Especially in the landscape of the pandemic, this kind of seasonal adventure affords you the opportunity to soak up the benefits of being outdoors, take in the gorgeous sights of fiery foliage, and remain at a social distance from others. In other words, plenty of the best destinations for fall foliage in the U.S. are smaller cities and towns, where being away from population-dense hustle and bustle is possible, so you can enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, boating, and more along your leaf-peeping journey.
Read on for recommendations for seven of the lesser-known best destinations for fall foliage throughout the U.S.—plus the best time(s) to visit.
The 7 best destinations for fall foliage in the U.S., and when to visit
1. Greenville, South Carolina
When to visit: early to mid-October
This charming southern city is chock-full of stunning scenery and autumnal attractions. For the best leaf-peeping, visit Caesars Head State Park, where you’ll find hiking trails (the four-mile-long Raven Cliff Falls trail is among the most scenic), 50-plus waterfalls, and, of course, postcard-worthy foliage. Plan your visit around the Fall For Greenville Festival, where you can enjoy live music and local eats.
2. Lincoln, New Hampshire
When to visit: late September to early October
The town of Lincoln, nestled in the White Mountains region, is especially vibrant come the fall. For the best views, though, you’ll need to ditch the car. Instead, embark on a hike at Georgiana Falls or Lonesome Lake, go zip-lining through the colorful leaves, or hop on a mountain bike through (parts of) the expansive White Mountain National Forest.
3. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
When to visit: late October to early November
This Eastern Tennessee mountain town is widely known as the gateway to the great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Gatlinburg also boasts picturesque mountain views and breathtaking fall colors. The lively downtown—which is lined with shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues—is decked out in autumnal decor. Other attractions and events include Ober Gatlinburg’s Oktoberfest and Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, the latter of which features panoramic views of the surrounding area.
4. Grayling, Michigan
When to visit: mid- to late October
Nature enthusiasts will appreciate a quaint fall getaway to Grayling in Northeast Michigan. Head to the 49-acre Hartwick Pines State Park to admire the foliage on foot or via bike. Alternatively, if the weather is warm (or you don’t mind bracing the cold), paddle your way down the Au Sable River, where you can catch a glimpse of the changing leaves from the water.
5. Hunter, New York
When to visit: early to mid-October
Hunter is a small town located in the heart of New York’s Catskill Mountains, which is home to Hunter Mountain. At more than a 3,000 foot elevation, if offers picturesque vistas of the surrounding mountains. (On a clear day, you can see as far as Massachusetts and Vermont.) Thrill-seekers can go ziplining through the towering treetops, while those in search of a more low-key activity can hop aboard the SkyRide, which takes you to the top of the mountain.
6. Aspen, Colorado
When to visit: late September
This beloved ski destination is just as magical in the fall as it is in the winter. Maroon Bells Scenic Area serves as the perfect backdrop for leaf-peeping, with its sky-high summits. Hiking enthusiasts will appreciate the area’s 100-plus miles of nearby trails, including Aspen Mountain Summer Road and Sunnyside Trail. Mountain biking, horseback riding, paddling, and rafting are also popular fall activities to do here.
7. Galena, Illinois
When to visit: mid- to late September
The tree-lined town of Galena is the perfect place for leaf-peepers in search of serenity. Rent a bike and pedal along the waterfront Galena River Trail, which houses eight miles of trails. Alternatively, rent a kayak or canoe and enjoy the fiery foliage from the Galena River, or go on an exhilarating zip-lining excursion with Long Hollow Canopy Tours. While you're there, check out Oktoberfest and Galena Cellars’ Fall Harvest & Art Festival, the latter of which features an array of activities like grape stomping, carriage rides, vineyard tours, wine tastings, and art demonstrations.
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