America’s Best Towns for Fall Colors
“Since I was a child my family has made an almost weekly trip to have lunch in Skaneateles,” says Rachel Dickinson, based in the nearby New York State town of Ithaca and author of Falconer on the Edge. “If you're lucky, you can get a table at the Sherwood Inn, where you look out on the small park with the white gazebo that fronts the lake.”
As the weather turns crisp and the days gradually shorten, nature takes its cue to bring on the color—and the leaf-peepers come out in force. Like Dickinson, many head to Skaneateles, one of the best towns for experiencing fall colors, according to Travel + Leisure readers who voted in the America’s Favorite Towns survey.
Related: America's Best Fall Foliage Drives
The top-scoring towns represent the full color spectrum, from the blazing scarlet, orange, and deep purples of New England’s hardwoods to the golden carpet of aspens covering the Rocky Mountains.
“Autumn leaves are nature’s stained glass,” says professional photographer Michael Clemmer, whose images have appeared in National Geographic Society publications, and calendars around the world. “They can be beautiful in moody muted light or when brightly lighted from behind.”
If you want to photograph autumn in all of its deciduous glory, he cautions: “Don’t shoot in the middle of the day unless it’s cloudy because the bright sun washes out color. Morning and evening light are best.”
Clemmer’s No. 1 rule? “Don’t let taking photos keep you from enjoying the scenery.” Check out these favorite fall-foliage towns, from Colorado to Vermont, and then get out there to see the colors for yourself.
No. 1 Lake Placid, NY
The Adirondack Mountains are famed for their fall colors, and T+L readers gave Lake Placid the silver medal for autumn foliage. Red and silver maples, birch, aspen, oaks, and beech trees stretch out along the Olympic Trail scenic byway (which runs through Lake Placid), providing a striking show of color for its 170 miles. Or take the Fall Foliage Train tour on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Prime viewing time tends to be in early to mid-October, which conveniently coincides with the Lake Placid Brewfest.
No. 2 Oakland, MD
Oakland took top honors as the best town in America for leaf-peeping, thanks primarily to the blazing colors found just nine miles north of town at Swallow Falls State Park. As the Youghiogheny River flows through rock gorges, the oldest stands of eastern hemlock and white pine—more than 360 years old—blanket the area in gold, orange, red, and that eternal green. For five days in early October, residents turn out for the annual Autumn Glory Festival, including two parades, concerts, and band competitions. Oakland also embraces the Halloween spirit, hosting a hayride along the lakefront that passes scenes of zombies and ghosts.
No. 3 Stillwater, MN
When the leaves start showing their colors in Stillwater—on the western banks of the St. Croix River dividing Minnesota and Wisconsin—visitors converge on the town’s many Victorian bed-and-breakfast inns. One of the best ways to take in nature’s show is by river cruise on a replica of an 1890s paddleboat. Autumn here kicks off with the annual grape stomp competition, with prizes given for best style, and culminates in the long-running fine-art and music festival.
No. 4 Stowe, VT
As the air gets crisp in Stowe, the sugar maples come alive in intense shades of gold, orange, and scarlet blanketing the surrounding Green and Worcester mountain ranges. In general, the best time to capture these brilliant hues is the end of September through mid-October; the Trapp Family Lodge (“the family that inspired The Sound of Music”) makes a charming base of operations, especially during the popular Stowe Oktoberfest.
No. 5 Ludlow, VT
Before the snow bunnies take over Okemo Mountain and its ski resort, the 3,344-foot peak is one of the loveliest places in the valley for fall colors—with a 360-degree view that includes the Green Mountains to the west and the Okemo Valley region to the east. Just drive to the top, park, and hike the short distance to the fire tower. Other prime viewing spots are along the nearby Scenic Route 100 Byway: the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site and Coolidge State Park, both affording panoramic, mountaintop views.
No. 6 Portsmouth, NH
Like so many New England towns, Portsmouth is awash in early American history. At Strawbery Banke Museum—a 10-acre outdoor museum—you can take in the fall color as you roam the waterfront district and its restored homes built in the mid-1600s. By car, watch the foliage as you drive down the 18-mile scenic Coastal Byway. Or leave the driving to the captain on a 2.5-hour inland river cruise highlighting foliage and local lore.
No. 7 Whitefish, MT
The mountains framing Whitefish—doorway to Glacier National Park in the Flathead Valley—are a dramatic study in contrasts in autumn, when the golden aspen and larch flash against a backdrop of dark evergreens. Kayaking or canoeing on Whitefish Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the West, is one of the best ways to catch views of Big Mountain and the forests around it. If you prefer driving, follow Highway 35 along the east side of the lake and return in time to polka the night away at the annual two-weekend Oktoberfest.
No. 8 Snowmass Village, CO
Snowmass Village and nearby Aspen—which bears the name of Colorado’s most ubiquitous tree—are visited only briefly by autumn. But catch it while you can because it’s one of the best times to explore this area, with seasonably mild days and not-too-cold nights, and the predictable celebrity sightings when the Aspen Filmfest rolls into town. The preferred local ways to experience fall color are biking and hiking, whether it’s along the exceptionally beautiful Crater Lake Trail near Maroon Bells or the moderate Smuggler Loop at Hunter Creek.
No. 9 Lake Geneva, WI
When Chicago’s upper crust started putting up mansions on Lake Geneva in the late 19th century, they enlisted some of the top landscape architects to design grounds and plant trees that would showcase autumn colors for as long as possible, from early September through November. Three-mile-long Snake Road on the north end of the lake is one of the best drives in the fall, or enjoy the fall foliage on a cruise. Better yet, splurge on a view from a hot-air balloon.
No. 10 Glenwood Springs, CO
Autumn can start making an appearance as soon as early September in these parts, and leaf-peepers trek to Glenwood Springs in droves to watch summer green change to aspen gold at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers. Bike or hike along the 44-mile Rio Grande Trail that leads up to Aspen. If you have to pick a drive, choose the one over Independence Pass, where a short hike will bring you to a summit overlooking 18 mountains higher than 14,000 feet. You can even choose to leaf peep by Segway. Back in Glenwood Springs, relax at the world’s largest natural hot-springs pool.
No. 11 Estes Park, CO
At Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, fall is announced by the sound of bugling bull elk and the sight of bighorn sheep butting heads, beginning in about mid- to late September. You’re most likely to hear the elk’s mating calls at dawn and again at dusk, which leaves the day in between to gaze at the park’s golden aspen-cloaked peaks. Festival season begins in late September with beer, brats, and bands at the Autumn Gold Festival ... and if you just can’t get enough of those guys with the antlers, there’s the annual Elk Fest.
No. 12 Salem, MA
Come to Salem for the leaves and stay for the frights. Mid-October is typically peak time for foliage in this historic seaside town, and in addition the entire month is given over to Salem Haunted Happenings, complete with tombstone tours, medium-led séances, and ghost stories performed inside the 17th-century mansion of the judge who presided over the witch trials in 1692. Salem’s tree-lined streets are a tourist draw year-round but are especially lovely in the fall, when autumn colors frame the centuries-old homes.
No. 13 Skaneateles, NY
Set alongside one of New York’s Finger Lakes, Skaneateles is a favorite of leaf-watchers in the region, beginning in late September and running through mid-October. A 50-minute boat tour is a perfect way to get the full effect of a Finger Lakes fall, as the water’s reflection amplifies the foliage’s reds, oranges, and yellows. Or drive the length of the lake, beginning in Skaneateles and continuing down E. Lake Road to the Ripley Hill Nature Preserve in Spafford.
No. 14 Harbor Springs, MI
Harbor Springs, tucked into Little Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan, arguably has the most scenic drive in the state, especially come fall. The “Tunnel of Trees” begins in Harbor Springs and winds for 20 narrow miles along an impressive bluff overlooking Lake Michigan—dotted with shops and restaurants, if you want to take a stretch—before reaching the drive’s end in Cross Village. From Harbor Springs, it’s an easy day trip to Mackinac Island, where by October the color-cloaked trees finally start outnumbering the tourists, affectionately known as fudgies.
No. 15 Parkville, MO
Just 10 minutes northwest of downtown Kansas City, Parkville is a favorite regional spot for antiquing, shopping, gallery hopping, and, in autumn, foliage-gazing. Consider booking a room at the Main Street Inn, built in 1885 and within easy walking distance to catch fall colors at the Parkville Nature Sanctuary and English Landing Park, with its three-mile walking/biking trail tracing the banks of the Missouri River.
No. 16 Franklin, TN
Fall color arrives relatively late in middle Tennessee—around early November—with poplars, maples, oak, and hickory cloaking the surroundings in jeweled colors. The brick sidewalks of downtown Franklin, just south of Nashville, carry tourists past boutiques, art galleries, gift shops, and restored homes within a 16-block district that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It makes a convenient jumping-off point for exploring the Natchez Trace parkway and its hundreds of miles of autumn beauty.
No. 17 Sedona, AZ
Autumn in the western part of the country usually means the yellow fire of the aspens, but each fall visitors descend on Oak Creek Canyon, just north of Sedona, for the red-hot show of maples and oaks. You can drive the length of the canyon, or park and hike the easy three-mile trail beside Oak Creek—one of the most popular hikes in Arizona. The best viewing is in October—and if you want a change from hiking or driving, book a Sedona fall colors tour on the Verde Canyon Railroad, where you can take in the stunning Verde Canyon (west of Sedona) scenery from a shaded open-air car.
No. 18 Cape May, NJ
In Cape May, leaf season begins in October and can extend well into November. And while America’s oldest seaside resort town is most popular in the summer months, fall can be a particularly lovely time to visit, with lingering warm weather, fewer tourists strolling the tree-lined, gas-lamp-lit streets, and the popular Victorian Weekend celebration. Climb 199 steps to the top of Cape May Lighthouse to take in a panoramic fall view of the Atlantic, Delaware Bay, and Cape May State Park.
No. 19 Oxford, MS
Here in William Faulkner’s adopted home town, the leaves begin to turn somewhat late in the season—around the end of October, sometimes lasting as long as early December. The 0.6-mile Bailey’s Woods Trail, within the forest that inspired Faulkner, is a popular local stroll for admiring nature’s transformational magic (and a good place to escape the football-crazed Ole Miss fans during home games). Besides being a longtime center of southern culture, Oxford has recently made a name for its food scene, especially the restaurants surrounding The Square.