6 Scenic Drives for Spectacular Fall Color

See stunning foliage, taste fresh maple syrup, maybe even spot a bald eagle on these relaxing weekend escapes.

Empty Road in the Woods Lined with Trees with Bright Yellow Leaves in Autumn

by NEA Member Benefits

Sep 18, 2023

1. Southern Vermont

Highway 4 and Highway 30 from Rutland, or east to Plymouth

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.

In Pittsford, the New England Maple Museum houses a large collection of historical and modern maple sugaring equipment, with displays chronicling how sap becomes the sweet stuff.

NEA members travel benefits: Book your flight to Rutland-Southern Regional Airport (RUT) or for more options, try Burlington International Airport (BTV), which is 60 miles away, via NEA Travel: Flights. And then check for hotel deals to stay at accommodations such as an average of $163/night at the Comfort Inn Trolley Square in Rutland, which includes breakfast, WiFi, and use of the indoor pool and hot tub. Get a great deal of an average of $167/night in the off-season at ski resort Mountain Lodge at Okemo Mountain Resort, which offers one-bdroom condos and access to a fitness center and pool. For something more boutique, try the Pointe at Castle Hill Resort in Cavendish, at an average of $137/night, which has an indoor pool and spacious rooms.

Plan your itinerary: Downtown Rutland | Lake St. Catherine Vermont Vacation

2. The Missouri Ozarks

Highway 19 Scenic Riverways from 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.

In nearby Eminence, hear live bluegrass music and shop for fine handmade quilts and furniture at the Scenic Riverways Arts & Crafts Show during the second weekend in October.

NEA member travel benefits: Visit NEA Travel: Flights for the best deals on flights to St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL). On the hotels page, you can book your hotel stay and get great prices. The Holiday Inn Express Cuba averages just $66 per night and includes complimentary breakfast and WiFi. At the end of the trip, stay in Poplar Bluff at Hampton Inn Poplar Bluff MO, which averages $113 per night, inclusive of breakfast and WiFi.

Plan your itinerary: Visit Cuba | Visit Eminence | Visit Missouri

3. Northwest Montana

Seeley-Swan Scenic Drive from 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.

Just west of Seeley Lake, visit an old-growth stand of larch in Jim Girard Memorial Grove, anchored by 1,000-year-old Gus, said to be the largest larch in the nation.

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.

NEA member travel benefits: Through the NEA Travel Program, you can search for deals on flights to Missoula Montana Airport (MSO). Look for affordable lodging options such as an average of $165 a night at the Courtyard by Marriott Missoula or $182 a night for Hilton Garden Inn Missoula. Once you’re on the road, the Ninepipes Lodge in Charlo is an option for an average of just $85 a night.

Plan your itinerary: Destination Missoula |  Seeley and Swan Valleys | Explore WhitefishVisit Montana

4. Coastal Maine

Portland to Bar Harbor via Augusta

Star foliage: Red maples and red oaks show off multiple shades of red, while the many pines still dot the area with green.
Peak color: Mid-to-late October, but Maine is the first U.S. state to see fall colors, as early as late August sometimes.

When it comes to fall in New England, most people think of Vermont (see above) and New Hampshire. But Maine has more than twice the forested area as its neighbors, plus a jagged, silvery coastline. Start in Portland, a hip, artsy mecca. Grab an old-school diner breakfast at the Crooked Mile, then head north on I-295 and Highway 1 for a couple of hours to picture-perfect Rockland, a small village complete with lobster shacks and a classic Maine lighthouse, the Rockland Breakwater Light. Make a stop at the Farnsworth Art Museum, which contains the largest intergenerational Andrew Wyeth collection found anywhere in the world.

From Rockland, head west for an hour on Highway 17 to Augusta. The trees grow taller as you travel inland. Once you’re in the state capital of Augusta, take in more history at the Maine State Museum, then head to the Red Barn Drive-In for a late lunch (try the chowder!).

Get back in the car for two more foliage-filled hours north on Highway 1 and east on Highway 3. You’re on your way to Bar Harbor—home of lobster rolls, blueberry pie and Acadia National Park. Drive along the 27-mile Park Loop Road, with its views of foliage and one of the most beautiful and most secluded coastlines in the world.

NEA member travel benefits: Fly into Portland International Jetport (PWM); NEA Travel: Flights is the best place to find great prices on airline tickets. Then on the hotels page you can find prices including an average of $168/night at Ramada Plaza Portland, or, sleep in Camden at the charming Cedar Crest Inn, for an average of $174/night. Once in Bar Harbor, check out the Days Inn Bar Harbor, which averages $219/night and includes breakfast and WiFi free of charge.

Plan your itinerary: Visit Portland Maine | Rockland Maine Vacation Guide | City of AugustaVisit Bar Harbor | Visit Maine

5. Michigan’s Great Lakes

I-94 from Detroit to Port Huron—and back on Route 29

Star Foliage: Fall foliage in Port Huron includes gingko trees that turn a brilliant yellow in autumn, while maples, oaks and beech turn a rainbow of yellows, oranges, and reds.
Peak color: Early-to-mid October.

Michigan, nicknamed the Great Lakes State, boasts some of the country’s most stunning fall foliage—and what better place to start a road trip than in Motor City? Head north out of Detroit via I-94 E so you’ll get a glimpse of Lake St. Clair along the way, and arrive a half-hour later at Lake St. Clair Metropark, a recreational destination in its own right.

After a picnic and a stroll on the boardwalk, get back on I-94 and continue another hour to Port Huron. Here, you could keep busy for days at the Port Huron Museum and its outposts, including the fascinating Thomas Edison Depot Museum, ambient Fort Gratiot Lighthouse and historic Carnegie Center. But first have a bite at the Vintage Tavern, a classic, old-school lakeside restaurant. Stroll the beach at the Lighthouse Beach and Park after dinner.

The next morning, after brunch at River Crab Restaurant (famous for its seafood—try the chef’s featured fish presentation), get back on the road. Head south on Route 29, which wends its way through the St. Clair Flats and St. John Marsh Wildlife Areas as well as Algonac State Park, hugging the shoreline the entire way. Stop in China Township to see Michigan’s largest known red maple. The State Champion Red Maple is located at 6700 Puttygut Rd. in St. Clair County, near a yellow barn. By the time you take I-94 W back to Detroit, you’ll feel ready to face the traffic and bustle with renewed energy.

NEA member travel benefits: Use NEA Travel’s portal to get the best deals on your flight into Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW). The hotels booking page features deals including DoubleTree by Hilton Port Huron, which is an average of $138 a night and has an indoor pool and gym. If you’re a Marriott loyalist, there’s the Fairfield Inn by Marriott Port Huron, which is an average of $125 a night and includes breakfast.

Plan your itinerary: Visit Detroit | City of Port HuronPure Michigan

6. California Sierras

Highway 68 and Route 395 from Bishop to Conway Summit via Bishop Creek and Mammoth Lakes

Star Foliage: Stately cottonwoods and quaking aspens make good on California’s nickname, the Golden State.
Peak color: Mid-September to late October.

Who says there are no seasons in California? No one from the Sierras—come fall, the foliage will give leaf peepers the ride of their lives. Start at Big Pine Canyon in Bishop, home of the largest glaciers in the Sierra Nevadas, and head north on Route 395 for about an hour to Bishop Creek, home to plenty of cottonwoods. You can get out here and hike around Lake Sabrina, or continue up north via Highway 168 for another half-hour to Buttermilk Country, home of some of the most awe-inspiring boulder formations you’ll find anywhere.

Now head north on Route 395 for another hour until you arrive at Mammoth Lakes, where you can hike, fish, shop or just drive around and drink in the beauty of mountains covered with glowing leaves. When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the Restaurant at Convict Lake for a leisurely meal.

Next, drive a half-hour north on Route 395 to the June Lake Loop, a charming circle embracing four lakes: Gull, Silver, Grant and, of course, June. The Loop is a short drive, so you’ll have time to get out and explore on foot, too. Hit the Gull Lake Trail for an easy hike, or take on the Rush Creek Trail, which has great views that reward you for a more challenging trek. Or, skip the hikes and stick to the main street in June Lake Village, with its rows of shops and galleries.

Finally, pile into the car for one more half-hour north on 395. You’re on your way to Conway Summit, a mountain pass with breathtaking vistas of Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada range—now aflame with oranges, reds and gold. It’s the can’t-miss stop for fall foliage in the Eastern Sierras.

NEA member travel benefits: Book a flight through NEA Travel: Flights to Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH), about 39 miles from Bishop, to get great airfare prices. Visit NEA Travel: Hotels to find deals at hotels including the cozy Mammoth Lakes 15-room bed and breakfast Cinnamon Bear Inn, which averages $163 per night and includes a homemade breakfast. Or there’s the Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa, which has been around for more than 50 years and has a comfy lobby with a fireplace and new restaurant and bar. It averages $177 per night for its recently renovated rooms.

Plan your itinerary: Bishop Visitor California’s High Sierra | Visit Mammoth | June Lake | Visit California 

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