China is alight with fall color from mid-October to November, and leaf-peeping season may be the luckiest time to visit.
Leaf peeping is a U.S. East Coast autumnal ritual, but that’s hardly the only locale ablaze this time of year. China is alight with fall color from mid-October to November. Leaf-peeping season’s edges may be the luckiest time to visit—fittingly, red symbolizes good fortune in Chinese culture. Travel drops off in fall, but keep in mind that’s relatively speaking since visiting Chinese attractions nearly always involves navigating a crush of people. Here are the destinations sure to have leaf-lookers booking flights this fall.
Fragrant Hills Park
Also known as Xianshan Park, this 400-acre park northwest of Beijing hosts a leaf-peeping festival in late October. Throughout the fall, visitors meander trails through aptly named Red Leaves Forest and hike past small temples to the forest’s 1,830-feet apex, literally named Incense Burner Peak. For a quick trip to the top, take the cable car, which affords views of rolling hills aglow with maples. The park’s southern route passes Tranquility Green Lake, which reflects the surrounding crimson, and Shuangqing Villa, notable for another kind of red: It was once the residence of Chairman Mao Zedong.
INSIDER TIPGo early to beat the Beijingers escaping the city on weekends.
The Great Wall
This bucket-list destination is always awe-inspiring but rimmed in russet, it becomes even more picturesque. The Badaling section is one of the most popular for good reason—it’s only 50 miles northwest of Beijing, and diplomats from Richard Nixon to Margaret Thatcher have walked the well-preserved section here. Although Badaling’s popularity can mean close encounters of the stranger kind, this portion traces rolling hills abutting Badaling Forest Park and delivers prime red-leaf touring.
INSIDER TIPWhen visiting the Badaling section, head toward the steepest section. It may mean wheezing up slippery, time-worn stairs, but you’re more likely to have sections of the wall to yourself.
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Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area
Jiuzhaigou, a northern Sichuan province preserve, glitters with turquoise, green, and purple lakes; limestone terraces; and spectacular waterfalls. In autumn, visitors follow wooden boardwalks through old-growth forests to the shores, whose crystalline waters reflect the golden and red foliage of lakeside trees. You’re more likely to spot selfie-snappers along the trails here than the threatened giant panda and golden monkey said to live in this valley. Photo-op hungry tour groups aside, it still feels a world away from Chengdu, the nearest metropolis. The UNESCO World Heritage site also protects a handful of Tibetan villages grandfathered into the park, so color seekers can find plenty more to see via fluttering prayer flags. With 1.5 million visitors a year, this park is one of the most popular, but visitation drops off in mid-October, so it’s prime season to visit.
INSIDER TIPA shuttle bus, like the ones found in large U.S. national parks, like Yosemite, hauls visitors between scenic stops. If you’re able, opt to walk the raised platform for prime leaf peeping.
One of the largest leaf-peeping areas in China, Miyalou, is akin to the sights along the U.S. East Coast: Here 12,000 square miles of rolling pastoral hills are dotted with fall foliage. A countywide red-leaf festival touts the season in an area many times the size of Fragrant Hill Park, home to Beijing’s popular festival. Huddled along the Zanao River, Miyalou encompasses the Taoping Qiang village, home to the indigenous Qiang people who also celebrate their new year in October. It’s accessible via a long-distance bus ride from Chengdu.
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Even without its fall color, Kanas Lake gets a five-star ranking among the country’s scenic spots. In autumn, golden-leafed birch trees descend the Altai Mountains to the shores of the noodle-shaped Kanas Lake. In the distance, clouds cling to snow-capped mountains as the Xinjiang province segues into the nearby borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia.
Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area
A battalion of 3,000 narrow quartz sandstone pillars populates this UNESCO World Heritage site. In fall, mist shrouds the pinnacles, occasionally revealing flames of color as though the pillars were 200-meter-tall candlesticks. The sight is fantastical—so, it’s fitting that one of the areas, Zhangjiajie, inspired Pandora’s landscape in Avatar.
INSIDER TIPAlthough October is prime leaf-peeping season, skip Zhangjiajie the first week of the month, when this admired attraction is flooded with China’s Golden Week vacationers.
The fossil embossed trio of peaks northeast of Nanjing is applauded as a “Natural Geography Museum,” but come October it’s blanketed in a riotous quilt of red-leafed maples. Hop a high-speed train from Shanghai, via Nanjing, for a leaf-peeping day trip.
Longji Rice Terraces
Longji means “dragon’s back,” a name inspired by the mountains’ resemblance to the mystical beast. If the peaks are its back, then surely the undulating ribbons of rice patties are its iridescent scales. The mirror-like Longji rice terraces are reliably awe-inspiring but come fall, the plants glisten golden against surrounding hills covered in a patchwork of yellow ginkgo and red maple leaves.
INSIDER TIPFall hits earlier here, as soon as September and extending to November.