Leaves the color of sunsets. Wisps of wood smoke. The crackle of bits of summer's past beneath your feet. When fall puts on its finery, those of us who claim allegiance to one state or another rush to proclaim ours king of the road trip.
As a native North Carolinian, I find it hard to hide my passion for the Tar Heel State. But if it's a contest between staying true to my roots and hitting the road to travel and see other contenders, I'll put my bias aside.
Here are some of the places, expected and otherwise, that will yield a pot of gold — and orange and red — on a fall road trip.
You can't talk about fall hues without mentioning the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile extravaganza of autumn that connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
I've lost count of how many times I've driven the parkway, which is about driving, stopping and driving again. Each trip seems to deliver new takes on old favorites or new finds, no matter how many times I've driven it.
On a recent visit to Asheville, best known as the home of the Biltmore Estate and the birthplace of author Thomas Wolfe, I was captivated by little drives just outside the city. (The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, at Milepost 384, is about eight miles east of downtown Asheville.)
Dozens of stone tunnels dot the parkway, and the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel at Milepost 375, about 15 minutes outside of Asheville, was the gateway to a favorite find. Jennifer Pharr Davis, founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Co. (blueridgehikingco.com), guided me on a trail that leads to the ruins of the 1903 Rattlesnake Lodge, a summer home that's said to have had more than three dozen rattlesnake skins tacked to its living-room ceiling. The place burned in 1926, leaving behind an interesting footprint. The trek takes about 30 minutes for the moderate hiker.
I also relished the drive along Crab Creek and DuPont roads leading to the DuPont State Forest, about 45 minutes from Asheville. Water-starved Californians can soak up the scenery at three stunning waterfalls here: High, Hooker and Triple. Graveyard Fields (at Milepost 418.8) offers a good break from driving with a moderate loop hiking trail that delivers you, 2 1/2 miles later, to another H20 beauty, Yellowstone Falls.
Just outside Asheville, I found another way to take a swing through autumnal glories: a three-quarters-of-a-mile zip line trip that affords unforgettable views of valleys and mountains, thanks to Navitat Canopy Adventures (www.navitat.com).
You'll have a hefty hike to get to all three zip line platforms, so there's pain with your pleasure, but think of it as getting to see three times the foliage. The Blue Ridge Experience costs $79 and includes three separate zip lines that go from mountaintop to mountaintop.
For the less adventurous (or as a reward for your bravery/stamina), take the drive to Looking Glass Creamery (ashevillecheese.com) in nearby Fairview, about 18 miles from downtown Asheville. The drive follows Interstate 240 East and U.S. 74 to Village Road and then to Noble Road, home of Looking Glass. Taste the equally addictive goat's milk caramel and coconut goat's cheese at your waistline's peril.
When it's time to stop driving, settle in at the private Sourwood Inn (sourwoodinn.com, doubles from $155), a mom-and-pop bed-and-breakfast about 10 miles outside of Asheville (although the winding road will take 30 minutes to traverse). From the porches, you may feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the Blue Ridge Mountains. Trails behind the inn meander through an enchanted forest that coils around to a reflection pond, a beautiful place to experience nature's last hurrah before winter.
The South and Southwest
Some of my favorite Southern and Southwestern road trips in autumn:
New Orleans: Here you can take an excellent fall foliage drive without ever getting into your car. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar is a 13-mile line that glides through the city's Garden District. In fall, the oak trees burst into color, and the historic streetcars give you a platform from which to watch. One-way fare on a streetcar is $1.25, exact change only or with a multi-use Jazzy Pass. This line takes riders through Audubon Park, past the Civil War Museum and Gallier Hall before traveling through the Garden District.
Paducah, Ky.: About 175 miles southeast of St. Louis is the enclave of Paducah, founded in 1827 by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). Paducah's proximity to the Ohio and Tennessee rivers makes it an ideal place for leaf peeping. The best drives in this area are along U.S. 60/62 which leads directly out of town, then intersects with U.S. 68. A country road of rising and falling farmlands punctuated by forest leads to the Land Between the Lakes (www.landbetweenthelakes.us), a national recreation area. Another gorgeous drive, the 43-mile Woodlands Trace Scenic Byway, is a ridge of land between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley (bit.ly/1vbyUG4). The surrounding forest provides 3,000-plus miles of leaf-filled hiking.
Ridgedale, Mo.: Nestled in the Ozarks, Big Cedar Lodge (www.big-cedar.com, doubles from $195 a night) bills itself as "America's premier wilderness resort." The area also has some gorgeous drives, particularly from the lodge to Dogwood Nature Canyon Park (www.dogwoodcanyon.org) and Top of the Rock (bit.ly/1lEokFL). Both spring from the vision of Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops and an environmental conservationist whose mission is to preserve the Ozarks' natural history.
He purchased Dogwood Nature Canyon in 1990 to protect the land, and today visitors can take a guided driving tour through the park and hang out a few feet from herds of buffalo or learn to fly fish near a covered bridge, among other experiences. From Big Cedar Lodge, the trek to Dogwood Canyon is about 25 minutes. Heading west, the road crosses over Table Rock Lake to just north of the Missouri/Arkansas border.
In the opposite direction, nearby Top of the Rock golf course is only accessible by ATV. It is a twisting road through the Lost Canyon Cave, which was formed when water penetrated through the area's limestone over thousands of years. The Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, in the main building at the end of the trail, contains prehistoric artifacts, including a woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and giant ground sloth skeletons.
New Mexico: In winter, Angel Fire Resort in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains becomes one of the area's busiest ski resorts, but fall is more chill.
From Albuquerque, the scenic route to Santa Fe runs along the backside of the Sandia Mountains along the Turquoise Trail. Along the eastern slope of the Sandias, evergreens provide the backdrop for the changing aspens. From Chimayo, travelers can take Highway 68 to Highway 64 through Taos to Angel Fire Resort, where they'll find gold in those northern aspens.
Northeast and Midwest
New York City and southern Michigan couldn't be more different, but they never fail to entice me with different ways of taking a road trip.
New York: You don't need a car here, but that doesn't mean you can't take a road trip. Traversing Central Park by bike or carriage (bit.ly/ZgLsAf) reveals Frederick Law Olmsted's masterpiece in all its glory, and trees more than hold their own against their rural cousins upstate. In October, those who hold the New York Pass (entrance to dozens of museums for one set price, www.newyorkpass.com) can take a free Central Park bike tour. Guided two-hour tours leave from two partner locations, Central Park Bicycle Rentals and Tours, (212) 541-8759, or Central Park Sightseeing Bike Rentals and Tourism (212) 975-0785. Both offer various tour times daily. Bike rentals are included for valid New York Pass holders.
Southern Michigan: Charming Ann Arbor has a lot of autumn to share, thanks to tree-lined lakes and the Huron River. Money magazine has named Ann Arbor one of its Best Places to Live in 2014, and its nickname — Tree Town — makes it a sure bet for good color and beautiful drives. Don't miss the 15-minute drive to Ypsilanti, where the Makielski Berry Farm (makielskiberryfarm.com) has 4 acres of specialty pumpkins to choose from. Starting at Huron Parkway, you'll follow East Huron Drive, then, later to North Huron Drive. Info: www.visitannarbor.org