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12 Unexpected Places to See Spectacular Fall Colors

Get an eyeful of fantastic seasonal foliage in these gorgeous locations


spinner image a woman stands on rock in shawnee national forest in illinois surrounded by fall trees
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As summer fades into fall, the country’s forested landscape dissolves from a cascade of shimmering greens into a kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, reds and purples — sometimes vibrant, sometimes muted, always dazzling. Change is triggered, then driven by varying environmental factors including, but not limited to, temperature, rainfall (or lack thereof) and decreasing hours of sunlight.

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The Northeastern United States enjoys rock star status for its fall color displays, but it’s hardly the only place to enjoy seasonal foliage. According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are about 765 million forested acres in the United States, the vast majority of which (about 650 million acres by some estimates) are outside the Northeastern corridor.

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Most will soon be displaying their fall colors, but it can be tricky to hit peak foliage time. In some areas, seasonal colors can last up to two months. In other areas, the exhibit can last less than a week, with peak times measured in days.

Here are a few places to view some of nature’s finest shows:

National parks

National parks are the nation’s natural crown jewels. Wherever you live in the country, there is a park within reasonable driving distance.

spinner image a tree shows bright fall colors in front of a range of mountains in smoky mountains national park in tennessee
Fall color in misty Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.
Don Johnston/Alamy Stock Photo

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddling the Tennessee/North Carolina border makes every must-see fall foliage list. It’s worth a visit, but expect crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park does not make every list, but it should, especially the North Rim region. But plan early. The North Rim area closes Oct. 15.

For general national park information, go to NPS.gov and type “foliage” in the search bar.

State forests

State forests are often overlooked as fall color destinations. To find one near you, do a Google search for “state forests near me.”

Brush Creek State Forest: In the hill country of south/central Ohio, this rugged, mostly timbered 13,000 acres is a blanket of fall colors. Established in 1928 with 285 acres, Brush Creek was originally part of the nearby Shawnee State Forest, a 60,000-acre tract that includes nearly 8,000 acres of designated wilderness.

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Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the fall foliage season throughout this heavily timbered and sparely populated region typically arrives in September, though colorful shades sometimes show in August. Plan an early visit to see the old growth, which takes up more than half of the park’s 60,000 acres.

Lost Maples State Natural Area in Vanderpool, Texas, covers about 2,200 acres, and bigtooth maples will be on display at this Hill Country property. Expect the maple trees to be dazzling and cell service to range from spotty to nonexistent. 

spinner image fall colors on display around a stair going down into a gorge in tullulah gorge state park in georgia
Stairs going down into the forest at Tallulah Gorge State Park, Georgia.
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Tallulah Gorge State Park, Georgia: The centerpiece of this 2,739-acre north Georgia park is the 2-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep gorge. But the fall foliage reaches far beyond the gorge. Typical peak time is early October. Find more on Georgia’s fall colors at ExploreGeorgia.org.

National forests

These lands are sometimes a patchwork of properties. What most have in common are good road accessibility. It would be hard to pick one that doesn’t display rich fall colors.

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Shawnee National Forest: This surprisingly rugged, 289,000-acre timbered tract sprawls across southern Illinois near the lower Ohio and middle Mississippi rivers. Like many national forest properties, it features accessible roads and displays rich fall colors. 

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota: Nearby Mount Rushmore often grabs the Black Hills’ spotlight, but the more-than-1-million-acre national forest is stunning, especially in early fall. A highlight for many foliage visitors is Highway 14A through Spearfish Canyon. South Dakota offers several surprising fall color destinations. Details can be found at travelsouthdakota.com

Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota: The forest swallows about 1.6 million acres of north-central Minnesota. When the forest shows its colors, often beginning in early September, don’t miss the 47 miles that Highway 38 winds through the forest. It’s a stunning drive.

spinner image fall colors on display over a valley in the white rock mountain recreation area in the ozark national forest in arkansas
White Rock Mountain Recreation Area in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas.
Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo

The Ozarks: The hills that roll primarily through Missouri and Arkansas are an idea as much as they are a place. Fall colors often arrive early and stay late, compared with other areas of the U.S. The landscape feels ancient, and in many ways it is. A drive through the fall Ozarks is riveting, especially on Arkansas’ Highway 7. A gentle float along an Ozark stream brings the colors intimately close. There is no better place to paddle through the foliage than Missouri’s Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho: Beauty and wildness collide in a bath of colors in central Idaho. It’s a worthwhile road trip, but fall colors come early for what is often a short but beautiful season.

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area: This 170,000-acre mostly wooded property managed by the U.S. Forest Service separates Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in western Kentucky and west Tennessee. Most visitors come for the fishing, camping and hiking, but the fall colors that blanket this 40-mile-long and 10-mile-wide peninsula are worth the trip. LBL is laced with a web of secondary roads that are mostly two-wheel-drive-accessible and wind through the surprisingly uncrowded forest. Fall foliage season often stretches from mid-September through early November, absent summer’s humidity and insects.  

Share your experience: Where’s your favorite off-the-beaten-path place to go to watch fall colors? Let us know in the comments below.

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