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The Hunt For Red October

(Updated October 2003)

Autumn is a special time of year. It’s also my favorite season. The sights and smells of autumn are alluring—especially the fallen leaves and crisp, cool air touched with the sweet scents of ripe apples and maple syrup. Growing up in New England, I became spoiled by the natural fireworks of vibrant yellows, reds, and oranges set upon a backdrop of evergreen forests. To witness fall foliage is the same reason why thousands of tourists flock to New England every autumn. However, New England isn’t the only place to experience fall’s splendor. There are many other areas across the U.S. where seasonal colors dominate the landscape and rival those of New England.

Therefore, it’s time to turn over a new leaf, so to speak, and “search for red October” in lesser-known regions that also offer a leaf peeper’s paradise. Here are some of my personal favorites over the years.

Fall In The Desert

Who knew Arizona had fall foliage? This may seem like the last state where you would expect to find trees that change color in the fall. However, the 1.5 million-acre Kaibab National Forest, the gateway to both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, hosts some impressive autumn foliage. The Kaibab Plateau Scenic Byway (Highway 67), which runs through the forest, is one of the most beautiful autumn drives. This 44-mile tour is stunning during the fall as the aspens and bigtooth maples change color. (Unfortunately, this year may not yield the spectacular colors as in years past due to the drought conditions.)

Foliage or not, the splendid beauty of Grand Canyon shines through regardless. If you are looking for some real nostalgia, drive historic Route 66 which skirts 22 miles of the park.

Color Me California

About an hour east of San Diego, there is a former gold rush town in the mountains called Julian. Julian sits up at 4,235 feet, where the high altitude allows for a true change of seasons. After the gold rush, Julian successfully turned to an agricultural town in which apples are the biggest crop. Julian’s sweet apples lure thousands to the mountains each fall. Surprisingly, this town with a distinct Western flare offers tasty treats—including crisp fruit from produce stands, homemade cider, and other delicacies—to visitors.

Pacific Palette

Autumn is truly an ideal time to plan a visit to Oregon. Not only because it is festival season, but also because the fall foliage is breathtaking. In Oregon, the red-orange sumacs and maples mix with golden-leafed elm, birch, and aspen trees to offer an amazing bouquet of color. A great way to experience it’s vast array of hues is to drive the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway. Start in Astoria and head south on Route 101 to Seaside, where the Lewis & Clark trail ends. Along the way you will find charming towns filled with arts and crafts, fresh seafood, and local wine.

Virginia Is For Leaf Lovers

The fall foliage in Virginia’s lower Appalachian region is often richer than the vibrant hues of New England. One of the best ways to experience it’s color is to drive the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park and connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic drive hugs the mountains and offers striking foliage views and mountain vistas. In addition, the area is rich in Civil War history and offers access to the great Appalachian Trail.

A Ridge Runs Through It

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs through western North Carolina and Virginia and offers some of the most stunning foliage anywhere. The Blue Ridge Mountains along the drive come alive with colorful trees and wildflowers during the fall. Colors begin to appear in the higher elevations in late September and spread down the mountain slopes throughout October and early November. Some scenic stops on the Parkway include Pigeon Forge, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell State Park, and the city of Asheville. When in Asheville, don’t forget to visit the Biltmore Estate, America’s castle.   

Exit To The Gap

What exit in New Jersey do you take to find great autumn foliage? Actually, it is the last exit off Interstate 80. Exit jokes aside, New Jersey may be one of the most underrated scenic states in the country. The state boasts some impressive fall foliage in the unspoiled Skylands Region. Tucked up in the Northwestern part of New Jersey, the Skylands offer rugged mountains, evergreen forests, clear rivers, and lakes that provide dramatic scenery anytime of year, particularly in the fall.

In addition to hosting part of the Appalachian Trail, the region is also host to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and many historic monuments. The region is easily accessible from both the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. Route 611 (south of Interstate 80), the scenic drive that follows the river basin through charming towns, tranquil countryside, and scenic overlooks, offers the best views of the Water Gap.

Amish Country In Ohio and Pennsylvania

In autumn, the rolling hills of Ohio and Pennsylvania turn into a fiery mosaic of rich golds, vibrant reds, and deep oranges. For me, there’s no better way to enjoy a crisp fall day than with a leisurely drive along the back roads of the region’s Amish country. The Amish came to Pennsylvania in the 17th century as part of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” and there are approximately 150,000 Amish in North America today. The largest groups are located in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Visiting Amish Country in autumn is extra special because its lively festivals abound with music, great food, and local Amish crafts such as hand-made furniture and lovingly stitched quilts.

The most famous Amish destination is Lancaster, Pennsylvania, better known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Lancaster, while lovely, is quite commercial in nature. Your best bet to view authentic Amish life is to take country roads around the city and visit the nearby towns of Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand.

The largest Amish population in the world is located in Holmes County, Ohio. Route 39, from Loudonville east to Sugarcreek, is one of Holmes County’s most scenic routes through Amish country. This road will take you through the lively village of Millersburg, which is host to many special autumn events.

My personal favorite Amish communities are tucked away in Western Pennsylvania. The small communities of Smicksburg and Dayton are home to 280 Amish families and offer a true non-commercial glimpse of Amish life. The back roads between these two towns offer magnificent views of rolling hills and farmland, which are stunning in the fall. Smicksburg and Dayton are very close to Puxatawney, home of the famous “Ground Hog Day” groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.

The Amish are hospitable and will wave as you go by, but please be careful to respect their lifestyle. Please do not take pictures of them, as this goes against their religious beliefs. Be courteous to Amish traveling in horse-drawn buggies or walking along the side of the road by driving slowly through the area.

Great Fall Links

Because so many factors influence when the leaves are at their best each year, getting information is essential. In addition to the aforementioned links, here are additional sites to help you find “Red October.”

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