Top 8 Fall Road Trip Destinations (USA)
Does fall bring melancholic sadness to you? A yen for something less mundane and more novel? Check out my top 8 best road trips in the fall and hit the road.
The US is vast, but thanks to its well-connected highway grid, it is quite easy to drive around. Not just are there seemingly boundless expanses of tarmac, wherever you go, but there are also a wealth of roadside campsites, diners, motels and all kinds of entertainment venues that cater to the most experienced travelers.
It was this transport connectivity that allowed to drive all around the US and inspired me to cherry-pick eight destinations to visit in the US this fall! Read till the end and leave your ideas for a US road trip.
Shenandoah National Park
One of the things that make me love autumn is the rustling of foliage underfoot and the exquisite fragrance of wet vegetation. For this, I used to go to a new nature reserve, every fall, with autumn somewhat surreptitiously growing synonymous with a road trip.
But after a visit to Shenandoah National Park, in late September 2018, I found a natural park that has kept me firmly in its thrall ever since and won’t stop luring me back.
The reason for my love, besides many great spots for leaf-peeping, is the nature reserve’s pristine flora and fauna, which are so welcome during the strictures of the coronavirus lockdown.
After a two-hour ride to the park, from DC, I was thunderstruck by the freshness and the diversity of the vegetation. What strikes one next is the sheer size of the park…The intermingling of a bird’s sing-song and the serene bubbling of a nearby brook; the echoing of a cave.
I never thought I would be able to navigate here without a map. The nature reserve boasts over 500 miles of hiking grounds, to add to labyrinths of caves, mountains and waterfalls, often enveloped in thick mist.
But after meeting fellow hikers at a cool campsite: Mathews Arm Campground, closest to Port Royal, it took me just two days of hiking to be able to orientate quite well.
After meeting fellow hiking aficionados, I had a great picnic on a bank of a brook, and started my odyssey by venturing into the thicket, since then I got hooked: I returned to Shenandoah every year, with each visit here holding something new.
The best things to do while trekking in Shenandoah National Park are hiking to Old Rag Mountain, touring Hawksbill Mountain, and checking out magnificent Dark Hollow Falls.
Wyoming Beartooth Highway
Stretching for 68 miles, the highway is a one-of-its-kind drive. Considered one of America’s most scenic, its Wyoming’s highest paved road.
Everyone has something personal to love about the highway, but for me, it is the exquisite shades of aspens that line the way, or more practically, the direct access to the vast Shoshone National Forest, one of the best areas to go hiking in the US.
The highway runs from Montana to Yellowstone National Park and can be accessed via Chief Joseph Byway.
I took time driving through the beautiful state and marveled at the rich scenery and gulped down invigorating mountain air.
It would have been a great ride on its own, but it got even better when I chanced to stop in Powel, a cozy city along the way.
Here I found a great historical museum, Heart Mountain Relocation Centre, a site of confinement of many Japanese Americans, before proceeding to Yellowstone National Park, my second favorite US nature reserve, after the mesmeric Shenandoah. Here I was able to profit from the magnificent natural scenery and visited such unique local landmarks as Old Faithful, an ancient geyser breaking out on schedule, Grand Prismatic Springs, a cluster of lakes, geysers and other natural features, Yellowstone Lake, great for boating and fishing, and magnificent cascades, Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River.
Clogged by traffic, choked by the smoke from the wildfires, California is thronging with tourists in summertime. As the nights draw out, though, the state’s weather becomes milder, with California’s Indian summers being among America’s most pleasant, which makes California one of the US’ best places to drive to in fall.
My first US fall road trip was along Highway 1. Driving along one of my favourite roads, I was able not only to benefit from gob-smacking vistas of the Pacific, and see for myself the beauteous lighthouses dotted around the coastline, but also visit cozy small seaside towns and forests, to add to the state’s treasure-trove of humongous redwoods, California’s nature marvels, known for their size and age.
But it was for sure Big Sur, a scenic stretch of rugged terrain lapped by the Pacific, and offering one of America's most heart-snatching panoramas, that made me fall in love with Highway 1.
Since my first trip, I returned to the meandering Californian artery many times and in different seasons, but there is nothing like the siesta-like autumnal allure of Big Sur.
The Finger Lakes
Featuring two of the US’ deepest lakes, Finger Lakes is a lake cluster, made up of narrow bodies of water, which are especially scenic in fall. It is also one of the best US road trips in the fall!
I first travelled to the Finger Lakes in early 2017. I was really flabbergasted by the sheer beauty of rural areas around New York. Not just did I go hiking, but I was also able to collect real grapes!
Finger Lakes wines can rival those of California, making it one of the best destinations for an American Beaujolais… Thus profiting from the new vendange, I had time to contemplate the parochial allure of the American backwoods... Exquisite!
Don't forget to drive responsibly to and, more importantly, from your wine tasting, though…
Michigan Upper Peninsula
Even though you can visit the Great Lakes, throughout the year, my preferred time for a trip here is October-November.
Michigan Peninsula’s scenic lakes, waterways and other natural attractions acquire its distinct reddish glow and invite you into the world of untarnished natural beauty.
Start exploring Michigan with a visit to Grand Rapids, one of the best starting points for a car tour of the peninsula.
Then make your way to the area’s stunning water bodies like Houghton Lake, considered the world’s sixth most beautiful lake, or Higgins Lake, another idyllic waterbody.
Here you can gaze at the yellow foliage waxing russet, and cook BBQs, one of the best things to do on your US road trip. I just set up my tent and borrowed a grill from a group nearby, but others may bring their foldable grill, one of the secrets behind a perfect road trip.
I ended my Michigan escapade by going to Burt Lake, a great place to hike around, before having a picnic on the banks of vast Lake Michigan.
On my way back, I was stunned by the Great Lakes gastronomy: I pampered myself with ambrosial Great Lakes Whitefish and mouth-watering cudighi, washed down with local craft beer.
Home, I firmly decided Michigan is one of the best places to road trip in the fall.
Vermont Road Trip
New England is one of the best places to enjoy the fall. And Vermont is arguably among the best New England states to do a fall road trip.
I went to Vermont as part of a longer trip from Miami to Boston.
I started off from Albany, the magic gateway to Vermont, and went through the beautiful Mountain National Forest, with a visit to magnificent Jamaica Park before arriving in Weston, a small town nearby.
Having spent the night there I continued through Vermont and visited towns that became my favorites like Plymouth and Montpellier to add to more authentic Fall Road Trip destinations like Woodstock village, and Plainfield farm near Montpellier.
Going through Vermont is one of the most “American” experiences thanks to the quaint charm of the suburbia and drop-dead nature panoramas.
Hawaii Mamalahoa Coast Road Trip
Even though Hawaii is more often associated with beach leisure rather than going on a road trip, I had one of my best road trips in Hawaii...
It took me years to get here but it was worth it: I began my journey at scenic Waiānuenue Falls.
Marveling at the beauty of local nature and cultural attractions, I not only drove down the zippy down New Mamalahoa Highway but also ventured on the older and slower road, the Old Highway. On my way I got interested in the local history and dropped by Hawaiʻi Plantation Museum, a great repository of local knowledge, drove along, Onomea Scenic Route, ʻand adored visiting Akaka Falls State Park, Honomū town, Laupāhoehoe Point, and Kalōpā State Recreation Area.
I hit the brakes only once, as I was short on time and contented myself with scenic behind-the-window-vistas, at a magnificent town, Honoka. I was able to explore this former sugar plantation on foot, and I was photo-shooting like crazy.
I finished my trip at Waimea, a cozy Hawaiian town where I found a paradisiac stretch of white sand: bear in mind that you can swim and do watersports throughout the year in Hawai, which makes Hawaii one of the best fall best road trips in October in the US.
Cape Cod and the Islands
Number eight is my most intimate road trip. It was my first solo road trip around the States. Even though it was then summer, I returned here in autumn and what had once looked like a sea of humanity, became tranquil seaside beaches great for strolling.
I went first to Bourne, one of my Cap Cod’s favorite locales. I cycled here and gazed at the beauty of Buzzards Bay, luring with its briny charm!
Then I travelled onwards to Falmouth. Here, I tucked into delicious local seafood and went for a short hike. Then I drove to Orleans, home to two of my favorite American beaches, Beach and Skaket Beach, two of the most romantic sunset spots, I’ve come across in the states.
I wrapped up my Cape Cod Fall Road Trip by going to Provincetown, a unique place, renowned as one of the US topmost LGBTQ havens, offering magnificent panoramas and oozing out ladles of romance. It is this diversity of Cape Cod that makes driving here one of the best road trips in fall.
Even though summers are also lovely, I once drove through Vermont in summer and it felt busier; as a general rule, autumn is best for road trips with September being perfect for New York and October for California road trips.
Road Trips > Cross Country Road Trip > Fall Road Trip Destinations
About the Author
Ivan Ivoilov is a freelance writer. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he has spent the last four years exploring the Indo-Pacific and is doing a Master’s degree in Estonia, at the University of Tartu. Ivan’s main interests include collaborative creative writing and creating bespoke tours and pop-up writing retreats. Follow Ivan and his literary adventures on Instagram, or Facebook.