Pack the kids for a journey to the coast, high desert and mountains for autumn’s brilliant golds, oranges and reds.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
Ever do a bunch of research for a trip that doesn’t happen? Yeah, that just happened to me.
I was all, like, “Hey, the pandemic means online work and school, right?? We’re mobile!! Let’s take a trip to see some fall color and Zoom from the road!”
Well, turns out no one in my family can leave town. Ack!
Before my October road trip dreams were quashed, I had been looking for great leaf-peeping destinations that are drive-able from California. And though 1,000+ miles might not usually be “drive-able,” a fly-drive option in the Time of COVID is not as appealing as usual.
As you know, timing is everything if you want to see “peak color.” Every year is slightly different. And even spots close to each other on the map can have different color calendars, depending on the elevation or types of trees. For example, doing northern and southern Utah in one swoop won’t deliver autumn color in both spots unless you have a few weeks to do it because the Moab area is higher and peaks quite a bit earlier.
Check this map while you’re planning for fall color updates across the nation – and always Google “fall color 2020” for the latest articles on how the year’s weather is impacting foliage timing. Unfortunately, autumn is wildfire season so it’s important to be sure the area you’re going is open and no fires are nearby. Oh, and check to be sure you are able to visit the state given COVID-19 travel restrictions: Californians and Arizonans are not yet officially permitted to visit New Mexico, for example (as of September 2020).
So if you’ve successfully rounded up your herd and jumped through all these hoops, check out the bucket list below of the best autumn foliage road trips in the Western U.S.
Because come hell, high water, fire or COVID-20/21, I am gonna see some fall color next year!
Best Fall Foliage Road Trips in the Western U.S.
1. Top-to-Bottom Utah
A stunner in any season, Utah is especially pretty in autumn. On top of casting a golden glow to the geologic wonders of Zion National Park (above) and the rest of the “Mighty 5,” fall foliage creates an incredible patchwork of beauty in spots all up and down Interstate 15, from Sardine Canyon and Peak in the north to Highway 89 near Cedar City and Brian Head in the south (shown below).
2. California’s Eastern Sierra
California gets a bad rap for autumn leaf peeping – and New England it is not. But there are mountains all over the Golden State and its best golden cottonwoods and aspens are found near Bishop and the Mammoth Lakes area. The entire drive up and down 395 in the Eastern Sierra is a must-do in any season but an autumn trip to this area is atop my California autumn bucket list. Tahoe, Yosemite, the Wine Country, and even coastal areas like Big Sur and Mendocino are also popular spots to see fall color near San Francisco. Check this map when planning your trip for the current foliage conditions around the state.
3. Northern New Mexico
Autumn’s the perfect season to explore los amarillos of New Mexico – in fact, there are actually too many fall foliage spots to see on one trip. If you can get yourself to Albuquerque, you’ll be poised for days of brilliant drives on “scenic byways” that showcase not only colorful trees but native settlements and historical towns. Aspens are the draw but there are many other trees to see, whether you head south to the Sandia area, the Gila National Forest and on to Arizona, or north to Santa Fe, the Jemez Mountain Trail, Taos, the Carson National Forest and into southern Colorado.
4. High Deserts of Arizona
It can be easy to forget that much of Arizona is high desert. From the ridges of the Grand Canyon to the gorges near Sedona to the Mt. Lemmon, the 9,100-foot (!) peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, visitors can take their pick of trees to see – or see ‘em all on one trip.
5. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains
They don’t call it Aspen for nothing. Taking a hike through the area’s Maroon Bells is one of the best ways to see these incredible yellow leaves. There are also many more Colorado spots to see aspens outside of Aspen if you’re wanting more.
6. Anywhere in Oregon
Like California, Oregon is blessed with coastal, vineyard and mountain fall color viewing opportunities, but even its city trees in Portland, Corvallis and Eugene put on quite an autumn show. Whatever area of the Beaver State that you’ve been wanting to road trip through surely has foliage to be seen. Check this article for a variety of ideas.
7. The Olympic Peninsula
There are dozens of great fall foliage spots near Seattle. Base yourself in Port Angeles and you can drive, hike or paddle past some incredible changing leaves. Or take a short ferry ride from the city to Whidbey Island to find not only forest and farmland foliage to see but salty coastal waterfronts to explore.
8. Glacier National Park in Montana
Okay, here’s ANOTHER reason to head to this incredible national park at the top of Montana, as if summer and Yellowstone aren’t enough! Glacier’s aspens turn gold in September but its reds hold on til mid October, and there are many other spots around the state to see brilliant fall color.
9. Southern Wyoming
Aside from the Grand Tetons, the best foliage to see in Wyoming is found in the Battle Mountain area of the Sierra Madres. The area has access to the Continental Divide trail and several old small mining towns.
10. Alaska by Rail
Talk about a bucket-lister: A trip to the Great White North to see the leaves – and the tundra – change color will also deliver looks at the Northern Lights, Katmai’s “fat bears” before they hibernate, far fewer tourists, and maybe the first snow of the season. A ride on the Alaska Railroad is a unique (and warm) way to see Denali and Broad Pass as you leaf peep – but you gotta go early: Mid-August to mid-September is prime time for fall foliage in Alaska. So I might see you there next year 😉
Maryann Jones Thompson – September 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
Locals' favorite family-friendly lakefront destinations
Same coast. More value. Fewer crowds.
25 unique & classic must-drive vacations for families
Incredible golds, oranges and reds of the coast, high desert and mountains.
Gotta get away? Check these ideas for COVID-19 trips
Armchair trips for active families.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.
First-rate recreational activities to tackle in the Second City
This holiday season, give your family the gift of travel.