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October 6, 2023

Best Fall Foliage Destinations Away From the Crowds

Filed under: Fitness — Tags: , , — admin @ 8:35 pm

When the days grow shorter and the air cooler, the brightest silver lining is that gold-auburn-crimson kind. Nature’s grandest spectacle is again underway across the U.S.—and it’s not exactly a secret. Those “leaf-peeping” crowds toting their interactive fall foliage maps are in high gear, and that’s why we’re leaning toward the more overlooked spots. From the fiery maples of New England to the golden aspen canopies of the Rockies, here are the best places to visit in the fall for your next foliage fix. Rediscover autumn in these stunning  enclaves this season, and round out the colorful itinerary with some equally captivating activities while in town.

Flock-free autumn appreciation at Flushing Pond.

Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Groton, MA

A couple of miles north of the leafy, postcard-worthy town of Groton, where fall breathes a riot of colors, the Nashua River Rail Trail is one of our favorite autumn discoveries in this corner of New England. Once a rumbling train track site, this somewhat forgotten nook of reliable fall beauty is now a hideout for savvy hikers and bikers from the greater Boston area. Among the towering pines along the trail’s main 4.4-mile waterfront loop, a canvas of dazzling oak species (black, white, scarlet, northern red to name a few) punctuates the landscape. While in the area, be sure to also stroll the colorful Groton Town Forest Loop Trail and Barncroft Castle atop Gibbet Hill. Treat your camera lens to some bonus fall brilliance at Flushing Pond, another serene little scene about eight miles east of Groton near Westford. 

As for the best lodging in town, that would be at the Groton Inn, where you can lounge by the outdoor brick fireplace before experiencing a meal at Forge & Vine. Yes, the New England chowder here is next-level and the za’atar seared scallops will blow you away. For a gustatory encore, venture away from Groton’s Main Street to Gibbet Hill Farm’s Gibbet Hill Grill and treat yourself to a farm-front meal with a fine bone-in ribeye.

Yes, this is real. Grand Teton National Park

Sam Antonio/Getty Images

Jackson, WY

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are big draws for summer travelers—and the neighboring town of Jackson, WY, also reels in its share of Jackson Hole schussers during the winter. Come autumn, shoulder season is briefly quiet enough here to let you enjoy the natural scenery in relative peace. Sometime around early to mid-October is usually when the colors peak, with aspens transforming from bright yellow to gold to occasional dark red, alongside glowing cottonwoods, red leaf shrubs, and grassy fields illuminated in yellow. 

Book a room at the Western-inspired Cloudveil, an Autograph Collection hotel, and the only digs on Jackson’s historic Town Square. There, you can consult with the property’s knowledgeable concierges (aka “Pathfinders”) who may suggest a hike to bear witness to the views at Grand Teton National Park’s Inspiration Point, or birding and wildlife viewing at Ski Lake, or a drive down Fall Creek Road. If you prefer a guided excursion, reserve a wildlife safari with Jackson Hole Eco Tours, staffed by informative local experts on the area’s natural history and amazing animals.

Downtown Traverse City

Gary Ennis/Getty Images

Traverse City, MI

Once the beach throngs have cleared out at summer’s end, you can look forward to a less hectic time in the land of Lake Michigan dunes. Start your fall-fest with a picturesque hike among the autumn colors at Pere Marquette State Forest or the vibrant beech forests of Miller Creek Nature Reserve. If some extra pumps of adrenaline are on your agenda, scale the sands of Sleeping Bear Dunes for a calf-torching challenge—or head to the Sand Lakes Quiet Area awash in fall color. There’s also the Traverse Area Recreation Trail (TART), a 10.5-mile urban trail steeped in small-town splendor without the tourists.

You’ll likely work up an appetite on TART, which wraps around the lake and accompanying woods to connect with several restaurants and bars. For your home away from home, we recommend the Delamar for bay views and Adirondack chair lounging, or Hotel Indigo Traverse City, a new downtown haunt conveniently close to the area’s best brewpubs. 

Front row autumn views from Irvington’s Tides Inn.

Courtesy of Tides Inn

Irvington, VA

The Tides Inn is reason enough to plan a trip to Virginia’s historic Northern Neck region this fall. Tucked away by the Rappahannock River, the 70-room resort offers guests the chance to take a whirl at hands-on art workshops and culinary classes between spa treatments and pickleball or tennis games. During your stay, be sure to take advantage of the resort’s interactive river ecology program and explore the property’s Shoreline or Forest Trail flanked with vivid sugar maple, oak, beech, dogwood, and hickory trees. 

The recently unveiled Forest Trail has a sight-spotting map created by a resident horticulturalist, so you won’t miss any of the standout vistas. Cyclists can also tackle the trail with a complimentary bike rental. If you’re up for a nearby adventure, head to Belle Isle State Park (about 30 minutes from town) for more hiking and biking trails amdist plenty of wildlife. Or stay put at the leafy property, where the inn will set you up with the perfect autumn picnic in Bee Meadow.

Tarrytown’s Lyndhurst Mansion

LightRocket/Getty Images

Westchester, NY

Tarrytown and Yonkers are just a quick train ride from Manhattan’s Grand Central, but ooze their own autumn charm a world apart from the big city. For fall foliage on steroids, visit the Mianus River Gorge Preserve in nearby Bedford. Founded in 1953 by a group of conservationists and natural scientists, the old-growth hemlock forest at this time is a mosaic of deep oranges, bright reds, and mustard yellow, juxtaposed with the crystalline Mianus River, some 40 feet below your hiking boots or sneaks. 

Other nature preserves and parks ripe for leaf-peeping include the pastoral Rockefeller State Park in Pleasantville and the winding Tarrytown RiverWalk. While in Tarrytown, you’ll also want to carve out a few hours to tour the opulent Lyndhurst Mansion, especially if you can swing the dates for the slightly spooky Lyndhurst After Dark evening tours offered on select days in October. Adjacent Irvington gives you the chance to tour another worthwhile estate—this time the slightly wonky and winding Armour-Stiner Octagon House. The sumptuous Castle Hotel and Spa is worth the hype, as is the Tarrytown House Estate, especially if you’re dining at its award-winning restaurant Goosefeather.

Healdsburg, CA

Harvest season in Healdsburg

Stay Healdsburg

Soaking up the best of fall color in the aptly named Golden State is best done in its most famous wine country region. Here, your sojourn begins 65 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma, where Healdsburg will surprise you in all the best (and boozy) ways without all of that Napa traffic. There are organic farms and vineyards galore here, and during harvest season, red-gold vineyards are truly something, especially when combined with cellars stocked with juice from freshly picked grapes. 

Break a sweat on treks like the Sonoma Overlook Trail, a three-mile hike with valley panoramas, studded with coast redwoods and sequoia trees. Other good options are the Bodega Head, a promontory on the Pacific coast, and Spring Lake Regional Park, with some 10 miles of trails for various skill levels. When you’re ready to tuck into bed, Montage Healdsburg is a superb stay for Montage-brand devotees. The historic Madrona (dating back to 1881) boasts the best brunch in these parts at its superb restaurant and bar. If you’re deciding between sweet or savory, double your pleasure with the “table waffle” and fried egg sandwich, which comes with a cornmeal-crusted oyster, spicy mayo, and beef fat fries.

Merchants Millpond State Park

Visit Elizabeth City

Elizabeth City, NC

As we shift into fall, skip the more trodden trails in Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, and head to Dismal Swamp State Park, for a dizzying display of red, orange, and yellow colors lining the park’s 21-plus miles of trails near the Virginia-North Carolina border. The 300-foot boardwalk is the place to be as the sun sets and reflects upon the waters of the Dismal Swamp Canal. 

Another worthy fall pit stop here is Merchants Millpond State Park, where you can gape at vibrant colors under a canopy of cypress trees in a landscape comprised of southern swamp and hardwood forest. For slumber, the Richardson Pool Glover House B&B and Culpepper Inn provide welcome accommodations within walking distance of the Pasquotank River.

Head into the outer-Hamptons at Amagansett for the real autumn show. 

Michael ONeill/Getty Images

Amagansett, NY

The Hamptons may get all the summer lovin’, but you’re missing out on epic fall foliage if you don’t plan an autumnal jaunt to Gatsby-land. During your visit to Amagansett (a tranquil hamlet tucked between East Hampton and Montauk), Japanese maples, witch hazels, paperbark maple, river birch, and flowering dogwoods are enshrouded in kaleidoscopic beauty. For a great hike with stunning river views, swing a bit further out into Montauk’s Hither Hills State Park

Other top-notch outdoor playgrounds in the area include Shadmoor State Park in Montauk and Napeague State Park in East Hampton. Check into the Reform Club to continue embracing the spirit of fall at the on-property apple orchard. Or tuck into the Roundtree in Amagansett where you can enjoy a delicious breakfast basket in your room, suite, or cottage, before shuffling out along Main Street for dinner at Christian’s by Wölffer Estate or Rosie’s Amanagsett.

Downtown Park City

Sean Pavone/Getty Images

Park City, UT

Aspens? Blue skies? Gambel oaks? Yes, yes, and yes—plus red maples and evergreen pine groves populate this underrated leaf-viewing hub in Utah’s ski capital. Lace up for cinematic scenes from the Lost Prospector Trail, Jenni’s Trail, Iron Mountain Trail, Rob’s Trail, and others. 

When the stars come out, relax at Washington School House Hotel, one of the last surviving original school houses in the country with 12 bespoke rooms and suites. One of the area’s most opulent options is the Waldorf Astoria Park City, where you can hop on the adjacent Frostwood Gondola to Canyons Village at the base of Park City Resort—a gateway to more than 300 trails for taking in more of autumn’s grandeur. 

Just north of town, Victoria’s 119-year-old Butchart Gardens is a National Historic Site of Canada. 

The Butchart Gardens/Destination Greater Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia

Nature sure knows how to paint the canvas of our Canadian neighbor on Vancouver Island. Particularly in the postcard town of Victoria—awash with floral beauty and its 55-acre pièce de résistance, The Butchart Gardens, which crescendoes during fall. In British Columbia’s capital city, there’s no shortage of enticing to-dos, like biking around the Inner-Harbour Pathway, eating your way through historic Chinatown, and visiting the Royal BC Museum

Head a bit outside of downtown and you’ll be handsomely rewarded at Goldstream Provincial Park, an old-growth temperate rainforest with its own salmon-spawning stream—allowing hikers to mosey alongside thousands of chum salmon returning between October and December. Nearby East Sooke Regional Park blends the best of coastal wonders—tide pools and beaches—with miles and miles of leafy trails. Back in town, indulge in a traditional afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel before retreating to your elegant room or suite.

Greenville’s remarkable facelift includes Falls Park on the Reedy, a 32-acre park rustling with autumn beauty in the town’s historic West End district. 

Denis Tangney Jr/Getty Images

Greenville, SC

Greenville, SC, was boarded up and left for dead when the textile mills skipped town in the ‘60s. What a difference over a half-century can make. Now a mecca for outdoor sports, fine dining, and nature lovers, thanks to its fortuitous location between rolling Piedmont hills and burly Blue Ridge Mountains that straddle the Carolinas’ common border, once-blighted Greenville is a bona fide attraction—both down oak-lined Main Street and further afield in its lush surrounding landscapes. Autumn’s handiwork is on spectacular display at Jones Gap State Park, an easy half-hour drive north of town. The trail here follows the Middle Saluda River through a dense forest of oak and sweetgum, before switchbacking up the spine of the Blue Ridge Escarpment until you reach a 100-foot rock-face waterfall, Rainbow Falls.

Our favorite hotels in downtown Greenville include the gently aging Westin Poinsett, with its 93-year-old lobby, and the modern Hyatt Regency. The biggest sport these days in town is wining and dining. Surf and turfers will gravitate to Chophouse 47 and Rick Erwin’s West End Grille, Greenville’s two reigning steak joints, but options here now run the gamut. After dinner, take your constitutional and follow the river walkway to the pedestrian suspension bridge that spans Reedy River Falls. Finding a lookout this beautiful in a neighborhood which used to be pockmarked by collapsed factories is like finding vintage hardwood planks under a dirty shag rug.

Autumn view of Mount Katahdin—terminus of the Appalachian Trail. 

James Griffiths Photography/Getty Images

Aroostook County, ME

Most visitors to Maine stick with the lighthouse-and-lobster crawl along the state’s rugged coastline. Up in its woodsy interior—where the moose are—is a different Maine altogether during any season. Vacationland’s backcountry in the falls is an especially otherworldly swath of technicolor lumberjack roads, “camp” lodges reached by float plane, and timeless canoe paddleways that Thoreau wrote about in his book The Maine Woods 160 years ago.

In Aroostook County—as far north as you can go without a passport—gossip tends to come in français first (though the occasional Canadian “eh?” makes an appearance). Bonded by their isolation, Quebecois and American communities here showcase a can-do spirit manifested in the decidedly unusual attractions they offer the few outsiders who make it this far into the woods—which, of course, are spectacular in autumn. Aroostook’s greatest fall foliage hits are accessed by hiking along the state scenic byway on Route 11, which heads south toward the coast. It runs along the Fish River Valley—side roads lead to dreamy ponds with house rentals—before finishing with extended views of Baxter State Park’s Mt. Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

The most remarkable man-made attraction around here is “Gateway Route 1,” better known as the “Maine Solar System Model,” which covers 40 miles between Houlton to Presque Isle. Years ago, eccentric local professor Kevin McCartney rallied locals to create a quirky roadside version of the Milky Way. Planets, built with donated labor and goods, were constructed at a 93 million–to–one scale. They sit on giant poles planted in backyards or roadside fields—the distance between them to the same scale as their size. Earth, which is only 5.5 inches in diameter, is posed outside Percy’s Auto Sales. Encountering it is both humbling and strangely reassuring. Also comforting is the fun Old Iron Inn, a B&B in Caribou run by the “galaxy man” McCartney himself, featuring the only room in the country (we’re assuming) named for an amoeba.

Michael Crowley/Getty Images

Iron County, WI

Well known for its top-notch fishing and bird hunting (not to mention the plenitude of mom-and-pop roadside bars), Iron County, WI, on the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the south shore of Lake Superior, also happens to be one of the best spots outside the Northeast for experiencing the glorious onset of autumn. Every year around the first week of October, Iron County’s hardwood forests erupt in an explosion of color, from the golden yellows of aspen to the burnt oranges of birch and the fire red of maple. It also just so happens that right now is precisely when both fishing and hunting get good as well, making a visit here a perfect storm of autumnal awesomeness.

A great way to spend a long weekend is simply walking along one of the numerous old lumber roads that spiderweb the area and have turned into impromptu trails. Or you can take a boat out and drop a line in the middle of a glassy lake—Iron County is home to more than 300—and take in the color while in pursuit of one of the area’s famed muskie (muskellunge) which can reach 50 inches long and a hefty 30 pounds. There are also miles and miles of mountain bikeable off-roads in an interconnecting system of jeep trails. Just be sure to mark your turns, as there are no official maps of all the different roads—and while some are still fairly obvious, others are barely trails, having been reclaimed by the aggressive northern forests.

There are a few different towns spread out throughout the county, but our favorite is Mercer, the self-described “Loon Capital of the World,” where a giant Loon oversees the drive into town. Just outside town is the gorgeous Little Bohemia Lodge, best known as a regular hideout for Al Capone and his cronies, and later the site of John Dillinger’s famous shootout with the FBI (you can still see bullet holes!). Our favorite place to stay is Beaver Lake Lodge, for its friendly staff who always know the best places to hit, whether you’re going cycling, fishing, or walking in the blazing autumn woods.

The one thing that visitors absolutely shouldn’t miss here is a Friday Night Fish Fry, where battered bluegill and perch serve as an appetizer for the true prize of the north: Walleye. Wash it all down with a local Leinenkugel’s beer and strike up a conversation with one of the friendly locals. For an opening line may we suggest, “Go Packers!”

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