Fall Color Hotspots

10 top destinations for awesome autumn displays

Bishop Canyon, California
Bishop Canyon is one of the favorites for fall color in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. This sometimes seasonal waterfall is along the South Fork of Bishop Creek. The fall color display in Bishop Canyon includes vast stretches of aspen covering the mountainsides and lining Bishop Canyon. In lower elevations closer to Bishop, you can find Fremont cottonwoods in the valley and along the Owens River. When I first arrived to scout the area, I found the colors peaking nicely in the broader reaches of the canyon, while some of the narrower areas were a bit premature. The waterfall was still flowing, although at a lower level. While I contemplated my composition, I did not see the waterfall itself as my primary subject, but when surrounded with the emerging fall color, the waterfall became the star of the scene. To get here, drive California 395 to the town of Bishop, then turn west on Highway 168.


Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
Colorado is one of the top locations for fall foliage and a favorite among photographers. With a variety of spectacular mountain ranges and wild rivers, you don’t have to venture far to frame amazing fall color images. Part of the San Juan Skyway, Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway 550 winds through narrow canyons and open valleys, overlooks spectacular 14,000-foot peaks, and is speckled with historic mine sites and Victorian towns. Having taught photo workshops along the highway for years, I stumbled on this scene south of the Lime Creek area. It had all the ingredients for a great shot: aspens in peak, red ground cover, and a fir tree all were perfect for a basic “rule of thirds” composition. The image processing was minimal with some lightening of shadows, whitening the whites, and a bump in saturation. On average, the best time to go is the last week of September through the first week of October.


Glacier National Park, Montana
Like much of the Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park has its share of great color set amongst stunning mountain ranges and peaks. Both the west and east sides of the park have abundant areas of fall foliage in late September and early October. This image was captured near Kiowa while returning from Canada’s Northwest Territories, where the color change occurs a few weeks earlier. Knowing the leaf color would be peaking at best or gone at worst, I left St. Mary’s intent on getting there quickly before sunset. As I crested a hill and started down the other side, this spectacular display came into view. Grabbing my gear, I ran up the hillside and quickly shot a series of bracketed exposures, and later blended a darker, non-blown-out sky with the perfect foreground. Not only are there pockets of fall color along the east side of the park, you can also find moose and elk in the meadows and aspen groves.


White Mountains, New Hampshire
New Hampshire’s White Mountains are a photographer’s delight come fall. I have made the trek from the West Coast several times because it is so amazing. Not only are the big vistas stunning, but the details are magical just about anywhere you point the camera. I was in the Franconia Notch area when I captured this image. The hillside was covered with so much variety that I saw a wonderful opportunity to compose the patterns of different colors. While it is easy to point and shoot, these subjects can be more challenging due to a lack of many compositional elements like foreground objects, lines, and curves. Instead, using mostly the rule of thirds concept, I composed the darker and lighter elements to strategically stand out and this image is the result of those efforts. You get to Franconia Notch off of Interstate 93. Plan to come late September through early October.


Newfound Gap, North Carolina
Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the mountain pass and border between North Carolina and Tennessee. At 5,048 feet, the view is spectacular, as you can see miles of ridgelines and valleys. Just down Road 441, where this image was captured, the views and scenery don’t disappoint. With hillsides and valleys displaying a rainbow of colors, it’s not hard to frame a composition. Besides the big vistas, I like the simplicity of details when I zoom in, as I did for this image—many of the rules of composition can still be applied to create patterns and textures with the varied colors on the mountainsides. Peak color varies, but I have been lucky when planning to photograph around the second and third week of October. If the weather has been hot and dry, the air can have a fair amount of haze, so if rain is forecast, you may want to hurry up and get there.


Red Rock Canyon State Park, Oklahoma
Many locations throughout the U.S. are known as fall color hot spots, and photographers flock to them each year—but there are also many other locations that might be lesser known, and much less crowded, and yet are just as spectacular. I discovered this on a trip through the lower Midwest when I saw firsthand some beautiful locations. Oklahoma’s Red Rock Canyon State Park is scenic enough for the camera, but with the addition of fall foliage, the park becomes even more dramatic. What attracted me to create this image was the red canyon wall and this maple in full display. My preference when up close like this is a soft flat light and that made it a perfect time. Get here by heading west on I-40 from Oklahoma City and then south on Highway 281.


Santiam River, Oregon
Being from Oregon has allowed me to travel the entire state countless times and photograph many of the areas with great fall color. While there are numerous locations, my favorites are the rivers and mountain passes that cross the Cascade Mountains. Just about any highway that winds through the mountains will have rivers and streams with a variety of trees in color. These range from brilliant yellows to oranges and reds, and they often line the waterways. On one of those trips along Highway 22, from Bend to Salem, I saw this vine maple on the edge of the road and along the banks of the Santiam River. I stopped and grabbed my backpack and proceeded to set up this shot. In late fall, the river’s water level was pretty low, so I decided to use a wide-angle lens to make the branches visually closer and frame the river to appear smaller in the background. The best time to visit the area is late September through mid-October.


Greenbrier, Tennessee
Anywhere you go in Great Smoky Mountains National Park you will find amazing fall foliage to photograph. One of my favorite areas is Greenbrier, where the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River flows. This location is just minutes from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and is often not as busy as other areas in the Great Smoky Mountains. While I was there photographing rocks and water and the colorful stream banks, I walked behind this tree and noticed how the leaves were translucent from the subtle overhead lighting of the overcast sky. With the branches draped down and the water flowing behind, I used a one-second exposure, and the result was a nice softness and glowing leaves. I later opened the RAW file and bumped up the contrast and a bit of saturation to make the leaves pop a little more. To get here you head east on Highway 321 and then turn south towards the Greenbrier ranger station.


Capitol Reef, Utah
I have photographed in many Utah locations that display great fall color, including aspen groves in higher elevations and cottonwoods in lower. On this trip, I had started my fall color exploration in the northern areas of the U.S., and once those areas played out, I headed south to Utah where fall color lasts into November. Capitol Reef National Park was on the agenda with a plan to photograph the cottonwoods in the area, but when I arrived I was pleased to discover that the fruit orchards in historic Fruita were turning color. These orchards have a history dating back to the early Mormon pioneers who settled in the area in the late 1800s. While this was not the type of fall color I had planned on, once I saw the orchards and started composing some scenes, it became obvious there were incredible opportunities. I framed this somewhat simply with the orchards in front of a sandstone wall. You get here by taking Utah Highway 24 to Torrey, Utah; Capitol Reef is just to the east. The orchards are near the park’s visitor center and campground. The best times I have found are mid-October into early November.


Dog River, Vermont
Like its neighbors, Vermont has its share of amazing fall color throughout the state. On one of my trips through New England, I was in the area of Northfield and beautiful Northfield Falls. As I drove along the river, I found this wonderful cascade surrounded by some nice color, but what really attracted me was the rocks covered in leaves and how they forced the water to split and flow left and right. I captured various angles, but feel strongly about this composition where some water flowed right to the foreground. You can get here by taking Highway 12 south from Montpelier. Plan to come late September through early October.

Charlie Borland has photographed far and wide for 30 years, working with a wide range of clients, magazines, and publishers like National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Women’s Sports and Fitness, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated for Women, Backpacker, Mother Earth News, Nike, Columbia Sportswear and more. See more of his work at www.borlandphoto.com.