultural experiences. The park is known as the “Grand Canyon of the East” and its breathtaking views are even more majestic during foliage season. The gorge is one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern U.S., with the Genesee River roaring through its cliffs and creating waterfalls as tall as 600 feet. All of this is surrounded by lush forests that turn brilliant hues of amber, red and orange in autumn.

The park straddles New York State’s Finger Lakes and Greater Niagara Regions making it a prime jumping-off point for experiencing Upstate New York at its finest. If a drive through the park still doesn’t satisfy your yearning for fall foliage, take a hot air balloon ride over the canyon with Balloons Over Letchworth. Fall foliage rides are available through October. The Little Finger Lakes Wine Path in Livingston County, NY, is also a great way to explore. To aid in planning, check out fall activity recommendations at the Wyoming County, NY website.

Fall colors in the region peak during the third and fourth week of October. For up-to-the-minute color information, check out New York State’s Fall Foliage Report.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina

Typically, the Blue Ridge Parkway experiences the much anticipated change in fall foliage around the middle of October. Many factors, however, contribute to variations in when and where colors will peak.

The parkway stretches almost five hundred miles north to south, meanders from the east to west facing slopes, and, most importantly, varies in elevation from just under 650 feet at James River in Virginia, to over 6,000 feet south of Mt. Pisgah in North Carolina. Many visitors have been frustrated trying to go to one spot on one day in October, hoping to find the leaves in full color. A far better plan is to drive some distance on the parkway, changing elevations and north-south orientation. Anyone who does this around mid to late October will catch at least some of the pretty color that makes the region famous. Get a map and learn about the best places to stop along the way at blueridgeparkway.org.

White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

The Kancamagus Scenic Byway offers one of the most beautiful routes through New Hampshire's White Mountains, especially during the fall foliage season. A trip across the "Kanc" offers views of rushing rivers, a covered bridge, breathtaking vistas and possibly a glimpse of an elusive moose!

In fact, the Kancamagus Highway is often referred to as the best fall foliage trip in the U.S., and offers splendid vistas, vivid color between mid-September and mid-October.

Thousands of motorists travel the byway to catch a glimpse of the color change, so for weekend travel during the peak fall foliage season, make your plans far in advance. But don’t let the high traffic deter you from experiencing the vivid displays of color – you’ll have an excuse to drive slow and soak in the majestic displays of fall.

For an itinerary that outlines all of the best-kept secrets of the Kancamagus, visit byways.org. And be sure to end your trip in Conway, NH, for a stop at one of our favorite places, the bargain basement at International Mountain Equipment, for great deals on “new, like new, and OK” used gear!

 Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, Utah

See Utah in the height of its beauty, by taking a drive on the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway for a shimmering fall foliage tour you won’t soon forget.

The first trees that start to turn in Logan Canyon are the mountain and canyon maples, which generally start their fiery transformation at the beginning of October. Visit First Dam along the Logan River and enjoy the smell of autumn and the brilliant colors of the shrubbery and trees.

About two miles north from First Dam, stretch your legs and hike up the River Trail, where songbirds flirt and fly between crimson maples and sunshine-yellow box elders. About three miles further up the byway, The Crimson Trail rises steeply above the canyon and skirts the upper edge of a prominent band of limestone rock called the China Wall. The hike provides thrilling views both up and down Logan Canyon. Bring your camera to capture the gorgeous, glowing red and yellow maple and box elder trees that paint the dramatic scenery.

Four miles northeast from the Wind Caves lies Right Hand Fork, home to golden quaking aspen, with their white trunks and unique shivering leaves. They begin to change to gold in mid-October, typically peaking in color a week or two after nearby maple trees or other shrubs. In years when the maples and ashes in the canyons turn about the same time as the aspen in the mountains, you can have a continuous show of glorious color along your entire drive, possibly dusted with the white of an early snowfall at the end!

If you can spend a longer time along the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, be sure to take some of the many hiking trails for an in-depth view of aspen foliage, deep green fir forests, great fishing, horseback riding, and more. Visit byways.org for more.

Elk Scenic Drive, Pennsylvania

The best way to spot some of the Northeast’s most majestic creatures in their natural habitats is to take the Elk Scenic Drive through north-central Pennsylvania. This 127-mile stretch is renowned for its natural beauty and fall foliage. From birdwatching hot spots, to beaver dams, wetland butterflies, and of course, plenty of elk, don’t forget your camera, start out early and try not to blink!

Catch a glimpse of goldfinches, kestrels, hawks, or maybe even a coyote or red fox at Two Rock Run Scenic View and Fish Dam Run Scenic View. Be sure to stop at Cranberry Swamp Natural Area, a mountain bog surrounded by forest, to spot butterflies and bear (so be careful).

At Kettle Creek State Park, the reservoir is full of trout, bass, perch, and crappie, attracting winged hunters: bald eagles, herons, and osprey. Watch for the otters, mink, and beavers along the shore of the resevoir and creek.

Johnson Run Natural Area is home to 216 acres of rugged natural landscape where the blueberries grow thick and the songbirds thrive. Keep your eyes open for black-capped chickadees, yellowthroats, black-and-white warblers, towhees, robins, and indigo buntings.

The Hicks Run Wildlife Viewing Area is an excellent place to spot members of Pennsylvania's wild elk herd. Elk are most active in the morning and at dusk, so get an early start. An accessible blind makes spying on the elk easy; don't forget your camera. You might also see deer and wild turkeys in addition to songbirds and raptors.

For an in-depth four-day suggested roadtrip, go to VisitPA.com.

Fort Ransom State Park, North Dakota

In a state known for its flat horizons, a dip into a tree-speckled valley with snaking river and winding roadway is a welcome variation, and a spectacular fall foliage destination. Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway winds through picturesque and heavily-wooded Fort Ransom State Park in southeastern North Dakota.

In addition to spectacular foliage the byway offers a chance to discover Native American, Viking, and pioneer lore, and explore 27 interpretive sites that include historic sites, trails, bridges, antiques, birds, and starry nights. Quaint towns and farmsteads will lend charm to your journey.

Each fall, the North Dakota Tourism Division provides a weekly fall foliage report, available weekly on the state's home page. An itinerary is available at byways.org.

Denali National Park, Alaska

While many don’t associate Alaska with fall foliage, Denali National Park experiences all four seasons and is a great place to enjoy fall foliage. Don’t believe us? Check out their TwitPics!

At Denali, fall is brief, with tundra plants changing from green to brilliant reds and oranges, and then fading back to brown shortly after. Leaves begin to change in early August and peak color usually comes around first or second week of September.

And the best part is, at Denali, you can let someone else do the driving for you! Shuttle buses operate along Park Road (the only road into the park) through September 16. The fall shoulder season, when all private vehicles may drive up to 30 miles into the park, weather permitting, begins September 21. For tips on planning a fall trip to Denali, check out NPS.gov.

Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

A beautiful drive down the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway will take you to one of eastern Kentucky’s gems – the Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest. This unique and scenic natural area is known for its abundant natural stone arches, unusual rock formations, and spectacular sandstone cliffs. Red River Gorge is home to more than 100 natural arches – the greatest concentration of arches east of the Rocky Mountains.

The cool, moist coves of the narrow valleys grow rich, mixed forests containing a great variety of tree species, including tulip poplar, sweet birch, yellow buckeye, and bigleaf magnolia – making for spectacular fall color, which often peaks in mid- to early October. A suggested itinerary is available from byways.org. After your drive through Red River Gorge, visit nearby Lexington, KY, for even more fall-themed adventures.

Big Sur Coast Highway, California

Another sleeper in the fall foliage contest is California, which might surprise potential leaf-peepers out West. The Big Sur Coast Highway, also known as US Highway 1, with panoramic views of the ocean, is even more gorgeous when punctuated with bold splashes of fall color. Foliage here can be just as picturesque as in the East.

Crashing waves, sheer rocky cliffs, and pleasant bends and curves make a trip down Big Sur Coast Highway an unforgettable experience. Add in brilliant red shrubbery and the rolling autumn mists, and it’s a dream come true for Pacific Coast foliage enthusiasts! Get a full itinerary at byways.org, and a California fall foliage report at weather.com.

Did we include YOUR favorite leaf-peeping drive? If not, let us know here.

Image: Letchworth Gorge, Letchworth State Park, New York. Courtesy I LOVE NY Division of Tourism.

Top 10 Leaf Peeping Destinations
Fall Foliage Poll


The Catoctin Mountain National Scenic Byway in Maryland and Virginia is a wonderful drive for viewing fall foliage as you visit historical sites.

Old McKenzie Highway (Highway 242) is my favorite drive to see Fall colors.