Love a leisurely drive through picturesque country? There’s no better time for it than autumn, when nature amps up the color and gives us a kaleidoscopic show. These three road trips feature meandering roads, excellent restaurants, can’t-miss historical attractions and the ultimate roadside attraction: gorgeous fall foliage.
1. Coastal Maine
241 miles from Portland to Bar Harbor. Peak color: mid-to-late October.
When it comes to fall in New England, most people think of Vermont 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 real Maine lighthouse, the Rockland Breakwater Light. Make a stop at the Farnsworth Art Museum, which contains the largest intergenerational 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 the stately Bar Harbor Inn and Spa, which backs up to Acadia National Park. The Inn offers a complimentary breakfast with an oceanfront view, after which you can 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.
2. Great Lakes
140 miles from Detroit to Port Huron—and back. 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 gracious 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 and then turn in at the Blue Water Inn, a riverside hotel in nearby St. Clair.
The next morning, after brunch at the adjoining 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. By the time you take I-94 W back to Detroit, you’ll feel ready to face the traffic and bustle with renewed energy.
3. California Sierras
153 miles from Big Pine Canyon to Conway Summit. 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, home of the largest glaciers in the Sierra Nevadas, and head north on Route 395 for about an hour to Bishop Creek, where every fall, stately cottonwoods make good on California’s nickname, the Golden State. 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, and then turn in at Rainbow Tarns B&B on nearby Crowley Lake.
The next morning, 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 with the kids, 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.
After lunch at June Lake’s Sierra Inn, 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.