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Summer is on its way out, and with it goes the greenery of the season.
Pumpkin spice, hot cider and knit sweaters are on their way in instead. And what better way to herald the season’s advent than with a road trip to see the leaves change color?
Every year, Smoky Mountains National Park 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.
Many guidebooks suggest the New England states — Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts in particular — as the default leaf-peeping destinations. And for good reason. Travelers in the Northeast are especially well positioned to take advantage of all the particular autumnal joys, from meals featuring seasonal product to 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.
But beyond the Northeast, there are some seriously noteworthy contenders elsewhere throughout the continental U.S., including destinations as far south as New Mexico and Missouri.
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.
In order of predicted peak foliage times according to the map, these are the U.S. destinations where you’re very likely to find breathtaking sights this fall.
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According to the map, you’ll find the first hints of fall colors in the forests of Upper Michigan and Minnesota; in a sweeping swath of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado; and toward the northern edges of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
The Northeast is famous for its beautiful fall weather, which makes this a perfect time to explore the Berkshires. This mountainous western Massachusetts region equidistant between New York City and Boston makes for a perfect fall getaway during the season, complete with excellent hiking, world-class culture and great places to spend the night, such as TOURISTS, a 48-room farmhouse that was converted into a hotel that opened last year. Room rates begin at $181 in September and October.
If you’re interested in lowering your out-of-pocket expenses, you could consider staying at the Courtyard Lenox Berkshires — a beautiful Marriott Category 5 property. Cash rates begin around $169 per night in early October, however, so be sure to compare the value of your dollars against your stash of points. There’s also a Hampton Inn & Suites Berkshires-Lenox, starting at 57,000 Hilton Honors points or $158 per night and the Berkshire Plaza Hotel, starting at 10,000 IHG points or $155 per night.
The northern half of Michigan has some truly stunning foliage to offer during its brief annual season. Seek out the Makinac 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.
If you hold Choice Hotels points, the Quattro Hotel and Conference Center from the Ascend Collection has rooms available from 20,000 points per night beginning Sept. 15. If you’re paying with cash, rooms begin at $145 a night. Wyndham Rewards members can crash at the Ramada Plaza Hotel Ojibway in Sault St. Marie’s historic downtown from 15,000 points or $138 per night.
The cult-favorite ski resort town in Colorado has more than perfect powder and après-ski parties. This former mining camp glows with its legendary yellow-gold foliage blanketing the slopes before winter descends.
There’s no way around it: Aspen, named for the abundant trees in the region, isn’t exactly a budget destination. But that doesn’t mean a visit here has to break the bank if you have points to spend. Alternatively, Aspen is a good place to consider using your points as cash; cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards allow you to use your accumulated miles to “erase” charges on your statement.
You could crash at the hip new W Hotel Aspen, one of Marriott’s Category 8 hotels available for anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000 award points under the new Bonvoy peak and off-peak pricing legend. Cash rates vary wildly between $220 per night around Halloween, which coincides with predicted peak foliage peeping times, all the way up to well over $1,000 per night during the height of ski season. Just make sure you compare cash and award rates before you book so you can be sure you’re maximizing the value of your points.
Other ways to save when visiting this area include checking your Amex Offers for potential deals, such as the one offered last winter for reservations at the family-friendly Aspen Snowmass. This 99-room hotel is shiny, new and features a five-story climbing wall for indoor entertainment.
If you want to go all-out, the St. Regis Aspen is another Category 8 hotel as of March, and you can opt to spend between 70,000 and 100,000 Marriott points here per night, depending on the season.
As fall arrives in earnest, your best bets for glorious shades of red, orange, yellow and ochre in early October will be the northern ranges of the eastern continental U.S., as well as the stretch of land extending down toward Colorado from Montana and Idaho.
A great road trip through Montana would take you through multiple peak zones for gorgeous foliage. For instance, you could consider this route from Missoula through Jewel Basin up to Glacier National Park — a top destination for fall foliage fanatics. The route then circles toward Kootenai National Forest and down through the northwest corner of the state back to Missoula. According to locals, you’ll find some of the most beautiful leaves along Highway 2 near Libby, Montana, while Thompson Falls on Highway 200 offers bucolic backdrops for the perfect vacation photo by the Clark Fork River.
If you don’t want to camp along the way, the western Montana region is home to a number of cabins, guesthouses and Airbnbs for rent, as well as bed and breakfasts and small inns. Travelers who prefer traditional hotel amenities will also find properties in the area so cheap, you shouldn’t even pull out your points. Rates at the Days Inn at the Missoula Airport, for example, begin at 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points or $60 per night; the Staybridge Suites Missoula begins at 25,000 IHG points or $104 per night; and rates at the Towneplace Suites Whitefish Kalispell begin at 25,000 Marriott points or $70 per night. The Doubletree by Hilton Missoula-Edgewater, however, begins at 50,000 Hilton Honors points or $222 per night — a great property to consider booking with points.
Zion National Park
This national treasure in Utah may be best known for the 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs that line the walls of the expansive, 15-mile-long canyon. But during the first two weeks of October, it’s also a great place to enjoy peak foliage.
Zion isn’t the best destination for travelers looking to use hotel points, as many travelers here opt to camp or stay at local independent resorts and guest ranches. But the Category 6 Springhill Suites Springdale is a convenient Marriott property in the small town of Springdale, which serves as the gateway for the national park. The park surrounds this property, where rates begin at $744 per night or 100,000 Marriott points per night — if you can find award availability, that is.
For a more modest experience, the La Quinta Inn & Suites in nearby St. George is available at a more wallet-friendly rate of 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points or $79 per night.
Moving into the apex of fall foliage season, the projections show that the weather change will bring bright colors to most of the American West.
Columbia River Gorge
The area surrounding Portland, Oregon, is renowned for its incredible scenery. Autumn is particularly spectacular, and much of Oregon’s wild landscapes explode with bursts of color at every turn.
If you’re looking for a points hotel, consider the Canopy by Hilton Portland Pearl District, available from 61,000 Hilton Honors points or $230 per night. There’s also the Hampton Inn & Suites Hood River, with rooms starting at 47,000 Hilton points or $149 per night. If you just want a super cheap cash spot to rest for an evening, the Super 8 by Wyndham The Dalles is just $60 per night.
By the time Halloween is over, the fall foliage has begun appearing in the South. Follow the lakes and rivers toward some of the most beautiful scenery that the south-central states have to offer.
Lake of the Ozarks
Americans voted the Lake of the Ozarks, in Missouri, as its second-best destination for viewing fall foliage in 2018, according to USA Today. (The first, if you’re wondering, is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.) Maple, oak, hickory and ash trees abound along the 1,150 miles of shoreline — perfect for getting lost in nature.
But when you’re ready to find yourself again, stop in to civilization without spending a fortune. Marriott’s beautiful Category 4 Willow Ridge Lodge in Branson, Missouri, is just 22,500 points at the Pointsavers rate or $124 per night over the first weekend of November. Alternatively, rates at the Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing begin at 32,000 Hilton points or $122 per night.
Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway
The most popular road trip in this region, the National Forest Scenic Byway winds around Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at a cool 13,161 feet. But no matter where you are in the area, you won’t fail to find incredible views near the town of Taos.
You’ll probably be tired after your long drive, so check out the Hotel Don Fernando de Taos, a Tapestry Collection by Hilton property. Room rates begin at just $115 per night, or 30,000 Hilton points.
The mid-Atlantic states finally get hit peak fall foliage right before Thanksgiving.
Great Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains are located in one of the most beautiful regions of the country around this time of year, and eponymous national park is the one we have to thank for the foliage prediction map we’re using to suggest leaf-peeping destinations.
This site provides a dedicated travelers’ resource for visitors keen on spotting the best fall foliage each year. Visitors to the national park and surrounding areas will rejoice at the bounty of points hotels available here, especially in historic areas like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Check out the Courtyard Gatlinburg Downtown (rates from $187 or 35,000 Marriott points per night); the Holiday Inn Club Vacations Smoky Mountain Resort (from $190 or 35,000 IHG points per night); or the beautiful Black Fox Pigeon Forge Lodge, Tapestry Collection by Hilton (from just $119 or 34,000 Hilton Honors points per night).
Featured photo by Denis Tangney Jr / Getty Images.
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