North America's Most Charming Fall Islands

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Published September 11, 2011

| Budget Travel

Come autumn, Mother Nature's dazzling palette is the No. 1 roadside attraction. While it's great fun to drive through a forest of gold-and-crimson trees, sometimes you need a rest from the hair-trigger braking that's required on packed country roads. In an effort to minimize stress, we sought out places where you can see fabulous fall foliage without the crowds. These 12 dreamy islands have forest vistas interrupted only by sailboats, farm stands, and lighthouses. Plus, each of these destinations has something special to offer, from wine tasting to seal spotting to a gourmet culinary tradition. Consider this your guide to the mellowest leaf-peeping getaways imaginable. 

Click here to see the islands.

VANCOUVER ISLAND, British Columbia, Canada 

A wine trail adds a little buzz to the leaf-peeping in this valley. The Pacific Northwest does not leap to mind as a hotbed of dazzling deciduous trees, but this Canadian island is flush with larch and maple groves, which, come fall, provide a red-and-gold glow against a backdrop of oceans and mountains. Amid this kaleidoscopic patchwork of color, you'll find the vine-ruffled hills of sunny Cowichan Valley, the most popular of the island's three wine regions. The 17 wineries here specialize in white and burgundy varietals, but the Pinot Gris at Rocky Creek is a standout—it was the silver-medal winner in the 2011 NorthWest Wine Summit. After your tastings (you can print out a map of all of the wineries from the Wine Islands Vintners Association), drop by the town of Duncan to walk among the 80 totem poles crafted by artisans of First Nation (the tribe that has called this island home since 2,500 B.C.). Then head southwest about 15 miles to the San Juan River, where bull Roosevelt elk make their spooky breeding calls near leaf-covered hiking trails. 

Timing Tip: Foliage typically peaks in late September. 

Get There: Accessible from the mainland by ferry lines, such as BC Ferries. bcferries.com, Vancouver/Victoria round trip from $29 for adults, $14.75 for kids 5–11. 

For more on Canada, check out our Montreal Travel Guide >> 

HEART ISLAND, Alexandria Bay, N.Y. 

Fall colors are especially charming on this valentine-shaped island, with its Gatsby-esque castle. In the late 1800s, millionaires flocked to second homes in the Thousand Islands, an archipelago hopscotching the St. Lawrence River beside the Canadian border and dappled with colorful trees. Exhibit A: George Boldt, founding proprietor of New York City's Waldorf-Astoria. He bought Heart Island to construct a replica of a medieval fortress, complete with turrets and drawbridges. Sadly, Boldt's wife died before she could move in. The millionaire bolted back to Manhattan, taking with him the salad-dressing recipe the locals had shared with him while he was yachting through the Thousand Islands. Until its seasonal close on October 16, you can tour 120 rooms in the castle. The crimson sumacs, amber oaks, and yellow poplars that surround this monument to love are especially beautiful at their peak in mid-September. 

Timing Tip: Foliage peaks around mid-September. The state's fall foliage report makes it easy to keep abreast of changing colors. 

Get There: Shuttle boats from Alexandria Bay take you the quarter-mile distance to Heart Island. One operator is Uncle Sam Boat Tours. usboattours.com, $18.50 for adults, $9.25 for kids 4–12. Boldt Castle, boldtcastle.com, $7 for adults, $4.50 for kids 6–12. 

CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia, Canada 

Drive on the winding Cabot Trail, with crashing ocean waves on one side and fall-foliage grandeur on the other. Arguably North America's most astonishing fall-foliage display happens each year when birches and maples burst into red-and-yellow glory along the edge of Nova Scotia's northeastern island—the part of the island protected as Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Leaf-seeking travelers come to hike along Lone Shieling Trail—a footpath that winds through the park's Acadian forest. It's along this trail that you'll encounter one of the oldest sugar-maple groves on the continent. Scottish pride is also strong here: Many locals speak a Gaelic dialect, and the vibrant Celtic Colours festival spotlights folk music every fall. celtic-colours.com, October 7–15, 2011. 

Timing Tip: Peaks early October. See updates at novascotia.com. 

Get There: Connected to the mainland by a 4,500-foot causeway (no toll). 

SHEFFIELD ISLAND, off Norwalk, Conn. 

Admire the copper-and-gold splashes of color that deck the trails of this scenic marine habitat. The now unused 143-year-old lighthouse is the high point, literally, of this island one mile off the coast of Connecticut. Ferry over from the mainland on a 45-foot catamaran, and hike a trail that passes through a nationally protected wildlife refuge, which covers 47 of the island's 53 acres with colorful deciduous trees, such as chestnuts (yellow-red), beeches (golden bronze), red maples (intense scarlet), and the state's signature white oaks (violet-purple). The island's most notable residents are the seals, who regularly migrate through this region during the winter and can be easily spotted along the shore. Alternatively, take a two-and-a-half-hour Fall Foliage Cruise study tour on Norwalk's Maritime Aquarium's research vessel Oceanic, during which you can inspect animals trawled from the harbor. That tour passes, but doesn't stop at, Sheffield Island. maritimeaquarium.org, $20.50 per person. 

Timing Tip: Leaves start to turn in mid- to late October. Check the state's foliage website, or call the foliage hotline for updates. 800/282-6863. 

Get There: From Seaport Dock on the Norwalk River, board the Norwalk Seaport Association's catamaran. seaport.org, $22 for adults, $12 for kids 4–12, $5 for kids 3 and under. 

MONHEGAN ISLAND, off Port Clyde, Maine 

Painters have been drawn to this thriving artist's colony for a century because of its stunning views of Maine. The brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows of poplars, birches, and sumacs seem all the more colorful against the landscape of dark spruce and pine trees on Monhegan Island, about 10 miles off the coast of Maine. A dozen miles of trails snake around the island and are perfect for leaf-peepers and birders interested in seeing puffins and rare species, such as rusty blackbirds. Since the early 1900s, artists like Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and George Bellows have come here to sketch, paint, and take photographs. By late October, most of the approximately 20 artists studios have emptied for the season, but the village galleries, such as the Lupine Gallery and Winter Works, continue to display the artists' works. 

Timing Tip: Typically peaks in late September. Maine's foliage website posts updates. 

Get There: From charming Port Clyde, Maine, hop a departure on the Monhegan Boat Line. monheganboat.com, $32 for adults, $18 for kids 2–12 (all fares are round trip). monheganwelcome.com. 

DUFFERIN ISLANDS, Niagara Falls, Canada 

These islands have green slanted riverbanks and ancient waterways about a half-mile south of the Horseshoe Falls. Take in primo views of Crayola-colored leaf-scapes accentuated by green slanted riverbanks as you crisscross the Dufferin Islands. The 11 oases that make up this archipelago are known only by their collective name, but a 1.2-mile hiking trail links most of the islands via 22 small bridges. Researchers believe the waterways have been paddled by canoe-building natives for more than 3,000 years. A self-guided interpretative trail makes it easy to admire hickory oaks blazing orange while poplars and beeches glow yellow. Don't be surprised if you see artists setting up their easels to paint the gorgeous scenery. 

Timing Tip: Typically peaks in late September. 

Get There: Drive the Niagara Parkway, and take the exit for the Dufferin Islands. No entrance fee, but permits required for camping. niagaraparks.com. 

LITTLE AMERICAN ISLAND, Voyageurs National Park, International Falls, Minn.

This little island is nestled in a lake full with fall color, but it alone went down in history as the site of a major gold rush in the 19th century. Bordering Canada about five hours north of Minneapolis–St. Paul, Voyageurs National Park is home to countless color-dappled islands. But Little American Island on the west end of the park shines for its history, too. The 1893 mini gold rush drew prospectors in a (mostly vain) hope for riches. Today, the only gold to see is in the bright autumnal color of the tamarack and aspen leaves, mixed with the crimson of red maple. Rent a canoe or rowboat to reach the island, where you can hike along a quarter-mile, wheelchair-accessible interpretative trail, which passes close to historic mine shafts and machinery. 

Timing Tip: Typically peaks mid-September. Check out the state's foliage website, or call the state's foliage hotline for more information. 800/657-3700. 

Get There: Accessible only by boat. Take Highway 11 east 11 miles to the park's Sha Sha Resort, where you can rent a canoe or rowboat and paddle north and west on Rainy Lake for about 20 minutes. nps.gov/voya, canoe rentals from $10 per day. 

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Eastern Shore, Va. 

Majestic wild horses hang out in the forested marshes near the ocean. The 300 or so wild mares and foals who strut through the state and national parks on Assateague and its commercialized sister island Chincoteague were made famous by the children's book Misty of Chincoteague. In late October, color-seekers hike or bike a 1.6-mile woodland trail to a few scattered viewing points, where the horses can be photographed at short distances. The 37-mile-long, completely wild Assateague is decorated with the reds and golds of red-maple, oak, and sweet-gum foliage, not to mention the shiny red of poison ivy that lights up the sand dunes, in sharp contrast to the shoreline's many evergreens. At the end of November, birders take to a 3-mile long wildlife loop to glimpse herons and egrets during their peak migration period. 

Timing Tip: Leaves often peak in late October. Check out the forestry department's fall foliage site, or call the state's foliage hotline for an update. 800/424-5683. 

Get There: For best wild-horse sightings and foliage colors, pass through Chincoteague, Va., to the south entrance of Assateague Island National Park. nps.gov/asis, $8 per vehicle.

For more on Virginia, check out our Williamsburg and Hampton Roads Travel Guide >>

GRAND ISLE, Lake Champlain, Vt. 

Stride through the cathedral quiet of a forested trail, with leaves rustling underfoot. Expect a Hallelujah chorus of color in this northern corner of Vermont. Grand Isle, also called South Hero Island, is one of just a handful of islands in Lake Champlain. Come late September, the entire 226 acres of the island's state park bursts into a cornucopia of color, with fiery red-sugar maples, sunny yellow alders, and purplish pin cherries as far as the eye can see. Learn about local history at the mini-museum in Hyde Log Cabin on Route 2—it was built in 1783 and is thought to be one of the oldest such structures still standing in the U.S. ($2 for adults, free for kids). Refuel on warm apple cider and donuts at roadside stalls while snapping photos of the island's many clapboard (pronounced "clabberd") houses. 

Timing Tip: Color usually peaks late September. Check the state's foliage Internet alert. 

Get There: Grand Isle is connected by a land bridge to the mainland by Route 2. vtstateparks.com, $3 for adults, $2 for kids 3–13, open until Columbus Day, October 10, 2011. 

MERCER ISLAND, King County, Wash. Enjoy the perfume of fresh cider and the spice of organic pumpkin pie from restaurants serving locally sourced food. Color-seekers in Washington State often head to Mercer Island, across from Seattle in Lake Washington, for its rare autumnal palette of changing leaves. This island of 6.2 square miles was once a retreat for the wealthy and has since become an upper-middle-class community of about 22,000 residents. Yellow-and-gold hues set the tone along the bike trails that crisscross the region. Find the best foliage in 113-acre Pioneer Park on the southern side of the island, where you're likely to see tamarack, vine-maple, red-alder, and Pacific-dogwood trees. The island's restaurant community, with its organic country cred, is a huge draw. Case in point is Bennett's Pure Food Bistro, whose meals contain ingredients sourced regionally and prepared without artificial additives. The menu changes seasonally, but at any given time you can expect to find fresh seafood straight from the waters off the coast of Alaska and vegetables foraged from Washington State. 7650 SE 27th St., bennettsbistro.com, entrées from $14. 

Timing Tip: Color peaks in late September. Call the state's foliage hotline. 800/354-4595. 

Get There: From Seattle, take Highway 90 and follow the signs. 

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich

Take a horse-drawn carriage tour on the only U.S. state highway that doesn't allow cars. Mackinac (pronounced "ma-ki-nah") is a blessedly sleepy island known for its astonishing views of Lake Huron. Sights include picturesque Fort Mackinac, erected by the British in 1780 (admission fee for adults $10.50, kids 5–17 $6.50), and Grand Hotel, whose broad front lawn is decorated with lilac trees that have burgundy blooms in the fall. About 80 percent of the rest of the island is state parkland, from which cars have been banned for more than a century. Climb a limestone bluff to see yellows, reds, and oranges in the canopy of maple, birch, oak, and white cedar spreading outward in all angles. From some vantage points, especially on the southern part of the island, you'll see the majestic 7,400-foot-long Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Before you return to the mainland, try some fudge from Murdick's 124-year-old shop 

Timing Tip: Typically peaks early October, slightly later than the rest of upper Michigan. Check the state's foliage hotline. 800/644-3255. 

Get there: Mackinac State Park has no admission. Three ferry lines connect St. Ignace and Mackinaw City with the island (details at mackinacisland.org). Star Line has seasonal service that runs to the end of October 2011. mackinacferry.com, from $19 for adults, $10 for kids 5–12. 

NANTUCKET ISLAND, Mass. Fascinating dwarf trees, no neon signs or traffic lights, and photo-worthy sunsets make this an intriguing leaf-peeping locale. About 25 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket Island braves strong Atlantic headwinds, a likely reason why its trees never reach great heights. Beech and oak trees that normally tower above the ground on the mainland reach only a few feet tall here. For leaf-peepers, this means that the fiery reds and brilliant yellows of fall hug the landscape in a unique way. The island's location east of the mainland also presents a westerly ocean panorama found almost nowhere else on the East Coast—it's a view that is sensational any time of day, but especially at sunset. Before sundown, rent a bike and loop through the cobblestoned carriageways of the island's downtown, emptied of summertime beachcombers, and admire the 800 or so mostly gray-shingled homes and shops built between 1740 and 1840. Young's Bicycle Shop, open since 1931, rents bikes from $10 a day. For local flavor, try to visit during the Harvest Fair on October 1 or the cranberry festival taking place October 8. 

Timing Tip: Foliage peaks around the third week of October. Follow the changes on the state's foliage website. 

Get There: From Hyannis, several ferries serve Nantucket, such as the Steamship Authority‚ a one-hour high-speed ferry that sails back and forth year round. steamshipauthority.com, $35 for adults, $18 for kids 5–12. 

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