Summer may be over but between harvests, fall festivals and changing leaves, autumn is the perfect time to take a road trip. If you are hankering to see fall’s majestic colors as soon as possible, head to the northern latitudes and elevated areas, where colors change first. Here are some of the best places for leaf peeping in early fall.
In the run up to ski season, the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado turn bright yellow, gold and red throughout fall. Some of the earliest action starts around Telluride due to its soaring (9,000 feet) altitude. Get an aerial view of the colors by riding the free gondola which soars 1,000 feet above Telluride and Mountain Village. Another transportation option is Telluride Sleighs and Wagons, which takes travelers through the mountains via horse-drawn wagons. Rides culminate at a secluded setting where guests can dig into a farm-to-table dinner or stay overnight in a yurt. If you prefer to stay in Telluride proper, hitch your wagon at the New Sheridan Hotel, which lives up to the Old West spirit that still resides in town. Built in 1895, the place is a historic landmark, but renovations in 2008 have afforded it 21st-century comfort.
Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway, just an hour and a half west of Denver, also provides Colorado color seekers a chance to see early leaves on high. The pass goes up to 11,670 feet. Stay in historic Georgetown at the Hotel Chateau Chamonix, a rustic mountain lodge, before taking the rambling route in discovery of pockets of blazing aspen. Upon reaching the town of Grant, drive to the top of Kenosha Pass, where aspen thrive on the rim of the gentle slopes that encircle South Park.
The Palette of the Panhandle
While the Northeast gets most of the autumn glory, the fact is that fall colors in the Pacific Northwest can be spectacular, too. Check out Idaho’s panhandle by driving along the Pend Oreille Scenic Byway. It begins north of Sandpoint, which was named by USA Today and Rand McNally as the most beautiful small town in America, in part thanks to its lakeside location and its proximity to Schweitzer Mountain. Stay at the Schweitzer Mountain Resort and then meander east 33 miles along Idaho Highway 200. The route skirts the shore of Lake Pend Orielle, and crosses farmlands framed by mountainous horizons.
Got Leaves? Wisconsin Does
Wisconsin is one of the most-underrated fall destinations, but the trees in the Dairy State milk the season for all it’s worth. Leaves start changing in mid-September in the state’s northernmost counties.
At 1,951 feet above sea level, Timms Hill in Price County sports the highest geological point in Wisconsin. Of course, that’s nothing compared to Colorado’s peaks but Wisconsin’s farther north, which is why leaves here also change early. At Timms Hill County Park, climb the observation tower for a 30-mile panorama of the scenic Northwoods or find a trailhead connecting to the National Ice Age Trail, one of just 11 National Scenic Trails in the U.S.
Bayfield is one of Wisconsin’s top destinations for those looking for active fall getaways. The small harbor town sits next to Lake Superior and serves as a gateway to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore—made up of 22 coastal islands highlighted by stunning rock formations and six lighthouses. The Rittenhouse Inn, made up of three historic Victorian-style houses, offers views of the lake from its picturesque front porch.
Maine’s Mountain Majesty
Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway in central Maine is filled with wilderness lakes and mountains. The dramatic Height of Land on Route 17 is the centerpiece of a scenic fall excursion. After leaf peeping, don’t miss the opportunity to go fly fishing, after getting inspiration from the flies tied by the legendary “Fly Rod” Crosby. They are on display at the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc. The Rangeley Inn, dating back to the 19th century, is the perfect place to stay to round out a typical New England fall experience.
Log some miles through the Maine woods driving north from Skowhegan to Greenville, and take the National Scenic Byway known as the Old Canada Road. This is where the tree-lined banks of the Kennebec River offer some of the most beautiful fall foliage in the state, which can also be seen during a whitewater rafting trip. After floating the river, hike to Moxie Falls, one of Maine’s highest waterfalls. Stay overnight nearby at the Hawks Nest Lodge in West Forks. Built in 2004, the wooden logs used in construction are up to 200 years old. The next day, drive up to Greenville to get a view of the foliage from Maine’s largest lake. Excursion boats ply Moosehead Lake through September.
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