Photo by Kjersti Vick/Visit Cook County MN
From Alaska to Vermont, these lesser-known destinations are perfect in autumn.
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 is always a good idea, one of our favorite ways to revel in the glories of autumn is to set up camp in a town 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, with added bonuses like whiskey saloons, rescue lions, and Viking cookery. Happy autumn equinox!
Grand Marais, Minnesota
The crown jewel of Lake Superior’s North Shore, this 1,339-person town is the ultimate fall cornucopia—overflowing with delicious things to eat (cinnamon-sugar rings at World’s Best Donuts, puffy fry bread tacos at Hughie’s Taco House), see (the stunning art deco–meets–Cree Indian dining room at Naniboujou Lodge, Grand Marais lighthouse), buy (teak spoons and handsome made-in-Minnesota canoe paddles at Upstate MN), and do (take a woodblock printmaking or beginner photography class at the long-running Grand Marais Art Colony).
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 last year.) 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 new restaurant, lodge, and craft liquor store off the scenic Gunflint Trail.
Park City, Utah
Less than 40 minutes from Salt Lake City is a ski town (population: 8,299) 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, a fraction of the crowds, and events like September 15-16’s Autumn Aloft, which sees a riot of hot-air balloons dotting the mountainous horizon. 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 leaf ogling by car, try the 14-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 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 Woodchuck’s mahogany-lined journals at the two-year-old 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 Bandit Joaquin combines American Prairie bourbon with matcha tea, crème de menthe, Branca Menta, lime, and club soda.)
For 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. And for an edible souvenir, enjoy a small-batch chocolate bar from award-winning Ritual Chocolate.
Lambertville, New Jersey
Visiting Lambertville (population: 3,812) is like getting two sweet towns in one, as it sits across the Delaware River from the equally charming New Hope, Pennsylvania (population: 2,497). Most visitors glide back and forth throughout their stay, 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, so 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.
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.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
This 2,074-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 May 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; Saint 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.) And the excellent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, founded by a Walmart heiress, is just an hour’s drive away.
From March through August, itty-bitty Talkeetna (population: 876) is positively swarmed with people. 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.
Stop by the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, open on weekends or by appointment after the third week in 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, treat yourself to 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.
Beaufort, North Carolina
This sleepy little pearl on the southern Outer Banks is home to just 4,199 people. It’s the third-oldest town in North Carolina, nestled on the Crystal Coast halfway between Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach. This fall, mark your calendar for the Beaufort Brewin’ craft beer shindig (September 28-29), an oyster roast and bonfire (November 4), and a community-wide “jumble sale” at the Beaufort Historic Site (November 17). The weekly Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market, set up in front of the Carteret County Courthouse, runs through November 17; swing by on a Saturday morning for a fair-trade caffeine fix from Green Truck Coffee and a roasted pear-and-ginger scone from The Accidental Bakery.
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. It’s 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, and the 207-step lighthouse is open for climbing through the third week in September. 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 just half a block from the boardwalk and yacht harbor.
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 4,312-person town hugged by southern Vermont’s Taconic and Green Mountains, is its bounty of seasonal diversions.
Drop your bags in one of 11 fireplace suites 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 through early November; 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 68-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.
Pressed for time and need to cut straight to the autumnal point? Sign up for a Vermont Fall Foliage Tour from Backroad Discovery. These three-hour guided tours run from the end of September through the end of October and include visits to an abandoned marble quarry, local farms and artist studios, a working alpaca plantation, and ye olde general stores, depending on where the leaves are looking their splashiest. For DIY travelers cobbling together their 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.