The 37-mile western segment of the Buffalo River Trail, in Arkansas, weaves along both the riverbed and clifftops of Buffalo National River.
The 37-mile western segment of the Buffalo River Trail, in Arkansas, weaves along both the riverbed and clifftops of Buffalo National River. (Photo: Courtesy Buffalo Outdoor Center)
2019 Bucket List

Brilliant Fall Foliage Outside New England

Avoid the Northeast's traffic-clogged roads and get out on foot or bike at these lesser-known leaf-peeping destinations

The 37-mile western portion of the Buffalo River Trail weaves along the river bed and clifftops around Buffalo National River.
Courtesy Buffalo Outdoor Center(Photo)
Megan Michelson

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You could sit behind your steering wheel and creep along one scenic pass or another in search of crimson fall colors with the rest of New England’s leaf-peeping hordes. Or you could ditch your car and the Northeast to have some of the season’s best foliage all to yourself. We’ve rounded up some under-the-radar spots to catch autumn in all its glory.

Buffalo National River

(Courtesy Buffalo Outdoor Center)

Ponca, Arkansas

The 135-mile Buffalo National River is one of the country’s few entirely undammed waterways. Each fall, the region comes alive with tinted beech, ash, and hickory trees and an especially active elk population. If the water is high enough, rent a canoe from Buffalo River Outfitters and spend two to ten days basking in the vibrant colors along the water and camping under soaring limestone bluffs on the river’s iconic gravel bars. If you’d rather observe from land, the 37-mile western portion of the Buffalo River Trail weaves along the riverbed and clifftops between the towns of Boxely and Pruitt, Arkansas. Or it’s only a three-mile round-trip to Whitaker Point, a craggy rock reminiscent of a hawk’s beak that juts over a misty valley filled with red and orange maples. Book a cabin at the Buffalo Outdoor Center for a hot tub with unobstructed views of the Ozarks (from $129).

Monarch Pass

(Anthony Barlich)

Salida, Colorado

You may not find a more iconic mountain bike ride than Colorado’s Monarch Crest Trail, which starts at 11,312 feet atop Monarch Pass and flows 36 miles through golden aspen trees. Absolute Bike Adventures offers guided rides, including a shuttle, bike rental, and lunch for $195, or do it yourself with help from High Valley Bike Shuttle, which will pick you up at a gas station in Poncha Springs and drive you to the trailhead for just $25. Stay in nearby Salida at the remodeled Amigo Motor Lodge, where you can sleep in a room or a sleek Airstream trailer out back (from $100).

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

(Courtesy Destination Cleveland)

Cleveland, Ohio

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is only 30 minutes from Cleveland but feels worlds apart. There are 125 miles of trails, but for some of the best fall colors, hike the 3.8-mile Stanford Trail for views of 65-foot Brandywine Falls framed by colorful sugar maples and white oaks. You can even rent a room right at the trailhead in the Stanford House, a historic farmhouse built in 1843 (from $400). The next day, pedal 20 miles along the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail before hopping on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for the return trip.

Guardsman Pass

(Courtesy Park City Chamber/Bureau)

Park City, Utah

This backcountry road, which connects Park City to Big Cottonwood Canyon, is closed all winter. But in fall, it’s a spectacular drive through fiery red oaks and brilliant yellow aspens that tops out at 9,700 feet. Get out of your car and hike 4.2 miles round-trip to Shadow Lake from the Guardsman Pass Overlook, or mountain bike the Wasatch Crest Trail, where cyclists are allowed on even-numbered days. For easy access to the stellar trails at Park City Mountain Resort, snag a room at the remodeled Acorn Chalet right across the street (from $99).

Wheeler Peak Wilderness

(Leo Diaz)

Taos, New Mexico

It’s an eight-mile round-trip hike to reach the tallest mountain in New Mexico: 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak. You’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and a valley floor covered with aspens, spruce, and white fir. For alpine meadows and a burbling creek, hike the five-mile Columbine Canyon Trail near Red River, a tiny town 35 miles north on the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, an 83-mile driving loop around Wheeler Peak that’s a leaf-peeping destination in its own right. Just outside Taos, you can sleep in a revamped vintage trailer from the 1950s or pitch a tent at Hotel Luna Mystica, where you can get French press coffee and a free pint of beer next door at Taos Mesa Brewing (from $70).

Reds Meadow Valley

(Josh Wray/Mammoth Lakes Tourism)

Mammoth Lakes, California

In fall, the aspen trees surrounding Mammoth Lakes turn fluorescent. Hike the six-mile River Trail, which parallels the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River and winds through Reds Meadow Valley and Devils Postpile National Monument, named for a formation of eerily geometric, 60-foot-tall basalt columns. You can make it a 17-mile loop by connecting to the High Trail, a segment of the famed PCT. Book a cabin at Convict Lake Resort, and you’ll have canoe rentals and hiking trails out your door and breakfast burritos at the on-site general store (from $189).