Autumn isn’t canceled: The best destinations for fall foliage in 2020

Sep 2, 2020

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Even though autumn won’t officially arrive until Sept. 22, the weather is already starting to change in many parts of the Northeast. The temperatures and humidity are dropping, and the first pale yellow leaves are falling from the trees.

For travelers who look forward to this season every year, that can only mean one thing: Fall foliage is right around the corner.

Every year, SmokyMountains.com — a site that sells vacation rentals and promotes tourism in the region — publishes an interactive fall foliage prediction map. And while this tool and others like it obviously can’t say with complete certainty when and where the leaves will be their most colorful, the creators pull millions of data points to assemble the map at a county-specific level.

(Courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)
(Courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)

By processing data points including “historical precipitation, NOAA precipitation forecasts, elevation, actual temperatures, temperature forecasts and average daylight exposure … ” founder and statistical expert David Angotti says the map can help “travelers, leaf peepers and photographers … pick future dates for trips to view peak fall in each area of the United States.”

Basically, it’s a tool to predict fall.

So, if you haven’t already, now is the perfect time to plan a socially distanced fall getaway. After all, according to the map, some parts of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Montana should already have “partial” or “patchy” areas of fall foliage, among others.

Related: TPG’s safe travel guide: How to minimize risk on your next vacation 

Of course, foretelling fall foliage is tricky alchemy.

“Since the fall foliage map is based on meteorology and predictive patterns,” Angotti explained, “the precise moment Mother Nature produces peak fall is difficult to predict.” Still, he says they’ve refined the algorithm over the past eight years and have achieved “reliable results.”

And there are some general weather patterns travelers should keep in mind this year. “Sea temperatures near the equator are slightly below average temperatures for this time of year,” Angotti told TPG. “This, in turn, will likely bring cooler temperatures to the northern states and warmer temperatures to the southern states.”

Angotti says this could mean a peak fall period for much of the Northeast during the week of Oct. 12, while “drier and warmer than typical temperatures” in the southern U.S. could mean some states won’t see peak fall foliage “until well into November.”

When you’re ready to hit the road for an unforgettable fall foliage drive, remember to bring along a good credit card for earning points on gas purchases. With the Citi Premier℠ Card, for example, you’ll earn 3x points when you fill up, along with 3x points on many travel purchases, 2x points on dining and entertainment and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. The information for the Citi Premier card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

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September

(Photo courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)
(Photo courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)

A quick glance at the mostly green fall foliage map shows that there’s been no change to the leaves in much of the country, with some exceptions being a swath of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado in the west; the forests of Upper Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Midwest; and Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire in the Northeast. Here, you’ll see early season leaves transitioning from “minimal” to “partial” and “patchy” displays of fall foliage.

New England

New England — particularly Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts — are often considered the default leaf-peeping destinations. And for good reason. Travelers in the Northeast are especially well-positioned to take advantage of the most iconic autumnal joys, including spiced hot beverages, fresh-picked apples and leisurely, scenic drives through forests transformed into kaleidoscopic backdrops. Just be sure to check weather reports for early freezes or nor’easters, which destroy the leaves and bring an early end to foliage-spotting. A few of our favorite destinations here — the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Acadia National Park in Maine and Vermont’s picturesque Mad River Valley — will be at or near peak during the last week of September.

Upper Peninsula

The northern half of Michigan has some truly stunning foliage to offer during its brief annual season. Seek out the Mackinac Trail near Sault Ste. Marie for one of the prettiest drives of your life, or hike around the Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains for an unforgettable view. Use Choice points to stay at the Quattro Hotel and Conference Center from the Ascend Collection, or Wyndham points to crash at the Ramada Plaza Hotel Ojibway in Sault St. Marie’s historic downtown.

Colorado

Few destinations on Earth are more impressive than Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park in mid- to late September, when the weather cools enough for crackling campfires, the bugling of elk reverberates through the mountains and the aspens are ablaze with their legendary yellow and gold hues. Travelers can also visit Aspen, named for the abundant trees in the region. It isn’t exactly a budget destination, but you can trade in points for a stay at the relatively new W Hotel Aspen (between 50,000 and 70,000 Marriott points per night) or the St. Regis Aspen, a Category 8 that can set you back between 70,000 and 100,000 points per night.

Related: The best places to travel this September

October

(Photo courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)
(Photo courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)

By the first week of October, the fall foliage map paints a very different, much more colorful portrait. Moving into the apex of fall foliage season, most of the trees on the northernmost tip of the East Coast will have reached or passed their peak, with brown leaves littering the ground. And the foliage will be at its most vibrant in many new parts of the nation.

The Berkshires

If you’ll be traveling around the Northeast during the first or second week of October, be sure to explore the Berkshires, a mountainous region in Western Massachusetts between New York City and Boston. After a day hiking and admiring the changing leaves, bed down at Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa, an all-inclusive wellness retreat spread across 380 acres of land. Standard rooms start at 45,000 World of Hyatt points per night (plus 20,000 points for double occupancy). You can earn points with The World of Hyatt Credit Card.

Utah

Utah’s national parks — Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon among them — may be best known for their staggering sandstone cliffs, hoodoos and arches, but in October, they’re also great places to enjoy peak foliage. Plus, if you’re hoping to photograph the scenery, the autumnal light illuminates the red rocks spectacularly. Just get their earlier than you think. By the first week of October, all the leaves in Utah should be at or near-peak, with trees in some counties already past their prime.

Great Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains are located in one of the most beautiful regions of the country around this time of year, and the eponymous national park is where you want to be in early to mid-October. You can use points to stay in historic areas such as Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (try the Black Fox Pigeon Forge Lodge, a Tapestry Collection by Hilton) or opt for a rustic cabin rental. For the best views of the changing leaves, head to the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome, or embark on one of the many scenic drives in the area, including Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Foothills Parkway.

Columbia River Gorge

The area surrounding Portland, Oregon, is renowned for its incredible scenery. Autumn is particularly enchanting, and much of Oregon’s wild landscapes explode with bursts of color at every turn in October. You can take a steamboat ride and admire the changing leaves from the river, or get in your car and drive the Columbia River Highway — a stretch of interstate designed specifically for its incredible vistas.

Related: 9 of the best national parks to visit in the fall

November

(Photo courtesy of SmokyMountains.com)

By the time Halloween is over, fall foliage will have begun appearing in the farthest corners of Texas and Florida, with the nation’s southern border mostly at or near peak fall foliage. Follow the lakes and rivers toward some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll find in the U.S. in November.

The Ozarks

The Lake of the Ozarks, in Missouri, has long been a popular (if underrated) destination for fall foliage viewing. From late October through early November, the maple, oak, hickory and ash trees along the 1,150 miles of shoreline will be reimagined in painterly hues. Or, follow country roads through the rugged forests of the Ozark Mountains for even more imposing views, but arrive much earlier in the season to see the American smoke tree, which can become an almost electric shade of pink.

West Texas

Everything’s bigger in Texas — even the state and national parks. In the southwestern corner of Texas, Big Bend is home to the nation’s largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert. Nature lovers flock here in early November to camp hike and backpack (check out the Chimneys Trail, which winds through a rock formation in the desert and the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, snaking along the Rio Grande River). Another great place to see fall foliage in Texas in November is the Guadalupe Mountains, where bigtooth maple trees erupt in a riot of color across the McKittrick and Pine Canyons.

Northern Louisiana

Louisiana may conjure mental images of Bourbon Street, live music and swampy bayous, which may not strike you as the best spot for autumnal hues. But for travelers searching for late fall foliage in November, there are few better places to be. Head to the Kisatchie National Forest, located a few miles outside the city of Alexandria, to explore more than 600,000 acres of woodland.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured photo by DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images.

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