These 7 Road Trips Are Perfect for Fall
Whether you want to chase early-season powder in the Rockies or lobster rolls in New England, we've got your perfect road trip to end the year on a high note
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At this point in the year, you have two options: you can whine about how summer went by too fast, or you can take a look at the calendar and make the most of what’s left of 2019. The way we see it, there are roughly 32 nonwork days left before we ring in 2020. That’s plenty of time to hit the open road and cram in some serious adventure before the earth turns one year older. Bonus: summer’s heat and crowds have dissipated. There’s even preseason powder to hunt. Gas up. It’s time for a road trip.
Best Road Trip for Early-Season Powder
Wolf Creek to Ouray, Colorado; 155 miles
While most ski resorts target Thanksgiving as their opening day, Wolf Creek is a bit of an overachiever, often firing up lifts by Halloween. It gets more than 400 inches of snow annually and has a reputation for being a magnet for early-season powder. Credit the high elevation (10,400 feet), north-facing terrain, and the fact that storms tend to linger and distribute an unfair amount of snow on the mountain. Last season the resort opened on October 13, after a week of storms dumped 30 inches. It was able to run three lifts and open almost 1,000 acres of terrain before the end of the month.
If the powder is deep, nobody will fault you for doing laps at Wolf Creek for multiple days in a row, but keep in mind that the same storms that drop pre-Christmas powder on Wolf Creek also set early-season ice throughout the San Juan Mountains. Head north through San Juan National Forest, where during most years you can head into the backcountry and find safe ice climbing in classic destinations like Eureka Canyon, near Silverton, in late November. If you have the energy, schedule a couple of heli drops at Silverton Mountain, which will run its single lift and helicopter starting on November 24 if all goes well.
Detour: A soak in Orvis Hot Springs, near Ouray, is a must.
Best Road Trip to Bag Seasonal Unicorns
Gauley River, West Virginia, to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina; 280 miles
The Upper Gauley River drops 335 feet over 13 miles in a series of nonstop Class IV–V rapids. It’s big water at its finest, and it only runs for about a month every year. Hit one of the recreational releases that are scheduled from September to the middle of October, and you can choose a single-day trip on the Upper Gauley or double down and run the whole river, camping on a sandbar between the upper and more mellow lower sections.
When you dry out, move south to catch the 25th anniversary of Hound Ears, a legendary bouldering competition outside Boone, North Carolina (October 5). This is the only day all year that you’re allowed to climb the hundreds of granite boulders located on the side of this privately owned mountain.
But don’t worry if you can’t time it right for the event, because fall is prime bouldering season in the South, thanks to cooler weather and receding poison ivy, and Boone is a hotbed of problems. Head to 221 Boulders, off the Blue Ridge Parkway, for hundreds of bus-size rocks scattered across several fields.
Finish the trip by driving farther south to Cataloochee Valley, inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for the seasonal elk rut, where giant male elk bugle and lock antlers for the attention of their lady friends. The rut typically hits its peak from mid-September to mid-October.
Detour: On your way south, swing through Asheville, North Carolina, to pick up the seasonal Cold Mountain, a winter ale released in November from Highland Brewing.
Best Road Trip for Foodies
Freedom, Maine, to New Haven, Connecticut; 500 miles
In a perfect world, this culinary adventure will begin with apple-wood-grilled chicken at Lost Kitchen, a farm-to-table joint set in a restored gristmill next to a waterfall in Freedom. The restaurant is run by three-time James Beard–nominated chef Erin French, and it’s arguably the hardest reservation to score in the country. You have to mail French a three-by-five-inch notecard that includes your contact info on one side and something creative on the other, like a poem, drawing, or story. They received 20,000 cards last year for a 40-seat restaurant. Godspeed.
Continue moving south along the coast, stopping in Wiscasset, Maine, for a lobster roll at Red’s Eats, which serves the freshest and sweetest lobster in New England. Grab an IPA at Treehouse Brewing, in Charlton, Massachusetts, an hour north of Boston. If your timing is right, you can have your fill of bivalves at the Wellfleet Oyster Fest, in Cape Cod (October 19–20).
You’re hugging the Atlantic for most of this trip, so you can burn some calories by sea kayaking Acadia National Park, in Bar Harbor, Maine, or surfing Ruggles, the famous Rhode Island break.
The trip finishes with a tomato pie at Sally’s Apizza in New Haven.
Detour: Go ahead and grab another pizza at Pepe’s, also in New Haven, so you can settle once and for all which of these two legends has the best one in America.
Best Road Trip to Kiss Daylight Savings Goodbye
Utah’s Dark Sky Parks; 366 miles
The end of daylight savings on November 3 is a bummer. But less daylight doesn’t mean less fun. Make the most of all that extra darkness by knocking out a celestial tour of some of Utah’s darkest corners. The state has nine International Dark Sky Parks, more than any other state. Start in Moab, where you can take your pick from Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, or Dead Horse State Park, each named on the International Dark Sky Park list. We say opt for Dead Horse, where the prominent plateau, standing 2,000 feet over the Colorado River, and a lack of mountains surrounding it make for a primo stargazing location. The park rangers often set up telescopes for the public.
Head south to remote Natural Bridges National Monument, the first designated Dark Sky Park in the world. You could pick a lookout from the nine-mile scenic drive through the park, but you’re better off peeking at the starlit sky from the 180-foot-long Owachomo Bridge.
Drive west to Bryce Canyon National Park, where on clear nights, the Milky Way will form a pale rainbow from one side of the horizon to the next. The park also offers ranger-led astronomy programs 100 times a year.
A couple of dates to keep in mind when you’re planning this trip: October 22 promises a massive Orionid meteor shower between midnight and dawn, with up to 20 meteors an hour during its peak. On December 13 and 14, look up for the Geminid meteor shower, which should shape up to be one of the best celestial events of the year, with up to 50 bright, white meteors an hour.
Detour: Swing through Park City to pick up a bottle of High West’s seasonal Midwinter Night’s Dram.
Best Road Trips for Surfing… in the Midwest
Chicago to Sheboygan, Wisconsin; 148 miles
Minneapolis to Duluth, Minnesota; 150 miles
You want to get one last quick surf trip in before you wax the skis, but you live in the Midwest. The solution? Stick close to home, and keep an eye on the forecast. Surfing the Great Lakes, a.k.a. the Third Coast, is hit or miss during the summer, but when the north winds start roaring in the fall, the swells pick up. Duluth has arguably the best surfing in the middle of the country. Locals call it “the other North Shore.” Head to Stoney Point, where deep water and an offshore rock reef make for unusually large and consistent waves. And it’s only two hours north of Minneapolis.
Sheboygan, on the west coast of Lake Michigan, has five miles of beach with multiple breaks to choose from. It’s not as consistent as Stoney Point, but waves get big when the wind comes from the northeast. The fact that it’s only one hour north of Milwaukee and two hours north of Chicago make it the perfect spot for an impromptu Saturday or Sunday session. Just remember to pack a thick wetsuit and a high-volume surfboard—fresh water is less buoyant than salt water.
Detour: Jump 100 miles north of Sheboygan to Sturgeon Bay for an order of cheese curds straight from the source at Renard’s Cheese.
Best Road Trip to Send It with Your College Buddy
Smith Rock to Otter Rock, Oregon; 300 miles
Grab that longtime friend who stuck by you through your Bob Marley and poetry phases, and get matching air-brushed tank tops, because this is the road trip you always wanted to take in college. Start by rebuilding mutual trust at Smith Rock State Park, which gave birth to sport climbing in the U.S. in the mid-eighties and has more than 2,000 routes to choose from now, all of which are best sent in the fall when temperatures are cool and skies are clear. The Dihedrals, a collection of steep arêtes, spawned the first 5.14 ever climbed in America (To Bolt or Not to Be), but it also has some easy climbs, down to 5.5. Snag a spot in the walk-in campground, the Bivy, and you’ll have the park’s best bouldering just outside your tent.
Trade rock for dirt by driving 125 miles north to Hood River, where Post Canyon offers more than 60 miles of cross-country and freeride mountain-bike trails in a dense system that’s easy to shuttle and lap. Connect Bad Motor Scooter with Grand Prix for 1.5 miles of flowy jumps and berms that drop almost 800 feet of elevation.
Otter Rock is a beginner-friendly beach break on Oregon’s central coast. Not only does the state get its best surf in the fall, but it often sees its best weather, with 80-degree Indian-summer days and typically rain-free skies. Otter Rock doesn’t have Oregon’s biggest surf, but it arguably has its most consistent, with a beach break that picks up size on swells from just about every direction. Bring your longboard to make the most of the two-to-four-foot surf.
Detour: Cut through Portland, hitting Breakside Brewing to load up on its seasonal IPA on your way to the beach.
Best Road Trip to Escape Winter
Sedona, Arizona, to Mojave National Preserve, California; 380 miles
Dig this: Sedona’s winter temperatures typically hover in the high fifties. That’s perfect mountain-bike weather, particularly when your favorite trails at home are covered in snow. You have more than 125 miles of singletrack to choose from. Skip the vertigo-inducing Hangover Trail, and opt for the more sensible Slim Shady, a 2.5-mile piece of flow that combines Sedona’s signature rock tread with the desert’s long-range views. You can easily use Slim Shady as the backbone for an all-day epic that takes in the best of the area.
You’ll need to rinse off after all that dirt, so Lake Mohave, which runs for 67 miles between Hoover Dam and Davis Dam, is your next stop. Launch your kayak or SUP from Willow Beach Marina (it has rentals) and paddle north to explore Black Canyon, a 22-mile-long gorge that hems in the northern section of the lake, squeezing the water to a narrow 300 feet wide at some points.
Keep moving west to the little-known Mojave National Preserve, a massive 1.5-million-acre slice of desert that has the largest Joshua tree forest in the country, lava-tube caves, and the 650-foot-tall Kelso Sand Dunes. Even with all these superlatives, the highlight of the preserve might be the two-mile Rings Loop Trail, where you can climb up a slot canyon on iron rings.
Detour: Las Vegas puts on a hell of a fireworks show for New Year’s Eve. Find a spot far from the Strip, in Red Rocks Canyon, and you can see the pyrotechnics without fighting the crowds.