Image: Arizona
Byron Jorjorian / Alamy
Climbing 4,000 feet in less than 80 miles, U.S. Highway 89 offers a dramatic transition from Arizona desert to high mountain and mesa country where the trees run riot each fall.
updated 11/1/2010 1:26:33 PM ET 2010-11-01T17:26:33

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 — he 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 U.S. 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.

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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 chakras 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 U.S. 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 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.

Quaint traditions like roadside pumpkin wagons and charming villages marks a tour of Ohio's Amish Country. Meanwhile, Michigan’s secluded Upper Peninsula, surrounded by three different Great Lakes, is still one of the wildest parts of the Lower 48. With more than 7 million acres of forest, the U.P. is a natural when it comes to fall colors.

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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 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. 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.

Among the excellent resources available to autumn leaf aficionados is the Forest Service’s fall foliage hotline, which offers region-by-region information, including predictions of leaf colors, foliage peaks and tips for scenic drives. Another great planning tool is 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 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.”

© 2012

Photos: Fall splendor

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  1. Never forgotten

    Fall leaves lay among the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Oct. 28. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Balancing act

    A fallen leaf sits on the backrest of a park bench in the Schoenberg area of Berlin, Nov. 1. (Odd Andersen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Through a child's eyes

    A mother and child look at autumn leaves at The National Arboretum in Westonbirt, western England, Oct. 22. (Eddie Keogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Up, up and away

    Colored leaves can be seen in the tree tops of beech trees in the Schlaubetal near Bremsdorf, eastern Germany, on Oct. 24. (Patrick Pleul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Feeling the love

    People walk past a heart made of leaves on the grass in Berlin's Tiergarten Park, Nov. 2. (Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Waterfront view

    Colored leaves lay on stones in the Schlaube river near Bremsdorf, eastern Germany, on Oct. 24. (Patrick Pleul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Mountain air

    Trees on the Sharr mountains, located southeast of Kosovo, are seen during autumn, Oct. 24. (Hazir Reka / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Having a blast

    Children play with fallen leaves in a park in Bucharest on Oct. 21. (Daniel Mihailescu / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Fall-time falls

    Colored leaves at the Kamikochi Resort in Matsumoto, northwest of Tokyo on Nov. 1. The viewing of autumn leaves has been a popular activity in Japan for centuries and today draws large numbers of travelers both in the mountains and in the cities. (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Standing out

    Leaves from a Japanese Maple are seen as they change color at The National Arboretum in Westonbirt, western England, Oct. 22. (Eddie Keogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Korean color

    Woohwa Lake surrounded by autumn foilage inside Mount Naejang National Park in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, South Korea, Nov. 2. (Yonhap / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A dogwood's life

    A dogwood tree reflected in a pond at Shaver Lake, Calif. on Oct. 17. (John Walker / The Fresno Bee via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Golden hues

    Golden autumn leaves frame a view over Titi lake Oct. 12 in Titisee-Neustadt, Germany. (Rolf Haid / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Reflection

    Fall colors reflect in a pond as mallard ducks enjoy the summer-like temperatures Oct. 8 in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A lovely walk

    Pedestrians walk along a path lined by trees in the midst of changing to seasonal autumnal colors Oct. 8 at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Deer season

    A deer forages for food in the early morning sun as cooler temperatures bring on the autumn season Oct. 11 at Dunham Massey in Lymm, England. Along with the shortening daylight hours and cooler weather, it's also rutting season for red and fallow deer herds in Britain. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Playing with leaves

    A woman tosses leaves in the air at a park Oct. 11 on an autumn day in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. (Sergei Grits / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Fall harvest

    Farmer Angela Alison arranges apples Sept. 27 at Whitehouse farm in Wilberfoss, northern England. The farm diversified in 2002, planting 2,000 trees with around 200 varieties, which are sold through local outlets. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Changing season

    Colorful leaves are seen in the foreground as Mount Washington peaks through the clouds Sept. 29 in Bretton Woods, N.H. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Golden glow

    Maple leaves in their autumnal colors are illuminated by the sun Oct. 7 in a park in Moscow. (Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A quiet moment

    Ron Winalski of Vernon, Conn., casts a line at Valley Falls Park in Vernon on Oct. 14. (Leslloyd F. Alleyne / Journal Inquirer via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Colorful living

    Autumnal colors adorn the wall of a house Sept. 29 in Essen, Germany. (Julian Stratenschulte / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Colors of the season

    Cows graze on a hill above the central Bohemian town of Votice, 40 miles south of Prague, Czech Republic, on Oct. 12 on a sunny autumn day. (Petr Josek / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Filtered light

    The sun filters through the trees Oct. 14 in Celestine, Ind. (Michael Conroy / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Autumn fog

    Tree tops rise above the fog Oct. 14 in a valley in Jasper, Ind. (Michael Conroy / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Beautiful pasture

    A horse walks in a field surrounded by fall colors Oct. 12 in Thomas Township near Saginaw, Mich. (Jeff Schrier / The Saginaw News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Contrast

    A yellowed leaf lies in drops of water on the roof of a blue car Oct. 15 in Dresden, eastern Germany. (Arno Burgi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. First snowfall

    A man walks across a park Oct. 13 as the season's first snow falls on Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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