Experiencing fall foliage in a whole new way


By Victor Block

Jill and Bill Kelly oooh and aaah at the scenery passing below the hot air balloon in which they’re sailing gently above the treetops. The ride is very different for Mark and Marylee Sutherland as they help steer a rubber raft through a stretch of rock-strewn river and over a 12-foot-high waterfall.

These experiences seem to have little in common, but both couples share the same goal. They sought, and found, new ways — and places — to enjoy Mother Nature’s annual fall foliage extravaganza.

“Leaf peepers” seeking to take in the annual Technicolor display can find surprising places around the country, and imaginative ways, to do so.

The ride that the Kelly couple enjoyed is operated by aptly named Balloons Over New England. The flight resembles an aerial nature walk which skims over river valleys and offers distant views of the Green Mountains.

As with any excursion planned to view fall foliage, the peak period can change a bit from year to year. In Vermont, color usually begins in late September and lasts to mid-October. For more information, call 800- 788-5562 or log onto balloonsovernewengland.com.

Rather than gliding over treetops, the Sutherlands alternated opportunities to enjoy vibrant color along river shorelines with frantic paddling as their raft shot through heart-stopping rapids. Trips offered by the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina and Tennessee pass through steep gorges and mountain backdrops blanketed with trees that burst into color during the fall. Those who prefer to view the foliage in a more leisurely way have a choice of less challenging rivers. For more information call 828- 785-5082 or log onto noc.com.

Landlubbers may find a covered wagon ride to be the perfect way to enjoy the fall colors. Visitors to the Buena Vista Ski Area in Minnesota follow a route that was traveled by Native Americans, early explorers and pioneers. Activities at this year’s annual Fall Color Festival, Friday, Sept. 19 and Saturday, Sept. 20, will include square dancing and blacksmith demonstrations. Wagon rides are available at any time with advance reservations. Call (800) 777-7958 or log onto bvskiarea.com.

For train buffs, the Mid-Continent Railroad Museum operates restored vintage passenger cars through the rural Wisconsin countryside during Autumn Color Weekend, Friday, Oct. 9 through Sunday, Oct. 11. Itineraries include evening dinner served in a 1914 diner-lounge car and daytime coach and caboose trains. For more information call 800- 930-1385 or log onto midcontinent.org.

Speaking of vintage, how about a thrilling flight in a World War II-era open cockpit airplane? Training planes and fighter aircraft fly low over rolling hills and California vineyards. While the color of grape vines at ground level don’t pack the visual wallop of a tree canopy, the red and yellow leaves against a backdrop of green have a beauty all their own. For more information call 707- 938-2444 or log onto vintageaircaft.com.

Zip lines don’t go as high or fast as airplanes, but zipping though and above treetops clad in a coat of many colors can be just as rewarding. One place to enjoy this experience is the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, which has the largest stand of old-growth forest east of the Mississippi River. The kaleidoscope of autumn colors begins in September and lasts for several weeks. The diversity of trees adds to the spectrum of vibrant hues. Information is available from the Tennessee tourism office at 800- 462-8366 and tnvacation.com.

While a number of ski resorts throughout the country operate their lifts during the foliage season, Snowmass in Colorado does most of them one better – and then some. The aspen trees turn the 2.3 million acres of surrounding national forest a brilliant shade of gold. It’s no wonder that Travel + Leisure last year ranked it among “America’s Best Towns for Fall Colors”.

More than 50 miles of hiking trails pass through groves of golden aspens, Jeep and horseback tours are available for those who would rather ride than walk, and a gondola carries bikers to a high perch from which they ride to the bottom. Those who take the chair lift to its 11,000-foot top are rewarded with a panoramic view of the rugged Elk Mountain range. For more information, call 800- 679-3151 or log onto gosnowmass.com.

Those who prefer the tried and true ways of enjoying the changing leaves also can find some surprises. For example, how many people are aware that leaves of dogwood, maple and red alder trees in Oregon display a rainbow spectrum of color?   An autumn hike in the Rogue River National Forest passes through old growth trees that provide a variety of fall shades, and the Santiam Pass Scenic Byway leads past waterfalls and a volcanic landscape set off by vibrant colors. For more information, call 800-547-7842 or log onto traveloregon.com.

Another surprise to many is the October color extravaganza which begins in the northern Ozarks of Arkansas, moves slowly south and continues into early November. A favorite driving route is the Boston Mountains Scenic Loop, which traverses mountain areas and tree-covered canyons. The Talimena National Scenic Byway winds along forested mountain tops in one of the highest ranges between the Appalachians and Rockies, offering a series of breathtaking panoramas. For more information, call 501-682-7777 or log onto arkansas.com.

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