The reds, yellows, and oranges of the Great Smoky Mountains explode all around you as you hike the Appalachian Trail up Clingmans Dome, then ridge-walk through hardwood forests, emerging on top of treeless mountains. Fog floats among the trees and settles in the valleys, adding a mystical feel without diminishing the powerful colors. Says Tim Loftus of REI Adventures, which operates several fall hiking trips in the area: “It’s like a fireworks show out there.”
The changing leaves are just one lure for outdoor adventurers during the fall season. The tourist crowds of July and August have dissipated, and in many spots, the blistering summer heat has passed. And happily, an abundance of premier tour operators offer ready-made autumn adventures that are relatively easy on the wallet. They bring expert guides and top-quality gear and arrange all meals and accommodations—you just bring your thirst for adventure.
Many fall travelers, of course, want to experience the color transformation. And Vermont, like Tennessee, serves up a scarlet- and rust-filled landscape. Go with Vermont Bicycle Tours’ Champlain Valley excursion and you’ll ride through the falling leaves into a quieter, antique way of life, with jaunts to a horse farm and pewter workshop. You’ll even drop by the Shelburne Museum to see its brilliant collection of folk art and Americana.
For other travelers, adventure is just about exploring someplace new. That’s why Austin-Lehman Adventures is one of the first outfitters to offer a trip into South Dakota’s pine-covered Black Hills, a strikingly isolated mountain range rising from the heart of the Great Plains. Bicyclists navigate the hairpin turns of the otherworldly Needles Highway, passing through a landscape of granite spires, then looping around herds of huge animals. “Pedaling around a bend and seeing thousands of shaggy bison grazing on windswept prairie grass gives you a sense that little has changed for thousands of years in the West,” says Dan Austin, owner of Austin-Lehman.
Other trekkers want to walk in the footsteps of long-forgotten cultures, or forge a connection to the frontier. Ecohike’s Kayenta Passages trip offers the chance to see ancient Anasazi rock art, etched into the serpentine red rock canyons of Utah’s Escalante National Park.
If you feel like getting away from it all as the weather turns cooler, these guided excursions will get you into the great outdoors without breaking the bank.