By Dawn McCaslin
Autumn brings out the adventurer in all of us. Thankfully, there are countless opportunities for discovering stunning natural beauty from coast to coast. As fall rolls around, the weather becomes milder, the air turns crisp and we find ourselves seeking out that last burst of colorful expression before the stark hibernation of winter settles in. Here, we offer up great fall road trip opportunities, along with budgeting tools, packing suggestions and a list of resources you may find useful for planning your outing.
Where to Go
California - Inyo National Forest - Having just celebrated its centennial in 2007, Inyo National Forest is spectacular with its mountain lakes and streams, challenging trails and two million acres of natural wonders for you to discover. Inyo is home to the Bristlecone Pine Forest, the oldest living trees in the world. Some are over 5,000 years old! Native American for "dwelling place of the great spirit," Inyo National Forest offers many one-of-a-kind sights that shouldn't be missed.
From mid-September through early October, this eastern High Sierra paradise has the added attraction of some of the best fall foliage displays in California. Particularly good hot spots are the Lee Vining area near Mono Lake and Yosemite, and Rock Creek down near Mammoth Lakes.
Colorado - Gunnison National Forest - The Colorado high country's year-round splendor is such that it's easy to forget how beautiful it is in autumn, when the aspens take on a deep golden glow. And for sheer Rocky Mountain beauty, it's tough to top Gunnison National Forest, which is home to the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. As you'd expect, the scenery here is monumental: There are more than 20 peaks here topping 13,000 feet; there are the 1,000-foot walls of the spectacular, 20-mile-long Taylor River Canyon; there are stunning views from the likes of 12,000-foot Browns Pass.
Nestled in the heart of the forest is the ski-town of Crested Butte, very much a four-season adventure destination. Crested Butte's fat-tire biking trails are legendary, and its trout fishing, rafting, and scenic driving are one of a kind. Six of Colorado's 24 byways can be found here and are well worth the extra trip. Kebler Pass Road is a gorgeous fall drive and will offer you views of several breathtaking mountain ranges. Don't pass this one by!
Pennsylvania - Allegheny National Forest - Not too many folks outside the orbits of Pittsburgh and Buffalo know the charms of northwestern Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. Encompassing half a million acres of rugged, Allegheny Plateau landscape, this forest is the region's deep-woods escape hatch, with many miles of footpaths, bike trails, trout streams, and navigable rivers, as well as the flatwater expanses of the Allegheny Reservoir. With fall's arrival, the forest—mostly oak, black cherry, yellow poplar, white ash, and red and sugar maple—lights up with color that's offset by the green of huge old white pines. A number of two-lane roads wind through the forest, bringing you to trailheads, scenic overlooks, and historic sites. The Allegheny is also bracketed by the Allegheny River on the northwestern side and the Clarion on the southwest. Both offer good fishing and floating.
New Hampshire/Maine - White Mountain National Forest - The Whites are on every leaf peeper's radar as one of the best places in the country to catch the fall-color spectacle. When the mercury plummets, the whole landscape comes aflame; whether you walk, drive, ride, or paddle your way through these glowing forests, it's an experience to remember. But fame has its price: Think twice before joining the bus, RV, and auto parade from Boston or New York to spots like North Conway on weekends in September and October - the traffic can be bad enough to spoil your fun. Instead, head up I-93 to Franconia Notch, Crawford Notch, or Pinkham Notch, and then leave the roadways behind. You'll leave the crowds behind as well.
Read more on other fall foliage destinations to visit this autumn.
Budgeting for Your Trip
Ensuring that you've properly budgeted for your road trip is as simple as sketching out your plan and using a few online resources.
- Determine the number of days you'll be traveling and the approximate number of miles you plan to drive each day to calculate the total miles for your trip. Then, use an online guide for gas prices (see Resources for our suggestion) to get an estimate of your gas expenses.
- Decide if you'll be camping, staying in cheap roadside motels or looking for nicer accommodations, such as a local bed and breakfast. Multiply the cost of your accommodations by the number of nights you'll be on the road, and add this to your gas expenses.
- Have any excursions planned like a canoe trip, a guided tour, museums or horseback riding through the mountains? Most National Forest websites provide resource guides, along with admission costs and tour prices, to help with your planning.
- In addition to purchasing light snacks for the road, you'll need to allocate additional money for meals at restaurants and snacks for hiking.
- Finally, always have an emergency fund in case the unexpected happens. Remember to keep your wallet in a safe place and never leave it visible or unattended in your vehicle.
What to Pack
Here are a few things to keep in mind when the time comes to prepare for your trip:
- If you plan on being away for more than a few days, type up a rough itinerary and leave a copy with friends and relatives. In the event of an emergency, they'll have an idea of where you can be located.
- Consider creating a Road Trip blog, an online journal where you can post pictures and document your trip for loved ones to check out and enjoy.
- Stock up on emergency items, such as road flares, a fire extinguisher, bottles of water, a flashlight, a healthy spare tire, emergency blankets and a first-aid kit.
- Bring maps and a list of places you'd like to visit. Check out restaurant suggestions ahead of time, as well as entrance fees to national parks or museums.
- Packing for a road trip presents unique challenges. Due to limited space, it's a good idea to keep clothing options to a minimum. In the event you run out of clean clothes, simply find a local coin laundry or swing into a store for that extra item.
- Remember to pack at least one pair of pants, one pair of shorts, tops for both warm and cooler weather, along with a light jacket, mittens/gloves, and extra socks and under clothing.
- Keep an "essentials" bag in the car with you that contain items like maps, reading material, a camera, hand lotion, sunscreen, tissues and hand sanitizer. Don't forget a spare pillow for passengers who may get sleepy.
- Bring a cooler and a variety of small snacks that are perfect for long hours on the road. Having plenty of fluids on hand is vital. Also, consider things like small bags of nuts, granola bars, snack-size chips, veggies and hardy fruits, like apples and oranges, bread and peanut butter and jelly. Remember to pack a small knife and a plate or cutting board.
Whether it's a short weekend getaway or a week's worth of chasing those brilliant leaves, remember to plan ahead, bring a camera and drive safely.
GORP.com - Comprehensive National Park information and provider of destination suggestions and synopsis for this article.
Roadtripamerica.com - For information on road trips and travel planning.
Gasbuddy.com - Check gas prices in the US and Canada, as well as what cities have the cheapest prices on your route.
FS.FED.US - USDA Forest Service provided much of the information for this article plus you can access individual pages for each of the National Forests mentioned.