If you’ve never driven on the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway during the fall foliage season, it deserves a spot on your bucket list. But be forewarned — it’s on everyone else’s bucket list, too. According to the National Park Service, this scenic road draws some 2 million visitors each October, so if you’re visiting then, be prepared for bumper-to-bumper traffic and crowds at overlooks. That said, with fall almost here, we’ve taken a look at some other scenic drives in the U.S. that offer great views of fall foliage and some engaging activities, without the crowds that swarm the Blue Ridge Parkway.
5. Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia
This 40-mile loop road leads almost to the top of 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. Take a steep, half-mile hike to the top — or ride a shuttle bus — and you’ll find an incredible, 360-degree view of the foliage in the surrounding mountains. Peak season usually comes in late October. The route cuts through the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest, and offers access to several waterfalls. Another highlight of this drive is the town of Helen, a Bavarian-Alpine-themed village filled with numerous eclectic shops and restaurants. The town’s Oktoberfest celebration is regarded as one of the best in the U.S.
4. Talimena Scenic Drive, Oklahoma
The Ouachita Mountains along the Arkansas-Oklahoma border will never be confused with the Rocky Mountains in terms of scale; the highest peaks in the Ouachitas (wosh-i-taws) are only around 2,500 feet tall. But this 54-mile scenic byway soars, twists and plunges like a roller coaster, offering plenty of inspiring views along the way. It’s short enough to easily drive in an afternoon, but bring a tent along and spend the night in the Winding Stair Campground, located on a scenic ridge in Oklahoma. Or park at a trailhead and take a hike along the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. Peak leaf season arrives in early November, a little later than elsewhere in the U.S.
3. Texas Hill Country
Texas probably doesn’t come to mind when you think of fall foliage, but the Hill Country in the south-central part of the state features some of the most vibrant fall colors around. The Lost Maples State Natural Area, aptly named for its abundance of maple trees, offers a colorful show for about three weeks beginning in late October. But half the fun is getting there. The 75-mile drive from San Antonio to Lost Maples follows Texas State Highway 16 and Ranch Road 337, two of the most scenic drives in the Southwestern U.S., with numerous hills (obviously) and tight switchbacks through rocky outcroppings. After a day of driving you can explore the region’s German heritage in New Braunfels or Fredericksburg, both of which offer plenty of dining and lodging options, along with some interesting shops and museums.
2. North Shore Drive, Minnesota
This route follows Minnesota Hwy. 61 … yes, the same Highway 61 memorialized in song by Bob Dylan in the 1960s. The 150-mile highway between Dylan’s hometown of Duluth and the Canadian border hugs the coastline of Lake Superior, which means you’re never far from an interesting view of this Great Lake. There are plenty of things to see along the way, with tourist-friendly small towns and easy access to eight state parks, including Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, which features one of America’s most picturesque lighthouses. Half the route passes through Superior National Forest, where you’ll get a good show of fall colors, which usually peak at the end of September and first 10 days of October. Finish the day off by spending the night at the northern end of the route in Grand Portage or Grand Marais, a small village with a variety of shops, art galleries and restaurants.
1. Kancamagus Scenic Byway, New Hampshire
Better known by local residents as “The Kanc,” travel writers have all but officially declared this the best fall scenic road in the U.S. Rolling through the White Mountains, the route features a wide diversity of trees, leading to a great color show that usually begins in mid-September. Unfortunately, most everyone in the Northeastern U.S. knows this, and New Hampshire Route 112 is busy during the fall leaf season, so patience is a must. But at only 34 miles in length, you can load the family in the car and easily drive this in an afternoon, even with heavy traffic and plenty of stops along the way. The road offers views of the Swift River and short walks to a couple of waterfalls. Here’s an itinerary from AmericasByways.org.
The author has traveled extensively throughout the United States in search of great scenery and interesting adventures.