“In the great silence of my favorite month, October (the red of maples, the bronze of oaks, a clear-yellow leaf here and there on birches), I celebrated the standstill of time.”
– Czeslaw Milosz
Ahhh, October. I think of this month, the height of autumn, as an interlude where nature gifts us with a last, dazzling blast of color before winter’s monochrome prevails.
In some regions, like northern New England or the Rocky Mountain high country, autumn’s palette peaks by late September. But elsewhere there is still plenty of foliage on brilliant display even into November. The key is to go lower in altitude and latitude as the season progresses. While New England is renowned, other regions also offer an immersion in fall’s finery.
Here are seven scenic byways around the country that promise an exuberant burst of color into the latter half of October or beyond. Pack a picnic basket, camera and your hiking boots, for full enjoyment of these lesser-known leaf routes.
1. Arizona: Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is more famous, but Oak Creek Canyon offers an intimate encounter with nature within its narrow walls. A red and pink sandstone gorge running between Sedona and Flagstaff, the canyon in fall is aflame with russet oaks set against dark-green pinon and juniper. Hwy. 89A winds 28 miles between the two towns, with a trailhead for the most beautiful hike in the canyon, the West Fork of Oak Creek, about 10 miles north of Sedona. This easy 3-mile walk inside the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness takes hikers into a secluded landscape of eroded rock formations, cliffs and sheer overhangs. The rim high above is cool and verdant, with plentiful wildlife, including elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, javelina, coyote, rabbit, mountain lion and black bear. Afterward, replenish your strength and well-being with a visit to Sedona’s energy vortexes, part of the town’s appeal to the many spiritual seekers and healing practitioners who are drawn here.
2. Alabama: Appalachian Highlands Scenic Byway
Northeast Alabama’s dramatic landscape of sheer rock cliffs, waterfalls and dense, deciduous forest is at its most impressive in late autumn, when summer’s variegated green gives way to a vibrant mix of yellow poplars, scarlet dogwoods, orange maples, rusty oaks and golden hickories. One of the best fall color trails follows the Appalachian Highlands Scenic Byway, a circuit that encompasses Lookout Mountain Parkway, DeSoto State Park, Little River Canyon — the deepest east of the Mississippi, Talladega Scenic Drive, and Alabama’s highest point, 2,407-foot Cheaha Mountain. Stop along the way for hikes, including 100-foot-high DeSoto Falls, and vistas from Bald Rock and Pulpit Rock within Cheaha State Park. Get driving details here.
3. Indiana: Ohio River Scenic Byway
This 300-mile drive traverses the autumn patchwork of rolling hills and farmland along Indiana’s southern boundary where the Ohio River divides it from Kentucky. Views of the river and bluffs, bursts of red and yellow foliage, and encounters with the past abound at every turn along this route where the histories of Native Americans, explorers and westward-bound settlers converge. Stop at Falls of the Ohio State Park at Clarksville, where the 400-million-year-old Devonian fossil beds comprise the only natural obstruction of the Ohio River. Here, Meriwether Lewis met up with William Clark on October 26, 1803, with a group of men from Kentucky and Indiana Territory that would become the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery, which set out down the Ohio River to eventually reach the Pacific. The Lewis and Clark Festival happens in Clarksville Oct. 26-28, with a reenactment of the meeting, recruitment, enlistments, and the departure of the expedition, including 1803 period demonstrations and food.
4. New Mexico: High Road to Taos Byway
The High Road winds 67 miles from Espanola, just north of Santa Fe, to historic Taos. It travels past small farms, mountain villages and traditional adobe chapels for a unique scenic and cultural encounter with vestiges of colonial New Mexico. Brilliant gold aspen and cottonwood flare into color among the pinon and juniper, and the crisp autumn air is often tinged with the scent of roasting chilies. At Chimayo, a village famed for its weavers, visit the famous Sanctuario, a legendary church believed to have miraculous healing powers. The route continues through the artist community of Cordova and on to Truchas, a Spanish colonial outpost with glorious views of the Rio Grande Valley. Next, visit Picuris Pueblo, where you can purchase beadwork and pottery crafted by local Native American artists. At Ranchos de Taos, where the road ends, don’t miss the impactful adobe church of San Francisco de Asis, an inspiration for many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
5. Oregon: Historic Columbia River Highway
Constructed from 1913 to 1922 east of Portland, the oldest scenic highway in the U.S. hugs sheer cliffs and dips through lush old-growth forest as it penetrates the dramatic Columbia River Gorge.
Don’t miss the sweeping vista from Crown Point, high above the river. During the fall rains, the size and volume of the many waterfalls in the gorge increase impressively.
Most famous is Multnomah Falls, well worth a side-trip hike. The woods are dense with broadleaf and vine maples that turn fiery shades of yellow, orange and crimson among the evergreens.
If you continue east across the crest of the Cascades, the landscape becomes drier and grassier, the autumn palette warmer, as the oaks between Hood River and The Dalles turn red and brown.
A loop-trip option is to cross the river and return on the Washington side.
6. Pennsylvania: Laurel Highlands Scenic Byway
The forests, rivers and rocky outcrops of southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands offer fabulous outdoor adventures, and never more enticingly than during the brilliance of the fall foliage season. Ohiopyle State Park and the Youghiogheny River, natural treasures on this route, are renowned for hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting. A classic autumn ramble is the 2.1-mile Beech Trail, which passes through a grove of towering yellow American beech trees and connects to the Great Gorge Trail. You’ll also find a manmade wonder on Route 381, Frank Lloyd Wright’s dramatic “Fallingwater.” Entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963, Fallingwater is the only remaining Wright house with its original furnishings and artwork intact. Its heavily wooded setting is breathtaking at the peak of autumn color. Reservations are required to visit, and guided tours are available.
7. Wisconsin: Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive
This fascinating drive is an immersion into a geological relic: the landscape left behind when glaciers receded after the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago. The route follows a ridge in southern Wisconsin where two massive glaciers intersected and then melted, leaving behind a moraine filled with large holes in the bedrock, called “kettles,” and odd-shaped hills and sand and gravel deposits. The 115-mile drive from Whitewater to Elkhart Lake travels through extensive hardwood forest, ablaze with color in late October. The varied terrain includes ridges, hills, lakes and wetlands, dotted with farms and bucolic vistas. Along the way, stop at the Henry S. Reuss Ice Age Visitor Center, watch wildlife from the boardwalk trail at Spruce Lake Bog State Natural Area north of Dundee, and get a close-up view of glacial geology on the 3-mile Butler Lake Loop hike, which shares a portion of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.