Cooler weather, crisp blue skies, and an explosion of orange, gold, and red foliage are what make fall such a perfect time for a road trip. Whether you have just a few hours or a week, you’ll find plenty of leaf-peeping opportunities. The premium fall foliage drives tend to be in New England, the Appalachians, and the Rockies, but you can find a scenic drive just about anywhere. Here are ten of the best fall road trips to take this season.
The Irohazaka Route, Japan
In Japan, where around two-thirds of the country is forested, fall foliage is referred to as koyo. Gingko trees turn gold, rowans and larch brighten to orange and deep red maple leaves are so distinctive they have their own name: momiji. As with the country’s famous cherry blossom viewing, the country’s geography has a big impact on timing. The northern island of Hokkaido sees the earliest colour change, while in more southerly locations it happens later. So, if you’re keen to organise a momijigari road trip, plan to be in Japan between September and November. One of the most delightful roads to drive in October is the Irohazaka Route. It connects the city of Nikkō, two hours north of Tokyo, with Lake Chuzenji. Two separate roads, one uphill and one down, link the two via 48 remarkable bends. Pull off the road to visit the Akechidaira Ropeway Observation Deck which offers a breathtaking view of Nikkō National Park as well as a bird’s eye view of the tree canopy during the gondola ride itself.
The Cascade Loop, Washington
This stunning driving route, one of Washington’s finest, is at its colourful best between late September and the middle of October. The fall colour palette of the Cascade Loop is part of what makes it special: the golden yellows of aspen, tamarack and western larch trees combine with the oranges and reds of mountain ash and maples to dramatic effect. Trundle beside the Skykomish River along the Stevens Pass Greenway, an unmissable 90 mile scenic byway. Park up to hike the Tumwater Pipeline Trail to fully appreciate the beauty of this canyon, where aspens pop against a backdrop of evergreens and Chinook salmon are commonly sighted. And nature’s not the only showstopper in these parts. Among the many highlights of the peopled landscape are the orchards stretching from Bavarian-style Leavenworth towards Cashmere and the vineyards close to Lake Chelan, where you can join in with seasonal grape stomping.
The Cabot Trail, Canada
The U.S. is by no means the only place to enjoy autumn’s brilliant hues. Ranked among the top greatest drives in the world, the 185-mile Cabot Trail circles the northwestern area of Cape Breton Island. The Cabot Trail’s spectacular ocean and bay views interspersed with vibrant fall colors are what makes this trip particularly memorable. You can drive this hilly route that rises from the sea and clings to mountains from either direction, but driving it counterclockwise offers the most magnificent ocean views. Plan on at least eight hours or make it a multi-day trip and visit cultural heritage sites such as the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site and the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site and Museum. If you have the time, book a whale-watching tour from Pleasant Bay Harbor. For a truly epic adventure, tour the Cabot Trail by motorcycle.
Christchurch to Queenstown, New Zealand
If you can’t get away during September or October, head to New Zealand in April to catch autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. You won’t see the array of colors you see in North America and Europe, but you’ll relish the warm golds and yellows against New Zealand’s unparalleled natural beauty. You can pick up a rental car in Christchurch, the South Island’s major city, and drive the roughly 300-mile trip to Queenstown. Be sure to stop in Arrowtown for the Arrowtown Autumn Festival near the end of April. Arrowtown is the South Island’s crown jewel for fall foliage. If you have the time, take a side trip to Lake Wanaka, about 40 miles north of Queenstown. The route from Lake Wanaka to Queenstown takes you through the gorgeous Cardrona Valley.
Zona Cafetera, Colombia
For a fall road trip with a different focus consider driving through Colombia’s Zona Cafetera. In October, the region’s coffee harvest is in full swing. Follow a scenic winding road south from Manizales through a verdant landscape. It’s possible to stay on haciendas which offer immersive experiences, from sophisticated tourist-oriented farms such as Hacienda Venecia to small-scale family enterprises like La Gaviota. Trace the journey from coffee bush to cup, as sackfuls of ripe Arabica cherries are picked, washed, dried and roasted. Head south from the town of Chinchina, setting your sights on colourful Salento, where brightly painted homes radiate from a lively central plaza. Hop on a Willy jeep – an adventure in itself – to visit the neighbouring town of Filandia, or to admire the impossibly tall wax palms of the Valle de Cocora.
Iceland’s ring road
September is réttir season, when Icelanders – many on horseback – begin their centuries-old ritual of rounding up sheep in the highlands and bringing them down to more sheltered spots for the winter. Sorting the livestock into pens is a community event; visitors are welcome to participate. You’ll catch the action at some point if you follow Route 1, the ring road that loops the country. Allow ten days to navigate the complete circle. If you’re tight for time, concentrate on the southern stretch, where you’ll pass the spectacular Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon as well as Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, two of the country’s most impressive waterfalls. For an injection of autumnal colour detour to Hraunfossar in West Iceland, where water cascades over charcoal grey lava into the Hvítá River. Fall also signals the start of Northern Lights season in sub-Arctic Iceland. As the nights draw in and the skies darken, you might be lucky enough to see the aurora dance across the sky.
Transfăgărășan Highway, Romania
The Transfăgărășan Highway has earned nicknames such as “The Road to the Sky and “The Best Driving Road in the World” for its exquisite beauty. This 56-mile highway traverses across the Făgăraș Mountains through five tunnels, 831 small bridges, and 27 viaducts. One of the first sites you’ll see standing high on a cliff overlooking the Argeș River is the Poenari Fortress ruins. Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character, used the Poenari as one of his main fortresses. You’d have to climb 1,462 steps to reach the ruins, but access is often restricted. Next, you’ll come to the Vidraru Dam, one of Europe’s largest hydroelectric dams, and enjoy impressive views of Vidraru Lake. At the highest part of the highway at about 6,700 feet, you’ll find Bâlea Lac, an iconic glacial lake with fantastic hiking trails.
The Kancamagus Highway, United States
Known locally as “The Kanc,” this scenic 34-mile stretch wanders through the White Mountain National Forest and connects the two ski towns Lincoln and Conway. You can drive straight through or stop at one of many excellent hiking spots. From the Conway end (east side), you can stop at the Saco Ranger Station and pick up a map. The highlights you won’t want to miss are the Albany Covered Bridge and the Russell-Colbath Historic Homestead Site, a 19th-century farmhouse furnished with period pieces. If you’re a waterfall aficionado, get your fix at the Swift River Lower Falls, the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area, Champney Falls, and Sabbaday Falls.
Flip the calendar to April and you’ll find it’s a great time to experience Australia’s southernmost state. Tasmania’s Great Eastern Drive is one of the most magnificent road trips in the country and in fall, the weather is mild and relatively dry. Begin in Hobart and detour to Port Arthur to learn about the island’s convict history. Head north and hop on a ferry to Maria Island, known for an extraordinary wave-cut platform called the Painted Cliffs and a sizeable resident population of furry wombats and Forester kangaroos. Continue up the coast to jaw-droppingly pretty Freycinet Bay. Another must-see is Binalong Bay in the Bay of Fires, where egg yolk yellow lichen cloaks beach boulders. But for the best of the state’s fall colour, you’ll need to turn inland. Time your visit to Mount Field National Park for the Turning of the Fagus, where the leaves of Tasmania’s only deciduous tree turn from green to gold, red and brown.
Roman Via Regina, Italy
Lake Como is crawling with visitors during the summer months, arriving to enjoy Italy’s best-known lake for swimming, boating, and dining. Skip the crowds and visit in fall instead to see dazzling red, orange, and gold foliage reflected in the lake’s surface. While you might be tempted to simply sit on a veranda overlooking gorgeous Lake Como, it’s well worth your time to explore the Via Regina, also known as the Strada Regina. Ancient Romans built this route, which runs along Lake Como’s western shore. Today the Via Regina is partially absorbed by modern road SS340, but still encompasses splendid historical sites such as the Palazzo Gallio and the Villa Olma. You can stretch your legs and walk along part of the original ancient cobblestone path between Menaggio and Rezzonico.