1. VERMONT Scenic Drives
Base yourself in Rutland and explore from there
Star foliage: World-famous red maples.
Peak overall color: Early to mid-October (maples tend to turn earlier than oaks and birches so you can find spectacular color—and fewer crowds—if you visit in mid- to late September)
It’s tempting to crisscross the whole state to see the show, but to outsmart the crowds, pick a single Vermont region and explore its backroads. Rutland serves as a good base with a historic center and farmers markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays that overflow with harvest produce and fresh-pressed apple cider. This is covered bridge country, with prime examples in Rutland, Proctor, Pittsford, Shrewsbury and other neighboring towns.
Go west out of Rutland on Highway 4 to scenic State Highway 30, then head south for solitude and stunning views at Lake St. Catherine. Or travel north on Highway 30 over rolling hills and past country stores selling local maple candy on your way to Hubbardton, site of Hubbardton Battlefield, the only Revolutionary War battle fought in Vermont.
East of Rutland, the ridgetop byways between Shrewsbury and Plymouth allow secluded leaf peeping. Discover a slice of history in Plymouth at the Coolidge Homestead, the unassuming clapboard house where President Calvin Coolidge was born and later sworn in. While at the Coolidge Historic Site, watch artisan cheesemaking (and sample the results) at Plymouth Artisan Cheese, a cheese factory founded by Coolidge’s father in 1890.
Don’t miss: Pittsford’s New England Maple Museum houses a large collection of historical and modern maple sugaring equipment, with displays chronicling how sap becomes the sweet stuff.
2. MISSOURI Ozarks
Highway 19 Scenic Riverways, Cuba to Eminence
Star foliage: Oaks display a crayon box of colors, from yellow, orange and red to even purple, alongside other brilliant trees.
Peak overall color: Mid- to late October
Route 19 through southeast Missouri rises, twists, turns and dips. It’s a route meant for meandering, as you follow the ribbon of road south from the historic Route 66 town of Cuba, known for its road-trip and historic-themed murals and Guinness Book of World Records-certified world’s largest rocking chair. Wend your way through Steelville, Salem and other small towns anchored by antiques stores and local dairy bars offering towering soft-serve cones.
You’ll reach the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, where the Current and Jacks Fork rivers host many a memorable float trip in summer. But during cooler autumn days, the waterways lure visitors to other attractions made even more brilliant with the backdrop of fall color. Two must-sees: the 300-foot-deep Blue Spring, called “Spring of the Summer Sky” by Osage Native Americans, and the bright-red old mill and a white one-room schoolhouse at Alley Mill.
Don’t miss: Hear live bluegrass music and shop for fine handmade quilts and furniture at the Scenic Riverways Arts & Crafts Show in nearby Eminence the second weekend in October.
3. MONTANA Rockies Alpine Splendor
Seeley-Swan Scenic Drive, Missoula to Whitefish
Star foliage: Western larch, also called tamarack by locals, is the rare coniferous tree that isn’t an evergreen. Every autumn, its tiny needles turn golden before falling to the ground.
Peak overall color: Early to mid-October (Note: Aspens peak in mid-September)
Keep your eyes peeled for moose or elk along the Blackfoot River on Highway 200 out of Missoula in northwestern Montana. Turn north onto Highway 83 through the Seeley and Swan valleys, where a string of hundreds of scenic glacial-carved lakes, from tiny no-names to the twin valley namesakes and nearby 200-square-mile giant Flathead Lake, dot the landscape. Your drive is framed by the soaring peaks of the Mission Mountains to the west and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east. In every direction, golden western larch glow in the sunlight.
Detour to nearby Swan River National Wildlife Refuge, with viewing platforms to spy migrating waterfowl and bald eagles. Or see how nature inspires the paintings, carvings and photography of local artists. Alpine Artisans collective lists studios that welcome visitors. Stop in one of the towns for hearty buffalo burgers, sourced from area ranches, and local craft beer. In Bigfork, pick up a taste of summer in the sweet-tart huckleberry preserves from renowned Eva Gates. Another interesting stop is the Whitefish Museum, which is housed in a train depot.
Don’t miss: Visit an old-growth stand of larch in Jim Girard Memorial Grove, just west of Seeley Lake, anchored by 1,000-year-old Gus, said to be the largest larch in the nation.