New ways to encounter, enjoy fall foliage

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Victor Block

The company Balloons Over New England offers aerial views of fall leaves in Vermont.
Photo courtesy of Balloons Over New England

As they gently sail above the treetops, Jill and Bill Kelly enjoy the scenery passing below their hot air balloon.

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.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Victor Goodman travel at a much slower pace, in a horse-drawn covered wagon rolling along a high ridge that early explorers called the “top of the world.”

These disparate experiences seem to have little in common, but all three couples share a common goal. They sought, and have found, new ways — and places — to enjoy the annual fall foliage show that is among Mother Nature’s most magnificent handiworks.

“Leaf peepers” seeking to enjoy the annual Technicolor display have many more choices than a drive along a traffic-clogged road or a hike through the woods. They also can find surprising places around the country to take in the multihued spectacle, and imaginative ways of doing so.

Ballooning over New England

The ride that the Kellys enjoyed is operated by aptly named Balloons Over New England, located in Vermont. The flight has been likened to an aerial nature walk that skims over two river valleys and offers distant views of the Green Mountains. The treat for the eyes is followed by one for the taste buds, with a champagne, fruit and pastry repast.

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 Balloons Over New England at 1-800-788-5562 or log onto www.balloonsovernewengland.com.

Rather than gliding gently over treetops, Mark and Marylee Sutherland alternated opportunities to enjoy vibrant color along river shorelines with frantic paddling as the raft in which they traveled shot through heart-stopping rapids.

Trips offered by the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina and Tennessee pass through steep gorges and mountain backdrops that are blanketed with trees that burst into color during September. 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 www.noc.com.

As avowed landlubbers, the Goodmans found a covered wagon ride at the Buena Vista Ski Area in Minnesota to be the perfect way to enjoy the fall colors. They jounced over a route that was traveled by Native Americans, early explorers and pioneers.

Activities at this year’s annual Fall Color Festival, Sept. 19 and 20, will include square dancing, blacksmith demonstrations and chainsaw carving. Wagon rides are available at any time with advance reservations. Call 1-800-777-7958 or log onto www.bvskiarea.com.

A variety of other conveyances awaits those seeking a new and different way to view foliage.

The Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad offers a chance to view not only foliage, but bald eagles as well. The four-hour ride, which leaves from Romney, W.V., uses vintage locomotives from the 1950s, and includes several open-air cars for optimal eagle spotting as the train passes prime habitat. The railroad also offers special 1½-hour fall foliage trips from Petersburg, W.V., on selected dates in October.

Trains depart twice daily on Saturdays in September and daily in October, with a number of departures on Saturdays and Sundays. To learn more, call (304) 424-0736 or see http://www.potomaceagle.info.

Or how about a thrilling flight in a World War II-era open cockpit airplane that can carry two passengers? Training planes and fighter aircraft fly low over rolling hills and California vineyards. Those who are adventurous and brave enough may ask the pilot to take them through aerobatic maneuvers.

The color of grape vines at ground level don’t pack quite the visual wallop of a tree canopy, but 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 www.vintageaircaft.com.

Zip lines and ski resorts

It’s true that 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 among many 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 there lasts for several weeks, beginning in September at the highest elevations and moving down mountainsides into November. The diversity of trees adds to the spectrum of vibrant hues. Information is available from the Tennessee tourism office at 1-800-462-8366 and www.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.

There’s a reason the town it’s in is called Aspen. The trees of that name turn the 2.3 million acres of surrounding national forest a brilliant shade of gold. It’s no wonder that Travel + Leisurelast 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 follow downhill or cross country trails 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 1-800-679-3151 or log onto www.gosnowmass.com.

If, after considering the alternatives, you still prefer the tried and true ways of enjoying the changing leaves, you still might 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 1-800-547-7842 or log onto www.traveloregon.com. 

When planning a leaf peeping driving getaway, would you be likely to head for Arkansas? Yet that state experiences a color extravaganza that begins in October in the northern Ozarks, moves slowly south and peaks in late October and early November.

A favorite route is the Boston Mountains Scenic Loop (yes, in Arizona), which traverses nearly undeveloped mountain areas and tree-covered canyons. The Talimena National Scenic Byway, which winds along forested mountain tops in one of the highest ranges between the Appalachians and Rockies, offers a series of breathtaking panoramas. For more information, call (501) 682-7777 or log onto www.arkansas.com.