The perfect season for a road trip
When it comes to seasonal travel, summer usually gets most of the love. The kids aren’t in school, the weather is warm, and if you’re the type of person who equates a vacation with spending time at the beach, it’s when you have the most available options. Counterpoint: Summer is gross. It’s hot and sticky, lines are long, prices go up, and traffic is bad. Fall, on the other hand, is the ideal season to travel—especially by car. Temperatures are actually pleasant, and in some parts of the country, you can also catch a glimpse of colorful foliage. But things are a little more hectic in the fall, and you may not have the time to take an actual vacation or even a quick weekend getaway. The good news is that you don’t have to stay somewhere overnight to feel like you got a refreshing break. For proof, check out these 12 fall day trips you can take from major cities in the United States.
The Hudson Valley, New York
Between Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, it can feel as though New York City’s urban landscape never ends. But really, all you need to do is keep heading north to find a region that has plenty of year-round activities but is especially picturesque in the fall: the Hudson Valley. First of all, yes, the fall foliage is amazing, especially against the backdrop of the Hudson River and the surrounding hills. If you’re in the mood for something spooky, Carly Fisher, author of Easy Weekend Getaways in the Hudson Valley & Catskills, recommends a stop in Sleepy Hollow, the setting of Washington Irving’s iconic legend. You can visit the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on your own during the day or on one of their evening lantern tours to get the full experience.
After that, you may need a stiff drink or comforting apple cider doughnuts—or both. In that case, head to Thompson’s Cider Mill in nearby Croton-on-Hudson, which Fisher describes as being “among the prettiest cider mills in the Hudson Valley.” You can enjoy both their small-batch hard cider and a non-alcoholic version, as well as the beloved seasonal doughnuts while spending time in nature outside a Victorian-style red barn. End the day with a visit to the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, which is also in Croton-on-Hudson. It features more than 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins and is open from September through mid-November (including this year, with appropriate COVID-19 precautions). Want to peep at some more leaves? Here are the best places to spot fall foliage in America.
The drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff takes just over two hours, but the two cities have completely different vibes and landscapes. Temperatures can still soar above 100 degrees in Phoenix in the fall, but Flagstaff typically spends much of the season in the 70s or low 80s—which itself is a reason to make the trip. But another is the impressive foliage. You might not consider Arizona a leaf-peeping destination, but Flagstaff would prove you wrong.
Get an early start so you can grab a filling breakfast at MartAnne’s Breakfast Palace, a family-owned restaurant known for its chilaquiles. And as long as you’re in the historic part of downtown Flagstaff, take the time to explore the aspen tree-lined streets, which give the sandstone buildings a golden glow. From there, head down Route 66 to the Arboretum at Flagstaff, which features 200 acres of wild and cultivated land; you can easily spend hours wandering in the fresh air and checking out the trees and trails. For more options along this famous stretch, see our guide to a Route 66 road trip.
If you live in Chicago and haven’t taken a day to visit Pullman, fall is a great time to rectify that. Located around 12 miles from the Loop in downtown Chicago, Pullman was built between 1880 and 1884 as a planned community meant to serve as the model for the ideal company town. The company in question was Pullman’s Palace Car Company, and its president, George Pullman, thought that creating an industrial town with a higher standard of living for the working class would bring talent to the area (and his factory), improve his workers’ productivity, and avoid strikes.
The main draw here is exploring the neighborhood on foot, strolling down meticulously planned blocks and passing buildings designed to impress visiting industrial leaders. The crisp temperatures and changing leaves are a bonus. If you’re looking for a place to eat lunch, don’t miss the One Eleven Food Hall, which features a rotation of local restaurants (just keep in mind that it’s closed on Mondays). Right now, you’ll find Majani, which serves vegan soul food, and Lexington Betty Smokehouse, where you can get your hands on some excellent barbecue. Don’t live in Chicago? Find out what’s closer to home with our guide to the best day trips in every state.
Oak Glen, California
Just because you live in sunny Los Angeles, it doesn’t mean you can’t get the full fall experience on a day trip, and there’s no better destination than Oak Glen. Technically, the 80-mile trip should take around 90 minutes, but who knows with L.A. traffic. Still, it’s close enough to get a taste of autumn for a day and then sleep in your own bed that night.
Oak Glen is a small agricultural town located in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, and it looks more like a New England village than somewhere in California. Enjoy the scenic drive into the town—which can include some colorful leaves—and visit one of the area’s many farms, orchards, or wineries. Make time to stop at Oak Tree Mountain, which bills itself as a “year-round country fair.” It opened 50 years ago as a small apple shed and has since grown into a 14-acre family park; it now includes everything from ax-throwing to a petting zoo featuring baby animals. While there’s no shortage of food options in the park, it would be a mistake not to stop at Apple Annie’s to pick up one of their famous five-pound mile-high apple pies. Before you hit the road, make sure you know these 15 road trip planning tips.
Snoqualmie Falls, Washington
If you’re in the Seattle area and looking to take in some sweeping views of nature—including some pretty amazing foliage—you may be interested in making the 30-mile trip out of the city to Snoqualmie Falls. To see the breathtaking 270-foot waterfall, you’d normally be able to take a 1.6-mile kid-friendly trail to the base of the falls, but thanks to COVID, the lower part of the trail is closed. But the upper part of the trail, which also includes views of the falls, remains open. And those not interested in a hike can walk approximately 200 feet from the parking lot to the viewing platform, which is also wheelchair accessible.
But don’t leave before getting a taste of the local flavors: The seasonal cuisine at the Salish Lodge, which overlooks the falls, is worth the stop. And while the dining room has spectacular views, the restaurant does offer the COVID-friendly option of ordering its specialties—like Northwest seafood chowder and house-smoked baby back ribs—to go. While planning your own trip, take a look at these stunning photos of autumn across America.
It’s only a quick 40-minute drive out of Kansas City to Weston, Missouri, but it feels like a trip through time. This 19th-century town has a historic district featuring more than 100 structures over 22 blocks, and it is the perfect place for an autumn stroll. Take in the antebellum architecture and stop in some of the many locally-owned shops, which sell everything from stained-glass windows to an array of antiques. If you’re looking to spend some time in a more agricultural setting, there are plenty of nearby farms, vineyards, creameries, and orchards to visit to experience the area’s freshest flavors.
Only have time to visit one spot? Make it Green Dirt Farm, located less than a mile from Weston’s historic district. Not only can you pick up some of their award-winning cheeses (don’t leave without trying “Dirt Lover,” a bloomy rind sheep cheese), but you can also enjoy dishes from their café, including a fan-favorite grilled cheese sandwich called “Ruby, Don’t Go Bacon My Heart.” If you’re looking for something other than architecture and cheese, check out these fall activities to add to your bucket list.
Lariat Loop Scenic and Historic Byway, Colorado
Those in the Mile High City are spoiled with an overabundance of choices when it comes to fall day trips with gorgeous scenery. So, instead of limiting yourself to one spot, why not spend a day driving the Lariat Loop Scenic and Historic Byway? The 40-mile circular route not only allows you to put down the GPS and actually enjoy your drive (you’re not going to get lost); it also connects the communities of Golden, Morrison, Lookout Mountain, and Evergreen, which could each make their own day trip. Traveling on the byway gives you the option to stop in the towns along the way, or make it quick and drive the entire loop, taking in the views and never leaving your car—which also makes it an ideal COVID road trip.
If you don’t have time to do the entire loop, make your way up to Evergreen, which, despite its name, has no shortage of colorful leaves. Take in the quaint, walkable downtown area, then visit Lariat Lodge Brewing, where you can enjoy a socially distanced meal outdoors (which should absolutely include corn fritters served on top of pimento cheese made in-house) and sample their wide selection of beer. Looking to make it a weekend? Here are some of the best socially distanced weekend trips for fall.
If the name of this town located about an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee sounds familiar, it’s because it may be the birthplace of your toilet, bathtub, or sink. Kohler started out as a company town incorporated in 1912, housing workers from the massive plumbing-fixture factory, but don’t let that put you off. The garden community was carefully laid out by the noted landscape architecture firm of the Olmsted Brothers, which included Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City. Today, their work—along with the village’s signature Kohler Tudor–style residential and commercial buildings—remains in pristine condition, thanks to a partnership between the Kohler Company and Kohler Village.
A visit to the town isn’t complete without at least driving through the Kohler Company complex. Grab a bite to eat at the Horse & Plough, once the taproom for employees and now serving up elevated pub grub, like beer-battered cheese curds. After you’re fortified with curds, take the two-minute walk down the main road to the Kohler Design Center. The massive showroom/museum is free and open to the public, and it has all the usual COVID protections in place. You could probably spend hours weaving your way through the Instagram-ready bathroom displays, but the most interesting part of the center is its basement, which tells the history of the company and plumbing in general through the decades, including some of the best (giant clawfoot bathtubs!) and the worst (any part of a bathroom that is carpeted) trends through time.
If an afternoon of relaxation is more your speed, head to the Kohler Waters Spa, which offers the latest hydrotherapy treatments, like Lavender Rain and the Cascading Waterfall Massage. Looking to venture out of state but not sure where to go? Peruse the best fall activities in each state and then make a plan!
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Washington, D.C., is surrounded by fall day trip destinations in Maryland and Virginia. But venture out one state farther to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for the perfect blend of history and scenery—it’s just over an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital. Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry is probably best known as the setting for abolitionist John Brown’s raid of the town’s federal armory and arsenal, the goal of which was to condemn slavery and disrupt the trade.
Because the 3,500 acres of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park covers the town itself and the major sites in the area, the National Park Service regularly updates its website, including news on any special events or COVID restrictions. Many of the major sites are in the Lower Town and Historic District, which feature an impressive collection of architecture from the 19th century, including Victorian and Federalist-style residences, as well as modest homes built for armory workers in the early 1800s. If you find yourself in town after dark, snag a spot on one of the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry, which bills itself as the “oldest ghost tour in America” and is actually family-friendly and full of little-known historical facts. ‘Tis the season for all things spooky! Here’s where you can spot a ghost in every state.
Georgia may be known for its peaches, but come fall, there’s a new local fruit in town: the apple. And there’s no better place in the state to experience a taste of autumn than Ellijay, also known as the Apple Capital of Georgia. This picturesque town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is about an hour and 20 minutes north of Atlanta and well worth the drive. Of course, there are plenty of family-run apple houses and orchards to visit where you can pick your own apples, but if you’re looking for one that doubles as a great lunch spot, go with R&A Orchards and order the chicken and dumplings, as well as one of their homemade fried pies. If you’ve had your fill of apples but still want to pick something, the Red Apple Barn also has a seasonal flower patch, where you can make your own arrangement to take home.
One more thing to note: Ellijay is an unusually pet-friendly town, with plenty of hiking and outdoor patios where you can dine beside your pooch. If you’re planning an overnight with your four-legged BFF in Georgia or anywhere else, you’ll need this list of the 30 best pet-friendly hotels in America.
A quick one-hour-and-15-minute drive out of Houston brings you to Brenham, Texas, a small town full of history, antique shops, and ice cream. The best way to see the downtown historic district is by foot, so download the city’s free walking-tour map and hit the bricks (seriously—there are several beautiful brick buildings). For a town this size, there’s an overwhelming amount to see. But if you have to pick just one attraction, make it Glissman’s Pharmacy—specifically, its 1924 Drug Store Museum. A visit to this two-story masonry building constructed in the 1860s will take you back in time to see what the inside of an apothecary looked like in the Roaring ’20s, complete with medicines and equipment. And on your way out of town, don’t forget to stop at Blue Belle Creameries & Ice Cream Parlor to get a scoop of your favorite flavor. For vacation planning throughout the year, find out which 20 hidden travel gems are way cheaper in the off-season.
Though New England is full of scenic drives for leaf-peeping, historical sites, and ways to experience nature, those living in the Boston area should consider a day trip to Concord, Massachusetts—especially if they are fans of classic American literature. For starters, it’s home to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where she wrote Little Women. Though the inside of the house isn’t open for tours during COVID, it’s still a beautiful place to stop and admire the exterior of the home. Fortunately, you can still visit the Walden Pond State Reservation to get a glimpse of the nature that inspired Henry David Thoreau and see the outside of a model of his cabin, which is about two miles from Orchard House. Drive another three miles and you’ll hit the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Though the buildings are closed for the pandemic, they still offer timed tickets to explore the art on the grounds.
By now, you’ve probably worked up an appetite, so head a half-hour northwest to Westford for a visit to Kimball Farm. With 50 flavors of homemade ice cream, an outdoor grill and seafood shack, and a traditional country store, there is an abundance of food options. And if the kids are getting restless, the farm also offers reduced-capacity mini-golf and bumper boats. To explore more of the region, check out these other amazing places to see fall foliage in New England. And before you go, read our guide to the ultimate American road trip to ensure you have the best experience possible.
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