Fall is the perfect time for a road trip. Temperatures are cooler, so you can drive with the windows down. Peak summer crowds have gone back to work and school, and off-season deals abound. Plus, you’ll be treated to fall foliage, you-pick orchards, and autumn festivals.
But figuring out where to go is always a challenge. For suggestions, we called up self-proclaimed nomad and seasoned traveler Andrew Collins, author of the recently published guidebook Ultimate Road Trips: USA and Canada. Collins has been road tripping since he was a kid in his family’s wood-paneled 1969 Ford Country Squire station wagon. His book features dozens of detailed itineraries, but he picked the five best suited to take in the fall.
“There are famous destinations to see fall foliage, but at that time of year, you’ll be able to find beautiful colors in a lot of lesser-known places as well,” Collins says. Here, he offers a few must-see sites along each route, but grab a copy of his book for more complete route suggestions, plus additional lodging and dining options along the way. Now all you have to do is hit the road.
1. Get Off the Beaten Path in California
Wineries dot much of the California coast, and you can’t go wrong with a road trip on the northern or southern end of Highway 1 or Highway 101. But consider focusing your fall road trip on the lesser-visited central coast, hitting low key towns like San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, which have ideal weather in the fall, so you can combine wine tasting, hiking, and a day at the beach. “Several of these roads you can follow from town connect with the coast,” Collins says.
Start in Los Angeles and head 175 miles north to San Luis Obispo, known for its year-round Thursday night farmers’ market downtown. Collins recommends Old SLO BBQ Co. for its Santa Maria-style barbecue and overnight lodging at Hotel Cerro (from $399), which has a rooftop pool and in-house brasserie.
From there, drive Highway 101 over Cuesta Pass, stopping at the Ancient Peaks Winery for a tasting and for wildlife or foraging tours at Margarita Adventures. The next town worth posting up in: Paso Robles, 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo on Highway 101. “Paso Robles has an incredible restaurant scene, all within walking distance,” Collins says.
It’s worth it to take a short detour to the coast and drive a stretch on Highway 1, visit the elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Rookery, then take a tour of the hilltop and historic Hearst Castle. From there, it’s back to Highway 101 north for 150 miles to reach Pinnacles National Park, which has 30 miles of trails with views of the park’s famous rocky spires. “That’s a great place to combine hiking and wine tasting,” Collins says.
2. Take a Classic New England Foliage Tour
You can’t beat New England in the fall. “The maple trees are the most dramatic with changing colors, especially in northern Vermont and New Hampshire,” Collins says. “Plus, there are harvest festivals, Oktoberfest festivals, all the different apple orchards and cider makers and pumpkin patches.”
Collins suggests starting in Burlington, Vermont—three and a half hours from Boston—with a night at the upscale Hotel Vermont (from $439), and a dinner of earthy, seasonal fare at Hen of the Wood, next door.
From there, head south on U.S. Route 7, stopping at the farm store and for a walk along the pastoral grounds at Shelburne Farms. Your destination for the night is Manchester, Vermont, 100 miles south of Burlington, where you can visit the American Museum of Fly Fishing, drive to the top of 3,855-foot Mount Equinox, the highest peak in the range, and post up for the night at the Taconic (from $221), a boutique hotel with wrap-around porches.
Next stop is the Berkshires, in Massachusetts. Spend a morning hiking up 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in the state, and refueling afterward at the Lost Lamb Café, in Stockbridge. End your trip in Litchfield, Connecticut, where you can birdwatch from the 4,000-acre White Memorial Conservation Center. “With perfect town greens and white-steepled churches, Litchfield is a classic New England town,” Collins says.
3. Check Out Southern Utah’s National Parks
Start in Salt Lake City and point your car south: it’s 230 miles to Arches National Park. “Fall is the perfect season for exploring the five national parks of Utah, all in the southern part of the state,” Collins says. “Summer can be hot there and winter you may not be able to access everything, and fall is primetime for the scenery, with cottonwoods and aspens turning at higher elevations.”
The Mighty Five, as Utah’s national parks are called, can be excessively crowded, so plan ahead and check entry requirements before you go. Arches National Park requires reservations, but that’s lifted in early October. “If you’re trying to do the parks like Zion and Bryce and Arches that are suffering from overcrowding, fall can be a slightly quieter time to go,” Collins says. “Though plenty of people still know it as the time to go.” In Arches, head to Devils Garden for some of the park’s best hiking trails.
Back on the road, take in a view of the sandstone hoodoos in Goblin Valley State Park, then grab a roadside lunch at Stan’s Burger Shack in Hanksville, before heading to Capitol Reef National Park. “It’s the most underrated,” Collins says. Book a room at the Chuckwagon Lodge (from $118), near the park entrance in the town of Torrey, where you can have dinner with a view of the red rock mountains at Hunt and Gather.
Cap off your Utah road trip with a stop at Bryce Canyon National Park. Be sure to drive the Southern Scenic Drive, an 18-mile stunning roadway that starts from the main park entrance and ends at the overlook at Rainbow Point. Collins recommends the short, beautiful hike into the canyon along the Queens Garden Trail, accessible from Sunrise Point. Stay at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon (from $183), the only lodging inside the park.
4. Cruise Around Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan has excellent fall foliage as well, and a drive around the northern edges of the lake feels like truly getting away. “There are these beautiful small towns that you’ll want to hide away in for days,” Collins says. Head to Wisconsin’s Door County, 150 miles from Milwaukee or 245 miles from Chicago. Collins recommends the charming towns along the peninsula’s western shore, including Egg Harbor, Ephraim, and Sister Bay, for their you-pick orchards and boutique lodging, like the Scandinavian-style Dörr Hotel (from $229), in Sister Bay.
Back on the road, pass through Green Bay and head north on the scenic U.S. 41 and U.S. 2, which hug the northern shores of Lake Michigan, eventually making your way to the western shore of Michigan, some 300 miles away. Collins’ tip: stop for chicken pot pie at the Good Hart General Store before pushing onto the lakefront town of Harbor Springs, where home base is the 105-room Inn at Harbor Bay (from $347), located waterfront in Little Traverse Bay.
“Harbor Springs is this cute little boating town with great hiking around it,” Collins says. “There’s a road there called the Tunnel of Trees that takes an hour to drive. It’s literally a tunnel of deciduous trees that change colors in the fall.”
While you’re there, go for a swim from the white sand beach at Zorn Park Beach downtown, then enjoy a cruise on a restored wooden boat that used to serve as a local water taxi, followed by a seafood lunch at Stafford’s Pier. From Harbor Bay, it’s a six-hour back drive to Chicago to complete the circumnavigation of Lake Michigan.
5. Go from City to Mountains in Québec
“Québec is a French speaking province, and it’s a very different experience,” Collins says. “It’s a cliché at this point, but traveling here feels like an opportunity to see France without getting on a plane over the Atlantic.” The draw of this road trip is it hits both rural and urban destinations and fall colors will be on display here as well. “Montréal and Québec City have lovely parks and tons of trees, but you’re also in a great city, so you can enjoy the restaurants and culture,” Collins says.
Start off in Mont-Tremblant, a lakefront ski resort with European-style lodging and a lively village. The panoramic gondola offers lift-accessed hiking and mountain biking until October 16 from the top of the highest peak in the Laurentians, and there’s live music on weekends at the base around Place Saint Bernard’s fireplace for much of the fall.
Stay overnight in the mid century-style Uville Hotel (from $209) in historic Old Montréal. Continue your journey along Highway 10 east from Montréal. Collins recommends stopping in the town of Bromont to visit the climbing gym slash café known as Backbone, a community gathering place with exceptional coffee and ramen in the heart of what’s known as the Eastern Townships. Then take a tour of the Haskell Free Library, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border (with entrances from either country) and was founded in 1901. Take a brisque swim in nearby Lake Memphremagog or push on for a hike in Mont-Orford National Park.
Finish up in Lower Town of Québec City. “That’s the really historic spot where the city began,” Collins says. “You’ll find historic buildings with beautiful sidewalk cafes that’ll still have outdoor seating in the fall.” Book a room at the Hotel Pur (from $208).