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America’s Trails

Five Leaf-Peeping Destinations Along the Great American Rail-Tail

By: Agueda Pacheco Flores
October 26, 2022

Washington's Olympic Discovery Trail | Photo by TrailLink user stevelee73
Washington's Olympic Discovery Trail | Photo by TrailLink user stevelee73

While the warmth of the long summer days may be behind us, the beauty of the outdoors is not. More than half the trees across North America will morph into bright orange, yellow and deep red as fall comes into full swing. Although the days get shorter and colder, as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar once put it, “The earth is just so full of fun, it really can’t contain it… Don’t talk to me of solemn days, in autumn’s time of splendor.” Take in “autumn’s splendor” along the Great American Rail-Trail®, which connects trails across 12 states and the District of Columbia, providing some of the nation’s most scenic spots that bring color to even the darkest days.

Lake Crescent (Washington)

Washington's Olympic Discovery Trail | Photo by TrailLink user stevelee73
Washington’s Olympic Discovery Trail | Photo by TrailLink user stevelee73

Washington’s Olympic Discovery Trail hugs the winding northwestern shore of one of the state’s most picturesque lakes. Nestled in a valley surrounded by trees, the backdrop of Lake Crescent pops with the orange hues of bigleaf maples, vine maples, red alders and black cottonwoods. Thanks to its low levels of nitrogen that inhibit algae growth, Lake Crescent shines a bright blue, which is striking against the autumn tones. Expect to see color at higher elevations beginning in late September and peak fall foliage at lower elevations beginning in early to mid-October.

Related: Connections of Land, Sea and Sky: Olympic Discovery Trail
Washington's Olympic Discovery Trail | Photo by TrailLink user barnacle9
Washington’s Olympic Discovery Trail | Photo by TrailLink user barnacle9

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (Nebraska)

Nebraska's Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge | Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge | Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Although Nebraska’s Great Plains may not be what first comes to mind for fall colors, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge—just east of the Cowboy Trail’s passage through Valentine—offers the perfect spot to view them. Winding through the sandhills and prairies of the refuge, the banks of the Niobrara River are brightened with fall color. The region’s golden grasslands are punctuated with red maples, black oaks and honey locust trees ranging from yellow to purple in autumn that are a sight to behold alongside fields of pumpkins and sunflowers. Colors at Fort Niobrara begin to change in mid-October and peak around Halloween.

Related: Trail of the Month: Nebraska’s Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail (September 2017)
Nebraska's Cowboy Trail | Photo by Alex Duryea, Nebraska Tourism Commission
Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail | Photo by Alex Duryea, Nebraska Tourism Commission

Wildcat Den State Park (Iowa)

Iowa's Wildcat Den State Park | Photo courtesy Wildcat Den State Park
Iowa’s Wildcat Den State Park | Photo courtesy Wildcat Den State Park

In eastern Iowa, the Mississippi River Trail connects the Quad Cities and a handful of other communities along the famed waterway. About 15 miles west of the trail, on an as-yet-to-be-completed portion of the Great American Rail-Trail route, a worthwhile side excursion to Wildcat Den State Park rewards visitors with a scenic setting for autumnal hikes. The 40-acre park offers views of exposed sandstone cliffs that can reach up to 70 feet high and envelops travelers in woodlands, where you can expect to see mature white oaks as well as red oaks and black oaks. The state’s Department of Natural Resources estimates peak fall colors in this area occur in late October.

Ohiopyle State Forest (Pennsylvania)

Pennsylvania's Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by Blase Ur
Pennsylvania’s Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by Blase Ur

Tucked into Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Ohiopyle State Park is a highlight of the Great Allegheny Passage (gaptrail.org). The 20,500-acre woodland is known for its multitude of trails and—thanks to the Youghiogheny River—its multitude of waterfalls, including the popular 30-foot Cucumber Falls. The park is a photogenic spot for snapping some fall foliage shots, especially the colorful halos of trees that form around the waterfalls. The park’s vibrant yellows, oranges and reds come from an array of species, including scarlet oak, tulip trees and black cherry trees, which peak in mid-October.

Related: How the Great Allegheny Passage Transformed a Region
Pennsylvania's Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by Milo Bateman
Pennsylvania’s Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by Milo Bateman

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (D.C. and Maryland)

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park | Photo by TrailLink user dpg47
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park | Photo by TrailLink user dpg47

The expansive 20,000-acre Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is traversed by the 185-mile C&O Canal Towpath, which is full to the brim with historical landmarks and offers a deciduous treeline along the Potomac River. Hundreds of original features—including locks, lock houses, aqueducts and other canal structures—are reminders of the canal’s role as an important transportation system during the mid-19th century. The park has an abundance of silver maples and American sycamores that turn a golden yellow in the fall; their autumn foliage peaks mid- to late October.

Related: Preserving an American Legacy: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park | Photo by TrailLink user thomkat4
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park | Photo by TrailLink user thomkat4

Rail-Trail Guidebooks

Want to experience one of these amazing autumnal destinations? You’ll find maps, helpful details and beautiful photos for these multiuse trails and dozens of others in our regional and state-based rail-trail guidebook series.

Great American Rail-Trail®

The 3,700-mile developing Great American Rail-Trail® is 53% complete to date. Learn more about this epic cross-country route.

Agueda Pacheco Flores
Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington. She was previously a writer at Crosscut.com where she covered arts and culture.

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