If family vacations have a secret season, autumn must be it. It’s the time of year when people slow down after summer, settle into school and work and start planning for the holidays, creating a “shoulder season” for travel to popular family vacation spots around the country.
The best fall vacations offer ideal conditions for value as well, since prices drop with reduced demand. And these fall vacation ideas blend appealing weather, fall colors and plenty of room to enjoy the crisp seasonal air.
Whether you’re heading out for a quick weekend getaway or a true vacation-length trip, these fall destinations deliver just the sort of restorative escape to help you gear up for the long days of winter ahead. From national parks and mountain resorts to fall-foliage-draped towns and beachy escapes, these fall vacation ideas celebrate the best of the season.
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Rocky Mountain National Park
Like a golden wave, aspen groves light up Colorado’s mountains in autumn. To see the best fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding Rockies, aim to visit in September (though you can often catch some color in late August or early October, too; check a fall foliage map for details).
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Foliage isn’t the only reason to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in September, October or November, though. Bring layers to enjoy hiking and biking late into the season. And autumn is a great time for wildlife watching, with elks gathering in herds and migratory birds pausing in the park on their way south for the winter.
Bonus: At lower elevations, you can sometimes soak up a vista that includes both late-blooming wildflowers like asters and the glowing golden fall foliage.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Summer family road trips get all the attention, but fall is arguably a superior season to hit the road. And there’s no better strip of highway for a fall vacation than the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. Wending its way through the dense forests of the Appalachian Mountains between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the parkway is peppered with more than 200 scenic overlooks that offer abundant excuses to pull over and experience the beauty firsthand.
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The pace is relaxed: The speed limit doesn’t exceed 45 mph and the National Park Service suggests you give yourself about an hour for every 30 miles of road you want to cover. Autumn brings the added benefit of splendid fall colors and harvest-time treats at the many farms just off the Parkway.
From its cozy village main streets to its rainbow of fall foliage displays, Vermont has fall dialed all the way up. Make your base in a picture-perfect small town like Woodstock or Bennington, or take the wanderers’ approach and book yourself stops along a multi-day route like the Mad River Byway, Route 100, or the Molly Stark Byway. For the full New England fall getaway experience, mix scenic drives with leisurely hikes, and be sure to allot plenty of time to exploring the towns, farms and historic sites along the way.
From north to south, California is blessed with more than its fair share of wine county. But in fall, Sonoma stands out with its dazzling breadth of experiences. That’s because Sonoma is vast, with 1,500 square miles of rolling vineyards, dense redwood forests and rugged Pacific coastline. In fall, it’s a party in the fields as the grapes are harvested, the leaves turn dramatic shades of red and yellow and locals focus on the year’s crush.
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Meanwhile, along the coast, fall brings the long-anticipated respite from the summer fog, revealing the sparkling Pacific and sandy beaches ripe for picnicking. Note that fall is fire season in the West, so make sure you’re either booking travel that can be rescheduled or that you have trip insurance.
Yearning for sun in October? One of the best fall vacation ideas for sun-seekers is San Diego, with autumn temperatures that range from the low 50s to the high 70s and plenty of fall sunshine. There’s more than enough sun and sand to go around and there’s always an uncrowded beach beckoning.
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Head out on the water for surfing, boating and starting in mid-December, whale watching. And don’t underestimate San Diego’s food scene, an impressive yet strangely under-the-radar culinary landscape characterized by a mix of beach shacks, taco stands and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Pennsylvania’s Poconos region goes all in on fall foliage activities at prices that maximize both value and fun. The region’s 2,400 square miles of mountains, rivers and deciduous forests are just a few hours’ drive from Philadelphia and New York City, but its mix of small towns and gently wild surrounds make it feel a world away. Admire the changing season on a scenic train ride, hay ride, horseback ride, or paddle. Add thrills aboard a mountain coaster, or via rail bike or zip line.
As temperatures cool, cultural events heat up in Santa Fe. From food fests and celebrations of indigenous cultures to open studios and film festivals, fall vacations in Santa Fe are simply packed with things to do. And variety is the name of the game here – late fall even brings the possibility of skiing at nearby mountains.
Santa Fe’s fall foliage season is short, but time a visit right and you could catch the aspen as they turn from green to gold. Here in the country’s oldest capital, fall is a beautiful and less crowded time to embrace the best of Santa Fe.
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