Does leaf peeping make you think of cruising in an Oldsmobile with a flannel blanket on your lap? Don’t succumb to those yawns just yet. Taking in the fall colors doesn't need to be a snooze fest. Your favorite activities already involve getting outside, so why not enjoy the autumn colors while you’re tackling one of those adventurous experiences.
Saddle up your bike (or horse), lace up your boots, grab a paddle, and get outdoors to enjoy this all-too-short fall foliage season.
Hike Amid California's High Sierra
Climb the mountains, John Muir once advised, and “cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” In the wilderness that now bears his name, which encompasses a portion of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, you’re best off hiking and climbing just before those glowing, golden leaves fall.
The John Muir Wilderness area protects a 100-mile-long strand of high peaks, steep canyons, and alpine lakes along the crest of the High Sierra. It's a land of big vistas, and they show off the region's fall colors in grand panoramic style. The yellow forests flanking mountain peaks here aren't the reason California is known as the Golden State, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
With several contiguous wilderness areas and national parks, this region is one of the great roadless areas in the entire lower 48—so there are lots of hiking opportunities. SierraWild.gov is a great place to begin mapping out your adventure and sourcing camping permits. A few nights trekking and sleeping under autumn's colorful leaves? John Muir would definitely approve.
Paddle Minnesota's Boundary Waters
Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a million-acre wilderness playground for paddlers. With more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 backcountry campsites, Minnesota's Boundary Waters shouldn't feel crowded in any season. Still, there's no doubt visitor numbers drop dramatically as the first leaves begin to turn in early September. That’s not the only bonus. The bugs vanish, and, when the colorful forests reflect across the clear waters, you don't just see fall foliage—you become immersed in it.
Northern forests boast many pine, spruce, and fir trees, but from mid-September to early October, these perennially green stands are punctuated by yellow aspens, red maples, and other deciduous species. While human visitors are scarce during this colorful season, wildlife remains abundant. Birds beginning to fly south appear overhead, and the calls of frisky moose fill the air.
Climb Near Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga has quickly become one of America's go-to (and move-to) climbing towns, with no fewer than eight extensive crags within an hour's drive of downtown. The region’s great food, friendly locals, low egos, and warm temperatures make Chattanooga, Tennessee, the perfect fall climbing spot. Even late in October, when the leaves often peak along the Cumberland Plateau, you might be climbing in a t-shirt.
Bouldering fans can visit Stone Fort, a much-loved area with hundreds of diverse problems. The land is owned by an adjacent golf course, so your climbing-impaired friends can play a round while you test your skills.
The famed Tennessee Wall (T-Wall) is a single-pitch trad climbing paradise that’s best tackled in autumn. Cooler temperatures take the edge off the south-facing rock's summer heat, and lofty views of the Tennessee River look even better when cloaked in the season's finest colors.
Raft Along West Virginia's Gauley River
The Gauley River National Recreation Area comes alive after Labor Day, when Mother Nature gets a little help from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
For six glorious fall weekends (luckily most are of the four-day variety), dam releases crank up the water volume and turn the Gauley into a classic whitewater thrill ride that rivals any in the East. The West Virginia river drops nearly 700 feet as it plunges through 25 miles of class III to V+ rapids, and, when you’re catching your breath on flatwater sections, the stunning colors decorating surrounding mountains will inspire their own kind of awe.
Commercial outfitters run the Gauley, but even with professional rafting guides, this is a serious adventure. Paddlers must be 12 years old on the lower river and 16 years old on the upper stretch. Skilled kayakers also flock to the Gauley, where both paddling and partying have become legendary. Be sure to plan ahead and check the release schedule, although the nearby New River Gorge National River is worth a fall trip when the Gauley isn't running.
Ride Through Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is a gold mine for foliage fans. Deciduous trees here don't produce the same colorful mix found in Eastern forests. Instead, Colorado's iconic Aspens splash their glorious yellows across a vertical landscape, mixing with green spruces and firs to produce an alpine panorama right out of a classic Western. So why not take it in from the back of a horse?
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Horseback riders can roam more than 260 miles of park trails and even have their own designated backcountry campsites. Two stables operate in the park and there are several others nearby that can help you tailor trips for various lengths or special interests like backcountry fishing. Fall comes early in the Rockies, and so can snow, so riders should typically plan a September trip and be sure to check ahead for current conditions.
Cycle in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom
New England's palate of brilliant fall colors, especially those from bright red maple trees, has spread the region's foliage fame around the world. Vermont's less-visited Northeast Kingdom is also a standout biking destination. Mix the two, throw in a healthy dash of roadside cider stands and covered bridges, and you have the makings of an unforgettable autumn adventure.
Peak foliage season in the Northeast Kingdom usually runs from late September to early October. Check out the free Cycling in the Kingdom guide, where local road bikers share prized loops and tours of the region's rural byways for riders of all abilities. Gravel bikers are also spoiled for choice, with more than 1,500 miles of unpaved road featured in their own Back Roads guide.
If singletrack is more your speed, the Kingdom Trail Association is the local standout. This terrific mountain bike trail system based around East Burke typically keeps trails open for biking through October before closing them to prep for fat bike season.