Great fall colors can coexist with charming towns and affordable hotels. Here’s where to go.
Best Affordable Fall Foliage Towns
The Coen brothers chose Brainerd as the setting for their film Fargo, and this town epitomizes much about the northern Midwest. The town fathers claim Paul Bunyan as their own, but for the average leaf peeper, it’s the surrounding lakes and forest that offer the best reason to come here in fall. The foliage tends to peak in late September and early October—the perfect time to take a slow ride around Gull and Round lakes or drive a longer loop on the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway.
Fall Color Hotel: Whiteley Creek Homestead Bed and Breakfast offers two guest rooms and three cottages, all rustic, quirky, and charming, surrounded by organic gardens. Doubles from $95.
Petersham is a quiet village in Central Massachusetts with all the requirements of a quintessential New England town: central green, main street with 19th-century clapboard houses, white-steepled church, general store. And it’s surrounded by dense forest that explodes into red, orange, and yellow come late September.
What it doesn’t have is tour buses and high prices. Instead, there’s the Inn at Clamber Hill, a five-room bed-and-breakfast where a double room in fall high season runs a reasonable $169.
Related: America's Best Fall Foliage Drives
Petersham is not alone. It’s still possible to find small towns that aren’t crawling with camera-toting gawkers or have outrageously expensive hotels that have hiked up their prices to cash in on the all-too-brief foliage season.
We scoured the country to find some delightful small towns, places where it won’t cost a fortune to spend an autumn weekend. Many of these towns feature small inns or bed-and-breakfasts that offer good value and a central base for your foliage adventures. These are places where you can sit on a porch rocker and breathe the cool country air, and where a filling breakfast sends you out the door for a day of exploration.
Middlesboro, KY, for example, has a historic downtown and is the gateway to the Cumberland Gap. From mid- to late October, the colors peak on the surrounding sugar maples, beech, birch, and basswood trees. And the Cumberland Manor Bed and Breakfast, a grand Victorian home dating from 1890, has double rooms with breakfast that start at just $99.
Even Arizona, better known for its desert climate, offers the tiny aerie of Alpine, set at 8,000 feet and considered the Switzerland of the state. And the area’s colorful aspen and oak trees make a pretty compelling argument. Seclude yourself at the Hannagan Meadow Lodge, set at 9,100 feet in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, where doubles start at $65.
As with every year, some basic color-viewing suggestions can make your fall journey even better. While car touring is the classic way of appreciating the changing season, consider traveling under your own power. Many of these locales offer superb hiking trails and mountain-biking trails. They also offer untrafficked roads in many cases, where you can ride a road bike at your own pace, slow down, stop at farm stands, and really appreciate the colors.
Of course, finding the season’s elusive peak—that annual ritual of predicting color progression and “leaf drop”—is far from an exact science. In general, a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights (but not frost) is what seems to bring out the most spectacular color displays.
The best thing to do is check out the state tourism boards’ websites for information on how the colors are progressing. But you’d be well advised to book now and to go midweek if you truly want the winding country roads to yourself.