Dockery Lake Trail, Dockery Lake Recreation Area, GA
Zigzag along a rushing creek on this 6.8-mile out-and-back to an optional overnight on the Appalachian Trail. From Dockery Lake (rainbow trout fishing here), nab views across rolling Appalachian ridges. Parallel cascading Pigeon Roost Creek, crossing the year-round stream three times. At the Miller Gap turnaround (dispersed camping, no permit required), glimpse hardwoods transitioning to reds, oranges, and yellows by late September.
Local tip: “You’ll see 100-foot-tall white pine and hemlock in the area near the creek.” -Taylor Hamilton, Blairsville, GA
High Ground Loop, Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, SC
Skirt six wildlife-packed ponds on this 8-mile loop on the Carolina coast. At .9 mile, reach Ibis Pond, home to its namesake waterfowl as well as great egrets and tri-colored herons. Continue through a maritime forest of live oaks, palmetto, and longleaf pines to overlook a salt marsh where bald eagles and osprey soar. Beware: Five- to 8-foot alligators lurk in Nini Chapin Pond (keep a distance of at least 20 to 30 feet).
Local tip: “You’ll start to see ducks, such as blue-winged teal, at Osprey Pond in September.” –Amy Ochoa, Hardeeville, SC
Mt. Major, Mt. Major State Forest, NH
Glimpse the 70-square-mile, glittering Lake Winnipesaukee on this 3.8-mile loop to a 1,786-foot peak on the lake’s western shore. Climb through oak and birch to reach the summit ledge at mile 1.6; look north to see the first reds and yellows of fall creeping into the beaver ponds below (color peaks mid-October). Watch for hawks and vultures soaring overhead, then return to the trailhead on the hemlock-shaded Brook Trail.
Local tip: “In fall’s lower humidity, the lake appears bluer, and you can also see Mt. Washington more clearly.” -Art Richardson, Alton, NH
Slippery Rock Gorge, McConnells Mill State Park, PA
You’ll trace a whitewater creek through a 200-foot-deep gorge on this 11.4-mile
out-and-back. Hike through a hemlock forest to crest a ridge above the creek near mile 2; in mid-September, look for migrating sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Follow the gorge east to descend to the water’s edge. Turn around at Eckert Bridge, or continue on a 2-mile spur loop to see the park’s namesake 19th-century wood-and-stone grist mill.
Local tip: “About a mile in, there’s a vista overlooking forested Hell’s Hollow Gorge from a few hundred feet above.” -Jake Weiland, Portersville, PA
Foothills-Double Oak Loop, Oak Mountain State Park, AL
Cross an 80-year-old stone dam and crest a 1,260-foot peak on this 7.5-mile loop. Pass the pine-shrouded banks of Old Lake, where a waterfall cascades 50 feet from the dam on its southwestern edge. Look for migrating warblers, juncos, and buntings in the canopy as you ascend the spine of Double Oak Mountain. Snag a view of the surrounding ridges by taking the .5-mile spur at mile 7 to the Eagle’s Nest Overlook.
Local tip: “Look for reddish fox squirrels with black-and-white faces (they’re larger than other squirrels).” -Emily Cook, Pelham, AL