Balloons, boats and bridges: 9 unique fall foliage experiences in the US
Most travelers prefer to see beautiful fall foliage by car, driving through leafy regions to find the most beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red.
From late September to November, you can find stunning scenery across the U.S., though the exact timeframe depends on the area you plan to visit. Know, too, that the season can start earlier in years when temperatures are colder on average.
However, driving is by no means the only way to see America's changing leaves. Whether you plan on heading to New England or farther west, consider these alternative ways to take in fall's dazzling display of colors.
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Ride the rails through the Great Smoky Mountains
Named for the smoky appearance of fog on their peaks, the Great Smoky Mountains stretch between North Carolina and Tennessee, and they serve as the namesake fixture of the region's popular national park.
One of the best leaf-peeping experiences for visitors is a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which operates out of Bryson City, North Carolina. The journey makes stops at several charming towns along the way, including Dillsboro, North Carolina; it also travels past the remnants of "The Fugitive" film set.
Fall is the best time to ride the train, since the changing colors will be visible from the window seats of the open-air cabins. High elevation areas in particular, like the peak of Clingmans Dome, are stunning during October.
Rustic cabins are the go-to lodging option for visitors to the Smokies. However, if you’re looking for a full-service option, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has well-appointed rooms, two pools, about a dozen food and beverage outlets, and a spa.
Rooms start at $129 a night. If you have the Caesars Rewards Visa Card, you can earn points on your stay and receive a discounted rate.
Related: 5 national parks to visit before your kids leave the house
Bike down a former rail line in southwest Virginia
The Virginia Creeper Trail takes its name from a rail line that once wove through the southwest Virginia mountains. These days, it’s a rail-to-trail path between Abingdon and the outskirts of Damascus that stretches about 35 miles.
It’s popular among mountain bikers, who can take advantage of shuttle services to complete the one-way trip or make it a round-trip biking journey. It’s also possible to traverse the trail on foot and, in some sections, even on horseback.
Along the way, soak in the stunning fall colors, making sure to stop at a nearby winery or detour to a section hike on the famed Appalachian Trail as you go. You'll want to visit from mid-to-late October for the best experience.
If you’re booking with rewards, Bristol is a good place to base yourself, as it sits on the border between Virginia and Tennessee. It’s a 30-minute drive from Tri-Cities Airport (TRI) in Blountville, Tennessee, and another 20 minutes to Abingdon — the trail’s starting point.
The Sessions Hotel, Bristol, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel honors the legacy of the town’s country music history while providing cozy, comfortable accommodations for travelers. The hotel occupies a historical building and features a rooftop bar and an on-site music venue. Standard rooms start at $129 or 33,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
Related: 8 best European destinations for a cycling vacation
Explore Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, by scooter
When the leaves start to change, it’s the perfect time to escape big cities like Chicago and Milwaukee in favor of the shores of Lake Geneva — a Gilded Age-era getaway.
One of the best ways to see the fall scenery is by joining an outing organized by Lake Geneva Scooter Tours. Excursions depart from the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa; all you need to bring is a valid driver’s license.
There are two routes to choose from, each around an hour long; one goes around the lake and the other through the forest. No experience is necessary, but if you’ve ridden a scooter before, you can rent one on your own instead of going on the guided tour. Plan your trip for late October or early November when the leaves are most vibrant.
The AAA Four Diamond-awarded Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is the best place to stay because it features luxurious rooms, golf courses and a ski hill. Standard rooms start at $367 per night.
If you have points to spend, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Elkhorn — Lake Geneva Area has rooms starting at $135 or 24,000 IHG One Rewards points per night. For family-sized rooms, the Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Lake Geneva Resort is available from $130 or 35,000 IHG points per night.
Related: Best small US cities and towns for travelers who love the fall
Climb above the trees on an iconic bridge in West Virginia
Visit America’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, during fall to see its full beauty on display. It’s easily accessible from the Charleston, West Virginia, airport and from Amtrak’s Cardinal line.
There are many ways to experience the West Virginia park, but perhaps the most unique is the Bridge Walk. This activity brings visitors underneath the park's iron bridge, which towers 876 feet above its namesake river.
Get a bird's-eye view of the fall colors as you make your way down the length of the catwalk. If that’s not enough of an adrenaline rush, you can also go whitewater rafting through the gorge or come for Bridge Day — an October event when base jumpers and rappellers soar down the bridge. This also happens to be the best part of the year for seeing the leaves.
There are not many branded hotels in this part of the state, so your best bet is to stay near the gorge. Adventures on the Gorge has a wide range of options, from campsites for tents and recreational vehicles to glamping tents and luxurious cabins.
Sail down the Hudson in New York
Escape New York City in favor of a fall foliage cruise down the Hudson River. A number of cruise companies offer these tours from the city, including Classic Harbor Line.
As you sail, bursts of color will capture your attention when you're not admiring landmarks like The Cloisters and the Little Red Lighthouse.
The round-trip, two- to three-hour tours — which feature 1920s-era yachts and sailboats — operate on weekends through November. In addition to standard tours, lunch and brunch tours are also available. All tours leave from Chelsea Piers in Manhattan or North Cove Marina in Battery Park City.
There are hundreds of options when it comes to a points-based stay in New York City, depending on your loyalty program of choice.
For Marriott Bonvoy fans, the New York Marriott Downtown is half a mile from North Cove and offers rooms from $304 or 31,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night. The Hyatt Place New York/Chelsea is convenient to Chelsea Piers and has rooms starting at $329 or 20,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
Related: Book this, not that: New York City hotels edition
Soar above Vermont in a hot air balloon
There’s a reason why early October is the busiest time for Vermont hotels: The state is known for its incredible fall colors. However, a drive through the forests isn’t the best way to see the beautiful autumn hues. Instead, adventurous visitors should take to the skies to view the colorful trees from a hot air balloon.
Companies like Above Reality Hot Air Balloon Rides Vermont bring guests on hourlong flights during sunrise and sunset, which are the best times to view the storybook scenery of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains below.
After returning to the ground, guests are greeted with a Champagne toast — a tradition in hot air ballooning.
Tours leave from The Essex Resort & Spa, a luxury resort with a spa and culinary school, where stays start at $195 per night.
In downtown Burlington, Vermont, the Hilton Burlington Lake Champlain is a block away from the water, with rooms available from $243 or 115,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Drive an all-terrain vehicle through the rugged New Hampshire forest
The Great North Woods area, on the northern edge of New Hampshire, is not just a beautiful place for a fall visit. It’s also home to one of the country’s largest interconnected all-terrain-vehicle trail systems, which are best explored during peak season in October.
Bear Rock Adventures is a Pittsburg-based operator that offers daily Polaris off-road vehicle rentals. The only requirements are that you are at least 21 years old and that you have a valid driver’s license; you must also wear a helmet and eye protection.
As one would expect, lodging options are limited to cabins, motels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations, including camping at Bear Rock.
If you don’t mind a 1.5-hour drive, you can make the ATV outing a daytrip from the famed Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Opened in 1902, the resort was the site of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that sought to bring international financial order after World War II.
Rooms here start at $344 per night.
Tour a Japanese maple-filled garden in Seattle
The Pacific Northwest is another region where fall changes the landscape, and few places are as beautiful as the Seattle Japanese Garden. Open since 1960, the garden draws inspiration from Japan's scenery and strives to be as culturally accurate as possible.
During fall, the Japanese maple trees turn particularly stunning shades of red, orange and yellow. Mid-October provides the best fall color in this part of Washington.
Sign up for one of the free guided tours, offered daily, to learn about the history of the garden and to see the highlights, including the water features that are home to koi fish. The park also offers a Japanese tea ceremony on most weekends.
The city has endless options for comfortable stays, depending on your loyalty program of choice.
Rooms at the Kimpton Hotel Vintage Seattle start at $212 or 22,000 IHG One Rewards points per night, or you can earn twice as many points with the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card. Remember to take advantage of the daily happy hour and morning coffee while at the property.
The Thompson Seattle, a Hyatt property, is another option, with a rooftop bar overlooking the harbor and rooms from $436 or 20,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
Related: 5 reasons why Seattle should be your fall vacation destination
Kayak in a clear-bottom boat on Lake Tahoe
California’s signature Aspen trees have stunning yellow hues come fall, especially around famed Lake Tahoe.
The towns surrounding the lake showcase their most beautiful fall colors in mid-October, right in between the warm summer months and the start of ski season.
One of the most unique ways to explore is by kayaking in a clear-bottom boat. Not only can you soak in the stunning scenery on the shore, but you can also get a view of the marine life below. Wild Society and Clearly Tahoe are two of several outfitters offering both tours and rentals.
Splurge on a stay at one of Tahoe’s legendary resorts like The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, which is surrounded by a lush pine forest. It's a short drive from the lakeshore and is well worth the price for its on-site dining and spa, plus excursions like stargazing. Rooms start at $440 or 290,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night.
Another option is the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino, which is within sight of the crystal-clear water in Incline Village, Nevada. This Category 6 property offers rooms starting at $199 or 21,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
Related: 8 California hotels to help you connect with the great outdoors