Fall is here: The best places to see the leaves change this year

Oct 22, 2021

Editor’s note: Hotels.com was the exclusive sponsor of Fall Travel Week here at The Points Guy. All content below is from TPG and wasn’t subject to review by Hotels.com.

This post has been updated with new information.

It’s official: Fall is here, and if you want to see the leaves turn color, you need to plan your leaf-peeping trip now.

According to many reports, fall foliage all over the country has been noticeably delayed this year, meaning it’s not too late to head out to some of the country’s most scenic regions and see the seasonal hues.

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The lack of vivid foliage in some areas is being blamed on heavy summer rains and warm fall days, which is keeping trees greener for longer. Meteorologist Matthew Cappucci told Fast Company this week that fall foliage might not peak for the next two or three weeks.

Earlier this season, SmokyMountains.com (a tourism site for the region that also sells vacation rentals) released its annual fall foliage prediction map. The creators leverage millions of data points to forecast, at a county-specific level, where travelers should go for the ultimate leaf-peeping adventure.

Basically, it’s a tool that predicts the arrival of fall foliage using data points such as historical precipitation and temperature data, forecasts, leaf peak trends, observations and model outputs from previous years.

Of course, foretelling fall foliage is always tricky alchemy, and we know the tool can’t guarantee exactly where and when foliage will peak — especially when unusual weather patterns occur. Still, travelers can use it as a guide to plan their trips, just keeping in mind that the foliage may be a few weeks behind the prediction map.

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

Where to see fall foliage this year

Fall foliage arrived first in northwest Colorado, Wyoming and Montana in September, with the cottonwood and aspen trees in Grand Teton National Park turning to gold.

September was also the prime time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, when the mountains were filled with the bugles of the annual elk rut. But travelers may still be able to see late fall foliage in southern Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and parts of Utah.

For travelers on the East Coast, the leaves in many of the most popular leaf-peeping states have already begun to turn, though may not have reached their peak splendor.

Maine’s Acadia National Park is a great place to visit during this time of year — in addition to stunning foliage, you could also see the sunrise as it first hits the U.S. from the 1,530-foot summit of Cadillac Mountain. Vermont and New Hampshire are also great destinations for hiking and leaf-peeping followed by apple picking and snacking on cider donuts.

The area surrounding Portland, Oregon, is renowned for its incredible scenery, and much of Oregon’s wild landscapes explode with bursts of color at every turn throughout the month of October and into November. 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.

October is also an excellent time to explore the Berkshires, a mountainous region in Western Massachusetts between New York City and Boston.

Utah’s national parks — including Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon — may be best known for their sandstone cliffs and gravity-defying arches, but they’re also great places to enjoy the fall foliage this time of year. Plus, the autumnal light illuminates the red rocks spectacularly.

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

October is also one of the best times of year to see the fall foliage while hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state, and travelers now have more time to do so thanks to the unusually warm weather.

By late October, travelers will want to turn their sights toward the Midatlantic states and the Southeast.

The area where the Smoky Mountains are located is one of the most beautiful regions of the country, and the eponymous national park is where you want to be this time of year. For the best views, head to the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome, or consider one of the iconic scenic drives in the area instead, such as Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Foothills Parkway.

By the time November arrives, much of the country is usually past its peak, according to the prediction map. However, there are still pockets of the U.S. showcasing beautiful foliage throughout the month, and travelers can look forward to seeing splashes of color much later in the season in some destinations than is typical.

Consider Kansas and parts of Missouri for example, such as a trip to the Lake of the Ozarks. The maple, oak, hickory and ash trees along the 1,150 miles of shoreline will be reimagined in painterly hues in November — though the American smoke tree, which can become an almost electric shade of pink, tends to peak much earlier.

Alternatively, take a scenic drive through the country roads that wind through the rugged forests of the Ozark Mountains for even more imposing views.

Travelers can also head to the southern edges of Arizona and New Mexico for late-season fall foliage, which should peak in November. And it is possible to see fall foliage in the American South, too, from Texas to Florida.

In the southwestern corner of Texas, Big Bend is home to the nation’s largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert. November is a great month 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, which snakes 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.

Or if you want to go a little farther south, consider a trip to the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana. The area has more than 600,000 acres of woodland, and most of the state could be at its peak in November (along with central Florida).

Bottom line

In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this is shaping up to be another major year for trips to national and state parks and scenic road trips across the country.

Though the fall foliage map can’t make any guarantees, it’s a smart way to determine where and when you should plan your fall foliage trips this year. Just remember to stay apprised of state and county regulations, prioritize your health and safety no matter where in the country you plan to travel and be flexible with your plans, especially with seasonal delays in the arrival of fall foliage.

It’s also never been more important to protect your investment in travel, so consider purchasing travel insurance and stick to flexible fares and rates that will allow you to cancel or rebook without penalty.

Additional reporting by Clint Henderson and Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured photo by DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images.

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