Fall drives
Submitted by Lori Kitzhaber, FirstPerson
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/15/2009 11:41:14 AM ET 2009-09-15T15:41:14

It’s the age-old paradox of leaf-peeping: By the time you know the foliage is hitting its peak, most local hotels are booked solid.

The solution? Forgo the multi-day tour, opting instead for a one-day trip as part of your existing fall travel plans. You’ll not only save on lodging, but with gas prices easing recently ($2.57 per gallon nationwide), a full tank won’t break the bank.

Fact is, there’s gorgeous foliage within a one-tank trip of many of the nation’s major metropolitan areas. Here are five possibilities:

Boston
New Hampshire may not be Napa, but visitors can easily enjoy fine wines and fall foliage via four new oenological itineraries. For an easy day trip from Boston, consider the Near Coast Trail, which winds along back roads between Manchester and the Atlantic.

First, whet your appetite with a drive up the coast along Route 1A. In Portsmouth, turn inland toward Lee and the Flag Hill Winery and Distillery, which occupies an 18th-century farm overlooking the Lamprey River. This year, the company has added barrel-aged apple brandy to its roster of 15 wines and liquors.

From Lee, the options spread out like vines on a trellis. Options include boutique wines at Candia Vineyards in Candia, Tuscan-inspired varietals at Zorvino Vineyards in Sandown and exotic hybrids at Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton. Just don’t be surprised if the foliage gets better-looking as the day wears on. (Note: tasting schedules vary, so call before visiting.)

New York
River views, Revolutionary War history and some of New York’s most accessible foliage — you could spend a week amid the blazing foliage of the Hudson River Valley. One day? Hit a few highlights with a morning hike in Bear Mountain State Park and an afternoon cruise on the river.

From Manhattan, head up the west side of the river on the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Leave the crowds at the Bear Mountain Zoo and head north on the Appalachian Trail, where a new suspension bridge leads to the ruins of Fort Montgomery and commanding river views.

After lunch, continue north to Newburgh for a two-hour cruise on the Pride of the Hudson  (Wednesday–Sunday, $18). Sailing south, the boat passes mansions, state parks, the West Point Military Academy and enough foliage to fill a 1 GB memory card. Afterwards, take I-84 east to the Taconic Parkway for another scenic route home.

Washington, D.C.
Avoid the automotive conga line heading for Skyline Drive and enjoy fall the old-fashioned way amid the historic towns of Virginia’s northernmost counties.

To do so, take US 50 west to Sky Meadows State Park, where wooded trails lead to high pastures and valley views. During October, the park hosts weekend farm festivals, complete with live music, farm products and living-history demonstrations.

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The harvest theme continues in Winchester, where fall foliage provides the backdrop for a bumper crop of working farms and orchards. Take the self-guided Apple Trail driving tour and you can sample ciders, pies and scenic vistas along the way.

From there, it’s a straight shot back to D.C., via Route 7 — unless, that is, you choose to visit the wineries around Purcellville, hike the wooded Washington & Old Dominion Trail near Leesburg or take in the scenery along the Potomac at one of several regional parks.

Chicago
When in Chicago, make like Chicagoans and head to Southeastern Wisconsin where the abundance of foliage-viewing opportunities is matched only by the diversity of the trees themselves.

Start your day by heading to Lake Geneva, where 19th-century tycoons landscaped their lakefront mansions with exotic species, such as lindens, gingkos and Japanese pagoda trees. Today, a public lakefront path offers gorgeous fall colors and a glimpse of how the other one percent lives.

For a more natural experience, continue 20 miles north to the southern unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest, a 20,000-acre stretch of native hickory, oak and maple. Pick up a picnic lunch at the LaGrange General Store, explore the forest’s myriad hiking and mountain biking trails or simply cruise the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive before heading east to catch I-94 back to Chicago.

Denver
Less than 30 miles from Denver, Boulder puts an artistic spin on fall foliage during Open Studios, a community program in which 130 local artists open their studios to the public. This year’s event runs October 3–4 and October 10–11.

Start your tour at the Boulder Public Library, where you can preview one piece from each artist and purchase a guidebook/map ($12) to plan your itinerary. In town, head for the aptly named Mapleton Hill neighborhood where tall maple trees loom over historic homes.

From there, head up Boulder Canyon Drive, where cottonwoods crowd the creekbed, aspens dot the hillsides and every side road seems to lead to an artist’s studio. Continue west to Nederland, south on the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway and back to Denver via I-70.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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