No autumn is complete without enjoying the changing colors of the leaves. And sure, not everyone lives in an area where the fall colors are mesmerizing, but that’s why road trips were invented! Even if you live in a region that boasts exceptional autumnal hues, a road trip is the best way to experience this special season.
That’s because most of the better places to go leaf peeping are more about the journey than about the destination. There are hundreds of scenic byways across the country that provide unparalleled opportunities to experience the beauty of fall foliage. These routes are perfect for spontaneous Sunday drives or pit stops along a greater cross-country journey.
There are several designations used to honor roads distinguished for their cultural, historical, ecological, recreational, or scenic qualities. The most common type of designation is the National Scenic Byway, though there are also state scenic byways, National Forest Byways, and Back Country Byways. Another type of scenic byway is a National Parkway, which is a type of protected roadway within federal park lands that is managed by the National Park Service for recreational use. If a particular parkway or scenic byway is especially outstanding, it may honored with the additional title of All-American Road.
Not sure where to start planning your leaf-peeping road trip? We’ve listed five of our favorites below.
The crown jewel of spectacular autumn drives is the Blue Ridge Parkway. Established in 1936, the 469-mile parkway in the heart of Appalachia serves as a connection between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because its reach is so extensive and accessible, the parkway is consistently ranked at the top of the National Park System’s most visited list.
The Parkway provides spectacular mountain and valley vistas, quiet pastoral scenes, sparkling waterfalls, and colorful flower and foliage displays as it extends through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.
Nestled within the Appalachian Mountains, the Cherohala Skyway runs 43 miles from Robbinsville, North Carolina to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. First opened in 1996 after decades of planning and construction, the byway’s name is a portmanteau of the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests.
The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokee tribe and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Appalachian Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage, as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests.
During its over seventy year history, Skyline Drive has offered travelers the opportunity to view many of the most scenic vistas in the eastern United States. The experience combines the protected setting of Shenandoah National Park with two visitor centers, miles of hiking trails, and opportunities for wildlife viewing.
The Colonial Parkway not only illustrates the English colonial experience in America, but is also an outstanding example of American parkway design. Retaining its original scenic and historic integrity to a remarkable degree, the 23-mile route connects the historic sites of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.
Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
Travel back in time and explore history and beautiful scenery on the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway (U.S. 276) through the Pisgah National Forest.
Tour the Cradle of Forestry, located 11 miles from the southern entrance of the byway. It was here that the first school of forestry in America—the Biltmore Forest School—was founded by Dr. Carl Schenck, chief forester for George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. From 1898 to 1913, the Biltmore Forest School taught a new science of caring for forests. Today, enjoy a hands-on exhibit or hike an interpretive trail to experience the wonders of the forest first hand.
Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.
—William Cullen Bryant