The best leaf-viewing hotspots from the Ozarks to California

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By Dan Sears

One in four Americans are planning a trip this fall season to sneak a peek at the changing orange, red and yellow foliage, according to AAA.

But for veteran leaf peepers, the crowded byways of the northeast have their cons.

There’s, for instance, the familiar traffic jams and the extravagant rates at the inn. Luckily there are plenty of fresh — and affordable — ways to enjoy the view beyond New England.

Below, are a few of the best, most serene, off-the-beaten-path shedding spots.

Breckenridge, Colo.

Peak peep: Right now

The high elevation of this mining town-turned-manmade resort at Colorado’s heart — it’s 9,600 feet above sea level, or about five-and-a-half Freedom Towers — make it one of the earliest places in the country to catch some falling leaves. Even better, the aspen trees which give the jet-set hub nearby its name are abundant here, the spindly feathery trees blazing an orangey gold when summer’s over.

Family-sized luxury rentals in woodsy Breckenridge, Colo., put you in the middle of the autumnal action.

Best route: Take the hour-long drive through Boreas Pass Road from downtown up to more than 11,400 feet on the top of the Continental Divide, then hop out to hike an hour or so right to the peak surrounded by swaying aspens.

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Best berth: If you’ve always wanted your own mountain chalet, consider renting a villa here — the swanky vibe means the homes are plush, and fully kitted out. Airbnb’s tonier rival, OneFineStay, which started out focused on NYC and other metro hubs, has now branched out to cover the Rockies, too.

Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Peak peep: Now through October

Warm things up at Outbound Mammoth.
Knox Photographics LLC

Sure, the forests out West aren’t as jam packed with seasonal, color-changing trees, but if you stick to higher elevations you’ll see a similar show to that of New England. Expect aspen, big leaf maple and oak in and around Mammoth Lakes, which sits at almost 8,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The bonus here is the jaw-dropping backdrop, all bright blue lakes and crystal clear skies, offsetting those colors even more dramatically.

Best route: There are more than 100 lakes in this resort town in Mono County — hence the name — so try Bishop Creek Canyon (expect plenty of aspens) or Rock Creek.

Best berth: The five-decade-old Sierra Nevada Resort underwent a major renovation last year, including changing its name to Outbound Mammoth, preserving its throwback-ish feel — Clark Gable’s piano sits in the lobby here, and both Sinatra and Dean Martin were guests — while providing a much-needed upgrade of its décor and facilities (doubles from $151).

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Smoky Mountains, Tenn.

Peak peep: Now through mid-October

The forests of the Smoky Mountains show off for the season — glamp among them.
Baily Made

There are more than 100 different types of native trees in eastern Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and its staggered elevation means they turn in waves, cascading down from the highest altitudes like an eruption. The vacation hub of Gatlinburg’s handily located right in the middle of the best sights: Head up to the Space Needle for a 360-degree view from 400 feet or take the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, a ski-season asset that starts downtown and soars over the top of the trees.

Best route: Top spots in the park include the 11-mile long Cades Cove Loop Road or a jaunt to Cherokee, where you’re likely to encounter roaming elks.

Best berth: Purists might camp in the park, but for a comfier, still outdoorsy option, try one of the safari-style glamping tents by Under Canvas which sit on their own 182-acre site right by the entrance to the park, 10 miles from Gatlinburg proper (doubles from $189).

The Ozarks, Missouri/Arkansas

Peak peep: Late October to mid-November

Affordable, beautiful, the Ozarks are one the most magical fall escapes in the US.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you want to squeeze in an extra trip right at season’s end, head to this late-shedding spot. Whether it’s scarlet Blackgum leaves, swirling purple and oranges of the Sweetgum or the blazing yellow of the early-to-turn Hickory, there’s a symphony of trees dotted around the mountain range that straddles southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Don’t miss the chance to reach the peak of Mount Magazine, the highest summit in AR at 2,753 feet, right in the heart of the 1.2 million-acre Ozark National Forest.

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Best route: Try a scenic drive around the 800 mile-plus shoreline of the Rorschach Blot-like Table Lake or nearby Lake Taneycomo — rent a boat, too, for low-energy, high-impact vistas.

Best berth: The brand-new boutique hotel, a welcome addition to brassy Branson in Missouri: the 102-room Ozarker, opened this summer, with a retro-chic vibe (from $109).

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