The best season is upon us, and if you haven’t been tracking the foliage for your fall road trips, now is a great time to start. Not sure where to go? Then my fall-obsessed self is here with some of my favorite fall road trips.
As always, this list will continue to grow as we explore new places during this magical season. I’ll also give you my checklist for how I track foliage for any new destination.
Fall Road Trips
If you’re reading this post and live in the midwest, this list is an easy drive away. Currently, all my fall travels have been somewhat close to home (Chicago). Regardless of where you’re coming from, all these cities and towns put on a show during peak foliage and are worth visiting.
I’m sure you’ve heard that the foliage in New England is a must; it’s the capital of autumn! I actually had that trip booked this year (along with Aspen, Colorado), but I canceled it for numerous reasons.
I hope to experience that region in the fall one day, God willing, but thank goodness for abundant beauty beyond New England. Sometimes you don’t need to go far to find something inspiring. Just check out the photo below to see Chicago peaking a few Octobers ago.
How to track fall foliage
Every year it seems that all the sites share the same Smoky Mountains foliage map. It’s a good starting point early in September to get a general idea. But since the first year of planning these trips, that Smoky Mountains map has been inaccurate. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to predict the foliage.
Everything from the spring to summer weather to the current conditions right before peak help determine the timeline. It’s hard to predict mother nature, so the best thing to do is look at trends and aim for a date.
Here are the steps I take to make my best guess at peak foliage.
- Start with the Smokies map to see how foliage across the U.S. tends to peak.
- Search for your destination’s tourism sites, including social media accounts. They usually update those with how the foliage is coming along.
- Same for national parks, follow their websites and social pages. They update weekly leading up to peak time. Some of them also have webcams set up at higher elevations to check out yourself. They even have phone numbers you can call to get updates, but I’ve got a feeling that if you’re reading this blog, you don’t need to call anybody.
- Google other blogs or sites that focus on tracking foliage. You’d be surprised how many are out there, especially in New England.
- Search for the specific location in the news tab, e.g., “Michigan fall colors 2021” or “Michigan fall foliage peak 2021”. You’ll find reliable updates from weather channels on what percentage has changed and where they see the timeline going. I bookmark these sites because they update them frequently.
- If you’re on Instagram, find people who live there and have travel or city-related posts. Many times they share updates as well.
- If you’re on Facebook, do a similar search as you would on Google, e.g., “Michigan fall colors.” Sometimes there are specific destination groups, and people will comment asking for updates. Locals then share photo updates to help them plan their trip.
After you’ve done the research and made your best guess, it’s time to book your stay quickly. October is one of the busiest seasons for travel in many places around the U.S. Hotels will have limited vacancies, and people will crowd national parks.
The best thing is to travel during the week without setting your heart on a specific hotel. Also, try to book free cancellation hotels if you guessed the wrong dates and need to change with the peak time. Once it’s all set, stop tracking and start planning your color-filled drives!
1. Traverse City + Northern Michigan
I’m so glad Traverse City is a 5-hour drive from Chicago. This place is golden year-round. During one of my last visits to northern Michigan, I realized that there is so much I’ve yet to see near Traverse, including Leelanau County, Fishtown, and the famous M-119 Tunnel of Trees road.
After visiting wine countries in other regions of the U.S., I’ve also confirmed that northern Michigan has some of my favorite wineries in the world. Don’t miss the Old Mission Peninsula, Leelanau Peninsula, and a stop for the most beautiful view at Sutton Bay Ciders.
2. Mackinac Island, Michigan
I haven’t experienced Mackinac Island in the fall, but I did make a day trip in the spring last year, and oh man, it’s gorgeous! It’s a tiny island right off northern Michigan, about a 20-minute ferry ride away from Mackinac City or St. Ignace.
The island has been car-free since the late 1800s, biking or horse-drawn buggies are a popular way to explore, and the views are impressive. I’ve been eyeing this location for years to see the foliage because I want to capture the varying architecture with that colorful backdrop. Trust me; you’ll find an endless charm on Mackinac Island.
3. Finger Lakes, New York
The Finger Lakes are 11 long, skinny, and finger-like lakes located in upstate New York. This region is extra special because it offers over 100 wineries, cheese trails, chocolate trails, lots of waterfalls (over 1,000 to be exact) and looks stunning in the fall.
As someone who prefers to plan drives over hikes to experience the fall foliage, you’ll find it easy to do so in the Finger Lakes. It’s not like a national park where you can pull over and take in the viewpoints, but you can create your own route, the roads aren’t busy, and there are plenty of opportunities to stop and take pictures safely.
Keuka Lake was my favorite. Don’t miss the South Bristol overlook, Taughannock Falls, or a stop in Penn Yann for Amity Coffee and breakfast at the Penn Yann diner.
4. The Great Smoky Mountains + Blue Ridge Parkway
My fall foliage road trips started with the Great Smoky Mountains in 2016. That trip inspired me to seek out all the beautiful foliage around the country (and beyond). I’ve always loved autumn and had been traveling for six years before the light bulb went off, and I connected the two.
The Smokies have over 100 types of trees, so color abounds if you plan it right. Newfound Gap Road is a famous drive as well as the Cades Cove Loop. Along with more routes, you’ll find many overlooks and breathtaking views.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss Blue Ridge Parkway which is voted one of the most scenic drives in America and runs for 469 miles. We only drove a short part of it but couldn’t help stopping at every overlook. We need to experience the whole thing one day. Another tip, catch the sunrise if you can and stay in Asheville, N.C., instead of Gatlinburg.
5. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Speaking of Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park extends along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. We drove Skyline Drive, which offers 105 miles of dramatic overlooks, trailheads, and an explosion of color at different elevations.
Virginia is also one of the top five wine-producing states in the U.S., so this is an excellent option if you love combining foliage and wine. Don’t miss the view from Stone Mountain Vineyards.
While in Virginia, make sure to visit Alexandria with its photo-worthy historic district and stop to get some of the best ice cream from a shop called Nicecream.
6. Door County, Wisconsin
Door County is located in northern Wisconsin and is only 4-hours from Chicago. The area fills with an array of fall colors and is a sight to be seen in October.
The journey through Door County is easy to follow. We drove up Highway 42 and down Highway 57 within a few hours but planned for a weekend. Don’t miss the winding road nearing North Port, Cave Point County Park, Hardy Gallery, and a fun stay at the Holiday Music Motel in Sturgeon Bay, WI.
7. Galena, Illinois
With its rolling hills and small-town charm, Galena is a unique place in northwest Illinois. It’s filled with 19th-century architecture, antique shops, wineries, and everything else necessary for a fun foliage getaway. Since Galena is hilly, you’ll be able to get great photos of the town from different altitudes.
Book a historic trolley tour to get the lay of the land. Climb up to the home of Ulysses S. Grant (great angles from there). And do not miss the peacefulness and inspiring view that Grant Park has to offer. Book your stay at the well-rated Aldrich Guest House. The house is beautiful, and your visit includes breakfast and happy hour (the first fancy cocktail is complimentary).
8. Chicago, Illinois
Make sure you walk around Lincoln Park, Grant Park, and Millenium Park to catch the fiery red and vibrant yellow trees. Go beyond the city and plan a fall foliage walking tour at Morton Arboretum in a perfect tree-filled setting.
My favorite event, Open House Chicago, happens in the fall as well, and it’s FREE. Open House offers visitors behind-the-scenes access to more than 250 buildings across the city. You’ll have lots of opportunities for unique city views.
This pandemic has helped me find a new appreciation for nearby and straightforward travel. So this year, we’ll be heading back to Traverse City and exploring Mackinac Island for fall (after my spree of trip cancellations). Whether you’re staying close to home or not, I hope you’re able to get out there and enjoy the foliage this season.
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