words: Motive Staff | photos: Courtesy of and copyright © 2008, Google Maps

For driving enthusiasts in the upper half of the country, autumn brings mixed emotions. The days are not only shorter, but also cooler and damper. The tracks are closing down and it's time to dig the snow tires out of the attic in anticipation of the first flakes. Fall, however, is also one of the most spectacular times of the year to get behind the wheel and find a road less traveled.

The talk of fall drives came up around the old Motive water cooler (well, the fridge full of Red Bull) recently, where we recalled some of our personal favorites. The list below represents only those roads our staff has driven, but we're sure you'll share your favorites with us as well. So put the top down, switch the seat heaters on, and wrap a scarf around your neck; we're going for a ride.


The National Pike was the first federally funded Interstate road, with construction starting in Cumberland, Maryland, passing through southern Pennsylvania, and initially ending at Wheeling in what is now West Virginia. It would go on to become the National Road, then U.S. 40, eventually stretching the length of the country. But it's that original stretch, connecting numerous mountain peaks as it passes through one small Appalachian community after another, that is the most scenic in fall.

The section from Grantsville to Washington is storybook perfect, with fall color throughout most October. The driving features plenty of curves and lots of elevation changes in addition to the rich palette, but watch for the Amish in their horse-drawn buggies. Make sure to pull off at one of the many roadside produce stands for fresh apples and cider.

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"The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame," wrote American author and Sonoma County native Jack London. Indeed, the sight of vineyards in the fall is one not to be missed, especially when you can combine the drive with a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.

Exit U.S. 101 at Cotati and hop onto Highway 116 westbound. The road will eventually find the Russian River, which it will parallel out to the Pacific coast. The scenery has it all — mountains, foliage, fog, sunshine — and the roads are entertaining as well. Once you hit he coast, head south and enjoy the roller coaster ride with the Pacific Ocean to your right. The Coast Highway eventually moves inland, taking you through the village of Tomales. Stop here for a well-deserved rest. If you're up for it, turn around and enjoy the breathtaking ride in the opposite direction; otherwise, Tomales-Petaluma Road takes you east to Petaluma, where you can pick up the 101 again.

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Wisconsin's landscape is like a large-scale mogul course, with small valleys and peaks (known locally as kettles and moraines), dotting the otherwise flat midwestern surface. Thousands of years of glacial movement left behind a driver's delight, as the roads here are forced to follow the dips and jumps of the terrain. The state of Wisconsin knows it, too, having established an official Rustic Road designation for these and others with notable features and scenery.

One of our favorite Rustic Roads is RR12, otherwise known as Back Road. The local name says it all. It's a short drive that connects Highway 50 to Highway 36, but it's just long enough to get your blood flowing. Drop the wife and kids off in downtown Lake Geneva then head ten minutes east on 50. Drive the road to 36, turn around and do it in reverse, then head back (refreshed) for the family.

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Route 7 follows the winding Housatonic River north across the Berkshire range of the northern Appalachian Mountains. Between New Milford and Lime Rock, there's very little to spoil the scenery. Events at the legendary Lime Rock Park racetrack are generally over before the colors peak, but if you can find a late-season event to attend, take the time to drive this route.

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Even if you've never heard of Maroon Bells, odds are you have. The 14,000-foot-plus twin peaks rising over Maroon Lake make it one of the most photographed mountains in the world. Leaving downtown Aspen along Route 82 before cutting left onto Maroon Creek, the scenery quickly changes from boutique shops and Range Rovers to beaver dams and the occasional Elk. Peaks topping two and a half miles tower over the road as you enter White River National Forest.

There's a $10 fee to enter the park and drive the short, twenty-mile loop from town and back, but the view is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and in fall it isn't shut down to any non-bus traffic, as it is in summer). Seven miles from the start of Maroon Creek Road, an unassuming corner swings the Maroon Bells into view and you'll say, "Oh yeah, I've seen this on a Coors ad." Hopefully some other, more profound statement will follow — something about the smallness of human life, maybe.

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The Lake Michigan Circle Tour, as its name implies, winds through four states surfing the shores of Lake Michigan. Each mile of it is rewarding and, if you time your drive just right, you'll see the full circle of tree life as you head north and the leaves change from green to yellow to red to brown before finally disappearing altogether. Our favorite chunk of the 1100-mile route lives on Michigan's pinky finger, Leelanau County.

Using Traverse City as a starting point, head north in the direction of Suttons Bay and Northport. For 26 miles the road cuts a deep asphalt gash between the dark-blue water of Grand Traverse Bay and the adjacent blend of colorful oaks and dark green pines. From there the road goes hydrophobic, dashing away from the water to hide between quaint vineyards and orchards of cherry and apple trees before slowing up for the historic fishing town of Leland. Now lining the opposite side of the peninsula, M-22 heads south into Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Arrive in the town of Empire and take M-72 back across to Traverse City, or just continue down the coast. It's only five hours to Chicago.

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While most of the roads on this list are smaller and less traveled, we'd be remiss if we left off the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are many notable legs of this historic road, including Virginia's cloud-riding Skyline Drive and Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. But for a fall color tour, the Blue Ridge saves its best for last.

Our favorite leg of the Parkway comes in its closing miles, between Asheville, North Carolina and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along the North Carolina/Tennessee border. A key mile marker is at 451.2, eighteen miles from the terminus, at Waterrock Knob. This lookout is the 16th-highest point in the Eastern U.S., and the road leading up to it rides a steep edge of the Plott Balsams range, providing a view over the valley that's as breathtaking as any other destination on this list. A blend of trees and a decent rise in elevation turn the view into a kindergartener's finger painting — an erratic, colorful blob that stretches for miles. Because of the elevation changes, the color season lasts a good long time.

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The wonderful thing about Missouri being one of those forgotten fly-over states is that, while it has plenty of roads over plenty of hills, they don't see much in the way of traffic. The best options for scenic drives lie inside the Mark Twain National Forest, an aptly named preserve of serene old American charm. The Forest is broken up into sections, all of which are good for a relaxed drive or some Duke Boy slides over the Ozarks' many unpaved surfaces. But only two roads in the Missouri park have earned recognition as National Scenic Byways, so we recommend aiming your front wheels for Springfield. Just a bit south and east of the city, near the town of Cassville, is Sugar Camp National Scenic Byway. Take Highway 112 south out of Cassville to the town of Hilltop. Follow the signs through Roaring River State Park and into the Mark Twain Forest, where the curves form a large "U" shape back up ta where ya done come from.

Glade Top Trail starts and ends five miles southwest of the town of Ava, switching back and forth between gravel and pavement as it winds 60 miles through the heart of Mark Twain's colorful leafy goodness. The only downside? Once you're done, you'll realize it's a long drive out of backwoods Mizzurah to get back home, wherever that may be. Hopefully, it isn't here, but if it is, tell your wifesistergrandmammy we say howdy.

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