If you want to catch our nation’s deciduous trees taking on a vibrant palette of yellows, reds, and oranges, now’s the time to plan a road trip. Naturally, some of the best drives for fall foliage wind through our beautiful national parks. Here are five trails for unbeatable views.
1. Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park & Blacktail Plateau Drive in Yellowstone National Park
Brilliant yellow aspens burn brightly against the backdrop of the Teton Range in Grand Teton National Park. For the best views, stick to the Teton Park Road and stop at Oxbow Bend and Snake River Overlook for great photo opps. Keep an eye out for wildlife — if you’re lucky, you may see elk sparring or black bear and moose nibbling on berries. To make the most of your trip, you can continue to Yellowstone National Park, which is less than an hour away. If you have a car that can handle an unpaved road, opt for the one-way Blacktail Plateau Drive, a turn off just before Phantom Lake, for amazing fall views and wildlife.
2. Laurel Creek Road in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
You won’t be disappointed no matter what drive you chose in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but we’re partial to Laurel Creek Road. It’s not as crowded as the Newfound Gap or Cades Cove Loop roads but still is lined with enough maples and oaks to create a postcard-worthy scene. Begin your visit at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and head out on Little River Road, which becomes Laurel Creek Road. The drive ends at Cades Cove, a collection of historic homes, barns, and other buildings.
3. Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
With a 35 mph limit, the 105-mile Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park can be slow going — but that’s better for leaf-peeping from the roads in late October, the peak of color change, anyway. The scenic roadway has 75 overlooks where you’ll see valleys spotted with cascading waterfalls and maybe even wildlife at deer. For the best fall views, stop at Range View, South River, and Trayfoot Mountain overlooks. Additionally, to get a unique cross-section look at the park, consider taking U.S. 211 in either direction at the Thornton Gap Station Entrance. Go east to Sperryville to buy local apples, or head west to Luray to explore the caverns there.
4. Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park
You’ll see some of the nation’s best fall foliage in northern Maine’s Acadia National Park. Take the 27-mile Park Loop Road, the only scenic drive in the park. The road loops by these highlights: Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond, and the summit of Cadillac Mountain — great for elevated views of the brightly colored forests. Or, if you’d rather concentrate more on the scenery and less on the road, let Oli’s Trolley whisk you along Park Loop Road ($30) or take a carriage ride into the woods on the park’s famous carriage roads. (Hiking the park’s 125 miles of trails is always another option).
5. Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
A nationally designated All-American Road, Trail Ridge Road winds 48 miles through Rocky Mountain National Park and peaks at 11 miles above the tree line, presenting spectacular views of its alpine meadows. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re at the Arctic Circle, especially later in the season — Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuously paved road in the United States. Rocky Mountain National Park has another road worth mentioning: Old Fall River. Although it’s closed this fall for repairs, the one-way, unpaved switchback with no guardrails makes for a great adventure. Bookmark it for 2015.