As September rolls to an end, we photographers find ourselves in the heart of the fall season. Fall is my favorite time of year as a photographer. In my opinion, no other time of the year comes close to rivaling the conditions of fall. Fall color is abundant in almost every landscape of the United States and the weather can be dramatic, making for great light and great colors.
The crisp air and fall color represent a perfect climate and landscape to me. Thus, I try to make the most out of every fall season. That means traveling as much as possible to hit different areas during their ‘peak’ foliage time. Peak simply means the time when the colors are best, and that time varies for the different regions of the USA. For instance, areas of Colorado peak around the third week in September, while areas southern Utah peak the first week of November. Peak times can also be affected by elevation, season to season variation, and climate (precipitation/moisture).
Although we are in the middle of the 2019 fall season, this list is a great collection of some of the best fall spots for photography in the USA. At Backcountry Journeys, we do a trip to many of these locations and have plans in the future to do trips to some of the other locations. So, add these spots to your calendar for future years or maybe take a quick trip on a whim this year. There are still many locations that are not at peak yet, in fact, I leave for the Pacific Northwest this week for a fall color photo trip and I will be in Zion National Park first week of November for peak fall color there.
Note: This list is in no particular order and does not represent rankings, all locations area great! I also know that I left a lot of GREAT areas of the country off this list.
Colorado Peak: Mid-September to mid-October
What would a fall color list be without Colorado? Colorado offers one of the best (if not the best) fall color displays in the United States. The state is famous for its golden aspen as well as its 14,000-foot peaks. Many people flock to Aspen to see colors, but we recommend our Rocky Mountain National Park workshop or visiting the San Juan Mountain region in southwest Colorado. No matter where you go, you will be sure to be blown away by the amazing fall display. Every once in awhile, Colorado gets a dusting of snow during peak color as well, one of my favorite combinations.
Vermont Peak: Mid-September to mid-October
New England is the premiere spot for fall color in the eastern United States. As you continue through the list, you will find many other locations in New England are concluded. One of the unique things about the fall color in New England is the variation in color. Some areas in the US have a spectacular fall, but only have a few species that offer colors (think cottonwoods in Utah). The New England region offers colors from the entire spectrum – brilliant red, orange, yellow, gold. Vermont is one of the host spots in New England. Especially the Green Mountains of Vermont, expect to see amazing variations in color, beautiful lakes, and some of the best scenic rural drives in the country. Add areas such as Woodstock, Stowe, Manchester, and Waitsfield to your Vermont list. I would also recommend combining a trip to Vermont with nearby Maine and New Hampshire.
Utah Peak: End-September to mid-November
Utah has one of the longest fall color seasons in the United States, and one of the most diverse. In the north, the Wasatch Range has similar fall colors to that of Colorado. Expect epic mountain views with stands of aspen all over. I think it is one of the more underrated regions in the US for fall color. Continue south and you will eventually hit the cottonwood and maple stands that line the Zion Canyon of Zion National Park. Peak in Zion National Park occurs around the first week of November. The Zion area is one of my favorites in fall, there is just something about the combination of the desert landscape with vibrant fall colors that resonates with me. All in all, Utah is one of the best fall destinations on this list.
Washington Peak: End-September to end-October
Landscapes in Washington state range from sea level to 14,000+ feet, thus the fall season occurs at different times and many different landscape scenes can be expected. Start in the high elevations of the Central and North Cascades with Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park. The alpine meadows in both locations will blow up red and will be followed by the incredible golden larches in the North Cascades and the Central Cascades (try for a permit in the Enchantments). Mid-October marks fall color in some of the temperate rainforests and old-growth stands in the northwest. The rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula will light up with golden colors, as will the forests in the Columbia River Gorge.
North Shore of Lake Superior Peak: Mid-September to early-October
The north shore of Lake Superior is one of the best places in the Midwest to view fall colors. Maples and birch line the hillsides of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. Minnesota’s north shore also has fantastic state parks and public land, such as the Superior National Forest. There is great hiking along the lake and inland, as well as dirt roads that weave through vibrant fall stands. Check out Bean and Bear Lake, Lutsen, Grand Marais, and Tettegouch State Park.
Upper Peninsula of Michigan Peak: End-September to early-October
Neighboring the north shore of Lake Superior is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Along with the north shore in Minnesota, the UP is the other best spot in the Midwest for fall color. The UP features beautiful shoreline along Lake Superior (Pictured Rocks) but also has great waterfalls and lakes. I recommend checking out the Munising area but also traversing west to the Porcupine Mountains. Lake of the Clouds is one of the best overlooks in the Midwest.
Great Smoky Mountains Peak: Mid-October to early-November
The Smoky’s go a bit under the radar versus the fall displays in New England and out west…but that shouldn’t be the case. Fall in the Great Smoky Mountains is incredible, join us for our workshop there one fall and see for yourself. Home to sugar maples, hickories, sweetgum, scarlet oaks, red maples and almost 100 other species of native trees, the fall color display is vibrant and diverse in color. The area is also smattered with small creeks and streams, which provide great foregrounds and subjects for the fall color…oh, and of course the mountains!
Alaska Peak: Mid-August to end-September
As many of us are still enjoying our summer, Alaska dives into fall color with foliage changing already in mid-August. Alaska holds some of my favorite landscapes on the planet so I might be biased, but the fall color in Alaska is a must-see. The interior tundra and alpine turn bright red and offer great contrast with the coniferous trees that line the tundra. Go further south to the coast and you’ll see golden fall displays with glaciers and mountains to boot. One thing that separates Alaska fall from most of the locations on this list is the chance at the Northern Lights. With shorter, darker days in August and September, the Northern Lights become viewable. Aurora and fall color!
Glacier National Park Peak: Mid-September to mid-October
Glacier National Park is my favorite park in the lower 48 and I think it is one of the best spots for fall photography. Target mid-September to mid-October, as fall color in the higher elevations, will peak earlier and transition down into the valleys of the park. The fall color display in Glacier is great but are there areas in the US with better color and diversity, yes (the color in Glacier is still incredible). But, the thing that makes Glacier so special is the fall weather conditions. The clash of Arctic and prairie air masses in fall lead to some of the best light displays that you will ever see in your life. If you are willing to put up with high winds, frequent weather changes (sun to snow), and limited services, Glacier National Park is your place. A famous well-traveled photographer once said that the best places for dramatic skies and light on the planet are Patagonia and Glacier National Park in the fall.
The Adirondacks Peak: End-September to end-October
Again, the New England region does not disappoint, and I could have included every single state in the New England area on this list. The Adirondack Mountains in New York offer one of the longest fall color displays each year, running from the end of September to the end of October. The Adirondack region has great mountain views, as well as great waterfalls and lakes to enjoy as well. I recommend taking a hike, but scenic drives are plentiful in the area.
Honorable Mention: Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, California
Hint: Each year, peak fall colors can vary, by a few days or a few weeks. I recommend doing some Google detective work for the specific area you intend to visit. Many regions and areas have online ‘tracking’ sites or maps. These websites show the exact percentage of foliage that is at or near peak, as well as color maps for huge areas. This can be extremely helpful for targeting fall color at the right time.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)