Image: Mt Rushmore, Black Hills, South Dakota
Russ Bishop  /  Alamy
The highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Western Europe, South Dakota's Black Hills have all the ingredients for the perfect autumn drive — plentiful trees, endless views and rich local history.
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updated 9/22/2008 2:52:58 PM ET 2008-09-22T18:52:58

I drive around one last bend and there she is—a covered bridge glistening in the early morning sun, her whitewashed timbers framed by vibrant fall colors. The river below flows free and easy for now, but soon enough will be frozen over. The window of autumn opportunity in this part of the world is only a couple of weeks, but I’ve hit it dead on, a day that defines everything we love about the fall.

Driving across (or rather “through”) the bridge, my tires rumble over beams that were first laid the year they filmed "Gone With the Wind"—which is exactly what many of the bright colored leaves will soon be. Through the mock Gothic windows I catch snatches of color—crimson maples and golden birches arrayed along the river and climbing the hillsides behind, mingling with evergreens and rocky outcrops that reach toward snowcapped peaks.

Anyone looking at my pictures from the day would swear they’d been snapped in New England. And I probably would have put money on that myself, so close is the resemblance to the holy grail of fall foliage. But it’s not even close. Try central Oregon. Goodpasture Bridge over the McKenzie River about 30 miles east of Eugene. A part of the West where author Ken Kesey grew up and that inspired much of his writing. And just as luscious come fall as the Green Mountains, Franconia Notch or any of New England’s chromatic landmarks.

The fall foliage trip is almost a national rite of passage—a quintessentially American combination of the outdoors and the automobile. For many, losing oneself in a landscape of riotous reds, profound purples, and outrageous oranges can be a quasi-religious experience.

New England, of course, is the classic mecca for fall-foliage pilgrims. Kevin Smith, Ph.D., a plant physiologist with the USDA Forest Service in Durham, N.H., explains that “the vibrancy of color in New England is a function of the mix of tree species that we have—the reds from maples, oranges from sugar maples, yellows from birches, purple from beeches, all mixed in with the dark green of conifers like pine and hemlock.”

Jamie Jensen, author of "Road Trip USA", says Route 100, in Vermont’s Green Mountains, offers “the quintessential New England experience,” with “the classic combinations of rolling pastures, rustic red barns, white clapboard churches, quaint villages and covered bridges—all backed by spectacular hardwood forest whose maple, birch and other trees blaze with fall color.”

But as Smith and others point out, there are beautiful autumnal landscapes to be found almost anywhere in the country, from the backwoods of northern Florida and the Mississippi delta to the desert canyons of the southwest and places where there aren’t even any trees.

Denali Highway in south-central Alaska fits the latter description, a 135-mile route through rolling alpine tundra terrain that morphs into a carpet of interwoven red, orange and purple the first few weeks of September. From Maclaren Summit you can look out over the always-snow-covered Alaska Range and the highest peak in North America (20,320-foot Denali). Those with a sharp eye and little bit of luck can often see moose, caribou and even the occasional grizzly bear wandering across the autumn landscape.

At the opposite end of the continent, the old Natchez Trace Parkway through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi transforms in the fall—thousands of beech, oak and hickory trees arrayed along a 444-mile route between Nashville and the Mississippi River. For more than 8,000 years, humans have been trekking this leafy path. While today’s Trace is paved, more than 100 roadside hiking trails provide access to state parks, national forest and other wilderness areas where the autumnal coat-of-many-colors can get even more intense.

“Although one may see fall color anywhere along the length of the parkway, the northern portions tend to have a larger diversity of deciduous trees,” says Dave Carney, chief of interpretation and volunteer coordinator of the Natchez Trace Parkway.

“Because the parkway travels north and south, the north end of the parkway will experience color change first (generally around mid October). From the Alabama state line south to around Tupelo, the colors tend to be a week to two weeks behind the north end of the parkway, and south of Tupelo can be another two weeks beyond that.” Overall, says Carney, the best fall colors tend to be between mileposts 193 (Jeff Busby) and 444 (Nashville).

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Another unlikely place for auburn colors is the Black Hills of South Dakota. Belying its monochromatic moniker, the range is saturated with canyons that turn orange-red come fall. Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway loops through the hills on a 68-mile journey past spruce reflected in highland lakes and quacking aspen framing Mount Rushmore.

For grand vistas, American Road magazine's executive editor, Thomas Repp, recommends a fall drive along Pennsylvania Route 120 between Ridgway and Lock Haven. “The colorful landscapes along the route overwhelm,” he says, “as you make your way to one of the grandest views in the United States at Hyner View State Park ... looking over the valley floor, across the Allegheny Plateau, the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, and onward to the edge of the sky.”

Timing is the key—and elusive—ingredient in the fall drive. Kevin Smith explains that the annual turning of the leaves is triggered by a combination of day length and temperature, but he allows that scientists “still don’t entirely understand what the timing is all about.”

For help with predictions, there are several excellent resources, including the Forest Service’s fall foliage hotline (800-354-4595), which offers region by region information, including predictions of leaf colors, foliage peaks and tips for scenic drives.

But Smith cautions not to get too fixated on projections about how good this particular season going to be. He says it’s important to keep in mind that “so much of the intensity of the experience is on a very specific basis—this hillside or that, this valley or that mountain.”

He adds, “The main thing is to take your time and enjoy what’s in front of you. ... Being able to see off in the distance is great. But having a solid, beautiful, individual tree right in front of you can be every bit as moving.”

Large regional foliage maps can point you in the right direction, but for help with the smaller picture, try The Foliage Network, which collects data from an army of volunteer foliage spotters twice a week during the fall, ensuring an up-to-date and very specific report for “leaf peepers.”

Planning ahead is also crucial for those looking for accommodations along the drive, especially in the more well-known leaf-viewing areas of New England.

Alternatively, you can take your accommodations with you, like Hall-Bruzenak, who prefers traveling by RV for a more leisurely paced journey. “If you want to stick around and enjoy an area or wait a few days for the best time,” she says, you can simply “find a campground right in the forest.”

And Jensen has another important piece of advice for car travelers: Get out of the car. “Keep a lookout for ‘scenic viewpoints’ and trailheads and soak it up with all of your senses: Smell the pines, listen to the winds and the water flowing past, feel and hear the crackling of leaves as you tread over them.”

And as for what to drive? According to Dale Fox of Spin Automotive Group, a luxury car club based in Los Angeles, "There are few thrills in the world like weaving down a back road in a vintage Alfa Romeo Giulietta, with the autumn leaves dancing in the roadster's wake. Never mind the chill in the air. This season demands a top-down approach—convertibles are a must. And turn off the stereo, too. This is a time to listen to the voice of the engine and the song of the wind flowing past your ears."

Of course, the choice of vehicle may depend on the road one is driving. For instance, a vintage Cadillac convertible—with Elvis blasting, of course—really sets the mood when driving the Natchez Trace in autumn. Likewise, you might want to drive the Denali Highway in a sturdy 4x4 (especially given the fact that most of the route is unpaved).

Finally, don’t neglect those grander, metaphysical sensations. As Smith puts it, “Autumn is a time for reflection, or a certain nostalgia for things that are over—intimations of mortality. We see such real gloriousness in nature, and know that that gloriousness is a prelude or harbinger of winter to come.”

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