I’d seen surreal pictures in Arizona Highways and other publications. But I wasn’t a true believer until I saw them with my own eyes—the vivid colors that transform central Arizona from just another sun-baked landscape into one of America’s most incredible autumn road trips, all the more remarkable because they are so unexpected.
It can’t be just any old Arizona highway; you have to choose your route carefully. In my case it was US Highway 89, which starts in the sagebrush-covered desert northwest of Phoenix. Almost from the get-go, I was driving upwards, the wicked switchbacks that make Yarnell Grade one of Arizona’s most spectacular roads. Reaching the summit, the temperature sank and the dazzling show began—splashes of incandescent yellow, red and orange against dark evergreens and massive boulders.
After passing through Prescott—where Harley-Davidsons were parked in front of the bars around leaf-filled Courthouse Square—I followed 89 up and over snow-covered Mingus Mountain and down into the Verde River Valley with its canary yellow willows and cottonwoods. The coup de grace was pulling into Sedona, its autumn trees framed by red-rock cliffs and signs inviting me to get my chakra realigned.
Fall foliage road trips are 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. From Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost to crooner James Taylor and funky Earth, Wind & Fire, generations of American artists have been inspired by the vivid season.
New England is still the holy grail of fall-foliage pilgrims. “The vibrancy of color in New England is a function of the mix of tree species that we have,” says Dr Kevin Smith, a plant physiologist with the US Forest Service in New Hampshire. “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.”
But as Smith and others point out, beautiful autumnal landscapes can be found in just about every corner of America, from the backwoods of Dixie and the High Sierra to the Great Lakes region 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.
Like just about everything else in the Centennial State, Colorado has transformed fall foliage from a sedentary activity into active outdoor adventure. Snatch a bird’s-eye-view of the colors from hot-air balloons in Boulder or a zipline near Durango. Breckenridge offers autumn ATC tours and Grand Junction a 25-mile public bike ride (September 19th) that winds through the area’s vineyards and fruit orchards. Another cool way to catch the colors are llama pack trips in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Timing is the key ingredient in plotting your autumn road trip, but it’s far from being an exact science. The annual turning of the leaves is triggered by a combination of day length and temperature. The ideal conditions for color change are warm sunny days followed by cool nights, with overnight temperatures between 32-45°F. Snow, rain, cloud cover and below-freezing temperatures actually decrease the color intensity. But scientists still don’t understand the entire process, which remains one of nature’s most compelling mysteries.
Planning ahead is also crucial for those looking for accommodation along the drive, especially along the more popular leaf-viewing routes through New England. Alternatively, you can cruise autumn roads in an RV, staying overnight at color-saturated campgrounds and moving through the landscape at your own pace. More people are also exploring leafy lanes via motorcycle and bicycle, either solo or on organized tours.
"Road Trip USA" author Jamie Jensen offers more advice. “Get out of the car!” he urges. “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.”
Vehicles also help set the mood. There’s nothing like a convertible—country western tunes blasting out the open top—when driving sunny Arizona in the autumn. An eco-friendly Prius seems just right for ultra-green Oregon, a Corvette best for whipping around those curves in California’s High Sierra. And you wouldn’t want to challenge the rugged Denali Highway without a sturdy 4x4 (maybe even a GMC Denali?).
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.”