Leaf Peeker's Guide To America's Fall Foliage

Fall foliage tours and affordable leaf peeping road trips are easy to plan if you use this How-To, Where-To foliage guide to see leaf colors changing en route. You’ll probably find a fall festival at your destination to make it a fun day’s outing, or enough events for an entire weekend getaway for the family.

Where to see the leaves change

Apple River Wisconsin fall foliage
The Apple River in Wisconsin is one of the state’s best places to view fall foliage. Photo by Amery.

Most of the US is open for autumn foliage viewing but some of the states really know how to highlight Mother Nature’s show.

The following states and regions are so proud of their fall foliage and leaf “peeping” or leaf “peeking” (or even leaf “peaking”) season, that they have established several resources to help you determine when the leaves change. Take advantage of up-to-the-minute websites and mobile apps created by tech-savvy tourism offices. These folks are ready to advise travelers on current local conditions of foliage and estimated Peak Leaf Peeking in their area.

Directory of Leaf Peeker Hotlines

Here’s FTF’s guide to the key leaf peeking states (some web pages may operate only seasonally.)  Plan ahead and work with the local tourism office to find reasonably priced hotels for your family.

Outside the Box Leaf Peaking: Colorado & California

Remember to think outside the box when it comes to fall foliage travel.

For example, there’s gorgeous foliage-seeing of a different kind in Grand County, Colorado within an hour’s drive of the Denver Airport. In Colorado, towering mountains (some already snow-capped) frame the golden aspen, orange cottonwood and glittery willows. The occasional moose sighting makes a leaf peeper’s road trip a whole other adventure.

Even the sunny state of California is tooting its foliage horn, with a great blog — California Fall Color manned by dozens of local leaf spotters, who post their observations and photographs daily so that road trippers can find the best view of changing aspen and cottonwood in the state’s diverse terrain.

And don’t forget that climate change may be responsible for unexpected sights in many areas.

Why do leaves change color?

Leaf colors change everywhere, even in Ruidoso
Fall foliage can be appreciated in New Mexico, along the Rio Ruidoso; photo c. DiscoverRuidoso

Leaves turn color because cooler temperatures and shorter days cause trees to stop producing chlorophyll, the natural chemical that makes leaves green. With the green pigment gone, the colorful pigments of other plant substances called carotenoids (yellows and oranges) and anthocyanins (red) become visible.

Generally speaking, the prime season for observing fall foliage is from mid-September to late October. The color change generally works its way from north to south — meaning peak leaf viewing earlier in the season in northern areas — and from higher elevations to lower elevations — meaning mountainous regions will turn color before nearby valleys.

Expect poplar, honey locust, gingko, beech, most birches and chestnut trees to have their leaves turn varied shades of yellow before dropping to the ground. Perhaps the prettiest are the Aspen trees, which turn a vivid gold with slightly different shades on both sides of the leaves.

Typically, the walnut, butternut, catalpa, elm, hickory, linden, sycamore, grey birch, and oak trees turn brilliant shades of rust, green and yellow and often a combination of these.

The beautiful maple leaf will then turn a striking shade of red and sassafras and sumac trees display a beautiful array of red, orange and purple leaves at their peak of leaf-changing.

Fall Peaking Tips for Kid Travel

Most families don’t have to travel far or plan a complex New England leaf-peeping road trip to see the leaves changing near their home. But you do have to plan ahead.

Michael Day of the University of Maine told Accuweather.com, “Three primary factors influence the intensity of foliage colors during the fall season: photoperiod, cool air and water stress.” Our changing climate can impact the last two factors, and makes predicting the peak foliage times much more difficult. That’s why we recommend you check the Leaf Peeper Hotlines before committing to your trip dates.

If you’re committed to a peak New England weekend like Columbus Day, you will have to book a room several weeks in advance of the leaves turning. Planning a trip in mid-September, or after the forecast peak — typically late October and early November — means better rates at local accommodations.

Once you hit the road, keep in mind that this is a very popular activity, and you may well be stuck behind a huge tour bus on a narrow mountain road for longer than your back seat crew can tolerate. Be sure to pack snacks and beverages for the car, and cameras, batteries and zip-loc baggies for leaf collection.

Wherever you go, the roads will be significantly less crowded during midweek visits. Again, we stress:  Once you decide on your destination, check the tourism office sites to find accommodations in your budget range.

This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.