Dreaming of crisp, cool breezes and vibrant fall foliage? Us too. It’s not too early to start planning a vacation for the fall — since most states have dropped COVID-related restrictions, more people are traveling, and airfare and accommodations are in demand. With so many dazzling destinations across the U.S., we asked five travel writers to share their favorite vacation spots that shine brightest during the fall.
Tunnel of Trees, Harbor Springs, Michigan
By Elaine Glusac
In wooded northern Michigan, when the maples blush and the oaks go gold, color chasers set their compasses for the stretch of M-119 known as the “Tunnel of Trees.” Running north from the Lake Michigan resort town of Harbor Springs, the tunnel — a curvy, narrow two-laner that roughly parallels the shoreline — stretches about 20 miles and is a top attraction in one of the state’s most beautiful counties, Emmet, occupying the northwest tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula.
Anchored by Harbor Springs and its southern neighbor Petoskey — both tourist-friendly towns packed with local galleries, shops and restaurants — the drive sends visitors into kaleidoscopic forests, peppered with dark evergreens, that bend radiantly over the road in the autumn sunlight. Emerging at the crossroad that is Cross Village, motorists — whether hungry or not — stop at Legs Inn, a legendary stone-constructed restaurant known for its Polish pierogies, Great Lakes whitefish and riotous wood interiors filled with carvings and driftwood art. Turn around for a second run of the Tunnel or continue north less than 10 miles to Wilderness State Park, a wild stretch of coast ideal for beachcombing and catching the fall migration of birds.
A 26-mile paved and level bike trail in and around Petoskey and Harbor Springs, Little Traverse Wheelway offers a slow roll through the region’s leafy landscape (rental bikes are available at Bahnhof Sport in Petoskey). Many cyclists take a break at Petoskey Brewing Company, with a scenic back patio framing the foliage ringing Mud Lake. The route skirts nearby Petoskey State Park on Little Traverse Bay, a great place to hike a half-mile loop in the dunes and beach comb for local Petoskey stones, ancient fossilized coral that you’ll find fashioned into everything from jewelry to Christmas ornaments.
Both gateway towns guarantee diversion away from the steering wheel. Petoskey to the south of Little Traverse Bay and Harbor Springs on the north shore have long been visited by anglers and second homeowners and renters who swell the population in summer (fans of Ernest Hemingway, whose family owned a summerhouse on nearby Walloon Lake, will want to visit the City Park Grill in Petoskey, as he did). Townie diversions in Petoskey include the lovingly curated McLean & Eakin Booksellers and the Crooked Tree Arts Center, home to rotating exhibits. In Harbor Springs, take a stroll around the public marina to see the sizable sailboats and yachts before they motor on for the winter.
Dine: In Harbor Springs, grab one of the booths that line the windows opposite the marina at Bar Harbor, serving burgers and local beers on tap. In Petoskey, book a table at Chandler’s, a north woods’ classic with knotty pine paneling and a steakhouse menu.
Stay: A whitewashed Victorian, Stafford’s Perry Hotel in Petoskey abounds in history — the 1899 landmark once regularly employed an orchestra to play at dinner — and offers an opportunity to park the car for the night and explore the town’s historic Gaslight District on foot. Fall rates start at $189.
Insider tip: Fall weekends still attract crowds, though fewer families. A midweek stay virtually ensures you’ll be able to enjoy peak color in solitude.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times and is a national parks enthusiast based in Chicago.
By Larry Bleiberg
Charlottesville, the colonial-era city perched on the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, attracts visitors year-round, but in autumn it glows. The summer heat has receded, the days are still warm, and you’re likely to catch a glimpse of what may be the prettiest fall colors on the planet.
Charlottesville is my hometown, and to kick off the season, I like to take guests to the Thomas Jefferson–designed University of Virginia. The third president called the grounds an “academical village,” and on an autumn day, you’ll see students pretending to study on the central lawn, while maple, ash and sycamore leaves swirl around them like snow flurries.
Others will want to head a few miles south of town to tour Jefferson’s mansion, Monticello, which is Italian for “Little Mountain.” (Both the mansion and U.Va. are recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage sites.)
Fall in Charlottesville has its own flavor too, and that’s the reason to stop by Carter Mountain Orchard, next to Monticello. Some come to pick apples. Others snack on apple cider donuts, made with fresh-pressed cider, allspice and nutmeg, and dusted with cinnamon sugar. Looking out from the orchard, the mountains roll out to the horizon, and on a home game Saturday, you may hear a distant roar from Scott Stadium, the Virginia Cavaliers’ football field.
Back in town, take time to stroll the downtown pedestrian mall of shops, boutiques and restaurants. You can find custom jewelry, paintings or a photo of a Shenandoah waterfall at C’Ville Arts, a collective featuring the works of 50 local artists. Or step into Virginia’s oldest bookstore, Old Dominion Books, which often stocks signed novels from local author John Grisham.
For fall colors of a different sort — red, white and rosé! — try one of the dozens of wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail. With harvest just wrapped up, winemakers are eager to share their latest vintages. At King Family Vineyards, visitors can watch free polo matches on Sunday afternoons through mid-October.
Dine: South and Central. This chic steakhouse anchors a lively repurposed dairy building that’s now a food hall. The sit-down restaurant offers true “southern” cooking, inspired by Latin and South America. Start with a Chilean pisco sour cocktail and seared Argentinean cheese cooked with roasted tomatoes and served with grilled bread. For dinner, you can’t go wrong with a locally sourced steak cooked over a wood fire.
Stay: Quirk. This stylish hotel doubles as an art gallery, with nooks and display areas throughout its lobby. The rooftop bar offers views of downtown Charlottesville and the mountains beyond. Fall rates start at $259.
Insider tip: On the U.Va. grounds,wander over to the West Range buildings and look for Room 13, once home to undergraduate Edgar Allan Poe. During his single year at the university in 1826, the future Gothic novelist did well in French and Latin, but quite poorly at cards. He left after less than a year deeply in debt. A glass door offers a peek at his modest dorm, where a small statue of a raven sits by the window.
Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel and the creator of and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com.
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Saranac Lake, New York
By Kitty Bean Yancey
Sip the first coffee of the day while savoring vistas of clear waters and dazzling foliage. It’s the first of autumn’s daily ahhh! moments in this serene vacation haven in the Adirondack Mountains.
The Village of Saranac Lake and its environs, a 2½-hour drive north from Albany and 10 minutes from Adirondack Regional Airport, have lured visitors since the 19th century with pure, pine-scented air and abundant outdoor activities. In fact, the environment was deemed so restorative that patients with tuberculosis and other lung diseases — including Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson — recuperated on the porches of “cure cottages” around town.
When Mark Twain vacationed here, he called Saranac “paradise … one needn’t go to the Swiss lakes to find that.” Starting in the Gilded Age, New York tycoons (think Vanderbilts and E.F. Hutton) fled summer heat to stay 300 miles to the north in rustic-luxury “camps” by the area’s many lakes. Today, travelers can book original log quarters at a former Rockefeller retreat, the Point, for around $2,000 a night.
In the fall, outdoor temperatures are mild and perfect for biking, fishing, canoeing and birding. Hike hundreds of trails, from easy walks to the Saranac 6 — a half-dozen peaks ranging in height from about 2,400 feet (Baker Mountain) to 3,8000 feet (McKenzie Mountain). “I’ve been here since 2008, and I’m still doing different hikes,” says resident Jack Lauroesch. “You never run out of [outdoor] things to do.”
When foliage begins peaking in late September, hikers of all abilities can take a one-mile ramble up Coney Mountain that rewards with a 360-degree panorama from the flat rock outcroppings on top. On the ground, the Barnum Brook Trail at nearby Paul Smith’s College is wheelchair accessible and allows visitors to be fully immersed in nature through a network of boardwalks and bridges.
Arts and culture thrive here too. Browse galleries and locally owned shops or catch a play at Pendragon Theatre. Saranac boasts a high concentration of historic buildings, including the Saranac Laboratory Museum, which tells the story of tuberculosis research here.
Nearby attractions include a larger Lake Placid Olympic Museum, due to open in November. Before then, see the exhibit “80 Heirlooms From the ’80 Olympics,” with filmed highlights of the “Miracle on Ice” when the underdog U.S. hockey team bested the Soviet Union. Gape at two impossibly high ski jumps and take a white-knuckle run in a bobsled with wheels on an Olympic training track. Non-adrenaline junkies opt for a bus and walking tour of Olympic sites.
Dine: Do as locals do and patronize Main Street’s cozy Downhill Grill for old-school entrées such as chicken parmesan. Or try one of the surrounding breweries for pub grub and house-made suds, including Blue Line Brewery’s aromatic Leaning Pine IPA.
Stay: At the new Saranac Waterfront Lodge, visitors doze off to the whoo-hoo-hoo wails of loons echoing over moonlit waters. The haunting sound stays with you long after returning home. Fall rates start at $300.
Insider Tip: For a wallet-friendly immersive experience, rent from the Adirondack “By Owner” website. Rates and fees are generally lower than advertised on other vacation rental sites.
Kitty Bean Yancey, a former USA Today deputy managing editor, is a travel writer and winner of multiple Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers.
Taos, New Mexico
By Jefferson Graham
If Taos was an unforgettable stunner for Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe and all the artists who have ventured forth there for years, why not you too?
The small village of Taos (population: less than 6,000) may not get the attention or crowds of Santa Fe and Albuquerque to the south, but it has so much to offer, especially in the fall.
Consider: the big, expansive, often cloud-filled skies of Taos, the likes of which you won’t see down south, wonderful old adobe buildings, a 1,000-year-old Pueblo and the incredible light that drew artists like painter O’Keefe, photographer Adams and so many others to the area.
The town square is the center of Taos and dates back to “the 1790’s” according to a local plaque. The plaza features art galleries, souvenir shops, restaurants and the old Hotel La Fonda de Taos. The adobe church that was beloved by O’Keefe and Adams is called San Francisco de Asís Mission Church and is on the other side of town — O’Keefe was especially fascinated with the back of the church, so make sure to see both sides.
Taos Pueblo — the only living Native American community designated both a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site — recently reopened after being closed due to the pandemic. From Thursday to Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) the village welcomes visitors to tour and observe daily traditions and customs of the Red Willow people.
Fall colors begin peaking at different parts of the state “depending upon the elevation,” says Robert Cahalane, who has run the Taos Inn on the Rio bed-and-breakfast for over two decades. The trees near the Taos Ski Valley area start to peak in mid-September, while the best time for the downtown area is mid-October. One highlight of visiting then is getting to see giant hot-air balloons dotting those big skies during the Taos Mountain Balloon Rally, Oct. 28–30. It’s smaller than the big one in Albuquerque, but it’s also free, notes Cahalane. “You don’t have to pay for parking and you don’t have the same kind of crowds,” he says. “And the weather is still gorgeous.”
Dine: With its unforgettable yellow, purple and turquoise walls and red ristras hanging from the windows, family-run Orlando’s serves a mouth-watering plate of blue corn enchiladas.
Stay: The historic Hotel La Fonda de Taos dates back to the 1800s and is right on the plaza (as opposed to the highway, where most lodging is located). Fall rates start at $219.
Insider Tip: Part of the fun of Taos is getting out of town to those big open skies. You’ll see plenty of them behind the Overland Sheepskin Co. store, along with some vintage trucks to pose with. “In Taos, posing with trucks is considered fine art,” says Kevin Anderson, a local photographer.
Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles–based writer-photographer, the host of the PhotowalksTV travel photography series on YouTube, cohost of the iPhone Photo Show podcast and frequent traveler to New Mexico.
Columbia Gorge, Washington and Oregon
By Amanda Castleman
Evergreens blanket the misty Pacific Northwest. But each autumn, pockets of deciduous foliage ignite with colors rivaling New England’s prime leaf-peeping terrain. And the trees put on their most spectacular show against backdrops of craggy, snow-gilded mountains along America’s largest national scenic area, the Columbia Gorge.
This 80-mile corridor divides Washington and Oregon. Yet its mighty waterway springs from further north in the Rocky Mountains, in British Columbia, eventually pouring more water into the Pacific than any other river in the Americas. En route, the Columbia River races under 4,000-foot cliffs and basalt spires, passing vineyards and rich farmlands.
“With that beautiful fall light, you feel like you’re driving into a dream,” says Cheryl Lubbert, co-owner of Sakura Ridge, a newly renovated luxury bed-and-breakfast in Hood River, Oregon. “You get all the orchards changing color and you see Mount Adams and Mount Hood. It’s just a really inspiring view that makes you feel connected to nature and the Northwest.”
The gorge has many moods. For a high-desert sagebrush experience, look to its eastern stretches. The Grand Coulee Dam — the country’s largest hydropower producer — welcomes visitors year round. Catch its light show, which runs until late-September, or a free guided tour through late-October. Don’t leave town without stopping at the Gehrke Windmill Garden, where a folk artist transformed found objects into whimsical kinetic sculptures.
Continue south along Banks Lake 34 miles to Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park. Ice Age floods once raged through there, creating a cascade four times the width of Niagara Falls. Today the 3½-mile-wide cataract lies bare, exposing all its stunning torrent-gouged geology.
As the Columbia River pours into central Washington, pause for wine tasting and maybe a Labor Day concert or early October grape stomp at Cave B Estate Winery. Other highlights include the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, where workers helped usher in the atomic era.
Moving west, Oregon’s the Dalles and Hood River serve up a sophisticated farm-to-table culinary scene, along with world-class windsurfing. Hiking and mountain-biking trails also abound for more mellow outdoor experiences. Tip: The 35-mile Fruit Loop drive passes farm stands, breweries, cideries and wineries, making for a very snackable circuit.
Finally, as the Columbia surges into the sea 100 miles west of Portland, history buffs shouldn’t miss the national park marking the turnaround point of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea, their Lemhi Shoshone guide. Their early 1800s expedition ended on this rainforest-cloaked coast, but for autumnal travelers, thankfully the fun is only just beginning.
Dine: In Troutdale, Oregon, a 1920s gas station now houses the Sugarpine Drive-In. Expect nostalgic American classics, from brats to a whipped feta and muhammara sandwich, alongside cherry-cola pie topped with Cocoa Puffs.
Stay: SageCliffe Resort sits beside the Gorge Amphitheatre, one of the world’s most scenic concert venues. Accommodations range from yurts situated for stargazing to suites with vine-swathed terraces. Fall rates start at $279 (two- and three-night minimum).
Insider tip: Cruise the only sea-level route through the Cascades with the American Queen Voyages sternwheeler, the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi.
Seattle-based writer and photographer Amanda Castleman covers culture and adventure for BBC Travel, National Geographic and Sierra.