Image:Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, NC
NC Division of Tourism
The Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, N.C., produce some beautiful fall colors.
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updated 9/5/2011 11:03:22 AM ET 2011-09-05T15:03:22

Crisp air, panoramic views, brilliantly colored ash and poplar trees: the exhilarating route to North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell State Park — the highest peak in the Eastern United States — is a destination in itself. The scenic 75-year-old Blue Ridge Parkway is just one of the country’s great autumn drives.

Slideshow: America's best fall color drives

The fall foliage season, when the changing palette of deciduous trees is in blazing bloom, is now starting. And the way to maximize your intake of color is to map out a driving route. In September, October, and — in some spots — even November, color seekers can visit 31 states and drive more than 3,000 miles of national scenic byways, plus thousands of other scenic roads.

Some nature lovers, like former Shenandoah National Park guide Hazel Mills, can’t wait to buckle up and get up close and personal with the purple dogwoods and deep burgundy leaves of the Virginia creepers. “It’s like a basketful of fall chrysanthemums in every color,” she says. “Red and yellow, purple, and deep burgundy. When the afternoon sun hits the hickory, it looks exactly like gold, absolutely breathtaking.”

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Video: Travel prices discounted for Fall travel (on this page)

Others, like Mike Boutin, owner of Maine-based Northwoods Outfitters, like to take country drives surrounded by mountains bursting with yellow beeches, scarlet maples, and purple witch hazel around Moosehead Lake. He also loves one of the season’s biggest local adventures — back-road moose safaris. “It doesn’t get better than pulling over to see a huge brown male moose crash through a riot of bright red and yellow leaves,” says Boutin.

Certain areas of the country — the Northeast corridor, the Southeast, along the Appalachian Mountains, and much of the Midwest — produce the most striking and vibrant colors because of mild autumn days and cool (but not freezing) evenings. If daytime temperatures are too warm for an extended period of time, colors are less intense.

If you’re planning a fall foliage trip, choose your route based not only on the timing of nature’s fiery color display, but also around available activities. Horseback ride through the orange hickory trees in Shenandoah National Park. Or stand beneath a quivering golden aspen at Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra while peering through a dusty window in Bodie, the best-preserved ghost town in California.

But no matter where you are, the way to cover the most ground — and take in the biggest eyeful of color — is behind the wheel. Here are some of our favorite fall color drives.

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Video: Travel prices discounted for Fall travel

  1. Closed captioning of: Travel prices discounted for Fall travel

    >>> not your last chance to get away. you may be better off with a fall escape. fall escapes are usually not as pricey. and according to travelocity, air fares drop 20% after the summer. and we have an expert from travelocity with a look at how you can put some fun into your autumn. good morning.

    >> good morning, alex.

    >> i think of the beautiful leaf activity. that has to be top of the list, right?

    >> absolutely. people want to go on wine tasting trips, fall foliage trips. that's peak of season. you get better prices traveling mid week. this year because the damage done by hurricane irene , i would be on the lookout for deals in vermont and new hampshire. people are canceling trips, thinking they can't get there. b & bs and inns will have openings.

    >> and the $300 million tourism industry in the fall alone. they need this.

    >> what about trips that travelers are taking, city bound, beaches still? how does that break down?

    >> people will be visiting cities during the fall. but beach destinations are a great option. it's still warm , and you can get phenomenal deals. think about a place like burr bermuda. they have a destination wide promotion for a $400 instant credit. that's how they are luring people there. it gets little chillier, it's a great golf destination.

    >> in terms of cities across the country, new york city tops the list, followed closely by las vegas , orlando, chicago, and san francisco . good fall destinations? and if so steals and deals to be had?

    >> las vegas has great room rates, some of the most competitive in the country. orlando right now is -- has one of their slower seasons. kids back in school.

    >> right.

    >> these this is a fantastic time to go. and if you want to go down, a great time to go places like new york city , san francisco , chicago, best rates to find on sunday nights when business travelers haven't arrived. look for things like opaque hotels, the booking process is complete. ge get up to 55%.

    >> what if you want to head over the ocean, are there deals for that in the fall?

    >> absolutely. europe, a great destination in the fall. take a mediterranean cruise for $100 per person.

    >> what?

    >> very inexpensive as compared to summer months. air fare falls 30%, 40% in the fall, especially doing sightseeing. if the weather is agreeable. crowds fewer. a wonderful, wonderful time.

    >> have to get that done before the holidays, because then it really jacks up.

    >> except for thanks giving. don't want to have turkey in the u.s. thanksgiving one of the cheapest of the year

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