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4 Fantastic Fall Road Trips

Travel writers share the routes, roads and destinations that stand out across the country

spinner image a road running through fall foliage in new england
Visitors can enjoy stunning fall foliage in Windsor, Vermont.
Ron Karpel / Getty Images

​Fall is a magical time of year. When the temperatures start to cool and the leaves begin to turn colors, it’s easy to feel inspired to get out in the world and witness the change of the season. Here, four travel writers describe their favorite road trips that stand out during the fall. Start planning your autumn adventure now.

U.S. Civil Rights Trail from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama​

spinner image the city of alabama and inset writer heather greenwood davis and her son cameron
Writer Heather Greenwood Davis traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, with her son Cameron.
Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright / Alamy Stock Photo / Courtesy of Heather Greenwood Davis

In 2018, the year my son Cameron turned 13, I took him to Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes rolled out across his screens at key times of the year, but Cameron lacked any real grasp of the magnitude of the civil rights era. I was worried something was being lost, so when the opportunity to visit the state presented itself, I took him on a road trip through Birmingham and Montgomery. 

The timing was perfect. The U.S. Civil Rights Trail had just launched. Today it includes more than 100 sites across 15 states and the District of Columbia. One-quarter of them are in Alabama. Our drive from Huntsville to Montgomery was easy enough. 

The violent racial history of America wasn’t new to me, as part of a Black family, but it was comforting that along with houses and trucks bearing Confederate flags, I saw bumper stickers calling for civil rights protections. Cameron was oblivious to most of that. In full control of our travel playlist, he remained firmly focused on what was happening inside the car. I envied his innocence. That innocence was interrupted in Birmingham. 

Barry McNealy of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute gave us a tour through the 16th Street Baptist Church and shared the story of the four schoolgirls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair — killed by a Ku Klux Klan bombing as they prepared for Sunday school on Sept. 15, 1963. They were about Cameron’s age at the time of their death — a fact that hit us both hard. Across the street at Kelly Ingram Park, we saw sculptures and monuments meant to help visitors understand and remember the impact and sacrifice of youth during the movement. The long history of young activists changing the world wasn’t lost on my boy, who in the years to come would become an activist in his own right. Cameron still points to that day with McNealy as his favorite of our time together. 

​The learning continued in Montgomery and brought out a mix of emotions. We stood in awe at King’s pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and visited the home he lived in with his family from 1954 to 1960. We explored the Rosa Parks Museum, set in the very spot where she was famously arrested for refusing to give up her seat, and we marveled at her fortitude. 

​Perhaps the most emotional moment of our trip came at one of our last stops: a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There — as you walk through — 800 6-foot-tall columns increase in distance from the ground. By the time you reach the middle of the memorial for lynching victims, the pillars are dangling above you. The image of my little boy walking beneath the hanging pillars haunts me still. 

​My perpetually happy, swinging arms and bright smile of a son asked me questions on that trip that I had no answers to. I was grateful for the stops for tasty dinners, a space museum and butterfly-filled gardens across the state, for the space to discuss and deconstruct all that we were seeing. Grateful too that we’d opted for a bite-size introduction for this heavy experience. 

​This year marks 60 years since the Birmingham campaign for civil rights. Cameron turns 19 this fall, and I think it’s the perfect time to continue the drive. 

Heather Greenwood Davis is a travel writer and TV personality based in Toronto.


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​​Bend, Oregon, to Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

spinner image a view of the caldera rim of crater lake national park in oregon inset writer crai s bower bicycling
The caldera of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon formed more than 7,500 years ago. Writer Crai S. Bower enjoys the park.
Larry Geddis / Alamy Stock Photo / Courtesy of Crai S. Bower

Bend, Oregon, straddles the Deschutes River in the high desert within the shadow of the Cascade Mountains to the west and the northern edge of the Great Basin to the east. I first passed through Bend in the late 1980s. The logging town served as my last bastion of civilization, i.e., decent beer, before I headed off to study migratory birds at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 162 miles to the east. Relocating to Bend never crossed my mind. Fast-forward 35 years, and it’s all I think about whenever I visit.  

​It isn’t just the decent beer, which is now beyond decent and on tap in more than 30 breweries across the city. It’s the endless amount of outdoor recreation surrounding the city. 

​Usually when I’m in town, I tackle the “Bend Trifecta”: gravel biking along a trail to fly-fish near Lava Island Falls on the Deschutes River after a morning round of golf at the Tetherow golf course. But one day, I decided to switch things up and make the drive to Crater Lake National Park

​Highway 97 offers the most direct route to Crater Lake, but I took my time — adding about four hours — to explore the 66-mile-long Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (Forest Route 46) from Bend to Crescent. The route winds past lakes, Cascade peaks and meadows filled with Douglas asters and other seasonal wildflowers. From Crescent, I follow Highway 97 for 43 miles to the national park.  

​Crater Lake is the deepest lake in America, about 1,943 feet. The partially filled caldera formed when Mount Mazama imploded 7,700 years ago. Surrounded by mountain peaks, many capped with freshly fallen snow, the lake can be seen from 30 overlooks along Rim Drive. It’s easy to spend hours stopping at uncrowded overlooks for different views of the water. I hiked the (advanced) 1.1-mile Cleetwood Cove Trail down to the lake’s shore where I could easily lose myself in the cerulean water.

​At sunset, the autumn chill, downright cool on Rim Drive at 6,560 feet, meant it was time to head to the Crater Lake Lodge, a grand timber structure that opened in 1915. Like other Western national park lodges, it’s known for its dining room with astounding views. But Crater Lake Lodge may offer the best vista of all the lodges. My pan-roasted steelhead trout dinner is somewhat lost in the sapphire blue water shimmering in the autumn breeze below me. 

Crai S Bower writes and photographs stories for numerous publications, including EnRoute, AAA Journey and The Saturday Evening Post. 

​Hanover to Plainfield, New Hampshire

spinner image the historic cornish windsor covered bridge in new hampshire
The historic Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge connects New Hampshire with Vermont.
Craig Zerbe / Getty Images

​When I was growing up in New Hampshire, fall was my favorite season. There’s nothing better than a crisp New England fall morning, when mist hovers above the ground as the sun peeks through the trees. Spring is supposed to be the season of renewal, but for me, it’s when the green leaves of summer turn yellow, red and orange and cool mornings give way to warm afternoons. 

​I’ve taken many fall road trips, and one of my favorites is when my adult daughter and I visited Windsor, Vermont, and Cornish, New Hampshire. We began our day trip in our hometown of Hanover, New Hampshire, the picturesque home of Dartmouth College and a beautiful destination in its own right (about 125 miles north of Boston). Hanover sits about midway up the state on the banks of the Connecticut River, which separates New Hampshire from Vermont. 

​We crossed the river into Norwich, Vermont, where we stopped at Dan & Whit’s general store for coffee. The store’s motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” and that’s not just a marketing slogan. The deceptively small entrance opens to aisles that snake behind the butcher’s counter and up and down ramps to shelves stocked with everything from maple candy and baked goods to hiking boots and fishing gear.

​About a mile down the road, we hopped onto Interstate 91 South and drove about 20 minutes to Windsor — the “birthplace of Vermont.” One of the joys of driving in Vermont is that billboards are banned, so there is nothing to spoil the gorgeous views. 

​Our first stop was Artisans Park. We ordered a craft beer at Harpoon Brewery Taproom and Beer Garden and watched master glassblowers at work at Simon Pearce. There’s also a distillery, preserves and cheese shops, plus outdoor dining, cornhole, badminton and a playground, making the park the perfect destination for multigenerational families. Adventurous travelers can book day or overnight river trips at Great River Outfitters.

​Heading south on Route 5, we had sweeping views of the foliage just across the river in New Hampshire, passing Mount Ascutney State Park (popular with hikers and hang gliders) on our way to the American Precision Museum. Housed in an 1846 armory building, the museum has the largest collection of historically significant machine tools in the country.

​We crossed back into New Hampshire over the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge (1866) and headed north on Route 12A. Within five minutes, we reached Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park, the former home of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who established Cornish as an art colony in the late 19th century (attracting, among others, painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish). Visitors can tour the house, other historic buildings and art exhibits, and stroll along numerous walking trails.

​Our last stop was Riverview Farm in Plainfield for the quintessential autumn experience of picking apples and finding our way through a corn maze. We topped it off with a cup of hot cider and a maple doughnut in the late afternoon sun, just as we did when I was a kid.

Jaimie Seaton has lived in and reported from South Africa, the Netherlands, Singapore and Thailand. She’s written on travel for Skift, The Independent and CNN.

​​The Lake Tahoe scenic drive, Lake Tahoe, California

spinner image scenic lake tahoe and inset writer christopher hall
The scenic drive around Lake Tahoe includes mountain-and-lake vistas that left a strong impression on writer Christopher Hall.
Dennis Frates / Alamy Stock Photo / Mac McKenzie

Years ago, on a crisp October afternoon near Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake, I witnessed a true wonder. 

Flame red kokanee, dwarf freshwater salmon, were returning from Tahoe to Taylor Creek, where they were born. Watching them struggle upstream, I knew that eagles and merganser ducks would eat some before they reached their goal. Others would complete the journey, spawn and — exhausted, their life cycle done — dissolve back into the waters from which they first emerged.

​Something about that autumn afternoon — the mysterious force impelling the fish onward; the honey-thick light bathing Tahoe and its ring of soaring peaks; the way the aspens shimmied like dancers covered in a thousand gold coins — touched me deeply. After more than 50 years of visiting Lake Tahoe in all seasons, it remains a lasting memory from a favorite fall road trip destination, a 3.5-hour straight shot on Interstate 80 from my San Francisco home.

​Autumn is a quiet time at Lake Tahoe, the 6,223-foot-high sapphire-and-turquoise jewel of the Sierra Nevada that straddles the California-Nevada state line.

​The sun-and-sand crowds of summer are gone, and you can almost hear a clock ticking down to the first snows of late November, when skiers and boarders start to arrive en masse for the winter-spring fun.

​Even leaf peepers are scarce, most of them preferring more colorful destinations than Tahoe’s vast basin, which is largely covered in evergreen forest dotted here and there with aspen stands. Lodging and restaurants are easy to book, and traffic thins on the scenic drive around Tahoe, a stunning, 72-mile succession of sweeping mountain-and-lake vistas and peekaboo water views through the trees. The world temporarily forgets about Tahoe, and that’s fine by me.

​Tahoe’s daytime air temperature begins its slow slide from the 70s into the 40s as the season progresses.

​I love the softly popping fires that make chilly, starry nights cozy, and the lumberjack-size breakfast of a smoked salmon omelet or buckwheat pancakes from the homey Fire Sign Cafe to fuel a long hike or bike ride around town. On the occasional rainy day, I love to study the exquisite work of early 20th century Washoe weavers at the Marion Steinbach Native American Basket Museum, or the Lake Tahoe History Museum’s funky collection of gambling memorabilia, a nod to the casinos that still flourish on the northern and southern ends of the lake’s Nevada side.

​During one of my most memorable trips, on a late October afternoon a few years before I witnessed the stirring return of the kokanee, I drove a near-empty Highway 89 along Tahoe’s west shore to Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. There, while walking through fragrant pine forest, I came upon aspens that had recently shed all their leaves, paving the trail with gold. It was a startling, beautiful sight but, more than that, a reminder that autumn in the high country is fleeting. Catch it while you can, before winter roars in, and like the last notes of a soulful cello sonata, hold its feel close.

San Francisco journalist Christopher Hall has covered cultural topics for a wide variety of national publications, including SmithsonianArchitectural DigestNational Geographic TravelerSaveur and The New York Times.

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