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Rainbow Routes

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Donna Dailey uncovers dramatic drives and tantalising tours that reveal autumn's glorious colours in North America and beyond


We heard them before we saw them.

 

What began as a soft rustle on the breeze soon rose to a fluttering crescendo, as if an enormous flock of birds had taken flight. As we crested a ridge high above the town of Aspen, we looked down upon a sweeping slope of glorious yellow, the famous quaking aspen trees shimmering in the wind.

 

Weaving our way between the slender white tree trunks, we hiked down the slope, our boots crunching on the gilded carpet of fallen leaves. When we reached a small clearing I looked up at the circle of golden treetops soaring against the bright blue sky and brushing us with flickering shadows. I paused, spellbound. There are few places more magical than an aspen grove.

 

Autumn is a glorious time in the Colorado Rockies and Aspen town sees out the season in a blaze of outdoor activity. Mountain biking and hiking trails lead up 14,000-foot peaks or gentler routes to the Maroon Bells and other famous beauty spots. Leaf-peeping takes on a whole new dimension when you're kayaking along the Roaring Fork river or paragliding over the town. In late September, Aspen Filmfest presents acclaimed new releases and independent productions from around the world.

 

Just America's 15-day Colorado Rocky Mountain High self-drive tour takes you from Denver to Aspen along scenic roads and mountain passes, via the historic mining town of Leadville, at over 3,000m, the highest city in the US. Other highlights include the rustic town of Telluride, prehistoric cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, Pike's Peak and Colorado Springs. Or tailor your route through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road (US 34), the highest continuous paved road in the country. As it climbs from lush forests to alpine tundra, watch for herds of elk in the meadows and listen for 'bugling', their strange mating call during the autumn rut (tel. 01489 892329 / www.justamerica.co.uk).

 

Picking the best time for leaf-peeping in the Rockies – or anywhere – can be tricky. Autumn colour varies from year to year depending on such factors as rainfall, temperatures and the first frosts. It generally runs from mid-September to mid-October, but can be earlier or later depending on conditions.

 

Autumn foliage is also highly localised. Colours peak at different times even in nearby locations. The show is dazzling but brief, normally lasting only about a week in any one place. Most leaf-peeping regions have fall colour hotlines or online updates through local tourist boards that help you find the best viewing spots.

 

colours of new england

 

America's most famous leaf-peeping destination is New England. Here, the maples, oaks, beeches, birches and tamaracks produce a vibrant landscape of fiery reds, bright oranges and deep golds that stretch for miles.

 

Vermont, with its covered bridges, white steepled churches and quaint towns, is a favourite spot. The White Mountains of New Hampshire afford spectacular views, especially from the Mount Washington Cog Railway. In Bar Harbor, Maine, go on a whale-watching expedition before exploring the autumn beauty of Acadia National Park. Prestige Holidays (tel. 01425 480400 / www.prestigeholidays.co.uk) takes in all three and more on its 15-day Classic New England self-drive tour. You can tailor it to take in one of the many food, arts and crafts festivals that take place throughout the season.

 

The Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York cover a vast, rugged area of six million acres. Densely forested and studded with lakes, they are stunning in autumn. Explore the region from a base in Lake Placid on a 13-day fly-drive tour from Audley Travel (tel. 01993 838000 / www.audleytravel.com). You'll also visit the beautiful

Finger Lakes region with its superb wineries, and Niagara Falls.

 

For autumn splendour in the South, take the magnificent drive from Virginia to North Carolina along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Titan Travel's two-week coach tour travels this route and pairs the scenic beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains with visits to Washington DC, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the colonial gems of Jamestown and Williamsburg, and other historic and cultural highlights (tel. 0800 988 5823 / www.titantravel.co.uk).

 

Alternatively, visit Chicago and then head north into Michigan on a Great Lakes fly-drive with Vacations to America (tel. 01582 469777 / www.vacationstoamerica.com). Miles of wooded shoreline are a gorgeous setting for sailing, canoeing, biking, strolling along the beach or hiking the forest trails. Small resort towns with murals, art galleries and speciality shops make a charming base for taking in the harvest activities at nearby orchards, farms, cider mills and wineries.

 

Forests don't stop at the border and eastern Canada rivals New England for some of the most spectacular autumn colour in North America. The Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal are prime leaf-peeping territory, thanks to the abundance of sugar maples, birches and beeches. They make a dramatic backdrop for the Symphony of Colours, a series of free weekend concerts at Mont Tremblant, September to mid-October. Travel can be arranged through specialist Canadian Affair (tel. 0207 616 9184 / www.canadianaffair.com).

 

red leaf hunting

 

For leaf-peeping adventures sans automobile, consider these European beauty spots. InnTravel's week-long Secret Apennines walking holiday rambles through a less-travelled section of Italy's mountains between Florence and Bologna. On this trip, the dramatic scenery is rivalled only by the outstanding regional cuisine that awaits each night at trail's end (tel. 01653 617002 / www.inntravel.co.uk).

 

Switzerland's numerous cycle routes provide the perfect way of seeing spectacular autumn colours with towering Alpine backdrops. Try the Napf cycle route, a challenging but scenic experience across the Emmental hills between Bern and Lucerne, providing the ideal terrain for mountain biking. Switzerland Travel Centre's suggested five-day tour includes accommodation and luggage transfers (www.stc.co.uk/napf_bike.html).

 

Or sail into autumn on a Hurtigruten cruise along Norway's coast. The pristine beauty of the fjords and shoreline is heightened by the crisp air and clusters of red and gold on the hillsides. Shorter days allow longer nights to glimpse the Northern Lights. And you can visit the indigenous reindeer herders and learn the secrets of a Sami shaman on the Sami Autumn Excursion (tel. 0844 272 8961 / www.hurtigruten.co.uk).

 

For an exotic leaf-peeping destination, try Japan, where it is called momijigari, or 'red-leaf hunting'. The long season stretches from September in mountain areas to November/early December in Kyoto. Here, the deep crimson of Japanese maples makes a stunning contrast against the graceful temple gardens. Many are illuminated in the evening, exuding a surreal glow. Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 0845 485 1519 / www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) visits Kyoto on a seven- or 13-night Japan tour, which also takes in Tokyo, Mount Fuji and many other highlights.

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