Trees are plants. Plants have feelings. Those feelings influence the brilliance and timing of fall colors—important for your next fall foliage road trip.
We’re here to cover the phenological factors that trigger fall foliage and how we can use that data to identify the optimal time, place, and routes for fall foliage road trips all about camping.
Unfortunately, we will not be discussing pumpkin spice lattes, acceptable temperatures for “sweater weather,” or tips for spontaneously fermenting cider from foraged apples. However, we will include some bonus content on the science behind the sights, smells, and sounds of fall.
Above: Satellite imagery of southern Maine in June vs. October (2022).
Pronounce it however you like. Doesn’t matter to us. What’s important is the meaning behind the word. Phenology is derived from the Greek word phaino, meaning “to appear” and refers to the science of things “appearing” on a cyclical basis. Examples include monarch butterflies migrating, cherry blossoms blooming, morel mushrooms poppin’, apple trees fruiting, and leaves falling. All are phenomenal phenological phenomena—incredible events that seasonally occur in response to environmental cues.
When it comes to fall foliage, a multitude of factors can influence when you can see peak fall colors in reds, yellows, and oranges. Primary cues include sunlight and temperature. But there are other factors to consider when trying to predict peak fall foliage timing: weather conditions during the growing season, tree species, nutrient availability, elevation, wind, and more.
Taking all of the above factors into consideration, the Hipcamp team aggregated a whole bunch of data and shoved it into a machine learning algorithm to predict the optimal time of year to experience fall colors for each county within the contiguous United States. Fall foliage is notoriously tough to predict, but this fall foliage map is a solid guide for finding a campsite among peak foliage in any given area. In general, fall colors peak earlier in the north and at high elevations. Colors tend to peak later in the south and at lower elevations.
Above: A peak fall foliage prediction map by week across the US.
We even added in information based on photos and reviews from the Hipcamp community. We found that Hipcampers primarily post about fall foliage camping experiences in the second week of October (see chart below). This is prime leaf-peeping time, especially in New England.
Above: Time-based trends for foliage-related reviews and posts from Hipcampers.
As you can see, there are some serious hot spots in New England all the way down the Appalachians to the Smokies. There are also hot spots in Minnesota and Michigan, as well as through Illinois, Missouri, and the Ozark National Forest, then into Texas to Lost Maples State Natural Area, which draws thousands of leaf-peepers every year. Folks in the Mountain West can see brilliant displays of bright yellow aspen trees on their fall getaway—a delightful contrast with nearby evergreens—while the west coast crowd can find foliage hot spots from the North Cascades all the way down to the Sierra in California.
When searching for the best fall foliage spots, we like to look at range maps for maples (Acer spp.), oaks (Quercus spp.), and poplars (Populus spp.). Maples produce a variety of colors from dark scarlet to deep orange, while poplars provide pops of bright yellow. Oaks offer depth to the fall color palette with shades of red, brown, or russet. The US Forest Service provides range maps for each of these types of trees.
Above: Map of fall foliage hot spots.
Additionally, many states provide their own weekly foliage reports, which are the most up-to-date resources for fall color status by region. Check out the links below.
Endless summer is cool and all, but can you beat endless fall? Well, that’s not possible. But you can at least extend fall by up to a month if you hit the road. According to the US Forest Service, many of America’s National Scenic Byways were designed specifically for leaf-peepers. Adding Scenic Byways to the heat map above, you can see that many of these roads cut through our fall foliage hot spots.
Above: Map of National Scenic Byways and fall foliage hot spots.
By layering the hot spots with the National Scenic Byways, we designed five routes that help you get as close as possible to achieving an endless autumn camping trip across the US. Let’s check them out.
Above: The most optimal American fall foliage road trip routes.
Could this be the best East Coast trip itinerary ever? Around early October, start at the tippy top of New Hampshire near Canada, work your way down the Connecticut River Byway (perhaps with time in Stowe and the Green Mountains) into the Berkshires in Massachusetts, cut through the Shawangunk Mountains Scenic Byway in New York, head through Pennsylvania and eventually make it to Shenandoah National Park’s spectacular Skyline Drive, which links up with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Similar to the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway pretty much takes you all the way down through the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina until you reach Asheville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park for even more of America’s best autumn colors.
Grand Portage, Minnesota, all the way through to Lost Maples, Texas, is an option—but a 2,737-mile option, so we’ve broken this route in two. Start at the farthest northeast point in Minnesota on the North Shore Scenic Drive, where Grand Portage State Forest and the massive Superior National Forest burst with fiery colors and waterfalls. Then head down to the St. Croix Valley just outside of Minneapolis, and hug the Mississippi River down to Wildcat Den State Park in Iowa, where you can see 75-foot cliffs surrounded by foliage. (You might want to add on a detour to Iowa’s Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, another hotspot for changing leaves.) Continue south with the river as your guide to hit the scenery of Cuivre River State Park outside St. Louis.
This route is a doozy, running from Missouri in the Midwest down south through Arkansas’ Ozark National Forest into Texas. From St. Louis, you’ll cut over onto Historic Route 66 to Springfield. From there, go through the Ozarks on Arkansas’ Scenic 7 Byway, home to numerous hiking trails, small towns, and wineries. Weave through several Texas scenic byways with overlooks and end at Lost Maples, a great spot for turning leaves in late October and early November.
The shortest of our recommended routes starts in Rocky Mountain National Park, running through Colorado and New Mexico. Take the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway, then stop in Nederland for some pizza. Hop on to I-70 for a short bit (we apologize). Take the Top of the Rockies & the Collegiate Peaks Byway. Stop in Salida for some food. Stretch your legs. Continue south past Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. Enjoy the aptly named Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway until you reach Taos. Taos is cool—stop there. Finish up your trip on the High Road to Taos and El Camino Real Scenic Byways.
This route is made for people who don’t like efficiency. We’ve got your loop-dee-doopin’ from Bellingham, Washington down through Oregon to Mammoth Lakes, California—best seen in late September and early October. You’ll touch many scenic roads along the way, including the North Cascades Scenic Highway, the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway, the Historic Columbia River Highway, the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway, the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway near Lake Tahoe, and Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway. The homestretch is along Tioga Road through Yosemite National Park until you hit Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Turn right and continue to Mammoth Lakes.
To help you get on your way, we uploaded each of these routes into a Google Maps file. Disclaimer: These routes have not been fully tested for viability. Roads may be closed. Things may go wrong. That’s part of the fun. Want to design your own route? Download the Hipcamp app and explore our free map layers, including the National Scenic Byways map layer, to find campsites along your favorite route.
You now have all of the info you need hit the road in your finest fall flannel. If road trips aren’t your thing, we recommend checking out the fall foliage map to find your ideal campsite, then arriving a little bit before the expected peak date in case an untimely wind storm blows all of the fall leaves to the ground. And stay tuned for some fun app features that will make it easier to search for Hipcamps with peak fall colors.
Can’t get enough fall facts? We’ve got you covered. In leaves. Yup. You’ll be covered in crinkly brown leaves once you’re done reading this section.
Leaves change colors. You already know that. But did you know that some colors are actually there all along? In spring and summer, leaves are green because they are saturated with chlorophyll, which helps the plant create sugars through photosynthesis. However, as the amount of sunlight decreases and temperatures drop, chlorophyll production slows down and other pigments emerge. These pigments include carotenoids (yellows, oranges, and reddish brown colors) and anthocyanins (bright reds, purples, and blues). Carotenoids are always present in leaf cells, while production of anthocyanins occurs in autumn as a response to environmental factors.
The color palette of fall depends on the resident tree species in a given area. In Colorado, you’ll see the bright yellow of aspen trees among evergreens. In the Northeast, a density of maples and other mixed hardwoods creates a stunning display of reds, yellows, and oranges.
Close your eyes and imagine the fruity odor emitted from bacteria and Geotrichum candidum fungi digesting leaf litter and releasing volatile organic compounds. If you’re particularly interested in the science behind the smells of fall, this article provides a nice summary. For those who have a more general interest in smell science, we highly recommend combing through a copy of Nose Dive by Harold McGee.
Crunching leaves ASMR is a thing.
For some people, podcasts are better than melatonin. Throw on an episode of 99% Invisible and the voice of Roman Mars will have you snoozing in minutes. For others, podcasts are excellent learning resources. If you’re the auditory type, we recommend listening to the “Phenology” episode of the Ologies podcast with Dr. Libby Ellwood.
Check out these articles for additional fall feelings.
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