It’s not too late. Folks in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, California and several other states where fall has also been known to exist in bountiful colors haven’t succumbed to saying “leaf peeping.” Yet. And even the good people of New England might be swayed to drop the habit if provided with a suitable alternative. Here, we offer some lesser-known destinations and suggested new terms for this favorite fall activity.
WHERE: Lost Maples State Natural Area; 80 miles northwest of San Antonio
CLAIM TO FAME: One of the last remaining bigtooth maple sites in Texas
PEAK AUTUMN COLOR: First two weeks of November
Set in the southern fringes of Texas Hill Country off Farm-to-Market Road 187, this timeless, 2,200-acre patch of vermilion forest in a riverine canyon is populated by thousands of old-growth Uvalde bigtooths (western cousins of the sugar maple), whose ancestors predated chicken-fried steak and Lone Star flags by at least 11,000 years. These trees seem about as likely in south Texas these days as a plantation of coconut palms in northern Maine.
The region’s stronghold of “lost” maples, relics of a species that flourished in the South during the last Ice Age, attracts a good local crowd on weekends in early to mid-November, when the late-turning leaves hit their mark. Most visitors stick with the 0.8-mile Maple Trail, a flat stroll along a river canyon crowned in solid oranges and reds. But for the real deal, escape the hordes and take a trek on the East Trail Loop — a moderate to strenuous five-mile hike that climbs about 400 feet above the canyon and Sabinal River.
“Once you get up there, the views take your breath away,” says Bill Bailey, lead ranger at Lost Maples State Natural Area. “It’s just this vibrant canopy of Spanish oak, sumac, walnut, willow, sycamore and chokecherry.
“Those bigtooths,” he adds, “they really take center stage.” http://tpwd.state.tx.us
WHERE: Aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo.
CLAIM TO FAME: Best locomotive-powered foliage viewing above 8,000 feet
PEAK AUTUMN COLOR: Last week of September through the second week of October
It’s a debate we’d rather not touch: pin-pointing the nicest drive in Rocky Mountain country when those amber waves of aspens are shimmering along practically every roadside west of I-25. But if we must, the trip that (literally) rolls above them all is a jaunt on the historic 64-mile Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which the Society of International Railway Travelers calls “one of the best 20 railway experiences in the world.” In early fall, when the leaves change along this stretch of narrow gauge track preserved from 19th-century silver-mining days, it’s undoubtedly the most transporting autumn experience on steam-powered wheels.
“We give our guests a taste of 19th-century steam mountain railroading,” says Cumbres & Toltec spokesperson Nick Quintana. “The trip, the breathtaking scenery and the sense of living history are as glorious as ever.”
Passengers can board in either Antonito, Colo., or Chama, N.M., for a full-day chug through the Carson and Rio Grande national forests, old sheep ranches and ghost towns. Along the way, you’ll push beyond 10,000 feet at Cumbres Pass — the highest pass reached by rail in the country — and head back down through some of the largest aspen, cottonwood and scrub oak groves hiding on the edge of either state. Book well ahead, and bring a jacket for open-air viewing on the train’s gondola car. www.cumbrestoltec.com
WHERE: Morton Arboretum; 25 miles west of downtown Chicago
CLAIM TO FAME: Broadest fall-color palette in the Midwest
PEAK AUTUMN COLOR: All of October
The Morton Arboretum, one of the finest tributes to trees on the planet, is our vote for the most overlooked fallscape within 20 miles of O’Hare International Airport. Founded by the Morton family, who gave us Arbor Day, the 1,700-acre property hiding west of downtown Chicago’s more obvious Loop-adjacent green zones hosts a month-long, activity-packed Fall Color Festival (October 1–31) that weekend foliage warriors need to put on their bucket lists. Miles of woodsy hiking and biking trails feature trees that show off just about every conceivable autumn hue: maple and sumac (orange and brilliant red), hickory and white ash (deep gold and pinkish maroon), cypress and sassafras (coppery brown and pinkish vermilion), and a variety of gorgeous non-natives like Japanese zelkova and ginkgo (deep purple and megawatt yellow). In all, the Morton is home to more than 4,000 kinds of trees and plants from 40 countries.
For a quick intro to the Morton’s spectacular autumn palette, board the Acorn Express open-air tram and enjoy Chicago’s most colorful one-hour narrated tour. Or hoof it on one of the arboretum’s guided foliage walks, which take place on Saturdays and Sundays. www.mortonarb.org
WHERE: Southern New Hampshire, 75 miles northwest of Boston
CLAIM TO FAME: Arguably the most climbed mountain in the Western Hemisphere
PEAK AUTUMN COLOR: Any day within a week of Columbus Day (Oct. 11)
From the tip of Maine to the tail of Rhode Island, New England scores a perfect 10 for its annual fall-color performance. But for a single classic New England–in-the-fall experience, we direct you to Mount Monadnock. Looming above a circle of quaint towns in southern New Hampshire, this 3,165-foot peak — once an inspiration to area scribes like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain — is purportedly the third-most climbed mountain in the world. And it’s also the Western Hemisphere’s quintessential classic fall hike.
“Standing on the summit of Mount Monadnock, you really feel like you’re on the top of New England, with amazingly unobstructed views that on a clear day can stretch for over 100 miles in every direction,” says Patrick Hummel, park manager of Monadnock State Park. But don’t underestimate the climb, Hummel warns: “It may only be four miles round trip, but it’s a surprisingly steep and rugged hike that covers 1,800 feet of elevation gain.”
Though not exactly a secret around New England, Monadnock’s draw remains largely a localized phenomenon. And though area residents would probably prefer we keep this one to ourselves so as not to swell the already-thickening crowds that climb Monadnock each year, let’s just call this payback for a certain indigenous leafappreciation term we’re less than fond of. Even? www.nhstateparks.org
Los Angeles–based writer JORDAN RANE is a frequent contributor to American Way and the Los Angeles Times. No leaves were harmed during the writing of this article.