Fall Foliage Without the Crowds

Catch all the colors of the season at these seven unexpected leaf-peeping spots, from New Mexico to China.

By Hannah Doyle

Beijing, China

Red maple leaves shade travelers as they explore Beijing’s Fragrant Hills Park, a green space northwest of the city center. Once you reach the top of Incense-Burner Peak, you can hike into the western hills for more peaceful views of the foliage. Or, take a closer look at some of the man-made landmarks embedded among the trees, including the Azure Clouds Temple, built during the Yuan dynasty, established by Kublai Khan, and the Hall of Arhats, filled with 500 bronze statues. Each one was handcrafted and—at nearly four feet in both height and width—weighs one ton.

Taos, New Mexico

In the fall, the changing leaves of aspens bring golden highlights to this muted desert landscape. Consider catching a ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, a historic track built in 1880 that runs through parts of Colorado and New Mexico. The train scoots through the meadows and mountains of Cumbres Pass, reaching heights of more than 10,000 feet. You can go for a day or opt for a sunset ride to see the colors shimmer in the fading light.

Transylvania, Romania

Bran Castle, the inspiration for Dracula’s estate, is worth seeing in autumn, when the palette of the surrounding countryside turns to ruddy browns and deep oranges and the crunch of dead leaves heightens the spooky atmosphere. Medieval towns are scattered throughout the region, so it can feel as if you’ve traveled back to the days of Vlad Ţepeş, the 15th-century nobleman Dracula was based on. To the east, the Carpathian Mountains offer hikers miles of undisturbed forest to explore.

Holmes County, Ohio

About 81 miles south of Cleveland sits Holmes County, the center of Ohio’s Amish country and a great fall drive for families. Be prepared to share the road with horse-drawn buggies, and make time to stop at the many farm stands selling apple butter or fresh produce. Hills lined with rows of corn shocks and grazing horses are the backdrop to the main event: a golden awning of maple, oak and buckeye. Many businesses are closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly.

Húsafell, Iceland

Volcanoes shaped Hraunfossar, a series of waterfalls set 74 miles from Reykjavik. Glacial waters pour out of a subterranean spring, across an ancient lava field covered in trees and down into the Hvítá River. The resulting view: expansive skies and icy-blue waters separated by a line of orange-red foliage. If you’re driving, get ready to snap a photo upon arriving at the falls’ car park, which affords a vista of the falls flowing into the Hvítá River.

Vernonia, Oregon

This small logging town in northwest Oregon may be home to more trout than people, but come fall, leaf peeping overtakes fishing as the main activity. You can cycle, walk or ride horses along the 21-mile Banks–Vernonia State Trail, a paved former rail bed, where you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of forests of yellow ash and red maple and murmuring brooks and come upon Instagrammable vistas atop the 80-foot-high Buxton Trestle.

Douro Valley, Portugal

People have been making wine in Portugal’s northern Douro Valley for about 2,000 years, earning the lovely Alto Douro wine region a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. During the turning of the seasons, you can sip a glass of rich port while admiring terraced vineyards that have transformed into a patchwork of red, orange and green. The Douro River adds to the drama, sculpting steep canyons among the rippled hills.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: September 2016