Whether hiking, driving or otherwise travelling, fall leaf-peeping opportunities abound on your national forests and grasslands
Glorious fall color surrounds the fish ladder at Lefferts Pond Area Area in the Green Mountain National Forest.
Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service/ Ethan Ready
Every fall, nature puts on a dazzling show across America’s great outdoors for all to see.
Whether you’re a sightseer, a hiker, a boater, a horse rider, a camper, a star gazer or enjoy another type of outdoor recreation, national forests and grasslands offer a spectacular show at this time of year.
The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, many of which offer spectacular views of fall colors, whether leaves on trees or flowers in meadows and grasslands.
We offer a sampling of places across the country to consider for your fall foliage 2016 experience:
Visiting Alaska? The colors first start changing in the interior part of the state. Autumn foliage colors peak from late August to early October in Alaska’s Tongass and Chugach National Forests. However, because they are in the temperate part of the state and are dominated by coniferous trees, the colors are generally not as spectacular as the brilliant colors of interior Alaskan trees and shrubs. Read more about bogs and fall color changes on these forests. The Alaska Region’s Flickr site offers a few early season views. Stop back in October as more photos are added.
The Around the Peaks loop scenic drive takes you all the way around Arizona’s highest mountain on the Coconino National Forest. Great fall color hikes are ensured at Casner Canyon, Allen's Bend Trail by Oak Creek, and Girdner Trail along Dry Creek west of Sedona, Arizona. See more fall color photos.
The North Kaibab district, which borders the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, has some outstanding off-the-beaten-path locales for viewing aspen; and fall colors are scattered along the Bill Williams Mountain on the Kaibab National Forest. See more fall color photos.
The Apache Sitgreaves National Forests offer special places to get your fill of fall colors whether it’s a scenic drive on State Route 260 or hiking the three-mile Escudilla National Recreation Trail which makes its way through thick growths of aspen trees.
Try the 54-mile Talimena Scenic Drive from Mena, Arkansas to Talihina, Oklahoma as it winds its way through the mountains of the Ouachita National Forest. Be on the watch for frequent vistas, trails, historic sites, camping and picnicking opportunities to stop and enjoy some down time this fall.
The Ozark National Forest is quite popular for fall colors with national scenic byways offering awe-inspiring Ozark vistas and out-of-the-way places to see a wide variety of tree species including oak, hickory, and gum among others.
Forests and mountains are a perfect formula for scenic byways and the Grand Mesa National Forest plays host to the 63-mile Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway which begins Mountains and begins in the scenic Plateau River Canyon, then climbs through the forests to offer panoramic views from the top of Grand Mesa.
The 236-mile San Juan Skyway, dubbed the million dollar highway, winds through the heart of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests offering views of spectacular, rugged, and primitive country, cultural and historical sites and plenty of recreational activities.
On the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, spectacular fall colors burst from the trees along the 38-mile route of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway with several waterfalls and Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia.
The Hiawatha Trail on the Montana/Idaho border crosses the Idaho Panhandle National Forests and is open through late September for hikers, cyclists and motorbikers. Forest highlights - bike through the 1.7 mile St. Paul Pass tunnel, observe moose and other wildlife, and view amazing vistas. A shuttle will bring you back up the trail.
The 280,000 acres of the Shawnee National Forest are a veritable playground for fall visitors, offering wonderful recreation opportunities such as horse riding, hiking, and scenic drives.
Visit the forest’s signature recreation sites including the Garden of the Gods, Bell Smith Springs, Lincoln Memorial, Johnson Creek, and Lake Glendale. For a scenic drive, check out the Illinois stretch of the Ohio River National Scenic Route. For a fun scavenger hunt and to take in views of beautiful fall color on the Rim Rock Trail by participating in a new “Quest.” Hikers can try the Little Grand Canyon Trail or Tower Rock Trail. Horse riders can enjoy a number of marvelous trails. Visitors can also snap a nature-inspired photo at your favorite outdoor destination to post on Facebook or Twitter at #FallinLovewithSoIL.
Check out special places on the Hoosier National Forest including the Charles C. Deam Wilderness, the beloved beauty of Hemlock Cliffs, the historic Rickenbaugh House, and impressive geologic features in the Wesley Chapel Gulf area.
For a fall auto tour, check out the Indiana Historic National Pathway or Indiana’s stretch of the Ohio River National Scenic route. Possibilities abound for hikers thanks to over 260 miles of trail varying from .8 to 48.7 miles. Horse riders can try the Spring Valley Trail or Morgan Ridge West Trail, both open year round.
The sky blue waters of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes provide the perfect backdrop for fall colors. On the Superior National Forest, there are several designated fall color routes that wind their way through the forest on smaller gravel roads in addition to the three paved national scenic byways: Superior NF Scenic Byway, Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway, and North Shore Scenic Drive. Still, the best way to enjoy fall on the Superior may be to travel the voyageurs’ highway instead and view the fall colors from a canoe on a pristine lake instead of from the window of a car. If you can’t visit in person, visit the Superior’s fall color web page for current color conditions, as well as photos and essays about the season.
On the Chippewa National Forest, take a scenic fall drive along the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway, Ladyslipper Scenic Byway or the Avenue of the Pines! Some of our favorite autumn trails include the Shingobee Hills, North Country National Scenic Trail and the Lost 40 trail through the old growth pines. Have a fall picnic at one of our many day use sites, including Camp Rabideau CCC Camp, Norway Beach or East Seeley Bay. Visit the Chippewa’s home page for additional fall color information.
For the history buff, try the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. The journey of the Nez Perce from their homelands is one of the most fascinating and sorrowful events in U.S. history. Learn the story of the Nez Perce by following in the footsteps of the 1,170-mile flight through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Eight auto tour brochures are available on the web site.
The Shoshone National Forest, on the west side of Wyoming and a bit of Montana, offers superb scenery and endless recreational opportunities including four scenic byways where travelers will find rich aesthetic, cultural, and historical experiences, as well as views of diverse landscapes and ecosystems. See abundant wildlife, cross the Continental Divide, experiencing the Tetons, and find your own path through the West.
The Beartooth Scenic Road has 10,000 mountain lakes, 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet in elevation, and 12 national forest campgrounds in Wyoming and Montana. Witness the rare transition of lush forest ecosystem to alpine tundra in just a few miles on the highest elevation road in the Northern Rockies as you travel across the Custer, Shoshone and Gallatin National Forests.
The Custer Trail Auto Tour guides visitors through George Armstrong Custer’s journey through the Badlands and the Little Missouri National Grasslands toward Montana. Fall color comes to grassland in mid-October, providing and abundance of color across the prairie.
Motorists on the West Cascades National Scenic Byway can enjoy a myriad of blossoming fall colors as they travel through the Willamette National Forest. The vibrant reds of vine maples can be seen in high elevations along the crest of the Cascade Range. Various shades of oranges and yellows are speckled throughout the mid and lower elevations. Enjoy fall colors by foot on the Clear Lake Loop Trail or the South Breitenbush Gorge Trail or other trails on the Willamette National Forest. See fall color photos.
All five of New Mexico’s national forests have something special to offer for those seeking spectacular fall colors from early to mid-October:
Four-wheel drivers can visit McKnight Mountain on the Gila National Forest. Hikers can trek the Rim Trail near Cloudcroft on the Lincoln National Forest. The Enchanted Circle Scenic byway on the Carson National Forest offers a spectacular drive. The 4th of July campground on the Cibola National Forest offers colors not often seen in the Southwest. On the Santa Fe National Forest, enjoy Highway 126 between Cuba and Jemez Springs for great views.
The Andrew Pickens Ranger District on the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina is also a great area for witnessing fall colors, including the 9,102 acre Ellicott Rock Wilderness which spreads across the corners of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. It also straddles the 15,432-acre Chattooga River Wild and Scenic Corridor. The steep terrain of the Ellicott Rock Wilderness offers numerous mountains and waterfalls to explore.
The Cherokee National Forest is a destination for many. Enjoy fall colors during many recreation activities as you bike, camp, fish, hunt, picnic or enjoy a scenic drive, the thrill of whitewater or other water activities or spend a night under the stars. The Ocoee Overlook offers many special activities to relax and enjoy time away.
The Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, offers the Molly Stark Byway through the Green Mountains, the Mad River Byway, or Route 125-Middlebury Gap Scenic Highway. For hikers, try the Vermont’s section of the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail or other trails on the forest.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia hosts several special places for fall color viewing: hike the Appalachian Trail, explore the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, bike the Virginia Creeper Trail, and discover 23 wilderness areas.
So this fall, whether your leaf peeping adventures involve driving, walking, climbing, hunting, taking pictures or enjoying some other activity in the great outdoors, whether for family fun or a little solitude, there’s something for everyone to enjoy on your national forests and grasslands.
To find out more about each national forest or grassland mentioned, search here.
The Big Hole Valley along Montana Highway 43 on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is one of the picturesque scenes which drivers will find along the route of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.Photo by U.S. Forest Service/Roger Peterson