Sep. 17, 2012 at 10:34 AM ET
While we all love summer and its days filled with sunshine and ice cream, we can't be sad for long — fall is on its way with all its usual bright colors and beautiful views. Here's where to find the best ones.
1. The longest season: New Hampshire's Lakes Region
Why go: The secret to finding a lingering foliage season is steering clear of the weather that knocks leaves from their branches. "I would choose those locations away from the wind of the coast and at higher elevations," says Jerry Monkman, co-author of "The Colors of Fall Road Trip Guide." This New Hampshire region — which encompasses Lake Winnipesaukee, Squam Lake, Lake Ossipee, Mirror Lake, Newfound Lake and Lake Winnisquam — is protected from the harsh winds of the coast and doesn’t rise more than 600 feet above sea level, giving you the best chance for a long leaf season.
Where to get the best view: Obviously, from the middle of a lake (pick one). Bring a kayak and tone your paddling arms. "You can see red maples along the waterways showing their bright colors on the trees, and then reflected down into the water as well," says Tai Freligh, a spokesman for New Hampshire's Division of Travel and Tourism Development.
Insider tip: If boating and hiking feels like too much exertion for a good view, tour the lakes region from a fall foliage train. The Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad (603-279-5253, foliagetrains.com, $11 to $15) runs through Oct. 21, and a two-hour round-trip ticket entitles you to a lakeside tour along tracks that were once a part of the Boston & Maine Railroad. Daytime rides come with the option of adding on a "hobo picnic lunch" ($10).
2. The latest season to start: Southeast New Jersey
Why go: A good rule of thumb is that the leaves change later the more south you go and the closer you stick to the coast. "This is because these areas are lower in elevation and tend to stay a bit warmer than inland," says Marek D. Rzonca of the Foliage Network. If the weather cooperates, leaf season in southeast New Jersey — near Wildwood and Cape May, for example — can continue through early November.
When to go: Late October through early November
Where to get the best view: Belleplain State Forest, home to Lake Nummy, a 26-acre lake that was once a cranberry bog. "The forest comprises colorful deciduous species such as oak, cranberry, sweet gum, red maple and black gum set against a backdrop of lush evergreens, which makes for a spectacular variety of colors," says Abbie Tang-Smith, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "Belleplain's proximity to the bay and ocean also helps moderate the temperature, providing a longer leaf season."
Insider tip: Though the Jersey Shore is best known as a summertime destination, it's almost more pleasant to visit its coastal towns once the crowds have departed for the season. Cape May's historic past gets put on full display during its Victorian Week (Oct. 5–9), where you can attend events such as dances and a tea luncheon.
3. The most variety: New York's Adirondack Mountains
When to go: Late September through mid October
Why go: To get the most variety, you need to go where there is geographic diversity, and contained within the Adirondacks you'll find marshes, river valleys, hardwood forests and high-elevation alpine environments. "These areas have a good population of sugar maple trees which, in my opinion, are the most attractive in the fall," Rzonca says. "Other popular species include birch, aspen, oak and silver maple, all of which turn yellow. These trees are then complimented with the brilliant crimson of the red maple. When you put all these trees together, it provides a fantastic contrast and variety of color."
Where to get the best view: "One of my favorite locations is John Boyd Thacher State Park, located on the Helderberg escarpment in Voorheesville," says Eric Scheffel of the Empire State Development Bureau of Media Services. "It not only has great fall foliage, but also offers amazing views of the Hudson-Mohawk lowlands — including the City of Albany — and the southern Adirondacks. While it’s known to many Albany-area residents, I’ve found that most visitors from outside the area have never heard of it."
Insider tip: If you want to make a weekend of it, you can watch the foliage show unfold from your window at the Point (518-891-5674; thepointresort.com). The Relais & Châteaux property is styled to feel like a throwback to the Adirondack camps of old.
4. The least crowded: Western Maine
When to go: Late September through early October
Why go: The season here might be short, the weather chilled and the location remote, but if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Secondary bonus: Lodging is often not as expensive as it might be in showier areas better known for their leaf season.
Where to get the best view: Most Maine visitors are familiar with Acadia National Park, but Grafton Notch State Park, one of Maine's biggest, is where you should go for day hikes that won't put you in the path of other tourists. See the leaves as you hike your way to Screw Auger Falls, which was impressively carved out by a glacier.
Insider tip: For up-to-date foliage reports all around the state visit www.mainefoliage.com.
5. The most intense color: Vermont's Green Mountains
When to go: Late September to late October
Why go: There are just some places where the reds are deeper, the golds are brighter and the oranges have more pop to them. You have to cross your fingers and hope that the weather cooperates to get the palette just perfect: "The brightest fall colors usually occur when there is a long stretch of warm, sunny days accompanied by cold overnight temperatures," Monkman says. But it isn't all luck. Maples are known to produce the most intense colors, and Vermont's Green Mountains have them in spades — there's a reason Vermont is the country's largest producer of maple syrup.
Where to get the best view: Hit the road. Vermont's Byway Program, which spotlights scenic and historic routes, means you can easily find country roads that’ll lead you through postcard-worthy landscapes. The Green Mountain Byway takes you between Stowe and Waterbury, past meadows, farms and quaint villages.
Insider tip: About that maple syrup — while the Vermont maple sugaring season starts in March, the Nebraska Knoll Sugar Farm in Stowe, Vt., is open year-round to guests looking for a sweet fix (802-253-4655, nebraskaknoll.com).
1. The longest season: Leavenworth, Wash.
When to go: Through late November
Why to go: Several leafy routes start from Eastern Washington's Bavarian-themed town: Trees line Tumwater Canyon on Highway 2, which stretches to the Puget Sound area, while south on winding Highway 97, the forests of Blewett Pass sport red huckleberry bushes, aspens, and cottonwoods. Electric-yellow trees reflect in Lake Wenatchee north of the town.
Where to get the best view: From Waterfront Park downtown, the steep walls of the valley rise in every direction.
2. The most variety: McKenzie Pass, Ore.
When to go: Mid-October; the highway closes in early November.
Why go: Driving from the Williamette Valley to the eastern slopes of the Cascades — Eugene to Sisters on Highway 242 — presents a smorgasbord of landscapes. Transplants like the eastern black walnut and Norway maple in Eugene give the university town exotic color, while over the pass, the red of vine maples are juxtaposed with dark lava fields.
Where to get the best view: The Dee Wright Observatory is a striking little castle made of lava but its surrounding area is mostly treeless; the University of Oregon campus has plenty of orange and yellow specimens.
Insider tip: In downtown Eugene, look for deep red Dawn Redwoods, a rare deciduous conifer.
3. The least crowded: The Enchantments, Wash.
When to go: Late September
Why go: Hike out to these lakes and expect to hear someone make a "there's gold in them there hills" crack — only they'll be pointing at yellow larches, not precious minerals. The western and subalpine larch turn a bright, almost dusty yellow, which stands out in stark contrast to the pale granite of the Enchantments.
Where to get the best view: Colchuck Lake, a strenuous four-mile hike from the road, is a well-known foliage spot.
Insider tip: Mountain goats live in the area, and they're not animals to be trifled with — give them a wide berth.
4. The most dramatic: Glacier National Park, Mont.
When to go: Early October
Why go: Timing is everything at Montana's rugged northern park, where the window between the summer rush and winter snows is razor thin, and it varies every year. The bright yellow larch and aspen and red maples aren't overshadowed by the area's jagged peaks and vertigo-inducing big sky — but it's close.
Where to get the best view: The Going-to-the-Sun Road over Logan Pass is not only poetically named, it's the park's most popular driving route.
Insider tip: If Glacier's blockbuster road is closed, nearby Flathead Lake offers scenic vistas and plentiful huckleberry picking.
5. The latest start: Columbia River Gorge (Washington and Oregon)
When to go: Late October
Why go: The leaves at the highest elevations start to change color first, meaning that the low-lying Columbia River Highway east of Portland gets color late. From I-84 on the southern (Oregon) side of the river, see big-leaf maple and cottonwood in between riverfront vineyards. Use bridges at Hood River, the Dalles and Biggs Junction to design a Washington-and-Oregon loop.
Where to get the best view: Multnomah Falls, just east of Portland, pairs the trees with a jaw-dropping waterfall and a historic Forest Service lodge.
Insider tip: Unlike many mountain highways, I-84 doesn't close for winter, so it's a good bet once snows (and road closures) happen elsewhere.
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