What is leaf peeping? How to view the best of fall foliage

A tranquil lake in Vermont with autumn leaves and a mountain in the background
Discover the best fall activity for anyone who loves nature, including the best spots to catch vibrant foliage and what you need to make the most of autumn (Image credit: DenisTangneyJr)

When I moved to Vermont in the summer of 2004, I was expecting a whole new way of life compared to the previous three years I’d spent down in the featureless plains of the Midwest, and I wasn’t disappointed by the gorgeous mountains and wholesome outdoor lifestyle embraced there. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was an entirely new language to go along with all the quirks of the Green Mountain State. The soft serve ice creams we enjoyed on those lingering warm days were called 'creemees' and the folks who lived out in the sticks were referred to as 'woodchucks'. Once the spring rolled around there was a whole fifth season each year I’d never experienced before called mud season, and in autumn, the state was flooded with leaf peepers. 

What is leaf peeping? That must have been one of my first questions upon arrival, and the answer is one of the best fall activities around for those who love nature.

A church in Stowe, Vermont in the autumn

Leaf peeping is an informal term used in New England to describe the activity of viewing and photographing the changing colors of fall foliage (Image credit: franckreporter)

What does the term leaf peeping mean?

Leaf peeping is an informal term used in New England to describe the activity of viewing and photographing the changing colors of fall foliage. New England’s six states are well-known for their vibrant fall colors, thanks in part to the abundance of sugar maple trees that thrive there, which supply the region with tasty syrup (and creemees) and brightly colored fall foliage starting in September each year and lasting until November in some parts. 

As a result, hiking in New England during the fall has become a popular activity, and the area is flooded with visitors from other states during this time. Their reputation for driving extremely slowly as they enjoy the colors is known to irk the woodchucks and other Vermonters, so the term 'leaf peeper' may be used in a derogatory fashion, even though it’s well agreed upon that the practice of leaf peeping is worthwhile, and one that's undertaken by locals as well as tourists.

Fog and boats on Lake Willoughby, Vermont in autumn

(Image credit: DenisTangneyJr)

Where is the best place for leaf peeping?

Well, as I’ve said, New England is generally considered the best place for fall foliage. Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts put on a spectacular show each year, while northern Rhode Island and northern Connecticut also offer striking displays. In fact, fall in New England is so famous it’s been sung about (Cheryl Wheeler), written about (Thoreau) and tweeted about (Tom Brady) and it easily lives up to its reputation – the changing leaves in Maine’s Acadia National Park, the Berkshires of Massachusetts and pretty much anywhere in Vermont and New Hampshire will always take your breath away, in my experience.

But if New England is too far to travel, or you’d rather avoid the crowds, there is plenty of truly stunning fall foliage to be found elsewhere in places like New York, North Carolina, Arkansas the Upper Peninsula and Colorado, where the aspens transform the Rocky Mountains into a dazzling show of yellow hues. In fact, our list of the best National Parks for fall colors extends from the east coast stalwarts all the way to California.

Early morning at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

In Colorado, the aspens transform the Rocky Mountains into a dazzling show of yellow hues (Image credit: Wayne Boland)

What's the best month for fall foliage?

The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (opens in new tab) explains that changes in daylight and temperature that autumn brings are what causes the leaves to stop their food-making process. As they become dormant, the green chlorophyll breaks down to reveal red, yellow and orange pigments before the leaves fall off. This process takes several weeks and its timing ultimately depends on the weather and location, however there is typically a 'peak' to the season, lasting a week or two, where the colors are at their most brilliant. The Farmer’s Almanac (opens in new tab) notes that the second and third weeks of October can often be counted on to provide the most dazzling hues, and it’s a good idea to consult their annual predictions before taking a trip.

Fall colors in Vermont with the Green Mountains in the distance

Changes in daylight and temperature that autumn brings are what causes the leaves to stop their food-making process (Image credit: Pugalenthi)

What do you need to go leaf peeping?

As far as outdoor activities go, leaf peeping is a pretty inclusive one that doesn’t require lots of skill or equipment. Lots of incredible foliage can be seen from your car, from town and from gentle walking paths. That said, we do encourage you to get out into the colors, especially since the incoming winter might hinder your walking for the next few months, and of course the weather is turning chillier and less predictable, so it’s always good to equip yourself with the following:

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.