Best small US cities and towns for travelers who love the fall
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Calling all lovers of colorful leaves, oversized sweaters and chilly weather: Fall isn’t officially here yet, but it’s not too early to start planning your autumn travel.
I’ve polled TPG’s team of writers and editors to see which small towns they most enjoy visiting when the air turns crisp. So, grab yourself a flannel shirt and a pumpkin spice latte, and check out our recommendations.
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Charming Bayfield is Wisconsin’s smallest city in terms of population, with just a few hundred residents. However, each fall, the Bayfield Apple Festival draws visitors from far and wide, offering live music, a selection of local wines, dozens of food vendors and a chance to compete in fun seasonal activities, such as apple peeling contests and fish fries. The vibrant leaves are an added bonus as an annual parade marches to nearby Lake Superior.
Autumn brings lots of activity to Berlin, which hosts events like Oktoberfest, live music and car shows against a backdrop of fall foliage. Throughout the Victorian town center and pristine streets lies history that includes the town’s role as an artery for commerce dating back to the 1600s. If it looks familiar to you, that’s because it was a filming location for “Runaway Bride” and “Tuck Everlasting.”
Known as “The Town Under the Cliff,” Fairlee rests along the Connecticut River, featuring stunning views during the autumn months, with local farms and fall leaves adding to the outdoor ambiance. Hikers will find several trail options in the Town Forest, and opportunities for golfing, spa treatments and antiquing also abound. Meanwhile, history buffs can enjoy Fairlee Town Hall and the Ely Railroad Depot, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rich in German history, Fredericksburg and its variety of autumn festivals — including Oktoberfest, the Texas Mesquite Art Festival and the Food and Wine Festival — draw travelers from all over. If retail therapy is more up your alley, stop in at one of the many upscale shops along Main Street, or if you’re the outdoorsy type, plan a hike to enjoy some of the area’s seasonal foliage. Follow up your active exploits with a visit to one of several wineries, where you can sample local vino.
As summer ends and the Smoky Mountains begin to look like a sherbet-colored backdrop, Gatlinburg comes alive with Oktoberfest, the Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival, concerts, craft fairs, cook-offs and Halloween-themed activities. In addition to stellar leaf-peeping opportunities, the area also affords phenomenal shopping, and it’s just four miles from Pigeon Forge, home of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park.
Genoa’s claim to fame is that it’s Nevada’s oldest town. It’s tiny, but it’s proud, offering mom-and-pop restaurants, shops and boutiques and, of course, excellent views of the brilliantly colored mountains in fall. It’s also home to Nevada’s oldest bar, the Genoa Bar & Saloon, established in 1853; the layers of dust on every fixture are nearly as old as the establishment itself. You can easily get a feel for the town in a single day, and it makes a great stop along the drive from Lake Tahoe to Carson City.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Harpers Ferry sits at the border between West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet. Nestled along the famed Appalachian Trail, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park provides ample hiking options for visitors. Anyone who braves them is rewarded with unparalleled leafy views. While you’re in town, check out the historic buildings along the main street or sign up for a tour to learn about the town’s ties to the Civil War and slavery.
Another haven for hikers, Helen is home to Unicoi State Park, where a nearly five-mile trail leads to the spectacular Ruby Falls waterfall. Whether you make the trek or choose to do the zipline, views of the surrounding color-changing trees abound, making this a great town to visit to get your autumn fix. The area is also replete with vineyards, making for some wonderful local wine-tasting
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Spa fans, listen up: Hot Springs is the place to be in the fall if you prefer to offset dropping temperatures by soaking in a natural hot spring or two. The relaxing, therapeutic nature of the springs lends itself to the spa vibe with which the town has become synonymous. There are also plenty of chances to shop, hike, bike, boat and fish, among other pastimes. Meanwhile, those who prefer indoor activities can take advantage of an aquarium, a science museum and the Gangster Museum of America.
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Tucked at the bottom of a mountain along the Lehigh River, Jim Thorpe — named for the famed Olympic athlete — is “The Switzerland of America,” where thousands of visitors gather for each year’s Fall Foliage Festival. Travelers can check out the Asa Packer Mansion, Old Jail Museum, Lehigh Gorge State Park, and shops and restaurants occupying restored Victorian buildings that line the town’s narrow streets. They can also hike, bike, go whitewater rafting and take train rides on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Small Mackinac Island served as a key location among the British and Americans throughout several wars, during which time Fort Mackinac changed hands between them. In the fall, the four-square-mile swath of land in Lake Huron offers late-season leaf viewing in several ways, including trail riding (by horse or bike) to Fort Holmes and 20-minute color tour flights. Most of the island falls within Mackinac Island State Park, which is where you’ll find Arch Rock, an iconic limestone formation.
The darling city of Northampton, situated along the Connecticut River in the Berkshires, is ideal for an autumn visit, featuring excellent foliage. The area, home to several colleges, has long been a proponent of education and the arts, with several area museums and performance venues offering options to travelers who are looking for cultural experiences while they take in the fall surroundings.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
The name says it all. If you’re looking for a quaint port town steeped in history, this is the perfect place for an autumn visit. Come for the leaves if you’re into seasonal fun, but you’ll find lots of other things — from brewpubs to chocolatiers — to appreciate in the historic downtown. Market Square boasts shops and boutiques, while the living history Strawberry Banke Museum uses real actors to show what life was like hundreds of years ago.
Watkins Glen, New York
Watkins Glen’s initial claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of road racing, and Watkins Glen International speedway still operates today. But you’ll want to make the trip to this tiny town in the fall for the incredible views over Seneca Lake and the hiking paths at Watkins Glen State Park. The setting will make you feel like you’ve been sucked into the forests of Narnia — all while you’re surrounded by the leaves’ breathtaking splendor.
Do you enjoy spending quiet fall nights snuggling up in your Ugg slippers with a chunky-knit blanket while streaming cheesy romances? If you’re basic and proud of it, this is the town for you. Having served as the setting for several fall-themed Hallmark movies, Wethersfield knows a thing or two about cozy. It’s one of the oldest towns in Connecticut; like many cute municipalities, it features shops, historic sites and fine dining. But, if that’s not enough, it’s just 10 minutes from Hartford.
Featured photo of Gatlinburg, Tennessee by Troy Harrison/Getty Images.
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