4 National Forests with Breathtaking Fall Foliage

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Immerse yourself in the autumn beauty of national forests, from the White Mountains in New Hampshire to the rugged peaks of Colorado.

River on the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountain Forest of New Hampshirejohnandersonphoto/gettyimages
Scenic view from the Kancamagus River in White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Let nature take your breath away around each highway bend in the White Mountain National Forest. Take a scenic drive through a sea of hardwoods in autumn as colors change from yellow to orange to red and back again. Think about the conservation that went into this forest—more than a century ago it was being ravaged by unregulated logging and forest fires. Now it’s a diverse mosaic of spruce, pines, beech, birch and maples. Explore those restored forests from within or from above. There are seven wilderness areas that have hundreds of miles of hiking trails, wind-scoured peaks and expansive vistas.

When to go: Visit in the fall for colorful folige.

Must-see: Drive the 34-mile Kancamagus Scenic Byway

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Aerial view of the San Juan National ForestSteele Burrow/Aurora Photos
Aerial view of the San Juan National Forest

San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Rich history and jaw-dropping nature combine in the San Juan National Forest at nearly every turn. Within its boundaries are snow-covered peaks reaching more than 14,000 feet into the sky, wildflower-lined river bottoms at 5,000 feet and just about every conceivable western landscape in between.
And if nature isn’t enough, visitors can amble through mining ghost towns and Puebloan cliff dwellings to better understand some of the earliest humans to inhabit the region. With 1.8 million acres supporting outdoor sports (horseback riding, hunting, fishing, mountain biking and hiking) you and your family will be enchanted.

When to go: Set out in the summer when wildflowers are in bloom or in fall when the aspen trees glow.

Must-see: Chimney Rock National Monument, a Pueblo community dated between A.D. 900 and 1150

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Tellico Plains in Cherokee National Forest, North Carolina

Cherokee National Forest, North Carolina

Walk 2 miles or 150 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail through forests and high-mountain, grassy meadows replete with more than 20,000 species of plants and animals. The trail weaves through four mountain ranges, each offering unique beauty. But even more notable in the forest are the highlands covered in rhododendrons that will dazzle anyone. While adventure awaits in the Cherokee National Forest in the form of whitewater rafting, mountain biking and backpacking, the area isn’t just for thrill-seekers. Watauga Lake offers fishing, swimming and boating. A series of rivers and streams delivers seven lovely waterfalls.

When to go: March and April through summer for wildflowers

Must-see: The rhododendron bloom

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Boardwalk along a trail in the Hiawatha National Forest located in the Upper Peninsula of Michiganehrlif/Getty Images
Boardwalk along a trail in the Hiawatha National Forest located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Stunning lighthouses, expansive lakeshore vistas and wild weather are fixtures at the Hiawatha National Forest. Strung along the shores of lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan, the forest includes not only dense stands of trees but rocky and sandy beaches, islands, streams and rivers. Journey down a river by canoe while fishing or bird-watching. Tour restored lighthouses that were critical to keeping boats safe on the Great Lakes. Visit for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling in the winter. More than 200 inches of snow falls! In the summer, camp along the shores of a lake. Listen for the call of a common loon or howl of a timber wolf.

When to go: Summer and fall

Must-see: Point Iroquois Lighthouse, a 165-year-old structure with views of Canada and Lake Superior

Next, check out 4 ways to explore Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Originally Published in Country

Christine Peterson
Christine Peterson writes about wildlife and the outdoors from her home in Wyoming for publications including Birds & Blooms, National Geographic, Outdoor Life, The Guardian and many others. When she isn't writing, she's growing vegetables or wandering the mountains and plains of the West taking photos of wildflowers with her young daughter and two yellow Labradors.