8 of the Best Leaf-Peeping Destinations! But is it the Season of Fall or Autumn?

Autumn leaves, autumn sneeze, fall breeze, and fall trees. Is it most accurate to say September 22 is the start of fall or autumn?

Both autumn and fall originated from Britain, according to Merriam-Webster. Autumn, however, was the first of the pumpkin spice season names to be invented back in the 1300s originating from the Latin word autumnus. It would take 300 years for fall to come into the picture. 

Applegate River Valley in southern Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After many poets began using the phrase “the fall of the leaves,” the word itself became associated with the season during the 1600s. As the English empire grew during this time period, so did its language. Eventually, the word fall made its way to the New World. 

“To put it more pretentiously, there was always something transient, unstable, mysterious, emotionally undefined about autumn and fall, unlike the other seasons which are so well defined,” said Tony Thorne, a lexicographer at King’s College London. “Maybe that’s why people could not easily decide on one permanent name throughout our history.”

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The word autumn emigrated to America and simply changed to fall, like many other words that got mixed during the travel and independence of the U.S. Jumper in Britain, for example, is what sweater means in America.

Which term is used largely depends on whether the person is speaking British English or American English. While both used throughout the United States and Canada, fall has become the more popular term. From 1800 to the present, autumn has been more popular in Britain and the opposite can be said for America, according to Writing Explained. 

Northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some think that it sounds more simple and honest and rustic, unlike the more formal autumn, some think that independent Americans wanted to consciously distance themselves from Colonial British ways of speaking,” Thorne said.

There is no real answer to why fall became so popular with Americans, but the main difference is that it is the less proper way of saying the autumn season has arrived. You may get a weird look or two if you say autumn over fall in the U.S. but both accurately describe the popular season.

Farewell flip-flops, hello pumpkin spice.

Regardless of what you call the season, watching lush greenery morph into a sea of warm hues that rival the sunset itself simply never gets old. And when it comes to fall foliage, New England is hard to beat—but there are plenty of lovely leaf-peeping locales in other regions of the U.S., too. Here are eight of my favorite spots from coast to coast.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Willamette Valley of Oregon

Fall colors in the Southern Willamette Valley are a special kind of show when the leaves of maples, magnolias, and oaks turn vivid shades of yellow and red, contrasting against Oregon’s signature evergreens. Use Eugene or Medford as a home base—both are home to quirky shops, restaurants, and stays. Enjoy the foliage with a climb up Spencer Butte, just a quick trip from downtown Eugene, or on a drive to explore the 20 covered bridges in Lane County. Better yet, pay a visit to one of the valley’s wineries—the vines also turn when the weather cools.

Southern Willamette Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience Jacksonville, dubbed “One of America’s Top 10 Coolest Small Towns” by Frommers. A short drive from Medford, life slows a pace or two in quaint, historic Jville. Steeped in history, the entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark. Explore the roots of the area from the days of the 1850’s gold rush to now through a variety of historical tour options including a self-guided walking tour as well as trolley, haunted history tours, walking tours, and more! A quintessential western town, you’ll find yourself enthralled in how things used to be!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greater Zion

Autumn in Utah’s Greater Zion region is an unforgettable sight when the leaves on quaking aspens and Frémont cottonwoods at higher elevations change to striking golds and yellows. In Zion National Park, the leaves typically turn from September through October. Visitors can take the park shuttle service from Springdale during that time making it easy to pop into the park and hike routes like Canyon Overlook Trail, a fairly leisurely journey with rewarding views. To get farther from the crowds, visit nearby state parks instead including Quail Creek, Snow Canyon, Gunlock, and Sand Hollow

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches from the northern part of Virginia near Shenandoah National Park, south to Cherokee, North Carolina, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is truly one of the most stunning fall drives in the country.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a spectacular drive any time of year, but it’s exceptional during the fall. This U.S. National Parkway often called “America’s favorite drive” meanders 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. The drive connects Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s famous for being a slow-paced drive with views of long-range vistas, pastoral landscapes, and up-close glimpses of the local mountains.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is home to a transforming mountain landscape with crisp yet comfortable fall temperatures that range from the high-50s to mid-70s. The hillside between Hyde Memorial State Park and Ski Santa Fe is also covered in aspens whose leaves burst into fiery gold and crimson in late September. Ski Santa Fe opens its main ski lift exclusively on weekends and holidays from September through mid-October for aerial leaf-peeping and the Santa Fe National Forest is open for outdoor exploration like hiking and biking. 

Northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Georgia

North Georgia and its state parks and scenic byways are best visited in the fall when cool temps and beautiful colors take over. Can’t-miss foliage destinations include Tallulah Gorge State Park which is home to the Tallulah Gorge—two miles long and nearly 1,000 feet in depth—and a suspension bridge that sways 80 feet above the Tallulah River. Next, explore Black Rock Mountain State Park which is Georgia’s highest state park at an altitude of 3,640 feet for scenic panoramas. Those who would rather just sit back and enjoy the ride can take a train trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway which departs from Blue Ridge, Georgia, and takes riders on a four-hour journey through the nearby forests and Appalachian foothills as they burst with brilliant colors.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga, New York

Fall foliage in Saratoga County is a spectacular sight to see as the trees come alive with vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. This season is the ideal time of year to take a relaxing drive down country roads and to impressive overlooks and colorful forests.

Saratoga National Historical Park has public hiking trails and a Driving Tour Road that will take you to unique historic sites and scenic overlooks with wide-sweeping views of the fall foliage.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can finish the Driving Tour Road in about 30 minutes with no stops. If you visit each of the 10 wayside interpretive stops, the trip will last about 1.5-2 hours.

After you’ve passed the 10th and final stop, drive east to US-4 and then heading north to Schuylerville. When you arrive in the village, celebrate this leaf-peeping adventure with a craft beer at Bound by Fate Brewing or grab a bite to eat at a restaurant. The Basin Grill offers both outdoor and indoor dining and it’s right on the Hudson River shoreline. While you’re in Schuylerville this season, swing by Saratoga Apple for apples, cider, baked goods, and more farm products.

Fishlake National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishlake National Forest

Fall doesn’t get as much love in Utah as other times of year but the changing colors make it spectacular. The deep oranges of canyon maples light up the Wasatch Front and quaking aspens in southern Utah turn bright yellow to contrast the deep red landscape. It’s the perfect opportunity to get out on weekends without the summer crowds and discover the hidden treasures that make Utah great. Not sure where to go? Here is one of my favorite fall getaways in the Beehive State.

Fish Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A perfect fall detour while visiting Capitol Reef National Park, this 13-mile road takes you along the northern edge of Fish Lake where you can stop at a picnic area for lunch with a view. The aspens in the Fishlake National Forest turn early thanks to the 9,000-foot elevation so you can get your foliage fix before heading to Capitol Reef. Enjoy uncrowded autumn hikes, incredible vistas, and arches carved into the landscape.

The Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef offers 71 sites with easy access to the many trails and scenic drives in and around the park. It’s open year-round and features flush-toilet restrooms.

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill 

One of the most photographed places in Virginia, this water-powered mill in the Blue Ridge Mountains was built by Edwin Boston Mabry. It catches the attention of thousands of visitors each year and has now become a community gathering place. Mabry Mill is somewhat close to Roanoke (and near small Galax) and is just great for taking some epic pictures full of the fall colors in Virginia. The area also features displays where you can explore and grasp an idea of what life was like here some 100 years ago. 

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill is particularly known for its restaurant. It serves a country-style menu, tasty pancakes, pot toasts, and many other meals in a very iconic and traditional environment. For amazing Mabry Mill and Blue Ridge Parkway-inspired souvenirs, clothing, as well as for some Virginia crafts and foods get to the gift shop nearby. 

Worth Pondering…

Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.

—William Cullen Bryant