American Autumn: Best Places to Go in September, October, and November
There are those who find summer oppressive and winter dreary, but does anybody not like fall? Okay, maybe third graders bummed about being back in school. But for the rest of us in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn is a sepia-tinted season of sweater weather ideal for apple picking, football tailgating, hiking or driving through red-and-gold forests, and otherwise acting like you stepped out of an Eddie Bauer catalog. It’s a great time for traveling in the United States, whether you’re on the hunt for fall foliage or popular attractions that are far less crowded than when the kids are out of school (sorry again, third graders). Here are our favorite destinations for an autumn vacation in the U.S.
You can’t be surprised to find this land of legendary leaf peeping on a list of autumn getaways. Thanks to its heavy forestation and abundance of sugar maples, Vermont is to fall foliage what Japan is to cherry blossoms and the Wisconsin Dells are to indoor water parks. A north-south drive along Route 100 will take you right down the middle of the state, past dazzling displays of red, orange, yellow, and gold, as well as impossibly quaint New England villages with country stores, farm stands, covered bridges, and historic sights such as the childhood home of President Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth Notch. The leaves reach their peak in early October—and so does traffic. But taking your time is part of the experience. Good places to linger: Waterbury, home of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour; and the mountain resort town of Stowe, where scenic gondola rides show off Mount Mansfield, the state’s tallest peak.
Pictured: Stowe Community Church
If you’re looking to avoid big crowds and high prices (and who isn’t?), the best time to visit Hawaii is late September through November—after the summer rush but before the winter-fleeing multitudes show up. The state remains warm all year, but fall vacationers would be wise to seize the relative calm and reasonable lodging rates by seeing some of the most popular spots when they’re not swarmed by tourists. That makes Maui an excellent choice. You're never going to have the island’s 30 miles of beaches to yourself, but you might encounter less competition than usual at slices of paradise such as the northeastern Hana coast, a string of verdant hillsides, waterfall pools, and lava formations reached via one of the country’s most scenic drives.
In the quirky capital of Texas, the unbearably hot temperatures of August (average high: 96 degrees F / 36 C) give way to the bearably hot temperatures of late September and October (average highs: mid-80s F / late 20s C). Visitors may feel as though they’ve been granted an extension on summer as they go hiking and biking around Lady Bird Lake, dig into Texas barbecue while stationed on sunny patios, and attend outdoor festivals such as Austin City Limits, when an eclectic mix of rock, indie, country, and hip hop headliners hold court at Zilker Park for two weekends in October (be sure to make time for Austin’s renowned homegrown music scene, too). For a more typically autumnal experience, head into the neighboring Texas Hill Country for pumpkin patches, colorful foliage, and winery tours.
Pictured: Musician Mat Kearney performs at Stubb's Bar-B-Q in Austin
And speaking of Oktoberfest, the first such celebration outside of Munich to get that German city’s official seal of approval is held toward the end of each September in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Founded by Franconian immigrants in the 19th century, the town is known as “Little Bavaria” for its timber-frame alpine architecture, traditional chicken and schnitzel dinners, and locals fond of showing off their lederhosen. Things reach a Wagnerian pitch during Oktoberfest, when wiener dog races, polka dancers, pretzel vendors, and devotees of authentic Bavarian beer take over Heritage Park. For a break from the Germanic madness, head south for quintessential Big 10 college football town Ann Arbor or southeast for resurging art galleries and music clubs in Detroit. Both cities are about 90 minutes from Frankenmuth by car.
In the fall, many U.S. national parks appeal to nature lovers who are allergic to crowds and have the freedom to put off vacationing until after the busy summer season ends. But Acadia, on coastal Maine’s Mount Desert Island, is extra special, particularly from mid-September through early October. There’s a nip in the air, but the crisp weather pairs nicely with riding bikes through woodlands decked out in autumn colors, hiking around crystal-clear lakes, and savoring dramatic views from the top of Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the North Atlantic seaboard. Roads and trails in the park’s most popular areas are far less congested this time of year than in summer, while unheralded gems like the rocky, windswept Schoodic Peninsula are almost entirely tourist-free.
For stunning coastal scenery on the other side of the country, you can’t beat Big Sur, a showstopping stretch of California from Carmel to Cambria that’s characterized by jagged cliffs, crashing Pacific waves, misty rainforests, and white-knuckled motorists trying to negotiate serpentine Highway 1. Finally reopened in its entirety in 2018 after fires, floods, and mudslides shut some sections down for nearly two years, that drive is like HBO’s Big Little Lies (shot in nearby Monterey): It’s beautiful but full of twists and turns. Big Sur’s sweet spot on the calendar is September–November, between summer traffic and winter rains. Migrating whales and monarch butterflies pass through the area this time of year, too. And if you head just about 20 miles inland, you can watch end-of-harvest activity—and sip the output of previous years—at vineyards and tasting rooms along the River Road Wine Trail.
Pictured: McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Halloween ranks right up there with snow days and screen time among things loved by kids, so of course the world’s capital of family entertainment goes all out for trick-or-treat season. Universal Orlando Resort basically builds a brand-new theme park each fall for its Halloween Horror Nights (select dates from mid-September through early November). Teens and intrepid adults can acquire nightmare fodder at about a dozen different big-budget haunted houses and scare zones, many of them inspired by classic horror movies old and new. Walt Disney World Resort, meanwhile, takes a characteristically gentler approach with Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (from mid-August through the end of October), focusing on costumes, candy, parades, and mouse-eared jack-o’-lanterns. Both the Universal and Disney events are held after dark and require separate tickets not included in regular daytime admission. Book well in advance.
The spooky fun coincides with the popular International Food & Wine Festival over at Disney’s Epcot (September through mid-November). That’s when guests wander around the park’s World Showcase trying dishes from all over the globe, watching cooking demos with celebrity chefs, and learning about food-and-wine pairings. It’s like trick-or-treating for grownups—and there are only treats.
New England gets all the attention when it comes to fall foliage, but the Midwest has plenty of pretty leaves worth peeping. One of the most idyllic spots is Door County, a finger of land in eastern Wisconsin between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Hikes, drives, and boat rides in Peninsula State Park (which also has a golf course, pictured above), Potawatomi State Park, and other woodsy waterside preserves reveal bronzed beech and birch forests framed by rocky cliffs dotted with picturesque lighthouses. Up and down the shoreline, former fishing and shipbuilding towns like Fish Creek and Sturgeon Bay host old-fashioned fall festivals and farmers’ markets laden with locally grown pumpkins and apples. One tradition you can’t miss is participating in a fish boil, when freshly caught whitefish is cooked in a cauldron over an open flame—a method passed down by the region’s Scandinavian settlers. Another thing Wisconsin has that New England doesn’t: fried cheese curds (the best kind squeak between your teeth).
Ironically, the effort to eradicate witchcraft from Salem ended up making witchcraft Salem’s claim to fame. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, thousands of visitors descend on the town (about a 40-minute drive northeast of Boston) for Haunted Happenings, an annual month-long festival of bewitching events, including a parade, costume balls, ghost tours, haunted houses, and movie nights on Salem Common. Of course, fact can be more frightening than fiction, as you’ll discover at the Salem Witch Museum, the somber Salem Witch Trials Memorial, and historic sites relating to the 1692 outbreak of mass hysteria during which more than 200 people were accused of occult dealings and 20 were put to death.
One last New England must-see in autumn is New Hampshire, where towering peaks and wild woodlands seem to go right along with the population’s fiercely independent streak. You can see White Mountain National Forest’s vivid fall foliage in a multitude of ways and by nearly every conceivable means of transportation. Hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Drive the ridiculously scenic Kancamagus Highway from Conway to Lincoln. Ride the historic Mount Washington Cog Railway to one of New England’s highest points. Paddle through Bob Ross watercolors come to life (Pond of Safety in Randolph is pictured above). Take an aerial tram up Franconia’s Cannon Mountain. Zoom through colorful treetops on a zipline. And if you’ve got a zeppelin, jetpack, or teleportation device, you can probably use that, too—this being New Hampshire, it’s unlikely there’s a law against it.