Fall is one of America’s most celebrated seasons, yet despite all the pumpkin spice, cozy sweaters, and foliage, the season is also synonymous with feelings of anxiety. Psychologists have dubbed it “autumn anxiety” or as it's more commonly known, Seasonal Anxiety Disorder (SAD). According to the Mayo Clinic, millions of Americans are affected every year, and the symptoms generally start in the fall.
The best way to get ahead of this seasonal phenomenon is technically light therapy, deep breathing, and a host of over-the-counter options. While we aren’t licensed doctors or therapists, our perfect antidote to the “fall blues” is hitting the road. A road trip gives you something to look forward to, and is a great way to power through the changing seasons and see a new part of the country.
Making fall road trips a family tradition is a great way to see off-the-beaten-path small towns and less populated regions in America. Road trips bring about a type of nostalgia and intimacy we don’t always get on other types of vacations. Hitting the road in the fall also allows you to take advantage of off-season pricing, less crowded attractions, and an opportunity to experience some beautiful fall foliage before the weather gets too cold.
Once you pick the final destination, the fun begins. Look along the route for places and towns to stop, explore, and spend a night (or two) on the way. The handy, non-scientific 10-12 hour radius rule (from your home base) ensures you can break down the driving so you aren’t doing much more than six hours per day in the car. Read on for some of the best road trips destinations in the Lower 48.
While the crowds flock to the Smoky Mountains for fall foliage in October, early November has actually been the peak time for foliage the past few years. You’ll be able to escape the crowds and be delighted in the mountains awash with red, yellow, and orange. Rent a chalet in the mountains (a hot tub is a requirement), grab your hiking boots, and set off into the heart of the Smoky Mountains with a visit to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. This is most suited for a romantic or family getaway, as there isn’t much nightlife to speak of. Ride the lift to the top of Anakeesta Mountain and enjoy the restaurants and shops at the top, or just take in the gorgeous views.
Horse racing season at Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington is in October and the races run each weekend from Thursday-Sunday. Once you arrive, spend your time exploring the city of Lexington, or head to the gorgeous Kentucky countryside and explore the Bourbon Trail. The Bourbon Trail has become a major tourist attraction of late, and for good reason—the beautiful distilleries are steeped in history and delicious libations. If bourbon and horse racing are your thing, don’t miss fall in the Bluegrass state.
From the Bourbon Trail to Bourbon Street! Forget the summer humidity or the madness of Mardi Gras and head to New Orleans in the fall. The only caveat to this plan is hurricane season, which lasts for most of autumn. The good news is, driving gives you flexibility when you head to the Big Easy so you can plan around any major weather events.
What’s waiting for you is some of the best food in the country, a great party scene, and some of the best blues and jazz clubs in the world. Fall is also a great time for festivals and annual events, like the Voodoo Music & Arts Experience, Beignet Festival, or catching a Saints game at the Superdome.
Any trip to New Orleans promises to be a lively, gluttonous experience, marked by Cajun specialties like jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée, po’ boys, and beignets. Head to Jacques-Imo’s Cafe for some of the best Cajun cuisine in town, and make sure to venture out of the French Quarter for a more authentic experience.
New Mexico’s high temps are in the 60s and 70s during September and October, making it the perfect time for hiking and outdoor exploration. The desert is always beautiful with its rich sunsets and natural landscapes, and the capital city of Santa Fe is bursting with art, culture, and history. Some of the state's most internationally renowned events happen in the fall. The largest balloon race in the world takes place in Albuquerque, home to the International Balloon Fiesta. The Fiesta is a nine-day event in early October with over 500 hot air balloons each year.
For foodies, New Mexico is rich with tradition. Sample its unique cuisine with an emphasis on red and green New Mexican chile peppers. Dishes that originated in New Mexico include sopapillas, breakfast burritos, green chile stew, and carne adovada (pork marinated in red chile). Wash down all the spicy fare on the Santa Fe Margarita Trail.
Two words: Indian summer. San Francisco’s cooler temps can be a rude awakening if visiting during peak summer months, but a trip to the City by the Bay in the fall means near-perfect weather, with warmer temps and less fog. There are also many great annual events happening in the fall, like Fleet Week, Treasure Island Music Festival, and the Castro Street Fair. A little to the north, it’s harvest season in wine country, so a day trip to either Napa or Sonoma can compliment this trip quite nicely. San Francisco is always a good idea for its culture, food scene, and scenic views, but the fall is the best time to plan your visit.
South Dakota is full of breathtaking scenery, famous monuments, national parks, and roaming buffalo! What more could you want out of a great road trip destination? From the four presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore, to the wondrous caverns of Wind Cave—the Black Hills are home to many monumental places. There’s no better way to take in the vastness of the five million acres of forest, mountains, and prairies than by car. Start your journey on the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, a 39-mile loop with 16 designated scenic overlooks. Go hiking, explore remote towns, camp, or stay in historic Deadwood for a trip down memory lane in the Old West. End your trip with a day or two in Rapid City, home to a lively downtown with concerts and outdoor festivals.