With gas prices well below their dizzying early summer heights and memories of chaos at airports still fresh in our minds, the fall road trip possibilities look pretty darn good as we wrap up October and head into November.
The highlight of many a fall drive is taking in the changing of the leaves. If you want to optimize your chances of catching the various shades of orange, red and gold at their peak, check out this US foliage predictor map at Smokymountains.com.
Move the scroll bar to get a weekly assessment of the Lower 48 states. Much of the northern tier of states and higher elevations of the Appalachians have already peaked, according to the map’s forecast. The show is moving southward and to lower elevations, with places such as the Ozarks, southern Indiana and Ohio, parts of Colorado and the foothills of the Appalachians near predicted peaks this year.
In no particular order, here are seven fantastic scenic drives scattered around the continental United States where you can enjoy autumn color and other attractions natural and man-made. Some are well-known; others are a bit under the radar.
Blue Ridge Parkway: Virginia and North Carolina
This sumptuous, curving road threads its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains. It starts in Virginia and continues southwest into North Carolina, and the total length is 469 miles (755 kilometers).
A few good aspects about the parkway:
• It’s free to use and open 24 hours a day unless portions are closed by things such as weather or landslides.
• It’s free of all commercial clutter – no billboards and businesses in sight. Just cars, the road and nature.
• You don’t have to tackle the whole thing unless you want a really big trip; just carve out a portion and drive that.
Much of the parkway is expected to peak later this month, but earlier birds should still be able to catch some gorgeous color now, according to the foliage map.
In Virginia, the automotive and travel club AAA suggests that you pull off and enjoy Mabry Mill at milepost 176, where Ed Mabry and his wife, Lizzy, ground corn and sawed lumber for three decades. Also check out the Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213.
In North Carolina, see what life was like for the Cherokee at Oconaluftee Indian Village at milepost 469.1 or explore the tallest peak east of the Mississippi at Mount Mitchell State Park.
Peak to Peak Scenic Byway: Colorado
For eye-poppin’ and ear-poppin’ scenery, it’s hard to go wrong in the high altitudes of the Centennial State. It has 26 scenic byways, and half of those have national designation.
Still, you can only take one at a time. Why not start with Peak to Peak Scenic Byway? Its 55 miles (89 kilometers) of roadway showcases memorable views of the Continental Divide, and it’s all less than an hour from urban hubs Denver or Boulder.
And you might end up spending more time out of your vehicle than in it at a string of natural sites along the way:
• Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests: See an enticing mix of woodlands and grasslands.
• Rocky Mountain National Park: Take in meadows, lakes and more on 300 miles of hiking trails – and maybe spot a moose or bear at a distance.
• Golden Gate Canyon State Park: State parks can often make a good alternative when national parks are too crowded.
Covered Bridges Scenic Byway: Iowa
America’s heartland is sometimes overlooked, but it has its fair share of lovely drives, too.
Jessica O’Riley, tourism communications manager for the Iowa Tourism Office, suggested the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway.
Made famous by the 1992 novel “The Bridges of Madison County” and subsequent 1995 movie, its roughly 82 miles (132 kilometers) focuses not only on covered bridges but scenic natural areas and historical and cultural sites, too, O’Riley said.
Want to get out of the car and stretch your legs? In Winterset, there’s a birthplace and museum dedicated to Marion Robert Morrison – that’s actor John Wayne to you and me, pilgrim.
The annual Covered Bridges Festival is over, but the fall colors should be good through all of October.
Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway: Oregon
In central Oregon, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway “offers a one-of-a-kind view with dazzling red vine maple juxtaposed against black lava,” according to Allison Keeney, manager of global communications at Travel Oregon.
Its 66 miles (106 kilometers) run past several lakes in the central Cascade Mountains.
“This route is known not only for the scenery it provides, but also by the sheer number of adventures found along the way,” Kenney said.
“Those who want to get up close and personal with the trees as their leaves turn from green to yellow and orange should get out of the car and enjoy views at Sparks Lake or hiking opportunities in the Three Sisters Wilderness.”
Natchez Trace Parkway: Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee
Covering 444 miles (715 kilometers) and three states, the Natchez Trace Parkway roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” an historic travel corridor used by Native Americans and later European settlers.
Take the entire parkway and enjoy two very different cities at the start and end points. Little Natchez, Mississippi, is known for its historical homes overlooking the Mississippi River. Big-city Nashville has exploded from a country music haven to all-around entertainment destination.
In between: A perfectly lovely drive that transitions from Deep South coastal plain to much hillier terrain. Peak color comes earliest up in Tennessee (usually late October to early November). But the southernmost parts of the Trace in Mississippi can peak late into November.
Love to ride bicycles? The parkway is popular with bicyclists in autumn. Click here for advice before you pedal.
Hocking Hills Scenic Byway: Ohio
Hey, oh, way to go Ohio for your 25 miles (40 kilometers) of lovely roadway southeast of Columbus.
The Hocking Hills Scenic Byway is another AAA-endorsed route for people who want to see fall foliage and take a nice relaxing afternoon drive.
Hocking Hills State Park practically demands you park the car and explore its waterfalls, cliffs and gorges.
There are seven major hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. Whispering Cave Trail features the “swinging” Hemlock Bridge and the second-largest cave in the region with a 105-foot seasonal waterfall.
About 30 miles (48 kilometers) away is the small city of Athens, which holds a farmers market and arts market every Saturday and plenty of special events this fall.
This part of Ohio looks like it will be in or near peak season as October closes out, according to the foliage map.
Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway: Maine
If the roads around Acadia National Park in coastal Maine are too crowded for you, consider Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway.
AAA gives this roughly 50-mile (80-kilometer) route in interior western Maine – close to the borders of New Hampshire and Canada – a hearty endorsement.
The Height of Land on Route 17 “is the route’s showstopper,” according to Explore Maine, “with stunning views” of lakes and mountains. The site also touts the excellent fall foliage viewing on the byway. Generally, peak color comes around October 6 to 13 in this part of Maine.
AAA also likes the nearby Saddleback ski resort, where you can enjoy activities such as mountain biking before ski season kicks in.
Best time to go for peak fall color? Next year! (But the drive is still lovely).