The Best Fall Vacations in the U.S. for Families

From national parks and mountain resorts to fall-foliage-draped towns and beachy escapes, here are the best places to visit in the fall. 
Colorful barn and fall foliage in Vermont, a fall vacation idea
Vermont (Photo: @cafealternativo via Twenty20)

If family vacations have a secret season, autumn must be it. It’s the time of year when people slow down after summer, settle into school and work and start planning for the holidays, creating a “shoulder season” for travel to popular family vacation spots around the country. The best fall vacations offer ideal conditions for value as well, since prices drop with reduced demand. And these fall vacation ideas blend appealing weather, fall colors and plenty of room to enjoy the crisp seasonal air. 

The Best Fall Vacation Ideas in the U.S. for Families

Whether you’re heading out for a quick weekend getaway or a true vacation-length trip, these fall destinations deliver just the sort of restorative escape to help you gear up for the long days of winter ahead. From national parks and mountain resorts to fall-foliage-draped towns and beachy escapes, these fall vacation ideas celebrate the best of the season. 

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Fall aspens on display in Rocky Mountain National Park (fall vacation ideas)
Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo: @jennycarter via Twenty20)

Like a golden wave, aspen groves light up Colorado’s mountains in autumn. To see the best fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding Rockies, aim to visit in September (though you can often catch some color in late August or early October, too; check a fall foliage map for details). 

Foliage isn’t the only reason to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in September, October, or November, though. Bring layers to enjoy hiking and biking late into the season. And autumn is a great time for wildlife watching, with elks gathering in herds and migratory birds pausing in the park on their way south for the winter. Bonus: At lower elevations, you can sometimes soak up a vista that includes both late-blooming wildflowers like asters and the glowing golden fall foliage.

Overnight Inspiration: Rocky Mountain National Park has no lodges, so your best bet is to check out hotels in nearby Estes Park or Grand Lake, where you’ll find a range of chain hotels, independent inns, nature-inspired lodges, and quaint B&Bs.  

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Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway in fall vacation ideas with Grandfather Mountain in background
Blue Ridge Parkway (Photo: @hokietim via Twenty20)

Summer family road trips get all the attention, but fall is arguably a superior season to hit the road. And there’s no better strip of highway for a fall vacation than the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. Wending its way through the dense forests of the Appalachian Mountains between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the parkway is peppered with more than 200 scenic overlooks that offer abundant excuses to pull over and experience the beauty firsthand. 

The pace is relaxed: The speed limit doesn’t exceed 45 mph and the National Park Service suggests you give yourself about an hour for every 30 miles of road you want to cover. Autumn brings the added benefit of splendid fall colors and harvest-time treats at the many farms just off the Parkway.

Overnight Inspiration: While there are only two lodges on the Parkway itself (Peaks of Otter Lodge at Milepost 86 and Pisgah Inn at Milepost 408.6), the road’s many access points connect it to accommodations in towns including Gatlinburg, Asheville, Roanoke, and Waynesboro.

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Vermont

Stowe, Vermont with fall foliage and church
Stowe, Vermont (Photo: @cafealternativo via Twenty20)

From its cozy village main streets to its rainbow of fall foliage displays, Vermont has fall dialed all the way up. Make your base in a picture-perfect small town like Woodstock or Bennington, or take the wanderers’ approach and book yourself stops along a multi-day route like the Mad River Byway, Route 100, or the Molly Stark Byway. For the full experience, mix scenic drives with leisurely hikes, and be sure to allot plenty of time to exploring the towns, farms, and historic sites along the way. 

Overnight Inspiration: Let your route through Vermont guide you to inns, B&Bs, and hotels in foliage-favorite towns like Brattleboro, Grafton, Manchester, Stowe, and Woodstock. Note that because Vermont is one of the nation’s top fall foliage destinations, booking early is key, especially if you have your heart set on a particular property. 

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Sonoma

Sonoma Coast fall vacation idea; in fall, there's usually less fog along the coast
Sonoma Coast (Photo: @Rustycut via Twenty20)

From north to south, California is blessed with more than its fair share of wine countries. But in fall, Sonoma stands out with its dazzling breadth of experiences. That’s because Sonoma is vast, with 1,500 square miles of rolling vineyards, dense redwood forests, and rugged Pacific coastline. In fall, it’s a party in the fields as the grapes are harvested, the leaves turn dramatic shades of red and yellow, and locals focus on the year’s crush. 

Meanwhile, along the coast, fall brings the long-anticipated respite from the summer fog, revealing the sparkling Pacific and sandy beaches ripe for picnicking. Note that fall is fire season in the West, so make sure you’re either booking travel that can be rescheduled or that you have trip insurance. 

Overnight Inspiration: Seeking the spray of saltwater? Consider Bodega Bay or Jenner. Want the hug of redwoods? Guerneville and Occidental both offer forested surrounds, charming small hotels, and main streets lined with great eats. Healdsburg is known for its historic town square and concentration of Michelin stars. Sonoma Valley towns like Sonoma and Glen Ellen deliver that classic wine country vibe. In between, you’ll find dozens of other destinations that can be the perfect home base for your fall vacation ideas, no matter what they are.

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San Diego

San Diego sunset with family on the beach
San Diego (Photo: @rebeleyemedia via Twenty20)

Yearning for sun in October? One of the best fall vacation ideas for sun-seekers is San Diego, with autumn temperatures that range from the low 50s to the high 70s and plenty of fall sunshine. There’s more than enough sun and sand to go around, and there’s always an uncrowded beach beckoning. 

Head out on the water for surfing, boating, and, starting in mid-December, whale watching. And don’t underestimate San Diego’s food scene, an impressive yet strangely under-the-radar culinary landscape characterized by a mix of beach shacks, taco stands, and Michelin-starred restaurants. 

Overnight Inspiration: San Diego has a hotel for every mood. Downtown, you’ll find sleek modern options like Pendry and Hotel Indigo. Head to the beach with a stay at Tower23, Pantai Inn, or another of the many coastal hotels. Or, take the short drive over the bridge to Coronado to stay at the iconic Hotel Coronado

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Poconos

Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe, the Poconos- a fall vacation idea
Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway (Photo: @kane251 via Twenty20)

Pennsylvania’s Poconos goes all in on fall foliage activities at prices that maximize both value and fun. The region’s 2,400 square miles of mountains, rivers, and deciduous forests are just a few hours’ drive from Philadelphia and New York City, but its mix of small towns and gently wild surrounds make it feel a world away. Admire the changing season on a scenic train ride, hay ride, horseback ride, or paddle. Add thrills aboard a mountain coaster, or via railbike or zipline

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Overnight Inspiration: The Poconos sees its fair share of day trippers, but magic happens when you get to settle in for a spell. Jim Thorpe’s quaint historic district is dotted with inns, B&Bs, and guest houses, while Stroudsburg offers a mix of mid-priced chain hotels. Throughout the region, you’ll find charming lodges and hotels like the Lodge at Woodloch and The Times House

Santa Fe

a street in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a fall destination
Santa Fe (Photo: @vjgsa221 via Twenty20)

As temperatures cool, cultural events heat up in Santa Fe. From food fests and celebrations of indigenous cultures to open studios and film festivals, fall vacations in Santa Fe are simply packed with things to do. And variety is the name of the game here—late fall even brings the possibility of skiing at nearby mountains

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Santa Fe’s fall foliage season is short, but time a visit right and you could catch the aspen as they turn from green to gold. Here in the country’s oldest capital, fall is a beautiful and less crowded time to embrace the best of Santa Fe. 

Overnight Inspiration: Santa Fe is remarkably walkable, and there are plenty of hotels clustered around the historic plaza and gallery-rich Canyon Road neighborhood. Find treasures from around the world at the luxurious Inn of the Five Graces, classic adobe design at the Las Palomas Inn, or expand your search to nearby Cerillos Road and affordable Route-66-inspired kitsch at the Silver Saddle Motel.

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Christine Sarkis
Christine Sarkis is a traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor. The former executive editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, Sarkis has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir.

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