Take the scenic route on your next leaf peeping adventure with these 10 iconic drives and roadside hikes.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Drive: Weaving for 470 miles from Virginia to North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway has consistently ranked among the top five most popular national park units for its accessibility, historical significance, and of course, those classic Blue Ridge views. The parkway is like a traveling timeline. Visitors can glimpse the life of an 1800s homesteader in the morning and sip on locally made wine from state-of-the-art vineyards all in a day. Consider the changes in elevation when on the hunt for fall colors. Peak foliage hits a lot later at 649 feet along the banks of Virginia’s James River than at 6,047 feet atop North Carolina’s Richland Balsam.
The Hike: For a moderate hike with outstanding views, head to Flat Top Mountain, the tallest of three peaks that form the Peaks of Otter. The parking area is located at milepost 83.5. Follow the Flat Top Trail into the forest, where the gradient is mellow and fast. Don’t be fooled—the summit trail climbs 1,900 feet over the course of 2.6 miles, making those tight switchbacks feel punishingly endless. Stick with it for picnic-perfect boulders and views from 4,001 feet of the Piedmont Valley.
The Drive: This 105-mile paved drive traverses the spine of the Blue Ridge as it passes through Shenandoah National Park. Nearly every bend in the road here is bursting with life. The park and its backbone byway are home to 1,600 species of trees and plants, over 90 streams, and 60 peaks above 3,000 feet in elevation. With 75 overlooks stacked along the drive (that’s almost one overlook for every mile-and-a-half), you might get so caught up in the sightseeing you never make it to the trailhead.
The Hike: Short and ever so sweet, the Bearfence Mountain Trail has it all—rock scrambles, tough terrain, and front row seats to the best view in the park. Totaling 1.2 miles round-trip, this is the perfect excuse to get out and stretch your legs. Head to milepost 56.5 to begin your trek. At one point, the rocks atop Bearfence were volcanic lava, but millions of years of exposure have morphed them into greenstone.
Highland Scenic Highway
The Drive: Nothing brings out the vibrant reds and oranges of autumn like the stark evergreen of spruce trees. Driving along the tree-studded, 43-mile Highland Scenic Highway feels like a northeastern road trip, both in scenery and in temperatures. Meandering along the Allegheny Highlands above 4,000 feet, the drive cuts right through the heart of the Monongahela National Forest and alongside the Cranberry Wilderness for 22 miles. The weather here is notoriously stormy, so don’t be disappointed if the view is socked in—the moody fog just adds to the Mon’s mystique.
The Hike: For a short day hike, explore the Black Mountain Trail, which connects both the Williams River Valley and Big Spruce Overlooks. The 2.4-mile trail weaves in and out through a rhododendron-choked forest of birch, beech, and red spruce before arriving at a boardwalk and interpretive sign about a devastating wildfire that hit here in the 1930s. For an overnight backpacking trip, and a lesson in humility, head into the Cranberry Wilderness via the North/South Trail to Hell For Certain Branch. You might feel like hell once you slog your way to this creek, but the dreamy campsites there are like stepping through Heaven’s gates.
Laurel Highlands Scenic Byway
The Drive: Beginning just north of Johnstown, Penn., and traveling for 68 miles southwest to the Pennsylvania–West Virginia border, this backroads cruise will change everything you ever thought about the Keystone State. The byway links together some of southwestern Pennsylvania’s most cherished public lands like Roaring Run Natural Area, Bear Run Nature Reserve, and Ohiopyle State Park.
The Hike: Photographers, bring the camera for this one. The Meadow Run Trail is only three miles in length, so you won’t be far from the car, but the roaring Cucumber Falls will make you feel miles from the nearest anything. Get up early, or stay out late, to catch the falls in all of its golden hour glory. If the water levels are up, keep a lookout for kayakers paddling the rowdy section of the Meadow to its confluence with the Lower Youghiogheny.