NEW YORK — Once upon a time, enjoying fall meant taking a drive down a country road, preferably in the Northeast, to look at the pretty leaves.
But with travelers increasingly interested in unusual experiences and adventures (as opposed to mere vacations), the story of autumn unfolds a little differently these days.
"People are more and more looking at the foliage as a backdrop for other activities, rather than as the main attraction," said Alice DeSouza, New Hampshire's tourism director. "They're doing all kinds of fun things."
For a bird's-eye view of the foliage, consider a balloon ride or even hang-gliding. Mount Pisgah Adventures offers flights over the mountains of Western North Carolina, while New England Aerosports of Charlestown, N.H., offers tandem flights in which novices can ride over the trees with an instructor. In Pennsylvania, near the Delaware Water Gap, colorful balloons fill the skies over the red and gold trees of the 21st Annual Shawnee Autumn Balloon Festival, Oct. 14-16.
Here's a twist on the old drive down a country road: the "ATV Historical Color Tour" in Buena Vista, Colo., a rally and festival for all-terrain vehicle riders, scheduled for Sept. 21-24. Participants will enjoy the golden aspens and cottonwoods while exploring trails through old mining sites and ghost towns.
The Appalachian Mountain Club invites hikers in New Hampshire's White Mountains to go on a tree hunt as part of a "citizen science" program called Mountain Watch. Hikers are given maps and field guides to find specific birch, maple and ash trees tagged along family-friendly trails, and are then asked to record their observations about foliage color and other data. The information will be used to track any long-term changes in the environment.
Agritourism is booming, and that means that even if you live in a big city, you can find a farm or orchard within a couple hours' drive to pick your own apples and pumpkins or take a hay ride. Kids are notoriously bored by the concept of leaf-peeping, but they will happily navigate a maze of haystacks or cornstalks, or brave a "haunted walk."
Fall fairs are also held in most parts of the country. But how can you tell whether a festival is rinky-dink or worth going out of your way for? Find out how many years the festival has been going on, DeSouza advises. "In the first three years, they're typically just developing," she said. "If they're still around the third year, they're usually going to be quite fun."
You may also want to look for destinations with downtowns where you can have dinner out, do some shopping or stay in a nice B&B. "That way there's more to do than just the festival," DeSouza said.
The biggest fall festival in New Hampshire is the Keene Pumpkin Festival, scheduled for Oct. 22, which claims to have the largest number of carved pumpkins of any place in the country. Anybody — including kids — can show up and carve one to add to the display, which included more than 27,000 pumpkins last year.
If you're intrigued by unusual natural phenomena, check out the golden tamarack. Tamaracks are conifers, but unlike evergreens, they shed their needles after turning golden-yellow in the fall. You can see a ring of them on the Twin Lakes inside Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, near McGregor, Minn., or head to the Lolo National Forest in Seeley Lake, Mont. Here the Seeley Lake Giant, 162 feet tall, believed to be the largest tamarack tree in the country, is the centerpiece of the Seeley Lake Tamarack Festival, Sept. 24 and 25.
Scenic railroads are another interesting way to enjoy fall. The Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona offers a scenic trip through a canyon lined with cottonwood, sycamore, mulberry and oak trees, where you may spot wildlife like elk and javelina.
In Colorado, options for seeing the leaves by train include the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs an annual fall photographer's special; and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest railroad in the country.
If you go
AUTUMN IN NEW ENGLAND: Yankee magazine has a comprehensive Web site at www.YankeeFoliage.com listing foliage hot line phone numbers and reports for the region; interactive maps so you can track peak leaf color; and ideas for fall outings, from chairlift rides to bike trails.
HANG-GLIDING IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS: Morningside Flight Park, Charlestown, N.H., www.flymorningside.com, 603-542-4416. Tandem flights with an instructor are $145.
MOUNT PISGAH BALLOON RIDES: Candler, N.C., www.gomountains.net/balloons.html, 828-667-9943, $150 a person.
SHAWNEE AUTUMN BALLOON FESTIVAL: Oct. 14-16, Shawnee Inn & Golf Resort, Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa., (near the Delaware Water Gap), 800-742-9633. Admission, $10. Balloon rides, $190 a person.
MOUNTAIN WATCH: "Citizen Science" program in which hikers record their observations about air quality and changes in plant buds and fall color, sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Fall programs at AMC White Mountain locations at Highland Center in Crawford Notch, Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (Joe Dodge Lodge), Zealand Falls Hut and Lonesome Lake Hut. For details, www.outdoors.org or 603-466-2727.
ATV HISTORICAL COLOR TOUR: Four-day ATV rally and festival, Sept. 21-24, Buena Vista, Colo., www.coloradoatvtour.org, 719-395-6612; $70 a person, includes four breakfasts and Saturday night dinner. Proceeds benefit ATV educational organizations.
AGRITOURISM: Check the Web site for your state Department of Agriculture or state tourism office to find corn mazes, pick-your-own orchards and fall festivals in your region. Or, for corn mazes, click on the maps at www.cornfieldmaze.com or www.mazeplay.com/. For farms and related attractions open to the public, try www.pickyourown.org and www.farmstop.com. For apple orchards, go to www.applejournal.com.
KEENE PUMPKIN FEST: Keene, N.H., Oct. 22; www.pumpkinfestival.com or 603-358-5344.
RICE LAKE NATIONAL REFUGE: McGregor, Minn., minnesota.com/attractions/8878.html, 218-768-2402.
SEELEY LAKE TAMARACK FESTIVAL: Seeley Lake, Mont., Sept. 24-25, www.seeleylakechamber.com or 406-677-2880.
VERDE CANYON RAILROAD: Clarkdale, Ariz., www.verdecanyonrr.com or 800-320-0718. Fall color tours in October and November.
DURANGO-SILVERTON NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD: Durango, Colo., www.durangotrain.com or 888-872-4607. Roundtrips daily through Oct. 29. Annual "fall photographer's special" excursion, Sept. 24-25.
PIKES PEAK COG RAILWAY: Manitou Springs, Colo., www.cograilway.com or 719-685-5401. Trains run daily through the fall.