There’s nothing like the great outdoors. Correction: there’s nothing like the great outdoors in fall. Comfortable weather, breathtaking fall foliage, fewer crowds.
Below, we’ve rounded up the most incredible fall hikes in America, whether you’re seeking a leaf-peeping adventure or coastal retreat.
Elk Knob State Park Summit Trail in Todd, North Carolina
While many flock to Daniel Boone’s one-time stomping grounds (the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell) to soak up autumnal views, our vote is the under-the-radar Elk Knob State Park, where you won’t be bumping elbows with hordes of tourists. Once you’re there, be sure to check out the volunteer-built Summit Trail — it clocks in at 1.9 miles one way to the 5,520-foot pinnacle — where you can scope out Mount Jefferson, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell and the Iron Mountains of Virginia and Tennessee from the top.
Molly’s Knob in Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County, Virginia
Hungry Mother State Park is known as the crown jewel of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, which really sparkle in a vibrant rainbow of colors in the autumn. The 108-acre Hungry Mother Lake is one gem inside the 1930s-era park. Thankfully, summer crowds are mostly abated this time of year and visitors will be treated to a show of brilliant fall foliage enshrouding the pristine mountain lake. The Lake Trail is a flat option with plenty of opportunities for birding along the way.
For something more challenging, make the trek to Molly’s Knob, where you’ll be met with plenty of benches for breaks. When you arrive at the summit, you can see picturesque views of Mount Rogers on a clear day. Come nightfall, the park has several campgrounds, or venture to the adjacent town of Marion, for lodging options ranging from a boutique property General Francis Marion Hotel to vacation rentals.
Old Growth Forest Trail in Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, Michigan
A seasonal modern campground? Boat launches? A picnic area? Check, check, and bring your enthusiasm (and lunch victuals) to the sprawling Hartwick Pines State Park which offers 21 miles of year-round trails, including the accessible, 1.25-mile paved Old Growth Forest Trail. On this enchanted path, you’ll see some 49 acres of 400-year-old pine trees, as well as many unique buildings like the Hartwick Pines Logging Museum.
Ruby Crest Trail in Lamoille, Nevada
Forty-three miles of postcard-worthy hiking awaits at the Ruby Crest Trail in the Ruby Mountain range in northeastern Nevada. As you mosey around alpine lakes at elevation ranges from 7,200 to 10,893 feet, be sure to carve in downtime to enjoy a picnic or go fishing.
The region really shines in the fall as the leaves change, but if you can’t swing a fall outing, try coming in the spring when the wildflowers bloom.
Table Rock Trail in Pickens, South Carolina
There’s good reason Table Rock State Park’s 3.6-mile ascent up 2,000-feet is one of South Carolina’s most photographed locales. Yes, with the uphill climb, you’ll have to sing for your supper, but the summit provides sweeping vistas of the Table Rock reservoir, Caesar’s Head State Park, and Pinnacle lake.
Given that it’s five hours roundtrip, this hike is best suited for experienced hikers. Nearby are horseback tours, wine tasting and barbecuing
Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island, California
Fall hiking doesn’t need to be limited to leaf chasing. Use this map for exploration of the breathtaking Trans-Catalina Trail, which meanders and dazzles for some 38 miles. Many adventurers hike the trail over the course of three or four days spending the night at various campgrounds along the way, but even a short segment will give you a taste of the region’s beauty with a wider variety of terrain from grassland and woodlands to ridgelines and remote beaches.
Cooler temps in the fall make it an ideal time to hit the trail, and for a bit of luxury Catalina Backcountry will deliver heavier camping equipment, extra food or catered meals to the Black Jack Campground. Before you skip town, be sure to hop aboard a glass-bottom boat voyage.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
In Southernmost Illinois, wanderers will delight in the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, especially during fall when colorful foliage sets the region ablaze in rich hues of orange, yellow, and red. Hiking-wise, journey along the Observation Trail, for a ¼-mile stone path brimming with eye-catching rock formations (there’s also a year-round campground here).
For the best experience with the least amount of people, try to visit on a weekday or very early in the day or at the end of the day.
Fields of Fire in Monongahela National Forest in Grant County, West Virginia
Ten miles southeast of the town of Davis, you’ll find the Fields of Fire in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, a 17,371-acre area within the Monongahela National Forest. Within, this high-altitude plateau is known for its unique ecosystem (it’s similar to northern Canada) greeting visitors with stunted spruce trees and wind-carved boulders which pop against heath barrens that turn mesmerizing shades of red and orange in the fall.
To keep tabs on wild birds, journey to nearby Blackwater Falls State Park, another Allegheny Mountains’ oasis.
Lakeside Loop Trail in Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, Maryland
“The Mountain Side of Maryland” boasts some pretty incredible panoramas along Rocky Gap State Park’s Lakeside Loop. The moderate 5.3-mile trail circles around the 243-acre Lake Habeeb, celebrated for having what’s said to be the bluest water in the state. With scenic footbridges, woodlands bursting with fall color and rock gardens, there’s hardly a non-photogenic view.
Rocky Gap Golf Course — the only Jack Nicklaus Signature Course in the state — at the Rocky Gap Casino Resort is a must for those in the area who crave tee time in the area.
Red Bird Trail in High Cliff State Park, near the Fox Cities, Wisconsin
Who knew that you can start in High Cliff State Park along the Niagara Escarpment and end up in Niagara Falls, New York? If you don’t want to make that epic journey, head towards Red Bird Trail, which isn’t humble about showing off its bright fall foliage surrounding Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, Lake Winnebago.
While there are some offshoot paths for more advanced hikers, the Red Bird Trail is a great option for all skill levels. Worth noting: The trail’s name pays tribute to the leader of the Winnebago (or Ho-Chunk) Indigenous American tribe.