Chasing fall colors in the USA is a great American pastime. Emerald-green leaves slowly transition into rich hues of amber, maroon, amethyst, chocolate, and coral as the foliage wave gradually meanders south.
From northern Michigan to the southern Appalachians, all the way over to the Rockies, and everywhere in between, fall colors can widely be seen in September and October in the USA.
If you crave the pops of bright color that sprinkle the forests for a very short window of the year but you don’t know how and where to find them, this guide is for you! I am sharing four fall color tips that will help you chase those colorful leaves – at the right locations, at the right time.
Here are some tips for chasing fall colors in the USA!
4 Tips for Chasing Fall Colors in the USA
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1. Understand the Wave
Did you know that most tree leaves aren’t really green?
I’m sure most of you remember learning about chlorophyll and photosynthesis in grade school. But here’s a refresher! Chlorophyll essentially ensures the plant’s ability to turn sunlight into glucose, which feeds the tree. This process where the plant absorbs energy and, in turn, receives nutrients is called photosynthesis.
So how is any of this related to what our eyes see as summer transitions to winter during the autumn months?
Since the production of chlorophyll slows down and eventually stops when the days become shorter and the sunlight intake lessens, the leaves reveal their natural colors, which are sometimes red, orange, yellow, or even purple.
Factors like temperature, precipitation, and light have an influence on the timing and duration of the fall color. This explains why peak fall color starts north and makes its way south – and from higher elevation to lower elevation. Cold weather and lack of sunlight cause plants to stop producing chlorophyll, which makes the leaves transition into their natural autumn glory.
Depending on a variety of factors, such as temperature and precipitation patterns, peak season can start anywhere from the beginning to late September.
View Smoky Mountain’s 2023 interactive fall foliage map to see all of the fall color predictions for the entire USA!
2: Be Flexible
No one can predict fall color with 100% certainty. Since there are those factors that can affect photosynthesis, and since the peak windows are so minuscule, it’s important to be flexible while you are chasing fall color.
If you arrive in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and you find that peak season has passed, chances are that lower Michigan will be at its peak. Alternatively, if you are in northern Tennessee and there is no color yet, travel north into Kentucky to scout out potential peak locations.
Peak fall colors don’t usually last long. Some regions of the country are blessed with many weeks of brilliant color following an ideal weather and precipitation pattern, but mere days are fairly normal for most other places in the USA. Due to this, it can be quite difficult to plan a trip ahead of time, and it has the potential to cause a lot of frustration and disappointment.
Since one storm can blow away any lingering color or one night can transform a green forest into a colorful wonderland, avoid disappointment by checking the current conditions of your destination (s) before you arrive.
Some ways you can get current conditions of a particular location:
- AllTrails (for hiking trail photos)
- Instagram (geotagged photos)
3: Watch the Weather
Wind and early frost hinder the colors. Wind will blow the leaves off the tree, and early frost will dim the color intensity, making them not quite as brilliant.
Rain, overcast weather, and cool temperatures are perfect for viewing those vibrant fall colors.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp (but not freezing) nights is the perfect recipe for a spectacular color show.
On the contrary, a summer drought might change the timeline of fall color or dull the hues.
Keep an eye on the weather and use that as your guide to planning your fall color adventure.
4: Go to the Right Locations
No matter where you live in the US, fall color will likely reach your backyard at some point throughout the season. There are exceptions of course, as conditions aren’t always ideal, and trees can be sparse in certain locations, but generally, most places will experience color.
That being said, are there better spots than others to leaf peep? Maybe. I’ll give you some of my favorite spots to take a fall road trip and hike through glowing aspens and fiery maples.
Stretching from Canada down to New Mexico in the USA, the Rocky Mountains come alive with brilliant colors in the early fall months.
Whether you want to road trip along the spine of the mountain range, hop on the Continental Divide Trail, or hike through the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Rockies are a fantastic place to chase fall colors.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Another great fall road trip idea is to drive the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway!
We drove the 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina during peak fall colors week, and the drive, the scenic overlooks, and the trails were all aglow with the most beautiful shades of gold, orange, and red.
In milder places like these, the fall season tends to extend a bit longer than in areas with harsher conditions.
You don’t have to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the fall beauty of the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Mountains, or the Appalachian Mountains. You can hop on the Foothills Parkway or visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And since the Appalachian range stretches across most of the East Coast of the United States from New England down to Georgia, the fall peeping opportunities are truly endless!
New River Gorge
New River Gorge might not be on your list of places to visit in the fall, but after seeing the picture above, I urge you to change your mind!
The fall colors mixed with the views from the bridge walk, the hiking trails, the whitewater-filled river, the waterfalls, and the little neighboring towns should absolutely qualify it for a stop on your fall road trip.
→ READ NEXT: How to Walk Across the New River Gorge Bridge
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some guides that will help spark ideas for your next fall road trip!