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How to Plan and Execute the Perfect Fall Foliage Tour

Let’s get leaf-peeping.

When planning a fall foliage tour, there is a lot to consider–namely, when to go, where to go, and what to do (other than, you know, look at leaves). There is no season quite like fall for eliciting a wistful feeling of nostalgia in the most beautiful of ways. It’s a romantic season filled with brilliant colors and aromas, and if you’ve never experienced it for yourself, pack your bags: you’ve been seriously missing out.

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PHOTO: Craig Zerbe/istock
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The Long Weekend

If you only have a long weekend to explore, three days is plenty of time to enjoy all that leaf-peeping season has to offer. Winding roads, small towns, and blazing colors are an invitation to slow it down, so pack your car, find the perfect road trip partner (or head out for a solo weekend!) and soak up the joys of this well-loved season. Of course, if you’re planning on a more extensive trip that requires out-of-region travel, you might want to arrange for a bit longer of a time. Otherwise, think of these three days as getting to know a certain area and its seasonal offerings. By day, you’re there to experience colorful leaves and fall activities; by night, you’re soaking up the local culture through food, music, and favorite nighttime haunts.

INSIDER TIPLeaf-peepers notoriously choke narrow roadways and traffic can be backed up for hours. If crowds aren’t your thing, consider a week-day trip as opposed to a weekend, when most fellow tourists tend to travel.

 

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PHOTO: Anselm Baumgart/iStock
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Embrace the Outdoors

While it’s entirely possible to be dazzled by Mother Nature’s astounding display of color from the comfort of your vehicle, the best way to see autumn’s magnificently-colored deciduous trees is by immersing yourself amongst them. While discovering a rugged peak by foot will certainly give you both bragging rights and top-notch views, you don’t have to hike mountains to experience the outdoors. Bring your bikes (or rent some!) and hit up a local bike path, or take a leisurely stroll through a nearby park. Fall can bring a swell of tourists to otherwise quiet towns, so if avoiding crowds is your goal, remote hikes, campgrounds, and outdoor recreational areas might offer a welcome reprieve.

INSIDER TIPCan’t get to a national park? Most state parks typically have excellent hiking, walking, or biking trails.

 

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PHOTO: Saurabh13/Shutterstock
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Sleep Outside

Take it one step further from simply spending your days out under the leaves to sleeping out amongst them, as well. After a solid day of hiking, cozying up in a warm sleeping bag is everything you didn’t know you were missing in a fun, fall weekend. Driving through and staying in conventional lodging might be a tad more comfortable, but you’re missing out on some of fall’s best-kept secrets. The lighting of an early morning, fog-filled sunrise is astounding against the backdrop of sunset-colored leaves…something you wouldn’t know if you were holed up in a hotel somewhere.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re nervous about cooler nighttime temperatures, consider camping in a yurt or cabin–otherwise known as glamping. Many state, national and privately owned parks, and campgrounds now offer glamping options.

 

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Bring the Kids (But Come Prepared)

You might think that a leisurely-paced road trip and kids don’t mix. Believe it or not, there are ways to turn a fall foliage tour into a family-friendly event. Create a fun car packet of fall items (think: checklist, books, binoculars, and car-friendly games), research kid-friendly hikes, and create a nature scavenger hunt for when you’re out walking local trails. Bring the bikes and hit some tree-lined pathways together; it’ll be a welcome change of pace from a slow, seemingly-endless car ride.

INSIDER TIPCreating a car packet for your kiddos doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. Include a blank journal, crayons, a disposable camera, and a pair of binoculars. You can even make DIY binoculars out of toilet paper rolls for young travelers; pair them with a checklist of fall items, and you’ll have hours of entertainment for your little backseat drivers.

 

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PHOTO: Timothy S. Allen/iStock
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Location, Location, Location

Whether you are traveling with your kids or not, location is key. Keep in mind what your road-trip partners like to do. The rolling hills and noble mountains of the East Coast beg to be explored by foot, while the deep purples and reds of the Blue Ridge Mountains offer iconic views from the comfort of your car as you cruise the Parkway. Regardless of your destination, fall is not only the time to peep some foliage, but also a time to experience some of America’s most beloved autumn pastimes: local fairs, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and apple picking.

INSIDER TIPCities are certainly full of action, but it’s the small towns that will give up the most breathtaking views. If the goal of your trip is to see stunning fall foliage, don’t head for a city. Instead, opt for a small, off-the-beaten-path town where you can revel in the colors, sights, and scents of autumn leaves.

 

 

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PHOTO: Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock
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Road Trip vs. Single Destination

You have two options with a leaf-peeping tour: road-tripping or picking a single destination. Both have benefits. By sticking to a single destination, you’ll get to know a new area more intimately. With a multi-state road trip (or even just thoroughly exploring one state), you’ll see a variety of landscapes, as well as varying leaf colors. Different trees have different shades in the fall–the purple ash, golden birch, and fire-red sugar maple of the north are entirely different from the yellow-soaked Aspen of the Colorado mountainsides.

INSIDER TIPIf you are planning on a road trip, you might want to extend your trip longer than three days. A full week might be more appropriate to experience a relaxed, meandering leaf-peeping tour.

 

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PHOTO: Albert Pego/Shutterstock
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Sample Local Foods

Put down the pumpkin-spiced coffee and get yourself an actual pumpkin. If you’re staying at a campground or in a rental (or at least have access to a kitchen), this is a fun one: hit up a local farmstand or farmer’s market and shop the locally-grown food scene. What is in-season for fruits and vegetables depends on your location, but you’ll typically find a variety of apples, squash, brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, hearty greens such as kale, and root vegetables. Combining both the colors and tastes of fall, shopping local food markets to create a meal is a unique way to experience fall. At the very least, pick some fresh apples for a delightful road-tripping snack.

INSIDER TIPNot sure how to prep a certain food? Don’t be afraid to ask. The farmer that you’re buying your homegrown food from likely has a secret tip for preparing an out-of-this-world rendition of a vegetable or food that you’ve previously shunned. Don’t be afraid to try something new here.

 

 

 

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What to Pack

Weather is notoriously fickle in the fall, where in the morning you might want a lightweight coat and a hat, but by afternoon you’re sweating in a tank top. Knowing this, you’ll need options. Pack layers and you should be set. In addition to layers, bring along hiking boots, cozy socks, and all of the quintessential fall clothing you can fit in your bag. Now is the time to wear sweaters, scarves, a favorite beanie, and all of the plaid you can possibly fit in your bag.

INSIDER TIPThree words: moisture-wicking fabrics. And as we said, fall weather is fickle, so come prepared with a rain jacket, umbrella, and waterproof boots. You never know.

 

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PHOTO: Frank DeBonisi/Stock
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Try Something New

This should go without saying, but getting out in the midst of all that astounding color is really what makes a leaf-peeping getaway worth it. If you’re not planning on camping, there are other ways in which to get outside of your car and enjoy the sights. If you’ve never paddled a still lake, fall is a fantastic time to try. A leisurely paddle along quiet shorelines showcases stunning fall views from a vantage point not seen through the windows of your vehicle. For thrill-seekers, mountain biking, zip-line tours, and adventure courses are all unique ways in which to experience the beauty of crisp weather and blazing foliage.

INSIDER TIPIf you’d like to try a non-motorized water sport, many local beaches offer rentals for kayaks, canoes, paddleboats, and SUP.

 

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Know When to Go

You’ve got your route and location down, but now comes the difficult part: knowing the best time to go. The bad news? It’s a guessing game. The good news? You can somewhat predict the best time to go by checking the weather patterns of spring and summer. Was it a hot, dry summer? Don’t wait. High heat stress and drought cause colors to appear earlier and disappear faster. Although climate change has and will continue to have an impact on tree health and thus colors, duration, and timing of fall foliage, pay attention to localized precipitation and temperatures for a good gauge on when to go.

INSIDER TIPA good rule of thumb? Think of the colors as a gradual, shifting movement from the northeast down. Typically starting in late September, leaves begin changing in northeastern Canada and move through into the east coast states. From there, leaves begin changing through October and November as you move further down into the southern states.