The United States can really do fall foliage well. I know New England can burst into 50 shades of yellow, red and orange like no one else. HOWEVER, it isn’t the only place that comes to life with color! AND, there are many places that have the color without the crowds and the prices of New England. So, if you are looking for a fall US ROAD TRIP (you won’t be staying still long!) that includes 4 national parks, take this route:
This itinerary has a mix of city and hiking with scenic routes between each destination! I have used Nashville as a good airport to fly into if you aren’t within driving distance of one of the locations (we drove from Arkansas, so we didn’t actually stop in Nashville), however, a perk of this itinerary is that it is more centrally located (than New England) and many more people can drive this route without flying!
Stop one of the great fall US road trip is Mammoth Cave National Park! It is the longest cave system in the WORLD! We visited when the *c word* was still around and a large part of the cave system was closed. However, we were able to see enough of the cave system to see just how vast the system really is!
There is a lot of history associated with the caves (it is literally a UNESCO World Heritage Site), including its purchase by a Dr. Croghan who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1839 thinking the cave system would have curative properties. He brought down 16 other TB patients who lived in “TB huts,” hoping the elements of the cave would lend a cure to TB . However, as we know now, damp conditions and the smoke in the air to maintain the lantern lights were not good for lung integrity and they ended up dying from TB. The stone huts are still in the cave system.
When you visit Mammoth Caves, stay near the entrance in order to get to the park when it opens!
In order to explore the cave system, you can:
The caves are a massive system and you could spend days here. However, caves are caves, and I don’t know if it is worth it to explore every inch (personal opinion.)
I recommend spending most of the day exploring the system and then head to Lexington for the night. I truly don’t know if we would have gone back to the caves for a second day if we had stayed in the area for another night.
In Lexington: Seeing as how you will likely arrive to Lexington in the evening after exploring the caves, I recommend just finding dinner and preparing to visit sights the next morning. I recommend staying in walking distance of downtown Lexington.
Lexington is known as the Horse Capital of the World and known for its bourbon, so be sure to delve into both to get a feel for Lexington’s culture.
Get up and explore Lexington! Be sure to:
If you have time, visit the Kentucky Horse Park, which is about 20 minutes north of Lexington, to see live shows, go horseback riding, learn about the history of horses and more! This is a great way to finish the day exploring Lexington and what it has to offer before heading to Charleston for the evening!
After exploring downtown Lexington and maybe the hosre park, head to Charelston, WV for the night!
Charleston is a quaint little town, but will bring you close to New River Gorge National Park. This was our primary reason for staying in Charleston, WV. We got into town pretty late, so really just had time to walk downtown a little bit and have dinner. Then it was up EARLY to head to New River Gorge National Park. If you would like to spend more time in Charleston, read Family Destinations Guide to Charleston! (they know more than I do about Charleston 👍🏼)
New River Gorge National Park is the United State’s NEWEST national park. The park covers nearly 70,000 acres of land, meaning you could spend days and days hiking through the park and not be able to see it all. However, the biggest attraction of New River Gorge is the huge bridge that crosses the 3000+ foot wide gorge at a height that is 876 feet (nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower!!) Nearly every top-rated hike will likely give you some version of a “great view of the bridge.”
Get up early to get to New River Gorge National Park!
Spend the morning viewing the New River Gorge bridge from multiple angles!
If you are feeling adventurous, I recommend taking a tour across the bridge.
If you aren’t a fan of heights, spend the afternoon hiking with a different view of the bridge at New River Gorge! Here are the top-rated trails on AllTrails!
Fayetteville, West Virginia is the closest town to New River Gorge National Park, which is where I recommend staying day 3!
Day four of the fall US road trip is allotted for more of West Virginia! Seneca Rocks are a jutted rock formation that is one of the most well-known landmarks in West Virginia. With its dramatic peaks and ability to climb all the way to the top, it attracts many hikers as well as rock climbers! It is a little out of the way from New River Gorge, but is SUCH a cool hike. AND it is pretty close to Shenandoah National Park which will be your next destination!
The drive from New River Gorge to Seneca Rocks is through Monongahela National Forest, which is a really beautiful drive (some of the most colorful leaves we saw the whole trip!) So, take your time and feel free to stop and take in the leaves!
It will get dark in West Virginia by about 7 or 7:30 pm in October, and the Seneca Rocks hike is about 3.6 miles out and back trail which takes about 2.5-3 hours to complete. So, as long as you start hiking by 3 or 4 pm you will have plenty of time!
NOTE: you will NOT have reception in this area and there are not accommodations nearby (it is kind of in the middle of nowhere). I recommend driving to Harrisonburg, Virginia for the night (about an hour and a half drive)!
Shenandoah National Park will be a popular destination on this fall US road trip. Therefore, I recommend getting up early to enter the park when it opens. You’ll beat the crowds AND be able to enjoy the whole day in Shenandoah!
There are miles and miles and miles of hiking trails along the Appalachian Trail and inside Shenandoah National Park. You could spend a full week camping here. However, Shenandoah is easy to navigate, as there is just one main road, Skyline Drive, that goes along the ridge. If you get to the park early enough, you will have plenty of time to do see a lot of the park and do several hikes. We did three different hikes:
After getting your hikes in in Shenandoah, drive to Roanoke for the night. This will start you on the Blue Ridge Parkway and get you a little closer to Asheville.
Day 6 of the fall US road trip is allotted for driving the Blue Ridge Parkway! The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most scenic routes in the US, connecting the southern portion of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park to the entry of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Stay in Asheville for the night. I recommend Wicked Weed Brewery for dinner if you are a craft beer fan!
Day 7 is full of exploring Asheville! Asheville is a charming, eclectic city full of loads of art, beer, food and beautiful scenery!
Start your day with a cup of coffee from Double D’s, then explore Asheville!
If you are wanting to go to Biltmore Estates, book tickets in advance! Also, you will likely want to add an extra day in Asheville, because it will take most of a day to explore the estate, the grounds, the winery, etc.
Get up early and head to the Smoky Mountains!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another popular stop amongst the great fall foliage chase. Be prepared for crowds to be larger in the Smoky Mountains compared to other places on this fall US road trip route.
Day 1 in the smokies:
Day 2 in the smokies:
Again, I’ve set this up as a loop flying into Nashville, Tennessee due to it being one of the larger cities and (typically) more affordable flight prices. However, if you are close to one of these destinations (as many are due to the centrality of this loop!) then the loop can be completed by driving from Great Smoky Mountains to Mammoth Cave rather than going through Nashville (about a 4 hour drive).
If you aren’t sold on a fall US road trip, but are wanting to travel in October, here are some other recommendations on places to visit in October!