The Leaf Peeper’s Guide to Fall Foliage Hikes in the Appalachian Mountains
I t’s almost October, and there’s finally a hint of crisp fall weather in the air. Decorative gourds will soon appear on suburban lawns up and down the east coast. However, the real hallmark of autumn—the fall foliage—won’t emerge all at once. While Mainers are already enjoying peak color in their mountains, Georgians may wait the better part of a month before their trees turn. It’s sure to be a spectacle as the green tunnel turns gradually to gold all throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
The fall foliage map developed by SmokyMountains.com uses long term weather forecasts and historical data from NOAA to estimate when fall colors will peak across the continental United States. Note that fall colors will still be gorgeous for at least a week or so before and after the peak.
According to this (highly theoretical) map, fall foliage is already peaking in Maine. Peak color will gradually migrate south as October progresses and will be past peak throughout the Appalachians by November 2nd. That means that October is the month to enjoy some fall foliage hikes in the Appalachian Mountains. Here’s when fall colors should reach their peak in every section of the Appalachian Trail this year.
COVID Considerations for Fall Foliage Hikes in the Appalachian Mountains
Not to be a buzzkill, but there’s still kind of a whole pandemic thing happening right now. Remember to be mindful of local pandemic guidance and restrictions before planning a leaf-peeping trip. If possible, stick to fall foliage hikes in your local area to minimize non-essential travel. Remember that many states still require out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for two weeks upon crossing the border. Other restrictions may also be in effect. Either way, you should be prepared to follow pandemic best practices, including social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing on your leaf-peeping adventures this fall.
September 28th – October 5th: Northern New England
There’s a reason New England is the quintessential leaf-peeping destination in the United States. The northern hardwood forests of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are studded with jewel-bright maples and other vibrant autumn trees. Vermont’s Green Mountains, New Hampshire’s Whites, and Maine’s… everything?… make a stunning mountainous backdrop to this glorious metamorphosis every year around this time.
Choose a hike in southern Vermont if you want gentler terrain, or go to the Whites or Maine if you crave a more challenging leaf-peeping trip. Hiking in this region is spectacular all year, but the color change takes things to the next level. Peak color is happening now, so if you want to see the best autumn has to offer, there’s no time to waste.
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October 6th – October 12th: Massachusetts and Connecticut
No need to despair if you’re not able to lace up your hiking boots and take to the trails of northern New England right this minute. Fall color should be peaking a bit further south in Massachusetts and Connecticut the following week. The Appalachian Trail in this region takes you over rocky ledges, through rolling farms and fields, and along meandering rivers. Take a leisurely stroll along the Housatonic River in Connecticut or hit the Massachusetts high point at Mount Greylock. Either way, you’re sure to peep some pretty rad leaves here this month.
October 13th – 19th: Northern PA, NJ, NY, NC, TN, VA
The second full week in October will be a busy one for those seeking fall foliage hikes in the Appalachian Mountains. Northern Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey will all be peaking around that time. So will North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Both regions have a lot to offer for prospective hikers and sightseers.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York offer gentler terrain (but plenty of rocks) combined with a typically vibrant color change. This region also has the added benefit of numerous Small New England Towns for added ambiance.
On the other hand, North Carolina/Tennessee is home to the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the country’s most sought-after leaf-peeping destinations. And Virginia offers hundreds of miles of prime fall foliage hikes. These include Shenandoah National Park, Grayson Highlands, and the highly photogenic Roanoke Triple Crown (Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs). Road trippers love cruising down the Blue Ridge Parkway that connects Shenandoah to the Smokies at this time of year.
October 20th – October 26th: Southern Pennsylvania
Late October is prime time for fall foliage hikes in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Appalachian Trail in southern PA offers some of the gentlest, most idyllic hiking on the entire AT.
October 26th-November 2nd: West Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia
The winding, cobblestone streets, and tall, white steeples of historic Harpers Ferry make a perfect backdrop for brilliant fall foliage. Those looking for an easy (but still gorgeous) fall foliage hike in the Appalachian Mountains will love the C&O Canal bike path that passes through this area. Those seeking more of a challenge can climb up to Weverton Cliffs. The overlook provides a 180-plus degree view of the river valley and ample leaf-peeping opportunities. Be on the lookout for the tasty pawpaw fruits that grow in this area and come ripe in late autumn.
Over a thousand miles further south, the color change is also peaking down in Georgia. Georgia is one of the last places for fall foliage hikes in the Appalachian mountains, but it’s certainly not the least. Amicalola Falls near the AT’s Southern Terminus and Mount Albert on the North Carolina border are both primo leaf-peeping hikes.
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