Whether you’re a ‘leaf peeper’ or just looking for great photos, here’s how to get the most out of the season’s splendor.
As the temperature drops and autumn sets in, Mother Nature is painting the treetops in vibrant hues of red, orange and gold, and many people are planning their leaf-viewing vacations.
SmokyMountains.com created a prediction map for the year’s fall colors using millions of historical data points from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Each year, we use a proprietary algorithm to process millions of data pieces and output accurate predictions for the entire country,” Wes Melton, co-founder and CTO of SmokyMountains.com, told Travel + Leisure.
Those millions of pieces of data are turned into 50,000 bits of predictive data, which are displayed on the interactive map. “This predictive map is the perfect intersection of our passions and is our favorite project of the year,” said Melton.
The color change of the leaves depends more on light than temperature, so it takes place at about the same time each year. But temperature, rain and other weather conditions can have an impact on the timing of the leaves’ changing color. For instance, because of drought in Maine, the state’s trees are already turning amber this year, reports the Bangor Daily News.
Here’s a look at what to expect this fall if you’re looking for colorful foliage.
Peak time: There are a few patchy areas in the Northeast where leaves have already started to change, per SmokyMountains.com’s map. The region may be at or near its peak by early October, and it’ll be past its peak by late in the month. The northern parts of New York and Vermont will be past their peak by the middle of October.
Where to go: Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, inspired Henry David Thoreau, and when you see the autumn’s colors reflected in the water, you’ll understand why. The Catskills and Adirondacks are classic foliage destinations where you can catch several leaf peeping tours or simply wander among the vivid, leafy boughs on your own. Hike to the top of Hogback Mountain in southern Vermont and you’ll be rewarded with a 100-mile view of orange, scarlet and gold. The small town of Medfield, Massachusetts, is a quiet destination off the beaten path where you can walk six miles of footpaths through the gorgeous foliage at Rocky Woods State Reservation. New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest guarantees spectacular leaf viewing each year. Climbing the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast at Acadia National Park will get a stunning view of the color-splashed landscape.
Peak time: Some parts of the Southeast will have minimal to patchy color changes by the middle of October. If you give it a few more weeks, swatches of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee will be at their peaks. However, most of the region won’t start to peak until early November, with the southernmost areas not peaking until the middle of the month.
Where to go: You’ll never fail to get breathtakingly colorful views with a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — there’s a reason it’s among America’s most visited national parks. If you’re looking to get a tour of what the Southern states have to offer, check out Alabama’s Fall Color Trail, which will take you from the scenic views of Oak Mountain State Park to Cheaha State Park, the highest point in the state at 2,407 feet above sea level. The overlook at South Carolina’s Caesars Head State Park offers one of the most stunning views of autumn in the Appalachians, and a hike to nearby Raven Cliff Falls offers an ideal photo opportunity where water cascades down the dramatic 400-foot falls surrounded by fall colors. The city of Asheville, North Carolina, is a great stop if you crave a hip urban setting surrounded by gorgeous foliage. Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest always has spectacular views for leaf peepers. Arkansas’ Ozark Mountain Region also promises an array of crimsons, yellows and oranges that offers many stunning photo opportunities.
Peak time: Like some parts of the Northeast, the Midwest is already experiencing some slight foliage changes. Those areas — the northern portions of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota — will peak by early October. The rest of the region is expected to peak later in October.
Where to go: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is home to some of the most gorgeous fall foliage in the country, framing the area’s more than 200 different waterfalls in a backdrop of spectacular color. Just 20 miles from downtown Cleveland, Ohio, sits Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a 33,000-acre preserve where you can spot bald eagles and other birds nestled among the leaves. The Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway offers the opportunity to see autumn’s splendor from a variety of viewpoints — from scenic bluffs to glistening waterways. Missouri’s Katy Trail is the nation’s longest rails-to-trails bike path, and it’ll take you through small towns and farmland and give you breathtaking views of the Midwest’s fall foliage.
Peak time: The northernmost states in the region won’t begin to really change up the colors until near the middle of October. About half of Texas won’t peak until early November, however, well past the rest of the region’s foliage pinnacle.
Where to go: They may be called the Black Hills, but this area of South Dakota is blanketed in a variety of colors every autumn. Leaf peepers looking for an overview of what the area has to offer should take a drive along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Montana’s Glacier National Park offers breathtaking views at all times of year, and fall is no different. Although the park is home to many evergreens, you’ll also see bright yellows and crimsons, which creates a stunning contrast among the greens. Nestled in the Missouri River bluffs in northeastern Nebraska, Ponca State Park offers gorgeous landscapes dotted with fall colors and the Lone Star State has more to offer than just cacti — Lost Maples State Natural Area is a great place to see some of fall’s best oranges and yellows.
Peak time: The window for foliage in the Northwest is pretty small. By mid-October, look for Idaho to be near-peak with Washington and Oregon hitting their stride later in the month.
Where to go: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area that spans southern Washington and northern Oregon is typically an ideal place to see the colorful show put on by the area’s maples, cottonwoods and ash trees, but wildfires late in the summer of 2017 have made the area less-than-hospitable for leaf peepers. The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington is home to gorgeous creeks and lakes that reflect the colorful foliage, and Mount Rainier National Park boasts brilliant fall colors, thanks to its vine maples, huckleberry bushes and larch trees. Oregon’s 2.3 million-acre Fremont-Winema National Forest offers many scenic vistas of vibrant oranges and yellows, and Idaho’s Teton Scenic Byway is a must-see with its variety of colors dotting the mountain range. You might be surprised to find so many hues in Alaska’s Denali National Park, but the area’s breathtaking beauty gets much more colorful in the fall. Keep in mind that fall starts early and ends quickly in Denali, so make your way up there in late August or early September to catch the park’s brilliant reds and oranges.
West and Southwest:
Peak time: The middle swath of Colorado and the northern part of New Mexico will peak by early October with Utah and Arizona following suit a week or so later.
Where to go: Aspen may be known for its skiing, but every autumn the golden foliage of the town’s namesake tree makes the area’s slopes worth the trip even without snow. The leaves begin changing in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest as early as September, but the gold rush really beings in October. New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains are splattered in orange, gold and yellow every fall and offer a wealth of photo opportunities, and you can never go wrong with a trip to the Lake Tahoe area during this time of year. The fall color show lasts for weeks here, and the gorgeous foliage provides the perfect backdrop for the variety of outdoor activities available at Lake Tahoe.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in October 2011 and has been updated with new information.