The Appalachian Trail, or AT as it’s often called, is a “bucket-list” adventure for hiking enthusiasts. Hikers prepare months for the 2,100-mile journey that takes six months or more to complete. But thru-hikers aren’t the only ones who can enjoy the trail’s fall foliage, small-town charm, and country air. The trail crosses a road an average of every four miles. So we’ve compiled a handful of road trips that allow you to enjoy portions of the Appalachian Trail’s fall colors. Must-see hikes and sights along the route will give you a taste of the AT, without the blisters.
So what are you waiting for? Pour yourself a thermos of hot apple cider, don your cold-weather jacket, and head for them (color-drenched) hills.
Before You Go
Here are a few tips to getting the most out of your Appalachian Trail road trip experience:
- Gas stations are limited, so fill up your tank ahead of time and pack plenty of food and water, especially if you plan to hike.
- You won’t be the only leaf-peeper on the road. To avoid crowds, visit on weekdays and early mornings. If you stop to enjoy the view, pull off to the side and allow other cars to pass.
- Visit a ranger station if your route passes through a park. Grab a map to navigate in areas where cell service is spotty. Park rangers can also provide up-to-date information on which trails and roads may be closed or congested as well as sightseeing suggestions tailored to your interests.
- To avoid crowds, visit on weekdays and early mornings.
- Make sure your brakes are in good condition; they’ll get a workout on these mountain roads! To minimize wear and tear, consider downshifting into a lower gear before a steep descent.
- Steep climbs can overheat your engine, so take precautions. Top off your coolant before heading out, and carry extra with you. While you drive, keep an eye on your temperature gauges. If you notice your engine is heating up, turn off the AC, and roll down your windows instead. In an extreme case, cool down your engine by running the heat on ‘high.’ When you can pull over, let your engine idle a few minutes before turning it off. Douse the radiator core in cold water if you need to, but never remove your radiator cap until the engine is cooled.
The Kancamagus Highway, Conway to Lincoln, NH
Nicknamed “the Kanc” by locals, this American Scenic Byway stretches 34.5 miles along Rt. 112 in Northern New Hampshire. Drivers will enjoy some of the same scenes AT thru-hikers treasure: the White Mountains in their autumn brilliance, wildlife such as moose, and a number of accessible waterfalls. Highlights include the 45-foot Sabbaday falls, scenic vistas, and the drivable Albany covered bridge, which spans the Swift River.
Mt. Washington Auto Road, Gorham, NH
The 7.6-mile Auto Road is America’s oldest man-made attraction. More than 45,000 cars chug up the Auto Road’s steep, twisting route each year. The main attraction: jaw-dropping views of the autumn colors from the 6,288-foot summit. And a “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker for your efforts. (fee includes bumper sticker and audio tour)
Old Mine is said to be one of the oldest continuously used roads in America, with ties to Dutch colonists from the 17th century.
The Old Mine Road Route, NY/NJ
The mid-Atlantic portion of the AT skirts more populated areas, but that doesn’t mean solitude and scenery aren’t available. Old Mine Road follows the Delaware River for 104 miles, from Kingston, New York through the heart of Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area’s 70,000 acres of protected land. Old Mine is said to be one of the oldest continuously used roads in America, with ties to Dutch colonists from the 17th century. A number of historic sites are dedicated to maintaining the road’s rural charm. Drivers will enjoy serene views of the Delaware River, waterfalls, and undisturbed hardwood forests.
Skyline Drive, VA
Skyline Drive winds for 105 miles atop the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. More than 75 scenic overlooks punctuate the relaxed drive along I-66 and I-64. The speed limit is 35 mph, and the drive takes around three hours. Enjoy sweeping views of the fall colors and watch for wildlife, including black bears, deer, and wild turkeys. Access Skyline Drive in Front Royal, Thornton Gap or Swift Run Gap. Don’t miss the 670-foot driving tunnel through Mary’s Rock, the 4000-foot summit view from Hawksbill Mountain, or 67-foot Rose River Falls. (entrance fee)
Pro Tip: If you plan to drive the entire parkway, give yourself several days. There are countless hikes, overlooks and cultural sights to take in along the way.
Blue Ridge Parkway, VA and NC
What Skyline Drive starts, the Blue Ridge Parkway finishes, with an additional 469-miles of scenic mountain roads. Enjoy views of the hazy Blue Ridge and mist-shrouded Great Smoky mountain ranges. If you plan to drive the entire parkway, give yourself several days. There are countless hikes, overlooks and cultural sights to take in along the way. Drive the Linn Cove Viaduct, an iconic 1200-foot bridge snaking along the side of craggy Grandfather Mountain. Immerse yourself in local culture at the Blue Ridge Music and the Folk Art centers. Then stop to enjoy the 85-mile view from Mount Mitchell’s 6,684-foot summit. (no fee)
Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway, GA
Drivers on this scenic, 40-mile loop will be impressed with the beauty of the southernmost Appalachian Mountains. You’ll drive through the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, which boasts 4,784-foot Brasstown Bald. A short but steep climb from the Bald’s visitor’s center will reward visitors with 360-degree views from an observation tower. (Parking fee required.) Save time to hike to Raven Cliff Falls as well. The trail winds through mossy forest to a unique, double-cascade falls that splits a 40-foot granite cliff in two. Another popular trail is nearby 150-foot Dukes Creek Falls, which also offers views of Yonah Mountain.
Have you ever driven these routes in the fall? What memorable sights would you add to the list? Are there other scenic driving routes along the Appalachian Trail you’d recommend? Leave us a comment below.