Peter M. Fredin  /  AP
A golden Aspen leaf in Vail, Colo., Sept. 16. The annual fall colors throughout the Colorado mountains will reach their peak brilliance soon.
By Travel writer
Special to msnbc.com
updated 9/20/2006 11:26:42 AM ET 2006-09-20T15:26:42

The leaf-peepers are coming, the leaf-peepers are coming! And, for better or worse, most are heading for New England, where the brilliant colors draw considerable crowds and the vivid vistas too often include neon No Vacancy signs.

Fortunately, New England doesn’t have a monopoly on fall foliage, and leaves are turning -- or getting ready to -- in dozens of states across the Southeast, Midwest, and Rocky Mountains. The 10 below go one better, combining splendid scenery with wonderfully unique ways to enjoy the show. Some options are off the beaten path; others are just plain offbeat.

EAST
About the time the leaves begin falling in northern New England, those in the Mid-Atlantic states are hitting their prime. From the Poconos to the Smokies, you can catch the show via back road, balloon ride, or BASE jump -- or with a good bottle of wine.

Pennsylvania (www.fallinpa.com/): Blazing red, yellow, and purple, the local foliage is eye-catching from any angle, but from high up in a hot-air balloon, it’s breathtaking. Seasonal highlights include daily flights over the Amish Country and Brandywine Valley and the Timber and Tether Festival at the Shawnee Mt. Ski Area, October 13–15.

Virginia (www.fallinvirginia.com/): October is both Virginia Wine Month and prime leaf-peeping season in The Old Dominion. Celebrate the harvest while you toast the foliage at the Virginia Wine Festival (Leesburg, September 30–October 1), Fall Wine Festival & Sunset Tour (October 6–8) in Mt. Vernon, Virginia Wine & Garlic Festival (October 14-15) in Amherst County, and dozens of others.

Slideshow: Autumn’s awesome rainbow West Virginia (www.wvtourism.com/): Care for some adrenaline with your foliage? Then head to Fayetteville for Bridge Day (October 21) to watch (or be one of) the BASE-jumping parachutists who launch themselves off the 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge. For a less intense experience, the gorge is equally beautiful by train ride or float trip.

North Carolina (www.visitnc.com/): The Blue Ridge Parkway is truly one of the world’s great drives. Unfortunately, it can also resemble a parking lot, especially when the local slopes are putting on their autumn show. For an off-the-beaten-path alternative, try the Cherohala Scenic Skyway, which traverses the Unicoi Mountains in the southwest corner of the state. Similar views, much less traffic.

MIDWEST
Flatter terrain doesn’t mean flatter colors, especially in the Upper Midwest, where the arboreal rainbow is often framed between cobalt skies and crystalline waters. Add in hiking and biking trails that go on forever, and you can forget all about leaf-peeping traffic jams.

Minnesota (www.exploreminnesota.com/): The Land of 10,000 Lakes is no slouch in the river department either. For foliage cruises with a hint of history, head to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, where paddlewheelers wend their way amid hardwood forests and high, basalt bluffs. Similar excursions in the Twin Cities offer a unique view of the urban jungle.

Wisconsin (www.travelwisconsin.com/): With more than 1,000 miles of former railroad beds transformed into bike trails, Wisconsin is well-suited for two-wheeled foliage tours. Ride among the orchards outside Green Bay, through the valleys east of La Crosse, or along the Chippewa River outside Eau Claire, and watch the colors fly by.

Michigan (www.michigan.org/): No point in Michigan is more than six miles from a lake or stream, which makes a canoe or kayak an ideal vantage point for fall foliage. Scenic routes range from the calm waters of the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph rivers down south to the forest-flanked rivers in the Upper Peninsula. Boat rentals are usually available.

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ROCKY MOUNTAINS
The season is often short-lived and the color scheme more burnished than brilliant. Even so, when entire hillsides of aspens go golden in late September-early October, the Rockies offer plenty of spectacular scenery -- and a few surprises.

Colorado (www.colorado.com/): Avoid the crowds around Aspen and Crested Butte with a train-based foliage tour on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in the southwest corner of the state. In addition to daily service between the two towns, the line is running a one-time fall photographers’ weekend -- complete with photo-op stops -- September 23–24.

Arizona (www.arizonaguide.com/): Sure, fall in the San Francisco Peaks is glorious, but there’s more to Arizona foliage than aspen gold. For a more varied display, head to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum outside Phoenix. From yellow-leaved sycamores to flame-red pistachio trees, the show can last right through Thanksgiving.

Montana (www.visitmt.com/): Finally, consider a trip to the tiny town of Seeley Lake, outside Missoula, where the local “foliage” is provided by western larches, or tamaracks -- seemingly confused conifers whose needles turn bright orange come fall. Simply dazzling, they should hit their peak during the Seeley Lake Tamarack Festival, October 14–15.

For more information, including updates on conditions in national forests across the country, call the Forest Service’s Fall Color Hotline at (800) 354-4595 or go to www.fs.fed.us.

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