September 22, 2022

Nine Historic Places to Leaf Peep This Fall

As the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, it’s the perfect time to plan a trip to a historic site to indulge in the changing fall foliage. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite historic places from around the country to witness the vibrant greens of summer turn to vivid oranges, reds, and golds.

Fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains from Clingmans Dome Tower

photo by: Tim Lumley

View from Clingmans Dome Tower in the fall.

The Smoky Mountains are a fantastic place to leaf peep. Don’t miss the Clingmans Dome Tower, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since 1959, the spaceship-like tower has provided unmatched views of the Smokies. Many are attracted by its Midcentury Modern design, which is a notable example of the National Park Service’s Modern architecture period and its Mission 66 program, an ambitious plan from 1955-1966 to repair and modernize park infrastructure.

Just outside of New York City on the eastern bank of the Hudson River, you’ll find Tarrytown, home to many estates of rich New Yorkers from the Gilded Age, such as John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and John D. Archbold, president of the Standard Oil Company.

John D. Rockefeller’s elaborate mansion, Kykuit (Dutch for “lookout”), is home to breathtaking views of the Hudson River, which is resplendent in the autumn. The estate is surrounded by Beaux-Arts styled gardens designed by landscape architect William Welles Bosworth. He created seven distinct gardens, including a Japanese garden, morning garden, and rose garden. Plan a trip in autumn to experience its unparalleled fall majesty.

An overhead view of Kykuit in 1998.

photo by: Bill Badzo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An overhead view of Kykuit in the fall of 1998.

The estate is managed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as part of The Pocantico Center. Pocantico’s vast campus is home to thousands of trees, including both indigenous and imported species. Towering beauties like beechnut, cherry, Japanese maple, and wisteria embellish the visual landscape, capture carbon, protect against erosion, and provide habitats for local wildlife. As the leaves begin to change and brilliant fall colors emerge, guests are invited to wander the grounds on the Fall Foliage Tour with arborist Peter Strom, who will share insights about the histories, life cycles, and care of the estate’s robust tree life.

Japanese maple tree alight with oranges and red leaves in the fall at Pocantico

photo by: Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Japanese Maple in the fall at The Pocantico Center.

A few miles down the Hudson River, you’ll find Lyndhurst, one of America’s finest Gothic Revival mansions and a National Trust Historic Site. Lyndhurst’s landscape, intersected by the Westchester River Walk and the New York State Old Croton Aqueduct trail, provides a wonderful opportunity to see historic specimen trees change colors for the season.

Think you can't find fall color in California? Think again! At Filoli, a National Trust Historic Site in Woodside, California, orchards containing more than 500 trees bear fruit and fall colors at harvest peak. Orchard Days are every weekend September 24-October 30, 2022, where visitors are invited to explore the historic Gentlemen's Orchard. This 100-year-old orchard is home to more than 600 apple, pear, apricot, plum, quince, and fig trees, including rare and historically significant varieties. In the Garden, historic elms, London plane trees, and weeping cherry blossoms shift into hues of yellow, orange, and red.

Beautiful yellow leaves fallen at the grounds of Filoli

photo by: Jim Allen

Filoli in autumn.

Bright yellow Gingko tree can be seen over the Sunken Garden at Filoli

photo by: Liberté Reilly

Blazing Gingko and the Sunken Garden at Filoli.

To experience a Pacific Northwest autumn, don’t miss Dunn Gardens in Seattle, Washington. The gardens were designed by the renowned Olmsted Brothers firm in 1915 for the summer cottage of Arthur Dunn’s family. Towering Douglas firs and mature hardwoods create a grand canopy that shadow layers of shrubs and understory trees that suggest a native Pacific Northwest forest all within the heart of urban Seattle.

Unique to the Olmsteds’ other Northwestern designs, the gardens have several deciduous trees, including several oaks and three sugar maple trees. This came at the specific request of Arthur Dunn, as he grew nostalgic for the trees of his youth (Dunn moved to Seattle from Nova Scotia to become a founding partner of a salmon canning business). Today, the trees dominate the southern side of the main lawn and along the drive and provide beautiful colors for the fall.

Reds, greens, and orange leaves appear in fall at Dunn Gardens

photo by: Jack Broom

Fall foliage at Dunn Gardens in Seattle, Washington.

A chipmunk sits on a pillar in front of a flaming orange tree in the fall at Brucemore.

photo by: Brucemore, Inc.

A chipmunk enjoys the fall at Brucemore.

National Trust Historic Site Brucemore is a living landmark that charts the history of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Brucemore’s 26-acre, park-like estate is a great place to experience autumnal delights. Unfortunately, a derecho in 2020 caused mass devastation to the estate and destroyed 70 percent of the tree canopy. Influential Prairie Style landscape gardener Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds designed the original landscape. His use of texture, shape, and color in his designs resulted in the construction of outdoor “rooms.” The storm annihilated many of the old-growth trees that contributed to Simonds’ vision. While the landscape is in the process of being rebuilt, the remaining trees still glow with autumnal colors.

Is there anything more magnificent than watching golden aspen leaves quake in the breeze on a gorgeous fall day? The Guanella Pass in Colorado is a breathtaking drive in autumn, and National Trust Historic Site Hotel de Paris Museum is a perfect stop along the way in the charming town of Georgetown. During the silver boom, it was one of the most populous towns in the state. The Hotel de Paris was a hotel and restaurant in its heyday, and it’s a fascinating treasure trove of early Colorado history with over 90 percent of its original furnishings intact and on display. After the museum, take a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad for more leaf peeping.

Photo from October 2012 of Thorncrwn Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

photo by: Brad Holt via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Fall view of the Thorncrown Chapel.

The Ozark Mountains also have gorgeous fall colors. If you’re on a fall drive in the state, you can’t miss Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Nestled in a woodland setting, the Chapel was designed by E. Fay Jones in the Prairie School style of architecture popularized by his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright. Its towering frame and 6,000 square feet of glass make it a striking building and the perfect setting for contemplating the changing seasons.

Bonus: It can be a bit of a guessing game when peak color will arrive, so tourism site smokymountains.com created an interactive map based on NOAA historical temperatures, forecasted temperatures, and user generated reports to help you plan your travel.

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Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

National Trust Historic Sites are open! We encourage you to check directly with each site for up-to-date information on available activities, ticketing, and guidelines if you are planning a visit.

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