Think differently about family getaways this autumn. Instead of looking at leaves through a car window, find new ways to surround yourself with the brilliant colors of September, October, and November, whether it’s by gliding through treetops on a zip line, pedaling along country paths, or paddling canoes on mellow rivers. These favorite getaway ideas, many of which are budget-savers, offer dazzling leaf-peeping and Instagram-worthy moments for you and your children—or even if you don’t have kids with you.
Smoky Mountain Llama Treks
You always remember your first llama. Hiking with one is a bit like walking into the wilderness with Big Bird. Smoky Mountain Llama Treks’ outings, recommended for age 5 and up, wind through Pisgah National Forest to overlooks or run under zip lines at Foxfire Mountain Adventure Parkin Sevierville. By leading the llamas (gentle, friendly companions who will carry your daypack), kids gain a sense of accomplishment and lose their concerns about uphill climbs. Any anxieties disappear when they’re happily petting the furry four-footer. Nearby, legendary Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s trails include Quiet Walkways, which are paths, ¼ mile to ½ mile in length, that even little kids can do. For roller coasters and country music and crafts, Dollywood theme park is a hoot ‘n holler away in the next town over, Pigeon Forge.
Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center, Davis, West Virginia
Canaan Valley Resort envelops you in fall colors. The resort, 150 miles south of Pittsburgh and 170 miles west of Washington, D.C, is nestled in a 3,100-foot-high valley rimmed by the Allegheny Mountains. The autumn chairlift rides at this ski resort reward you with views of mountainsides billowing with red, russet, and yellow leaves. From the top of the chairlift, it’s a simple 2-mile hike down to the base. The path is part of the 6,000-acre park’s 18 miles of trails. Hard-to-please teens might like shooting sporting clays, playing golf, or tackling the 25-foot high climbing wall back at the resort. By night, camp outdoors on the grounds or take a lodge room or a cabin.
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Gardens are often overlooked in the fall, but it would be a mistake to ignore them, especially Longwood Gardens. Part of the former estate of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, its 1,000 acres bloom with formal plantings, woods, and conservatories. Like an enchanted grove, Peirce’s Woods pulls kids along its paths lined with yellow, orange, and deep red poplars, maples, ginkgos, and oaks. The 86-acre Meadow Garden, a sweep of grasses and wildflowers, has 3 miles of trails. Longwood has treehouses to climb, a fountain show of 1,719 choreographed water jets, and topiary creations of whimsical towers, mounds, and cones. From late October to mid-November at its Chrysanthemum Festival, more than 17,000 of the fall flowers bloom. The Gardens are 12 miles north of Wilmington, where the Delaware Children’s Museum is part of the newly revitalized Riverfront Wilmington, a dining-and-entertainment district along the Christina River.
Conner Prairie, Fishers, Indiana
Conner Prairie, a living history museum set on 1,000 acres, transports visitors back to 19th-century pioneer Indiana. Many of the buildings were constructed between 1800 and 1840 and moved from sites across the state, and historical interpreters in period attire add to the time-travel illusion by speaking in character. In the Prairietown area, chat with the doctor about the latest cures and ask what he makes of your mobile phone, and at an 1863 village recovering from a Confederate raid, soul-search to see whether you would join the army. Among the museum’s hands-on spaces for kids are treehouses and a craft corner, and in autumn, families navigate the 11-acre corn maze. Autumn’s red-and-yellow foliage crowns the outdoor museum with a warm, glowing aura—until you come face-to-faceless with the Headless Horseman (pictured) on an October hayride. Combine a Conner Prairie visit with one to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, among the biggest and best children’s museums in the world. The facility is 16 miles southwest of Fishers.
Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York
Especially striking in fall, the castle-like Mohonk Mountain House impresses kids with its towers and turrets. Situated on 1,200 acres and surrounded by 40,000 additional forested acres in the Shawangunk Mountains (90 miles north of Manhattan), the hotel, which dates to 1869 and is a National Historic Landmark, offers a king’s ransom of activities. Hike, bike, horseback ride, or go on a rock scramble, the resort’s signature climb over and around boulders that delivers scenic vistas of the Hudson Valley. With teens, try rounds of tomahawk throwing and archery, or at the fall Kids’ Club, available Saturdays and Sunday mornings, ages 4 to 12 enjoy nature walks and hay wagon rides, paint pumpkins, and create puppets. With kids happily engaged, there’s time to indulge in a massage or treatment at Mohonk’s huge spa.
Door County, Wisconsin
Door County is set apart by family-friendly bona fides such as lighthouses, orchards, and 300 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. The 70-mile-long, 10-mile-wide peninsula in eastern Wisconsin separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay and in the fall, the county’s cherry trees turn deep red, the apple orchards are heavy with fruit, and the roadsides are thick with yellow birches, golden-bronze beech trees, and scarlet maples. Peninsula State Park is where to explore rocky bluffs, hiking trails, and its Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. In Potawatomi State Park, a 225-foot (69-m) observation tower commands sweeping bay views. Ridges Sanctuary, a 1,600-acre preserve of sandy ridges, woods, and wetlands, adds wheat-colored grass to the fall display and its Hidden Brook Boardwalk is easy on strollers and wheelchairs. At Hands On Art Studio in Fish Creek, turn the seasonal colors into souvenirs by painting glass, gluing mosaics, or welding a metal sculpture. Kids reluctant to try boiled Lake Michigan whitefish have been known to respond to rewards—okay, bribes—of fresh apples or homemade Door County ice cream.
Mount Washington Cog Railway, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire
The Mount Washington Cog Railway’s 1900s-style carriages look like life-sized versions of toy trains and elicit excited squeals from kids. Just as the original 1869 cog train did, the replica engines push the coach up the slope. During the climb to the 6,288-foot (1,917-m) summit, one of the Northeast’s highest peaks, savor the sight of hillsides bright with yellow birches—on a clear day, the view reaches to New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine. (Bring jackets, because it’s cold and windy at the top.) If the peak piques your grade-schooler’s curiosity about meteorology, visit the Mount Washington Observatory’s Weather Discovery Center in nearby North Conway. At the small, hands-on museum, kids walk into a booth to experience gale-force hurricane winds and deliver a broadcast-style weather report. Or take in views of waterfalls and mountains along the nearly 35-mile Kancamagus Highway, a scenic byway connecting Conway with Lincoln. In Crawford Notch State Park, in the town of Harts Location, easy New England woodland trails lead to river views and waterfalls.