The Ultimate Leaf Peeping Guide

September 7, 2023

There’s just something about autumn that manages to be both comforting and exciting … especially towards the end of a long, hot summer. Fall is the time of year to trade in swimsuits for sweaters, sandals for boots, and grilled hot dogs for rich soups and stews.

The scorching days grow quietly, pleasantly mild. Humid nights turn cool, and you pull an extra blanket around yourself in the evening. Maybe you even light a fire.

There’s so much to love about fall! And even if you’re not one of those who live for the season (Ahem, you over there visiting every pumpkin patch for miles, busting out the Halloween decorations on September 1, sippin’ the pumpkin spiced latte…), there are so many amazing ways to stop, slow down, and savor this awesome time of year.

Looking for an easy, low-cost, thrilling way to celebrate fall? For starters, look no further than the leaves. Yes, the leaves. The blazing, tumbling, crispy leaves. You can even plan a whole day-weekend-weeklong tour based on them.

A trip whose main event is to view the color show of leaves is called “leaf-peeping”.

Chances are, you’ve admired those golden, crimson, and magenta leaves turning a time or two — probably while on a drive or taking a walk. Seeing this display is one of those quiet thrills in life.

But how do you become a next-level leaf peeper? To start, you might plan a short road trip for the sole purpose of taking in these vibrant sights. If you want to spend a little more time, a multi-stop trip or weekend trip could be just the thing. On a longer trip, you can seek out the best vantage points (and local fall cuisine) in a particular area.

There are a few things to know first, like where to go, when to go, and what to bring.

So let’s get to it. Grab your (unofficial) degree in leaf-peeping here. Then get up, get out, and get crunching in those golden-brown beauties.

Here’s Everything You Need to Know about Leaf Peeping

Lamar Valley with early autumn snowfall in Yellowstone National Park.

First Things First: Tune in to the Lifecycle of a Leaf

The dance of each tree as it morphs from green to gold to red is beautiful indeed, but this color story also serves a vital purpose. Each leaf’s metamorphosis keeps those trees alive.

Remember the terms “chlorophyll” and “photosynthesis” from your school days?

In science class, we learn that trees that change their color and shed their leaves each season are deciduous. Most of the year, deciduous trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to absorb energy from the sunlight during photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy in the form of sugar. This sugar feeds the whole tree.

As the temperature plummets and days get shorter in fall, trees receive fewer and fewer hours of direct sunlight. The chlorophyll in the leaves starts to break down, revealing yellow and orange pigments that were present in the leaves all along but remained hidden in the warmer months.

Those show-stopping dark red leaves you sometimes see are the result of a chemical change: Sugars that get trapped in the leaves produce new pigments that weren’t part of the leaf during the growing season.

As the amount of sunlight the tree receives lessens, the tree changes its behavior — it now begins building a protective seal between each leaf and its connecting branch. It halts photosynthesis and takes in as many nutrients as possible from the leaves.

After the branch is completely sealed off from the leaf, the leaves fall to the ground. The cool part is that the nutrients the tree stored during the summer months will be its nourishment all winter long! And in spring, of course, the cycle starts all over again.

Boardwalk through Acadia National Park, Maine in the fall.

Time Your Leaf Peeping Right

The prime season for leaf-watching in the U.S. stretches from mid-September to late October, and the fabulous color change works its way from north to south, with the peak hitting earlier in northern areas.

Colors first appear in the mountains, then run from high elevations to low.

Timing is probably the most important part for prospective peepers: When it’s turning leaves you’re dealing with, timing is everything. Research the best time of year to catch the show at your desired region, then keep checking back weeks and days leading up to the event!

Lots of areas have a leaf tracker of sorts. This countdown and frequently updated reporting tool can usually be found online and zeroes in on the week or two weeks when a specific region will experience peak color.

You’ll want to choose your destination ahead of time and then monitor the color situation leading up to your travel. The moment that leaves change (and therefore their ‘peak’ week) depends on everything from elevation to temperature and rain. So time it right and check in frequently.

Here is a map illustrating the peak leaf-viewing time for each state in 2023, per the Farmer’s Almanac. These dates can vary even further, depending on where you plan to be in each state.

The summit of Wheeler Peak viewed over bright yellow aspen trees in autumn. A narrow paved road with a single yellow line winds through the trees toward the peak.

Pick a Place to See Fall Foliage

Conditions like sunlight and moisture, as well as temperature, all greatly influence how quickly or slowly leaves undergo their color change. That’s why every region experiences fall differently.

The Northeastern United States region is well-known for its vibrant color display, but the change happens fast. Places like Letchworth State Park in Western New York and Kancamagus Scenic Highway in Lincoln, New Hampshire are two Northeast destinations that are routinely rated “best of” for fall foliage viewing.

The drive along the Kancamagus Highway is like traveling back in time through a rich forest. You won’t find a gas station, restaurant, hotel, or business in sight. All indications of today’s world are left behind at both ends of the scenic byway. It’s just you and the road, and a stunning fall display.

As you make your way further south in the U.S. the colors are still outstanding, but the reveal happens more slowly, and the colors will hang on for a few more weeks.

Visit places like Hawksbill Crag and Whitaker Point in the Ozark National Park in Arkansas to see the colors changing among lush hardwood and pine forests, and crystal clear mountain streams.

The first two weeks of November (ish) are peak leaf-viewing in Louisiana. (A friendly reminder: This state can do so much more than Mardi Gras!) The northern part of the state is the best bet for viewing the most dynamic foliage, and state parks like North and South Toledo Bend, Chemin-A-Haut, and Lake Claiborne are all great options.

They say the most vibrant colors of leaves occur during a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp (but not freezing nights). It’s because in these conditions, the leaves are producing lots of sugars; the combination of lots of sugar and light spurs the production of anthocyanin pigments — or those incredible red, purple, and crimson hues.

On the flip side, places that are cloudy, damp, or warm will not see the same degree of color.

You’ll see some of the best “shows” in the Eastern and Midwestern United States, but a good leaf-peeping tour can be had just about anywhere in the country.

Here’s a list of more stunning regions to view autumn leaves in the United States. You’ll notice that you can indeed get an eyeful at prime locations in many of the states, East Coast to West Coast, and lots of places in between.

This guide notes that many states and regions on the list are so proud of their fall foliage and leaf “peeping/peeking/peaking” season (it’s been called all of those things), that they have established several resources to help you determine when, exactly, the leaves will change each year. Some places have dubbed it their “Fall Foliage Report”. Before heading out to peep (peek?), be sure to do a little digging online to see if the region you’re visiting has notes on recommended routes, lookouts, and things to do.

A dirt road through a forest of Aspens, turned to their golden Fall colors, in the Wasatch Mountain State Park, Utah, leads to the mountains beyond.

Get Off the Beaten Path this Fall

So maybe you’ve settled on a region for your leaf-peeping event, be it local, the next state over, or even cross-country. And, you’re watching that area or park’s webpage for info and frequent leaf updates. The next thing to do is to choose your route.

Although you’ll still get some good views during a straightforward drive along the highway, it would be a shame to spend the bulk of a leaf-peeping tour on the interstate.

So slow it down. Get on some rustic roads and river roads. If your destination has a shoreline road, take it. The beautiful vistas set against the water will be breathtaking.

While you’re traveling the scenic route, don’t forget to stop at some established eateries, dive bars, and small shops along the way to soak up some local color in addition to leaf color.

At the end of the journey, try to take a different route from the way you came. Why? Because there’s still plenty more adventure to be had on the return trip!

Make Leaf Peeping an Event

It’s not difficult to get into a leaf-peeping state of mind. The excursion can be as chill or as festive as you’d like — or both!

The nice thing is that no matter where you roam, there are typically a bunch of festivals and events to experience at this time of year. You have Oktoberfests, fall fests, and football games. Maybe there’s a concert or musical festival you’d love to experience on this journey. Maybe you love to cycle on beautiful trails, hike, or drive. Luckily leaf-peeping has something for everyone, and accommodates most all outdoor activities!

If you plan to head out on a day or weekend excursion, consider doing a winery or brewery tour. Many wineries offer bus transportation, which is a really convenient and fun way to get around … especially on a group or friends’ trip.

Fall is also a time of harvest. You can also visit a pumpkin farm, go apple-picking, and navigate a corn maze.

You can do all of these things with our without kids, of course. That said, activity farms and apple-picking orchards are amazing places when you have little ones — some farms have everything from play areas to petting zoos, and then delicious apple cider donuts and caramel apples are the cherry on top!

What to Pack for Fall … the Basics

Make the most of your leafy September and October excursions by packing just the things you need … and little else.

Come armed with a good travel mug to hold your coffee or hot apple cider. Grab a light backpack for short day trips or hikes, and bring your best walking shoes. You might also consider bringing a small insulated cooler if you want to stop for a quick picnic lunch or snack.

Clothes-wise, fall is a time to layer it up, which some people find really exciting after a summer of bearing it all. Fleece jackets and comfy sweaters are always a good choice for breezy days. And rain gear can be an absolute life-saver when you’re outside and confronted with an early-in-the-day or late-in-the-day fall rain.

Don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses. Even though summer is technically over, you still want to protect your skin as you’re frocking through the leaves and under the sun all day long

Finally, pack a camera, or brush up on your cell phone photography. Max Foster, a fine artist at Max Foster Photography, recommends researching your location, checking the Fall Color Reports, and arriving when the colors first start turning. He says overcast skies are best for taking pics, as the soft, low-contrast lighting has leaves looking saturated and rich. Not to mention there is less glare.

One tip to remember is that foggy days can create an incredible, almost dreamy, atmosphere when it comes to shooting fall colors. Low-lying areas or bodies of water are more likely to gather fog overnight. And you’re more likely to see fog in the morning, as it usually burns off as the day goes on.

With your cell phone, try things like angling your camera towards the sky as you snap leaf pics or take a picture of a lone tree. Changing up your perspective can take your pictures from “pretty” to “wow.”

When you get home and scroll through your images, double-check the sharpness and contrast of your colors with your phone’s editing tools.

Two parents and young kids mountain bike through a fall forest.

Think of the Kids on Your Fall Adventures

If you’re concerned your young kids won’t enjoy your fall foliage trip as much as you, there are some things you can do to spice it up. You could make a game of collecting leaves of different shapes and colors, perhaps making a collage or gluing them all to a paper plate at the end of the day.

Another idea is to find a stick along a hike and dub it your “travel stick”. Add some rubber bands and let the kids include any interesting leaves, flowers, sticks, etc. as they make their way around the outdoors.

A third idea is to give your kids a blank map of the area you’ll be exploring and let them mark in the leaf colors they see with crayons or markers. They could even glue their collected leaf samples to the map.

Finally, don’t forget to pack a treat for your travels! A simple treat goes a long way in keeping everyone happy.

If you want a little extra time touring the beautiful country in all its splendor, consider hopping on a train, either cross-country or cross-state. There is something about the scenic views from a train, and the slow lilt while you sit in the car, that feels nostalgic and exciting. You’ll experience the trip of a lifetime on one of these scenic (and often historic) train rides in autumn.

Make sure that whatever you do, you choose accommodations that suit your family. Maybe that’s a cozy cabin or glamping option among the trees. Perhaps a more traditional campsite is your style. Stay somewhere you’ll love to settle into after a long day outdoors.

Whatever you decide for your leaf-peeping tour, try to soak up as much time outside as possible. Once the leaves begin their turning, you can be sure that winter (and hibernation mode) are not far behind. So until then, immerse yourself in the sunshine and soak it all in.

Give Yourself Permission to Get in Fall Spirit

A leaf-peeping tour is the perfect excuse to dive into all that fall has to offer. Don your softest, coziest sweaters as you sample regional ciders. Choose seasonal dishes at restaurants that are warming, and rich, and feature ingredients like yummy squashes and root vegetables.

Better yet, enjoy a picnic with a bottle of a nice Riesling at a scenic overlook.

It’s just you and the leaves (and maybe your travel companions), so do it your way. On your tour, embrace all the fall things you love, and you’ll have the best leaf-peeping trip ever.

Leslie K Hughes

Leslie, a.k.a. Copy Girl, is a copywriter who gets butterflies from telling stories through words.

Her voice comes from a place filled with passion, dreams, and lots of sugar. “Cake over steak” is her go-to motto.

With over 10 years of experience in crafting words, and years of embarking on travels that have taken this Montana girl to some incredible places, Leslie love the adventures of both body and mind her writing takes her on.

Everywhere she goes, she takes this advice with her:

“Hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown.” – Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

To see what Leslie’s up to in the writing world, visit her website here.


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