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Flying to find fall foliageFlying to find fall foliage

Catch the color while it lastsCatch the color while it lasts

It’s a seasonal spectacle best seen from a general aviation aircraft, and once seen, never forgotten. And it's quite possibly the perfect reason to take a new passenger up flying.

The scenery is astonishing as soon as you take off from coastal Maine’s Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport—and it only gets better during an evening circumnavigation of Mount Desert Island. Photo by Chris Rose.

Whether autumn 2018 would be your first time experiencing the special sightseeing that a fall foliage flight delivers, or the umpteenth time you have enjoyed the fabulous play of autumn’s paint palette, October is when fall foliage hits its peak in many areas.

Here are a few suggestions based on local reports of where some great "leaf peeping" may be available, and some nearby airports for flight planning.


Eastern region

Fall foliage season is well underway in the hardwood forests of the Northeast. In Vermont, the sugar maples that are such a sweet source of syrup in spring blaze bright orange in fall. The action has reportedly moved to southern Vermont, where Morse State Airport in Bennington provides a fine jumping-off point for a sightseeing adventure.

Moving east and north, at the center of Maine’s Baxter State Park stands Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Arriving, you overfly countless forested lakes and ridges. Land at Millinocket Municipal Airport where you can enjoy a commanding ground-based view of the famous peak.

Tracing the colors more southerly within the eastern region, let’s talk about the Grand Canyon—the one in Pennsylvania, with steep canyon walls and wondrous waterfalls, in Tioga State Forest, accessible from Wellsboro Johnston Airport, and a favorite with some folks at AOPA, which is headquartered in Frederick, Maryland.

Virginia is for (fall foliage) lovers, and nothing beats the Shenandoah Valley as a leaf-peeper’s paradise. Plan to land at Luray Caverns Airport, tour the famous Luray Caverns, and motor along the Skyline Drive. Coming or going, a fall flight along the ridgeline is an unforgettable seasonal thrill.

Southern Region

The charms of North Carolina’s western mountains are many, and fall is no exception. Reports say warm weather delayed the fall transformation this year, but it is now well underway.  Explore it along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway,  which can be reached from numerous airports including Asheville Regional Airport and Mount Airy/Surry County Airport.

Great Lakes Region

From September to the middle of November the forests blaze with color in Ohio, making it a great time to visit the Buckeye State. Our man in the area suggests a visit to the Hocking Hills for outings to suit many tastes. Land at Vinton County Airport where leaf-peeping flights are a specialty, says Kyle Lewis, AOPA Great Lakes regional manager.

Northwest Mountain region

Timing is everything for fall foliage viewing in mountainous Washington State, with the higher elevations ablaze early and the lower elevations your target destination as the season advances. Weather is also a factor. Plan a full day’s outing from Seattle to head out on a number of scenic drives. We also received a tip that the area between Marysville and Arlington has often proved awesome in autumn.

Pacific Region

California, with its endless variety of terrain and micro-climates, is also reworked extensively north to south by “nature’s paintbrush” in the fall. As you might expect, it’s with a unique twist: It’s not only the aspens, cottonwoods, maples, oaks, and other trees that combine to create their colorful contributions. Wine country also toasts the season with colorful vines, and of course, wine tastings.

Central Southwest Region

Aspens that turn a vibrant gold lead the way as the trees of the high-desert mountains of the Southwest enter their fall phases.  As elsewhere, elevation matters, so if you plan to visit from late October to early November, there’s a good chance the lower climes will be at their most colorful at that point. In New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, arriving at Taos gives you easy access to the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. Or land in Santa Fe and explore its mountainous surroundings.

In Arizona, the East Verde River area of Tonto National Forest is reported to peak between now and mid-November. Deep in the heart of the national forest is Payson Municipal Airport, the only public-use airport within 40 miles, sitting at an elevation of 5,157 feet msl.


Between the summer tourism time and deep winter, those who know say October is a great time to experience "authentic Alaska," with fall colors enhancing the already magnificent scenery (with or without snow). Anchorage may remain snow-free until October's end, with travel to Denali still possible. Nights may offer another colorful display of the Northern Lights.


Fall colors in Hawaii? Well, maybe. Not to be left out of the season’s festivities, Hawaiians have made sure that folks in the islands that are so beloved by vacationers everywhere for their unchilled climate can get in on the seasonal spectrum. This they do with a series of webcam links showing how the colors are changing on the mainland. Here’s looking at you, kid!

A Cessna 182 Skylane flies over fall colors in Maryland. Photo by Mike Fizer.

AOPA ePublishing staff

AOPA ePublishing Staff editors are experienced pilots, flight instructors, and aircraft owners who have a passion for bringing you the latest news and AOPA announcements.
Topics: US Travel, Travel

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