-- Hit the open road this autumn for the ultimate joyride. These seven beautiful routes will lift your spirits with stunning fall color, terrific mountaintop views, and affordable stops and stays along the way.
You can ramble through Ohio's Amish Country, hop the crush party trail in Napa, or choose another route close to home. Grab the camera and fill up the gas tank. It's the most wonderful time of the year for vacation savings.
White Mountain Trail
Drive: A perennial leaf-peeping favorite, this loop route in "The Whites" takes you through mountain passes and past fabulous rock formations, waterfalls, and natural pools. Time it right at dusk or dawn and you'll see moose in the bogs along Route 302 (Moose Alley) near Bretton Woods. In September and October males bellow mightily to attract mates. Map it.
Stay: At Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Lodge, nightly rates in a bunkroom/shared bath are $92 per adult ($77 for AMC members), including breakfast, dinner, guided hikes, naturalist activities, and L.L. Bean gear loans. Purity Spring Resort, located on a spring-fed lake in East Madison, is an affordable family option that includes breakfast, dinner, and activities for $129 per night, per couple, or $195 per family of four.
West Elk Loop
Drive: On this loop drive you'll circle western Colorado's West Elk Mountains, follow rivers, skirt canyons, and weave through the incredible aspen groves of Gunnison National Forest. Don't miss the north rim of Gunnison National Park's Black Canyon, where you can see the highest sheer cliff in Colorado drop 2,000 feet into the river below. Map it.
Stop: Explore the mountain wilderness on a trail ride near Crested Butte with Fantasy Ranch Horseback Adventures. In Gunnison, Scenic River Tours leads guided fly-fishing trips and whitewater rafting excursions. For $60, you can join one of Colorado Backcountry's half-day mountain bike rides through aspen forests.
Stay: The historic seven-bedroom B&B, Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn, in Paonia has its own gardens and chickens to feed guests. In October rooms rent for $95 (shared bath) or $135 (private bath) per night and include a local, organic breakfast. Even more affordable is Gunnison's Western Motel, a roadside stop popular among bikers.
Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina and Virginia
Drive: The Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile mystical mountain route dubbed "America's Favorite Drive," stretches from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park. Head to the southwestern segment near Asheville, North Carolina, where leaf season runs long. Room rates are less expensive in late September and early November, but the colors are still beautiful. Map it.
Stop: In early fall thousands of migrating monarch butterflies bound for Mexico pass through the mountains 35 minutes south of Asheville. Best view: the parkway's Wagon Road Gap overlook. Nearby, crunch into a fresh-picked apple at Orchard at Altapass or hit the corn maze at Hickory Nut Gap Farm. The Biltmore House Architect's Tour takes you to a 360-degree rooftop view of autumn colors.
Stay: Inn on Main Street B&B, just north of Asheville, has a $195 per night Adventure Road Waterfall Tour Package that includes a picnic lunch, a guide to area waterfalls, and a personalized driving itinerary. For families, try Asheville's Brookstone Lodge for $89 to $159 per night, or go for one of the lodge's affordable zip-line or whitewater rafting packages.
Amish Country Byway
Drive: In the rolling hills between Columbus and Cleveland lies the Amish Country Byway, a network of country roads lined with thick forests and scenic farms with bright red barns. The clip-clop rhythm of horses and buggies on rolling hills takes you back to a time when life was less complicated and less expensive, and stores closed on Sundays. Map it.
Stop: Take a horse-drawn wagon ride, tour Amish barns and houses, and feed the animals at the Farm at Walnut Creek. Many of Amish Country's cheesemakers, including Heini's Cheese Chalet, welcome visitors to watch the process and sample more than 50 fresh-made varieties. Find out the why behind the simple ways at Behalt Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center.
Stay: Keep it simple with a stay at an Ohio State Park Lodge. In a river valley at the west end of the Amish Country Byway, the Mohican State Park Lodge has newly renovated guest rooms with private balconies. Packages here and at the state's seven other lodges can be as low as $109 per night in October.
Napa Valley/Silverado Trail
Drive: About an hour north of San Francisco, the vineyard-draped hills of Napa Valley are awash in crimsons and golds in the fall. Harvest season's crush parties are in full swing. From the town of Napa, follow the main Highway 29 route north 30 miles past big-name wineries and quaint towns to Calistoga. Then return on the quieter, breathtaking Silverado Trail. Map it.
Stop: Buy a $25 wine-tasting card in Napa to access 12 downtown tasting rooms for only 10 cents per taste. Pick up lunch at Napa's Oxbow Market for a roadside picnic en route to a winery. You can browse boutiques and hit the Culinary Institute's flavor bars ($10 to $15) in St. Helena. See a geyser and Petrified Forest near Calistoga.
Stay: Even during the valley's high season, there are still some inns and B&Bs with select rooms available for less than $200 a night. Try the Hennessey House, Napa Inn, or Arbor Guest House in Napa. The California Association of B&B Inns posts specials and last-minute deals on its website.
North Shore Scenic Drive
Drive: Along Minnesota's North Shore Scenic Drive, Lake Superior competes for your attention on one side while Superior National Forest's pine, aspen, and birch trees keep drawing you back to the other. It's a lovely dilemma. The route slices through eight state parks that preserve beaches, lighthouses, raging rivers, and waterfalls. Map it.
Stop: Ride a treetop roller coaster or zip-line for less than $10 at Spirit Mountain in Duluth. Lake kayaking excursions, beach campfires, and naturalist-led hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail are free when you stay at Lutsen Resort. Nearby in Two Harbors, you can tour the 1896 Edna G. Tugboat or the still-operational Two Harbors Light Station for next to nothing.
Stay: In Lutsen rooms go for as low as $150 per night this season at the storied Lutsen Resort. If you book three nights, you pay for only two with the resort's Fall Weekend Special. A standard room at Superior Shores Resort in Two Harbors runs from $79 to $139 per night in early October.
Drive: The 440-mile Cascade Loop highway starts 28 miles north of Seattle, tunnels through mountains, twists through desert land, and passes glacier-fed Lake Chelan before returning to the Puget Sound. The elevation change alone is a thrill. And there's something exciting about cruising high-elevation passes that will be closed in winter. Map it.
Stop: Raise a stein (Prost!) to Munich in the little Bavarian mountain town of Leavenworth. Huge Oktoberfest celebrations spill onto the streets during the first three weekends in October. In the cowboy town of Winthrop, browse Riverside Avenue's boutiques with Western facade storefronts. Stop for apple cider tastings and tours during harvest season in Washington Apple Country.
Stay: True to form, Leavenworth's Bavarian Lodge has the Old World charm you'd expect, and nightly rates start at $129 for midweek stays with breakfast. Bring your sleeping bag and book a heated KOA log cabin in Leavenworth or Winthrop for less than $60 per night in October.
Readers, planning any scenic drives this fall? Tell us where you're headed.
SmarterTravel.com features expert travel advice and unbiased coverage of travel deals.