The Most Charming U.S. Small Towns to Visit This Fall

From Alaska to Vermont, these lesser-known destinations are the perfect places to explore in autumn.

Distant view of Park City surrounded by mountains

Park City, Utah, offers spectacular views during fall.

Photo by Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock

The air is getting crisper, the leaves are starting to turn, and teenagers everywhere are lining up for pumpkin spice lattes. While a scenic road trip in the fall is always a good idea, one of our favorite ways to revel in the glories of autumn is to grab our weekend getaway bags and set up camp in a charming small town. We like to head to places with a big festival calendar, cute B&Bs, mom-and-pop shops galore, and extraordinary access to the great outdoors. What follows are suggestions for seven such small U.S. towns that come alive during fall, with added bonuses like whiskey saloons, rescue lions, and Viking cookery.

A sailboat with burgundy sails and small lighthouse on Lake Superior’s northern shore

Grand Marais perches on Lake Superior’s northern shore.

Photo by Kjersti Vick/Visit Cook County MN

Grand Marais, Minnesota

The crown jewel of Lake Superior’s North Shore, this 1,340-person town is the ultimate fall cornucopia—overflowing with delicious things to eat. Try the cinnamon-sugar rings at the cheekily named World’s Best Donuts or puffy fry bread tacos at Hungry Hippie Tacos. There’s also lots to see (the striking art deco–meets–Cree Indian dining room at Naniboujou Lodge), buy (teak spoons and handsome made-in-Minnesota canoe paddles at Upstate MN), and do (take a printmaking or beginner photography class at the long-running Grand Marais Art Colony).

From late September, the artistically inclined can pop by open studios and galleries during the area’s annual Art Along the Lake Fall Studio Tour. Grand Marais is also home to the storied North House Folk School, where visitors sign up for intensive multi-day workshops in timber framing, sweetgrass basketry, open-fire Viking cooking, and more.

The lung-busting hike to Devil’s Kettle Falls at Judge C.R. Magney State Park will take you the better part of a morning, but the payoff is a mysterious “waterfall to nowhere.” (Which is actually not mysterious anymore; scientists cracked the case in 2017.) At Grand Portage State Park, just shy of the Canadian border, you’ll find the highest waterfall (70 feet) in Minnesota —only this one is far easier to reach. Another must: Make the 30-mile drive out to Poplar Haus, a rustic restaurant, lodge, and craft liquor store off the scenic Gunflint Trail.

Aerial view of Park City in autumn at dusk

Park City is popular in the winter, but it shines just as bright in the fall.

Photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Park City, Utah

Less than 40 minutes from Salt Lake City is a ski town (population: 8,504) that is agreeable even when there isn’t snow on the ground—or movies screening with Sundance. Catch it in the fall shoulder season for lower room rates and a fraction of the crowds. Check into Park City Peaks Hotel, a modern lodge peppered with Mad Men–era furniture, and then take off for Round Valley, a 700-acre nature area with more than 30 miles of mountain-biking trails. If you prefer viewing fall foliage by car, try the seven-mile Guardsman Pass route. It is steep and unpaved, cutting through forests of evergreens and oaks in the Wasatch Mountains. The dense stand of aspens lining Pine Canyon Drive, in particular, is one of the prettiest you’ll ever see.

Back in Park City’s historic old town, walk Main Street, which is packed with independently owned shops, cafés, and galleries. Scout for SLC-made Porter ceramics and mahogany-lined journals by Woodchuck at Park City Mercantile; take a caffeine break at minimalist-chic Pink Elephant Coffee Roasters; or visit the High West Distillery & Saloon, located on nearby Park Avenue, to try a tipple fashioned with its aged whiskeys. (The Ghost Dance combines American Prairie bourbon with raspberry, sweet vermouth, Amaro, and cold brew.)

Looking for some postexploration grub? We recommend the Maine-style seafood rolls at Freshie’s Lobster Co. or generously portioned tacos, sopas, tortas, and tamales from Mexican grocery Anaya’s Market. For an edible souvenir, enjoy a small-batch chocolate bar from award-winning Ritual Chocolate. Honeycomb toffee, barrel-aged malt whiskey, and juniper lavender are among the tempting flavors.

Barn-shaped Bucks County Playhouse next to the Delaware River.

New Hope and Lambertville sit on either side of the Delaware River.

Photo by EQRoy / Shutterstock

Lambertville, New Jersey

Visiting Lambertville (population: 3,797) is like getting two sweet towns in one, as it sits across the Delaware River from the equally charming New Hope, Pennsylvania (population: 2,527). Most visitors glide back and forth throughout their stay (you can walk across the bridge between the two and they’re only three miles apart) but you’d be wise to stay at the Bridge Street House. The historic B&B was built in 1850 and fully renovated in 2016; it has three rooms and two suites, plus a gallery showcasing work by local artists. Parking is free and the house is walkable to everything in downtown Lambertville. That means you can easily see an indie flick at the nearby Acme Screening Room, get lost among the rare and out-of-print tomes at Panoply Books, or dig into a platter of juicy, Texas-style brisket from More Than Q.

Dozens of quirky art galleries and packed-to-the-rafters antiques shops line the streets of Lambertville and New Hope, but more discerning shoppers should make a beeline to Rago Arts and Auction Center. The auction house was founded by expert appraiser and Antiques Roadshow star David Rago; its lineup for fall dabbles in midcentury-modern furniture and 20th-century ceramics and glass.

If you want to immerse yourself in nature, the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is five minutes from Lambertville on the Jersey side; here you can canoe, picnic, bicycle, hike, horseback ride, or fish for perch and pickerel. On the New Hope side of the river, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is flush with colorful fall foliage. In October, the beech trees, black oaks, and maples turn yellow, red, and purple; come November, you can see wild senna, witch hazel, and juniper berries on Eastern red cedars.

Storefronts in downtown Eureka Springs

The whole of downtown Eureka Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo by rjjones/Shutterstock

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

This 2,091-resident town has been on the radar of conservative Christians for half a century. Its two biggest attractions—a 67-foot-tall Christ of the Ozarks statue, modeled after Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, and an enormous outdoor amphitheater that stages “The Great Passion Play” from April through October—are spectacles to behold, regardless of your religious leanings. That said, you don’t have to plan a getaway around Holy Land tours and Bible Museums to find beauty in this corner of the Ozarks.

The entire downtown of Eureka Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Admire the preserved Victorian architecture and make special note of Hatchet Hall, the former clapboard home of hatchet-wielding temperance movement leader Carry A. Nation; St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church, which visitors enter through the bell tower; and the Palace Hotel and Bath House Spa, which harkens back to Eureka’s glory days as a 19th-century hot springs boomtown. Restored mansions now function as delightful bed-and-breakfasts; lock in one of nine rooms at the 5 Ojo Inn to experience southern hospitality at its finest.

Less than 20 minutes from downtown is the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, which provides a forever home to abandoned, abused, and neglected big cats. Another draw just north of the town is the Thorncrown Chapel, a soaring wood-and-glass sanctuary designed by architect E. Fay Jones. (Go on, take the Instagram bait. It’s a knockout.) What’s more: The excellent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, founded by a Walmart heiress, is an hour’s drive away.

Fall foliage in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains, near Hatcher Pass

During fall in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains, the changing leaves near Hatcher Pass offer great photo opportunities for visitors.

Photo by Uwe Bergwitz / Shutterstock

Talkeetna, Alaska

From March through August, itty-bitty Talkeetna (population: 946) is positively swarmed with visitors. First come the climbers, trying to summit majestic Denali in Denali National Park. Then come the cruise ship tourists, disembarking in Seward and taking packed sightseeing trains up to Fairbanks, stopping at the Talkeetna depot en route. Most of the insanity wraps up by mid-September, which makes early fall a brilliant time to check out this laid-back mountain town.

Talkeetna has limited lodging, but it’s easier to book in the off-season: The family-owned Denali Fireside Cabins & Suites is walking distance from the town, and each rustic log cabin has a private covered deck and gas fireplace. (On a clear day, you might even catch a glimpse of Denali from your porch.) Although some businesses here operate seasonally, you’ll always find a cold beer and a hot sandwich at the Denali Brewpub. (Order the Aleutian with blackened Alaskan cod and melted cheddar on a brioche bun; the regular menu item deserves an A+.)

Stop by the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, open on weekends only from mid-September, to learn about the town’s trapping, gold-mining, and homesteading past—and its original native inhabitants. Even the building—the Territory of Alaska schoolhouse, opened in 1936—has a story to tell. Nearby, the Dancing Leaf Gallery is a solid spot for picking up Alaskan-made art and souvenirs such as birch-and-antler keepsake boxes and local birch syrup. The focus is on artisans in the Upper Susitna Valley, although you’ll find handmade pieces from throughout Alaska.

Photographers will love ambling along Talkeetna’s rutted dirt roads lined with cabins, but for a closer look at a rambling old homestead, sign up for an ATV tour with Alaska Wilderness Adventurer. Dennis DeVore leads you five miles up the road to a homestead his family built in 1959—then treats you to lunch at his personal cabin on Wiggle Creek. This is followed by gold panning, target practice, or berry picking, depending on your interests and what’s in season.

Lastly, splurge on an extraordinary flightseeing tour of Denali National Park with K2 Aviation, a company that has been plumbing the Alaskan backcountry since the 1960s. K2’s high-altitude summit tour circles Denali, Mounts Foraker and Hunter, plus two glaciers (Ruth and Kahiltna), the Great Gorge, Denali Pass, and the treacherous Harper Icefall. The glacier landing is optional, but you should definitely say yes.

A red sunset at piers in Beaufort

Beaufort, the third-oldest town in North Carolina, is full of maritime history.

Photo by David Louis Econopouly / Shutterstock

Beaufort, North Carolina

This sleepy little pearl on the southern Outer Banks is home to only 4,391 people. It’s the third-oldest town in North Carolina, on the Crystal Coast halfway between Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach.

Here you can explore artifacts salvaged from the shipwrecked Queen Anne’s Revenge at the North Carolina Maritime Museums, wander the crumbling tombstones in Beaufort’s oldest cemetery, or go seashell hunting at the 2,315-acre Rachel Carson Coastal Estuarine Reserve, separated from downtown Beaufort by Taylor’s Creek. There are two hiking trails within the reserve, but you can only walk the 1.1-mile Outer Loop trail at low tide; follow the markers from Town Marsh and look for piping plover, herons, and egrets. For food, the weekly Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market, set up in front of the Carteret County Courthouse, runs through November 25.

To explore farther afield, the Island Express Ferry Service drops passengers off at the uninhabited Shackleford Banks, the southernmost barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore, known for its wild horses (more than 100 at last count). The Cape Lookout Light Station, with its unique black-and-white diamond-print exterior, is another popular stop. Planning to spend time island hopping? Book a deluxe suite at the Pecan Tree Inn, a peaceful B&B kitted out with two-person Jacuzzi tubs and Egyptian cotton towels. It’s half a block from the boardwalk and yacht harbor.

Manchester, Vermont

No fall roundup would be complete without a shout-out to the nation’s most autumnal state. From Dorset to Grafton to Montpelier to Stowe, Vermont really lucked out in the looks department. But the reason we suggest zeroing in on Manchester, a 2,444-person town hugged by southern Vermont’s Taconic and Green mountains, is its bounty of seasonal diversions.

Drop your bags in one of 21 guest rooms at the family-run Inn at Manchester. The four-acre property dates to the 1880s but wasn’t converted into a guesthouse until 1978. Today’s visitors rave about the homemade cottage cakes, luxurious bedding, and lovely grounds. From here, you can make the art rounds (Tilting at Windmills Gallery, Southern Vermont Arts Center); go pumpkin-picking and hay-riding at Equinox Valley Nursery; visit Hildene, the mansion of Robert Todd Lincoln and one of the state’s grandest examples of Georgian revival architecture; or shop for birch hexagon coasters, wood slab lazy Susans, and other made-in-Vermont souvenirs at the more than 60-year-old Manchester Woodcraft.

Cast a fly in the Battenkill or Mettawee rivers, or just learn about it in the American Museum of Fly Fishing. (Manchester is the HQ of Orvis and home to the gear retailer’s flagship emporium.) Work up an appetite on the popular 4.6-mile Lye Brook Falls trail, the capstone of which is a 125-foot-high waterfall, or summit the 3,848-foot Mount Equinox, the highest peak in the Taconic range. The latter is 5.8 miles round-trip and takes about five hours to conquer—or you can drive it. Afterward, head down to Zoey’s Double Hex for a juicy hamburger or over to the handsome Copper Grouse, where you can enjoy a local cheese plate, farm-to-table salad, or grilled Island Creek oysters with fennel and leek relish.

If you’re cobbling together your own hamlet-hopping itinerary, be sure to build in stops at some famous covered bridges: The 117-foot Chiselville Bridge, spanning Roaring Branch brook in Sunderland, and the oft-painted, 166-year-old Bridge at the Green in West Arlington, are not to be missed.

This article originally appeared online in September 2018; it was updated on September 22, 2023, to include current information.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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