Fervent leaf-peepers scour the globe every year for the best fall leaves in the world. And can you blame them? Fall brings near-perfect scenery, a combination of natural colors you can’t compare to any other season. It’s nature putting on a show for us. Fortunately for foliage lovers (and autumnal Instagrammers), you can find some of the best fall leaves right here in the U.S. And one of the most enjoyable ways to see them is to take a scenic weekend drive. There are tons of scenic byways known for their views of changing fall leaves, but the drives most worth visiting are the ones that allow you to pull off and go for an amazing hike or enjoy a picnic lunch surrounded by fall scenery.
From seeing the fall leaves in Acadia National Park, to taking in the rugged vistas of the Smoky Mountains, these autumnal drives will help you see some of America’s most enviable foliage. What are you waiting for? Make your bed and breakfast reservations, grab your hiking boots, your leather jacket, and of course, your camera, and hop in the car. And don’t forget to stop for cider donuts on your drive.
Gold Coast, Michigan
Three hundred miles of Michigan coastline await you at the Gold Coast. As you wind your way along the jagged and overwhelmingly scenic coast, don’t skimp on the pit stops, because there’s plenty to do along your route. Stop in Holland, an homage to Dutch culture and home to Windmill Island. Visit the DeZwaan windmill and enjoy the breweries and bakeries, most of which are run by Dutch immigrants. In general, there are plenty of breweries lining the Gold Coast, so once you’re done driving for the day, consider indulging in the local craft beer scene. The hikes along the Gold Coast are majestic; Mount Warning is a popular hiking choice, possibly based on the name alone.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
Arguably the most classic fall foliage drive in New England, Kancamagus Highway winds through the White Mountains for 30 miles. You can get out of your car and hike on the myriad of trails accessible right from the road. The Kanc, as it is called likely because of leaf-peeping out-of-towners pronouncing “Kancamagus” incorrectly, is a jumping off point for hundreds of miles of great hiking. You can find a campground along the highway because there aren’t restaurants, hotels, or even gas stations along the route. If you’d prefer a cozy bed and breakfast to wilderness camping, you can stay in North Conway or Lincoln, both of which are home to charming inns that welcome foliage lovers.
The Newfound Gap, Tennessee
You’ll get views of the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the Smoky Mountains as you cruise down Highway 441. The stretch of road that runs from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC is known as the Newfound Gap, but it’s part of Highway 441. On your drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, stop off to hike some of the Appalachian Trail. You can picnic by one of the Smoky Mountains National Park streams, or even take in the autumn leaves on horseback if you’re ready to trade car transportation in for a more old-time transportation style.
Park Loop Road, Maine
Park Loop Road is set in Acadia National Park, and unsurprisingly, fall is the perfect time to take in Acadia. The 27-mile Park Loop Road starts at Hulls Cove Visitor Center and delivers striking views of the park, the changing forest colors, and the Maine coastline. Majority of the road is one-way, so be aware of that when you’re planning your route back to your Airbnb. The road was constructed over more than 30 years, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Not only that, but part of the funding for the road came from a Rockefeller (specifically, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.).
North Shore Scenic Drive, Minnesota
Start at Canal Park in Duluth and work your way along the coast of Lake Superior to Grand Portage. Not only will you pass birch, pine, and towering aspen trees, but the hiking trails along North Shore Scenic Drive will lead you to waterfalls made from streams and rivers flooding into Lake Superior. The regal coastline is worth a visit in the summer too, but seeing it create a colorful juxtaposition against the autumn leaves is a treat. Stop by Two Harbors Lighthouse, which is the only operating lighthouse in the state, and if it’s nice enough outside for a picnic, pack a basket lunch and eat it on Brighton Beach, right on the scenic byway.
Truckee River Canyon, California
Take Highway 89 from South Lake Tahoe to Truckee, California, driving along Truckee River Canyon. While most people gravitate to Tahoe in the winter, seeing the lake before the snow comes is a must. To see the leaves turning with the brilliantly blue lake backdrop is a view of unprecedented beauty. Lake Tahoe is home to wildly tall trees, and the pops of orange and gold color can also be seen along the Mt. Rose Scenic Byway to Incline Village in Lake Tahoe. For more great leaf-peeping, drive south from Lake Tahoe to Hope Valley, where the aspens are glinting with autumnal colors.
Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts
Mohawk Trail is the pride of Western Mass in the fall because avid foliage fans come from all over the country to take in this Berkshires drive. Part of Route 2, the must-see part of the Mohawk Trail is the 37 miles from North Adams to Greenfield. This trail has been drawing carloads of sightseers since 1914. Perhaps the most famed parts of the drive are the Hairpin Turn and the view from the summit of Hoosac Mountain. While you’re in Western Mass, spend a night or two relaxing at a rustic spa in the Berkshires.