There’s no way to celebrate the changing seasons like going on an old-fashioned leaf-peeping hike, but making the most of it takes a little bit of skill. Tip number 1: Time your hike right by knowing exactly when the leaves at your destination will peak. Tip number 2: Find a trail that complements the turning foliage with spectacular scenery. Start with these 7 favorites, from classic eastern hardwood forest to Alaskan brush. —The Editors
K’esugi Ridge, Denali State Park, AK
Forget the trees of the lower 48: This is the fall foliage to beat. Bright red bearberry and yellow arctic willow run together like watercolor paintstrokes across the hillsides of the Talkeetna Mountains next to Denali, interspersed with a treasure trove of ripe blueberries. Head to the Kesugi Ridge trail system to catch the colors, picking from a variety of dayhike and overnight options.
Permit none Contact Denali State Park
Whiteoak Canyon Trail, Shenandoah National Park, VA
Keep an eye out for black bears as you hike through this Appalachian canyon. Fall is when two of their favorite food sources here, acorns and wild apples, reach their peak. Both the oak trees and apple trees put on a show in the fall, with bright yellow and orange leaves and, on the apple trees, even brighter red fruit. Bonus: There are eight waterfalls on this 7.3-mile loop.
Permit Entrance fee, $30 per vehicle/week Contact Shenandoah National Park
Spray Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI
Fall is the perfect time to visit Lake Superior’s waterfalls, when the hardwood forests fade to a red and orange that rivals the sandstone cliffs in beauty. To get this view of 70-foot Spray Falls, one of the Lakeshore’s most remote cascades, start at Little Beaver Lake Campground. A 1.5-mile spur leads from the campground to the North Country National Scenic Trail; turn left at the junction for the 2.5-mile clifftop hike to the flume, then retrace your steps. On your return trip, extend your hike by continuing past the spur and dropping onto Twelvemile Beach. Wander along the sandy shore before heading back to camp at Little Beaver Lake. Expect snow on the ground by late November, though daytime temperatures typically stay above freezing. The falls don’t freeze until December.
Permit None Contact Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Bald Mountain, Fulton Chain Wild Forest, NY
Watch fall’s fiery hues color the forest all around you from the Rondaxe Fire Tower atop Bald Mountain (also called Rondaxe Mountain). Gaining 500 feet in just under a mile, the climb to the 2,350-foot summit offers midway rewards with views over the Fulton Chain of Lakes. From the top, soak in the vibrant hues of sugar maples, American beech, and yellow birch trees (peak foliage tends to occur in early- to mid-October). Look northeast for vistas of the High Peaks Wilderness, including 5,344-foot Mt. Marcy, the state’s tallest. Return the way you came for a 1.9-mile out-and-back. Plan a sunrise hike to beat the crowds that flock to this peak in autumn.
Permit none Contact Fulton Chain Wild Forest
Mt. Cammerer, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
The 11.2-mile round-trip hike to the summit of Mt. Cammerer is well worth the effort. From the 4,928-foot summit you can look down on Pigeon River Gorge as it turns a brilliant scarlet with autumn foliage. Start from the Low Gap trailhead in Great Smoky Mountains national park for the route with the best views.
Permit Park entrance fee Contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Conundrum Hot Springs, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, CO
Gaze on bright yellow aspens and the red rock summits of the Elk Mountains from this backcountry hot spring, where warm mineral water bubbles up into an alpine pool. The 9.1-mile hike along Conundrum Creek gains 2,500 feet of elevation along the way, often winding through stands of aspens in all their fall glory.
Maple Pass Loop, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA
Hike to an alpine lake and then traverse the ridge above on this 7.2-mile loop in the North Cascades. The ridgeline is dotted with larches, which turn an almost unbelievable shade of gold every fall; closer to the ground, blueberry bushes turn dark red and orange. From the hike’s high point at 6,650 feet you’ll get views right into the craggy heart of North Cascades National Park.