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Alternative Autumn: foliage for active travelers

Scenic drives are nothing if not scenic, and I like fresh-pressed cider as much as the next guy, but sometimes, you just have to get out there and crank it up a notch. After all, there’s nothing like a shot of adrenaline to heighten your senses.
Image: Fall foliage and a zip line
Colorado's golden fall colors are much more dramatic if you're taking them in while screaming along one of Soaring Tree Tops Adventures' zip lines outside

Ahhh, fall foliage. The perfect backdrop for a puttering along a winding two-lane, strolling the grounds of a harvest festival or Zzzzzz ...

Don’t get me wrong. Scenic drives are nothing if not scenic, and I like fresh-pressed cider as much as the next guy, but sometimes, you just have to get out there and crank it up a notch. After all, there’s nothing like a shot of adrenaline to heighten your senses.

So, with billions of leaves on the verge of turning — several states began posting online foliage updates just last week — it’s time to decide whether you want to follow the herd or try something a little more adventurous. If you’re up for the latter, consider the following eight options. Just be aware: these are not your grandfather’s foliage tours.

When the typical leaf-peeping tour starts looking too tame, thrill-seeking foliage fans may want to consider a two-day Jump and Raft package at Three Rivers Whitewater Rafting in Millinocket, Maine. On one day, you’ll paddle the Class V rapids of the Penobscot River; on the other, you’ll experience a tandem skydive from 11,000 feet. From the slopes of Mt. Katahdin to the banks of the river, the view is stunning — as long as your eyes aren’t squeezed shut. Weekend packages are $299 per person.

For a less intense multi-sport adventure, consider the Appalachian Mountain Club’s new “Rivers to Peaks” package in New Hampshire. Based out of the club’s Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch, the package includes naturalist-guided hikes, a scenic gondola ride to the top of Wildcat Mountain and a day of flat-water canoeing or kayaking with a local outfitter, along with three nights lodging and all meals. Packages are $260 per person for AMC members, $285 for non-members and are available Sunday-Thursday nights through October 9.

In Vermont, foliage fans also have a new option this year: cruises on the Burlington-based Moonlight Lady, the first overnight cruise boat on Lake Champlain since 1952. Modeled after the cruising yachts of the 1920s, the 65-foot boat features three decks, eight staterooms and ever-changing views of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks. Choose from a one-night cruise ($299 per person) to Vergennes, Vermont’s oldest city, or a three-night cruise ($899 per person), which includes visits to Vergennes and New York’s Crown Point and Valcour Island.

The Blue Ridge Parkway gets more buzz (and traffic), but Virginia’s Eastern Shore offers its own pretty palette of fall colors — especially when you’re paddling the local waterways on a kayak/winery tour ($85 per person) with SouthEast Expeditions. Teaming up with nearby Chatham Vineyards, the outing combines a tour of the winery and a leisurely paddle amid coastal forests of oak and maple. There are tastings at the former, stops for snacks and sips during the latter and plenty of autumn color along the way.

Many visitors to Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina are happy to take the elevator to the top of the park’s eponymous, 315-foot-high monolith. For those seeking something more challenging, the park has partnered with Fox Mountain Guides to offer two-hour beginner rock climbing classes (from $40, plus $14 park admission) that include 100-foot ascents of nearby Vista Rock. The climb doesn’t reach the heights of Chimney Rock, but as experienced climbers will tell you, the colors are more intense when you’ve earned the view.

Part thrill ride, part scenic tour, the new River Gorge Explorer is an exhilarating way to see the Tennessee River Gorge, the 26-mile canyon outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. Owned and operated by the Tennessee Aquarium, the high-speed, 70-passenger catamaran reaches speeds of 50 mph, but slows down in the gorge as an onboard naturalist provides insights about the area’s history, topography and wildlife. Recently expanded to two hours, excursions are $29 for adults, $21.50 for children.

When it opened in 2007, the Badger State Trail in Wisconsin became the newest addition to the state’s bounty of bike trails. Starting on the outskirts of Madison, the trail runs 40 miles south along a former railbed to the Illinois state line. Highlights include the 1,200-foot-long Stewart Tunnel (bring a flashlight or headlamp), shops full of artisan foods (cheese, wine and chocolate) and, in the fall, the chance to pedal beneath a colorful canopy of basswood, oak and hickory. Day trail passes are $4.

The color palette in Colorado may be less varied — golden aspens, mostly — but it’s plenty dramatic when you’re zooming along a zip line at Soaring Tree Tops Adventures outside Durango. The remote operation features 23 ziplines, including a new 1,400-foot-long screamer, and is only accessible via the scenic Durango & Silverton steam train. Day-long adventures, including five hours of zip lining, four-course lunch and roundtrip train travel, are $339 per person. But don’t delay: the operation shuts down October 19, and word is, the leaves are already starting to turn.