5 Family Road Trips for Fall Foliage in the Northeast United States

When I was asked to outline a few good fall foliage road trips in the northeast United States, my first response was, “If you’re up north, just have a look out of your window.” And it’s true – If you have spent any time in that part of the country during autumn, you know that every twist and turn in the mountains, every stretch through orchard country, and each magnificent woodland path will yield a spectacular display of fall foliage. And this makes my task of identifying a few choice spots a daunting task at the very least. Instead of simply identifying the usual suspects, I want to take you on a journey to places I’ve actually been, pointing out the beauty that has, in all seasons, taken my breath away.

Autumn on Skyline Drive image courtesy of jmctee. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmctee/
Autumn on Skyline Drive image courtesy of jmctee.

1) Skyline Drive, VA

Let’s begin in Virginia. Don’t let latitude fool you, as the immense variety of deciduous trees in the Blue Ridge Mountains makes “leaf-peeping” in the southern end of the US Northeast a true spectacle. One stretch of road that I’m very fond of is Skyline Drive in scenic Shenandoah National Park. Running north and south, this amazingly scenic drive will provide you with plenty of opportunities to enjoy fall foliage along its 105-mile stretch. Passing straight through, one could drive from end to end in only a few hours, but with 75 outlooks and a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour, why would you? This park is stunning, and during the peak season, you’ll want to savor every fantastic moment. Trust me when I tell you that every mile will taunt you both with stopping to admire the view and with wanting to move on to see what amazing view lies just around the corner!

Autumn at Harpers Ferry Overlook image courtesy of Walt Stoneburner. https://www.flickr.com/photos/waltstoneburner/
Autumn at Harpers Ferry Overlook image courtesy of Walt Stoneburner.

2) Harpers Ferry, WV

Just about an hour north of Shenandoah National Park is the historic town of Harpers Ferry, WV. Nestled in the hills of West Virginia, Harpers Ferry is a year round blend of small-town America and the rugged beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. In and of itself, Harpers Ferry is not a fall foliage destination that stands head and shoulders above others spectacular points in West Virginia, but when you marry the scenery with the charm and ambiance of historic Harpers Ferry, you end up with not only a beautiful view, but a complete experience. After a day of hiking at Harpers Ferry National Park (make sure you stop by Overlook Cliff in the Maryland Heights) and surrounding areas, drop into town, soak up some history and culture, and enjoy dinner at one of many local restaurants.

3) Susquehanna River, PA

Any discussion about natural beauty in the Northeast must, in my opinion, include the Susquehanna River, which begins in my hometown of Harrisburg, PA. Nestled at the feet of Pennsylvania’s capital city is a breathtaking view of perhaps the prettiest river that I have ever seen. The Susquehanna River snakes through the Appalachian Mountains, and is flanked on both sides by small towns and forest covered hills, making this a dramatic experience for those seeking the stunning hues of red, yellow, orange, and gold.

Autumn on the Susquehanna River image courtesy of Nicholas_T.
Autumn on the Susquehanna River image courtesy of Nicholas_T.

I would normally suggest State Routes 11/15 north to Sunbury, a route that highlights this spectacular river dotted with tree-covered islands, but for a fall foliage drive, I’m truly torn. On the opposite side of the river, you can take Highway 22 north to Route 147. This route also tracks the river, but splits its time between vistas of the Susquehanna and amazing winding routes through the tree covered hills and along small town Pennsylvania. And this gives you more time among the spectacular colors of fall. From Sunbury, my suggestion is to keep north along Route 15 until you come to Trout Run, where you will take Route 14 north through an amazing valley nestled between two ridge lines among farms that seems almost lost in time. I bring up this particular diversion as it leads further north to the southern tier of New York State, and to the next destination on my list.

4) Finger Lakes, NY

Whether you choose to make the trip from South Central Pennsylvania (as I have done many times), or you simply choose to make the Finger Lakes region a destination by itself, you are in for a real treat. The Finger Lakes themselves are the result of the titanic force of glacial erosion, resulting in magnificent tree covered hills surrounding gorgeous lakes. Imagine a kaleidoscope of autumn colors reflected on stunning lake shores: it’s a leaf peepers paradise.

In particular, I recommend Hammondsport, NY and Watkins Glen, NY. Hammondsport is a picturesque little lake town at the southern tip of Keuka Lake, and its charm never fails to bring warmth to my heart. Just up the western rim of the lake is a winery called Bully Hill Vineyards, which is (in my humble opinion) one of the seminal experiences along the lake. Take in a jovial atmosphere, sip amazing wines, and take in the fall foliage from a spectacular vantage point. From Keuka Lake, drive east to Watkins Glen State Park, located at the southern end of Seneca Lake. Another glacial formation, Watkins Glen State Park boasts amazing paths through glacially carved rock formations punctuated by amazing waterfalls (one of which you walk behind), surrounded by amazing fall foliage. I can’t understate the amazing year round beauty of this park, but autumn brings a truly stunning display of color to this otherwise fantastic experience.

5) Anywhere

As I mentioned earlier, the sentiment of “simply look out your window” applies. If you want to see great fall foliage up north, get a map, find a scenic byway, get in your car, and drive. One of my favorite activities was, and frankly still is, getting lost on a scenic drive. I can’t tell you the number of times that my heart has nearly popped out of my chest at some amazing sight my family stumbled upon when we simply turned off the GPS and just drove. The US Northeast is an unbelievable collection of amazing roads: all lead somewhere, likely to some wonderful place with an unforgettable view and a slice of homemade apple pie. So, pack a bag, bring a friend, and just go. You won’t regret it.

I can’t tell you how much fun it was to share with you some of those fall foliage spots that represent the best of my autumn adventures. I’m now more than 1500 miles from these treasures, living a new adventure in a new place with much less autumn, so writing this post reminded me of what it’s like to bundle up and walk among fall colors.  To that I say, “Thank You” for letting me share these experiences with you, but more so I hope that you are inspired to go out and build your own memories with those you love.  Find your road, and drive it.

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