Fantastic Fall Foliage…and Where to Find It

“Leaf peepers” and “color spotters” will search for peak fall glory with camera in hand

This is starting out as a complicated season for leaf peepers.

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the Northeast sweltered through record October heat, parts of the Rockies and northern Plains were buried under wildly early snow—and we drove through it from Great Falls to Billings. Late heat and early cold can stifle some of the most photo-worthy foliage, but large swaths of the country will soon be engulfed in the brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds ahead of the approaching winter.

Stowe Community Church, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forested areas host a variety of tree species. The evergreens shed leaves or needles gradually as their name suggests. The leaves of deciduous varieties change from green to yellow, orange, or red before letting go entirely.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the summer, trees produce chlorophyll, the pigment that turns leaves green and allows trees to use light to make food sugars. At the same time, trees manufacture carotenoid, a yellow to orange pigment that is hidden by the green chlorophyll during the summer months. When the production of chlorophyll slows with the onset of fall, the carotenoid’s bright color can emerge. This yellow pigment also helps the leaf absorb different wavelengths of light that the green chlorophyll cannot.

Whitehall, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Certain species begin to produce another pigment, anthocyanin, when the seasons begin to change. This is what turns forests red and orange. Anthocyanin is also responsible for the red, purple, black, and blue colors in certain foods high in antioxidants (think raspberries, purple cauliflower, and black rice). This crimson pigment allows trees to continue storing just a little more sugar and nitrogen to have on hand for the next year.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some areas of the country are more likely to experience those bright red and orange leaves than others. New England is a perennial fall destination because of its abundance of tree species contributing bright colors.

Goshen, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best color displays occur in forests that have a diversity of species and trees that have the tendency to turn red.

The progression of fall creates a wave of color across the country with grassy plains and farmlands in the Midwest drying up, and the trees of the East Coast rolling from green to yellow/orange/red to brown.

Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaf peepers prowl different parts of the country to find their own special spots for the best fall colors. An annual photo-foraging is like a Christmas present as leaf peppers run around the country unwrapping all these presents.

Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dazzling colors can be seen in numerous regions outside New England. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota are great places to go with forests that blend bright yellow birch, beech, and aspen with red maple. Farther south, a mix of oak and hickory forests in Arkansas provides stunning views, especially at higher elevations in the Ozarks.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even as far south as New Mexico, yellow oaks can be seen on mountainsides, along with sporadic flashes of red maples.

Near Brian Head, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moving west, yellow dominates. Western U.S. forests are predominantly evergreen, where species of juniper, spruce, and fir are better adapted to the more extreme temperature and moisture shifts. The deciduous trees in the West, including aspens, tend to display strong yellows.

Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are pockets of beautiful color all over the West but there aren’t a lot of people there. So the majesty can go unseen in some places.

When it comes to tracking down those optimal fall colors, some years can be good and some years can be poor.

Jacksonville, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moderate stress, such as changing seasonal temperatures and the amount of daylight, helps induce the onset of leaf-color change, but more severe stress can mute the vibrancy of autumn’s palette. Drought limits the ability of tree leaves to produce sugars which can also lead to early leaf drop.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But this season is expected to be superb. In New England, low evening temperatures have helped jump-start the fall colors. This will eventually wave down the eastern United States, down through Appalachia and beyond.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We wish you luck in your leaf-peeping endeavors. Don’t wait too long because before you know it, the best of fall foliage season will quickly pass only to find solace in pumpkins and corn mazes.

Worth Pondering…

October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!

―Rainbow Rowell, Attachments  

The 7 Most Scenic Drives in the Country to Add to Your Bucket List

Calling all leaf peepers!

Crisp air, apple cider pit stops, and of course, brilliant foliage—there’s truly no better time for a family road trip than the fall. But rather than stress over what to do when you get to your destination, why not make it about how you get there?

Whether you’re looking for a last-minute day trip or weekend adventure, these scenic highways and byways are all about the RV lifestyle and savoring your front-row view of the beautiful landscape. So pack up the RV for one of the below drives (organized from west to east) the family won’t forget.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

Length: 124 miles | Region: West

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also known as “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway,” this rugged Utah trail winds through rock-formation-rich Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks as well as the awe-inspiring Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is made up of plateaus and canyons the size of Delaware. Make sure to stop in Dixie National Forest for supreme views of the area from its 9,000-foot summit.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock Scenic Byway

Length: 7.5 miles | Region: West

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rock Scenic Byway winds through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, often called a “museum without walls.” Travelers are amazed by the high desert’s power, diversity, and sense of intimacy with nature. Inhabited for thousands of years, the stunning red rocks are alive with a timeless spirit that captivates and inspires.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route 66

Length: 2,448 miles | Region: West/Midwest

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No list of road trips would be complete without this east-west stretch, which spans from Chicago to Los Angeles. While many parts of this route have been decommissioned, it’s still possible to travel provided you’re willing to ignore your phone’s GPS directions and rely on good ol’ analog maps. Early fall is the best time to attempt this drive, as the weather is calm and the summer crowds have dwindled.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 385

Length: 53 miles | Region: Midwest

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While this road nearly bisects the country, the most picturesque section is in the famed Black Hills and Badlands of western South Dakota. Fall is the most temperate time of year to visit, and it also happens to be breeding season for many of the larger wilder animals (so be on the lookout for bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk!).

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway

Length: 43 miles | Region: Southeast

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokee tribe and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Appalachian Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage, as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests.

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive

Length: 105 Miles | Region: Southeast

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This lush drive through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is particularly popular during the last three weeks in October, when the Blue Ridge Mountains erupt in color. Leave room in your schedule for a hike: There are over 500 miles of trails, 100 of which are part of the great Appalachian Trail.

Route 100

Trapp Family Lodge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Length: 90 miles | Region: Northeast

Ben & Jerry’s © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in the eastern edge of Vermont’s Green Mountains, this is the easiest drive of the bunch—it’s nearly a straight shot the whole way, running the entire vertical length of the state. Don’t miss your chance to tour the Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury or indulge in various maple-flavored goodies in Ludlow!

Worth Pondering…

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

—William Cullen Bryant

Utah’s Fishlake Scenic Byway Fall Foliage Amazes

See a kaleidoscope of fall colors along the scenic route to Fish Lake

The lure of fall foliage is no secret. Bursts of saturated yellow and fiery red demand your eye and call you to the open road.

With forecasting apps and digital foliage maps, terms like peaking and peeping are common language among RVers and other travelers with a craving for visual fall flavor.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah is an ideal place to see nature’s paintbrush at play. There are a number of native trees which create brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, and purple. A cascade of color comes from canyon maple, quaking aspen, scrub oak, Douglas hawthorn, serviceberries, evergreens, and more—each turning in succession.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s wide array of forests, national parks, and scenic byways are located at different elevations and receive varying amounts of rainfall. This creates a multitude of peak viewing times throughout the state, so you can come early or late in the season and still spot breathtaking colors.

Explore the best drives for fall foliage paired with unexpected adventure. One such road is the scenic route to Fish Lake.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is a paradise known for its beautiful aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Fishlake Scenic Byway begins at the intersection of Highways 24 and 25. Like us, most travelers reach this intersection via Richfield on I-70. This approach from the northwest is a pleasant drive and deserves mention.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 119 east from Richfield is a scenic route, starting out through pretty farmland then climbing into wild, open, undeveloped desert hills. It is 9 miles to the intersection with Highway 24. Angle to the right, signed for Fish Lake, Loa, and Capitol Reef. Highway 24 is very scenic, through mostly undeveloped public land, high-desert prairie covered with pinyon, juniper, and sagebrush. A few miles farther you reach the northern end of Koosharem Reservoir.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At about mile 17 the road begins to climb into the foothills of the Fishlake Plateau. At just under mile 23 you reach the well-marked turnoff on the left for Highway 25, the proper start of the Fishlake Scenic Byway.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Fishlake byway, somewhat narrow but paved and well maintained, continues climbing and enters Fishlake National Forest 4 miles from the start of Highway 25. By this point you have completed most of the initial altitude gain on this drive. From here the road actually descends slightly to Fish Lake at mile 7. Dense stands of aspens make this drive especially attractive in the fall. At this elevation even summer nights are brisk, and the days are cool and pleasant.

Fish Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forest’s prize jewel, Fish Lake, is known for its recreational bliss and yellow-blazen aspen forests. Seize the opportunity to see the leaves change on an aspen clone known as Pando, which is believed to be the heaviest organism ever found at nearly 13 million pounds. Pando is located about 1 mile southwest of Fish Lake on state Route 25.

Fish Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake, lies in a down-faulted valley (technically known as a graben) at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state, attracting as many as 7,000 visitors on summer weekends.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Across the lake, the long ridge of Mytoge Mountain forms the eastern limit of the Fish Lake basin. To the north, Mounts Marvine and Hilgard, both well over 11,000 feet, remain snowcapped for most of the summer.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lake shore is dotted with three commercial resorts, two RV parks, three campgrounds, and numerous picnic areas and boat launches. At just under mile 8, note the large board locating the several campgrounds within the Fish Lake Recreation Area. Though camping is abundant, count on the campgrounds filling up quickly on summer weekends.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a full-scale National Forest Service brown-log-cabin resort development here, but it is on a low-key and fairly unobtrusive scale. Here you will find a gas station, general store, marina, RV park, cabin rentals, and even a laundry.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.

It is earth’s eye, looking into which, the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

Driving a Road through Beauty

Only the forest, streams, and wildlife occupy this wild country

A Road Through Beauty, the Cherohala Skyway’s 36 miles of scenic mountain views rival any scenic byway in the eastern United States.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountaintops, waterfalls, and waterways adorn this high country of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The average trip over the Skyway takes 2 1/2-hours, if you just want to drive and view scenery. I would recommend setting aside the best part of the day to enjoy some of the bigger than life features the Cherohala Skyway and Unicoi Mountain Wilderness have to offer.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In October 1996, the Cherohala Skyway was opened to the public at a cost of 100-million dollars offering access to the top of the world for far western North Carolina and far southeastern Tennessee.  For the first time Robbinsville, North Carolina and Tellico Plains, Tennessee became sister cities if you can call them that. Both towns are modest in size yet large in local history, newly connected by a ribbon of asphalt over a vast wilderness.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The official scenic Cherohala Skyway is 36-miles in length, with 15-miles in North Carolina and 21-miles in Tennessee, although actual distance between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains is roughly 50 miles of paved road. The 36-mile scenic byway connects TN 68 with NC 143. There are no services over the actual scenic highway except for public restrooms at three locations along the Cherohala Skyway.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From heights nearing 6,000-feet, are views of the rugged rolling mountaintops of the Unaka Mountains with the Great Smoky Mountains to the northeast and the Tennessee River Valley to the west. What you will find along the route are lots of great mountain overlooks, camping areas, and numerous hiking trails leading off from the scenic byway. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mountain-and-valley scenery along the 36-mile stretch is spectacular. Mountain balds as they are called, crown the Unicoi Crest at the pinnacle of the Cherohala Skyway and are without doubt part of the great mystery of mountain creation itself. The Cherohala Skyway scenic overlooks have rightfully been compared to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 29 trails along the Cherohala Skyway covering 150 miles. These trails offer long and short hikes to special locations of natural beauty and mystery. There are also 8 horseback trails totaling 31 miles for equestrians to explore from the saddle. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach the eastern gateway to the Cherohala Skyway, take NC 143 west from Robbinsville, for approximately 12-miles, signs will mark the way. At this point where highway NC 143 becomes the Cherohala Skyway, you can access Joyce Kilmer Road. A two-mile drive along this side-road will take you to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Slickrock Wilderness Area. The memorial forest is named after the poet and American patriot Joyce Kilmer who wrote the famous poem “Trees,” in 1913. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer, while serving in France during World War I was killed in action and highly decorated for his heroism by the French government. The memorial forest is an old-growth forest of giant trees, some ranging over 100 feet tall, over 20 feet in circumference, and estimated to be over 400 years old. The memorial forest remains isolated deep within a large mountainous cove, unspoiled and preserved for posterity’s sake.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to its remote mountainous location, a logging company’s bankruptcy and just plain good luck, these giants of the mountain forest were saved from destruction, preserving their beauty for our enjoyment as well as the generations to come. 

This 3,800-acre woodland is an awe-inspiring experience that makes the Cherohala Skyway adventure unlike any other. Flowing through the heart of the memorial forest is the Little Santeetlah Creek, which is one of the main watersheds that feed the sky blue waters of Lake Santeetlah. Lake Santeetlah is one of the most beautiful lakes in all the North Carolina Mountains, mostly isolated and pristine.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Isolated in a wilderness land, adventurous souls come to appreciate the mountain country the Cherokee People’s ancestor called, “land of the noon day sun.”

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A journey across the Cherohala Skyway is an experience you’ll want to repeat often.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer

Otherworldly National Parks

National parks come in many different sizes and features. Some parks make one feel as if they’re on another planet.

A trip to a national park can make for a great fall vacation. In fact, it makes for a great vacation any time of the year.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, if you plan on going to some of the most popular national parks in the U.S., like the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you might end up fighting the crowds. And, while all of the 421 park sites (including 61 official national parks) in the National Park Service system are unique in their own way, there are a few underrated parks that deserve some attention for their particularly strange or peculiar features that you can’t find anywhere else.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instance, did you know it was possible to travel to another planet in your RV? Otherworldly national parks like Carlsbad Canyon in New Mexico, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Petrified Forest in Arizona all feature unique landscapes that you wouldn’t expect to find in America.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are thousands of incredible hiking trails, campgrounds, forests, lakes, waterfalls, and mountain peaks throughout the country, but only at these national park sites can you find something fascinating, something unique, or even something downright weird.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re looking for interesting red and pink rocks, you can’t do better than Bryce Canyon. The national park is known for its fascinating rock formations and hoodoos, as well as its gorgeous, starry skies at night. Some of the best places to visit in the park include Sunrise and Sunset Point and Fairyland Canyon where you can get eye-level with hoodoos.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk among the flat-topped mesas and sculpted buttes of the Petrified Forest National Park and you’ll surely feel like you’ve been transported to another world—or perhaps to the moon. This ancient forest in the middle of the desert became fossilized over time as minerals like quartz slowly replaced the wood remains. The park’s Blue Mesa Trail takes hikers into the heart of the otherworldly badlands—an eerie landscape dotted with mounds of multi-colored petrified wood.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The otherworldly subterranean landscape of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is—justifiably—New Mexico’s most famous attraction. Take the self-guided audio tours of the Natural Entrance and Big Room. Then sign up for a 1.5-hour ranger-led tour through the four Kings Palace chambers, which lie some 830 feet beneath the park’s surface and contain hundreds of eerie geological formations. A “bat show” takes place at Carlsbad Caverns every evening from Memorial Day through October.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the long stretches of highway that cut through the Colorado Plateau to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and it will be hard to miss the colorful bluffs, mesas, buttes, and canyons that dominate the landscape. Glen Canyon lies in the middle of the Colorado Plateau, an area that can be characterized by its high elevation and arid to semi-arid climate. Take some time to explore this vast landscape, and you will find traces of dinosaurs that roamed this area millions of years ago during the Mesozoic Era.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just outside of Moab rises a kaleidoscope of tilted and carved geology laid down over the eons. Baked by time, Canyonlands features an eerie landscape cut by canyons, rumpled by upthrusts and elongated fault blocks, and even pockmarked, some believe, by ancient asteroids. There’s the red and white Cedar Mesa sandstone, the grayish-green Morrison Formation, pinkish Entrada sandstone, and tawny Navajo sandstone, just to name some of the geologic layers. Stacked like pancakes, they help make Canyonlands the most rugged national park in the Southwest.

Worth Pondering…

Nature was here a series of wonders and a fund of delight.

—Daniel Boone