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Autumn Alternatives

Your group’s best fall foliage destination may be one you have never thought about.

Groups love to see autumn colors, but the brevity of foliage season can lead to large crowds in some popular fall destinations. Fortunately, gorgeous fall views await in destinations across the country.

Here’s a guide to undiscovered leaf-peeping destinations. From Florida to Alaska, Mississippi, Virginia and Minnesota, each is brimming with activities, sights and colors for group travelers.

Saint Paul, Minnesota

Few places can lay claim to the title of best public parks in the country, but Saint Paul, Minnesota, comes close — it was ranked second in the nation by the Trust for Public Land. It’s no wonder, though, as the city on the banks of the Mississippi headwaters puts a premium on verdant spaces, with more than a tenth of its acreage dedicated to city parks, making it a brilliant place to watch the treescape change its color palette in mid-to-late September to mid-October.

“In the fall, the tree-lined streets around our neighborhoods and along the river parkways are bursting with warm tones,” said Ava Diaz, marketing and communications manager for Visit Saint Paul said.

An autumn escapade to Saint Paul provides groups with a picturesque experience comparable to the prettiest postcards. They can walk or drive along Summit Avenue, the longest Victorian boulevard in the United States. Its dollhouse-like mansions become the perfect canvas for nature’s bold ocher, wine and goldenrod decorations.

Other ways to enjoy a sunny late September day include a visit to the famed Fort Snelling State Park or the Como Zoo and Conservatory and Como Lake, where foliage isn’t the only autumnal flora on display. The conservatory revamps its floral displays to mirror the changing seasons and is popular with groups. Padelford Riverboats offer sightseeing river tours, during which participants will see landmarks like the Smith Avenue High Bridge and Pike Island in the lush hues of the season in 90 minutes.

Mississippi’s Natchez Trace Parkway

Northern Mississippi boasts days of underrated viewing opportunities for changing colors along one of its most scenic drives: the Natchez Trace Parkway. Home to hardwoods like maple, oak and hickory, the 200-mile stretch from Tishomingo in the farthest reaches of the Appalachian foothills to centrally located Jackson shows off some of Mississippi’s most beautiful terrain — especially in the fall.

“Along any part of the Natchez Trace, foliage is right in front of you, just right along the Parkway,” said Karen Matlock, domestic sales manager for Visit Mississippi. “That’s one of the first places we always recommend to groups looking for changing colors.”

Visit the Trace in northeast Mississippi from late October to early November. The farther south travelers venture, the later colors linger.

Visitors sojourning the Trace will find ample Civil War battlefields, antebellum towns and historic sites to explore.

“There are so many little places to stop along the way to take in the foliage,” Matlock said. “The Jeff Busby Park campgrounds or any of those little inlets are great to stop at and take pictures.”

A cornucopia of fall events is ripe for the picking all along the Natchez Trace. Some group-friendly ideas include the Fall into Tupelo Fall Fest and Small Town Harvest Fest, hosted by Jackson’s Mississippi AG Museum.

With the near guarantee that the fall viewing season coincides with some of the prettiest weather all year — cooler but not cold — groups can seize the opportunity to get outfitted for the outdoors by biking, hiking or getting on the water. Tishomingo State Park at the northernmost end provides groups the chance to enjoy a float trip in a funnel of color on the 6.25-mile-long Bear Creek.

Staunton, Virginia

Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the national park of the same name and the Blue Ridge Mountains is the living time capsule of Staunton, Virginia. In the 1800s, Staunton blossomed into a full-blown boom town when it represented the American frontier. The tremendous architectural details in the town’s seven historic districts have been preserved, protected and reimagined, providing a Hallmark-esque setting for leaf peeping.

“Fall foliage seekers are hard-pressed to find a more stunning backdrop than Staunton,” said Samantha Johnson, Staunton’s Director of Tourism.

The shades of crimson, gold and copper typically peak in the middle of October, but foliage lovers are in for a treat. Because Staunton is in a valley with mountain ranges on both sides, viewers can observe the leaves start to turn on the mountain tops earlier, where it’s coldest at night. As time progresses, the colors fan down the mountain, akin to a masterpiece unrolling in real time, with only the artist’s paintbrush left unseen.

Popular viewing spots in town include Sears Hill Overlook and Gypsy Hill Park, but the best seat in the house is aboard the Virginia Scenic Railway’s Alleghany Special.

“The Virginia Scenic Railway provides a bucket-list experience that delivers you directly through the Blue Ridge and Alleghany mountains,” Johnson said. A photographer’s dream excursion, the three-hour journey passes through the Shenandoah Valley, rural farms and into the George Washington National Forest.

While enjoying the season’s splendor, consider excursions to the American Shakespeare Center, the world’s only re-creation of the original Blackfriars Theatre. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library will please history buffs, and the American Frontier Culture Museum is a surprising delight that offers even more foliage viewing opportunities in town.

Tallahassee, Florida

“Tallahassee lies at the foot of the Red Hills region, allowing groups to explore an unexpected side of Florida,” said Renee Jones, PR and marketing specialist for Visit Tallahassee. “Tallahassee is proof not all of Florida is flat.”

Indeed, while Florida is Southern, Tallahassee feels a bit more a part of the South, as its changing leaves attest. The undulating hills of the Sunshine State’s capital city host a diverse range of tree species, including oak, maple and sweetgum, all of which transition into vibrant cerise, gingers and yellows come fall.

“Groups love Tallahassee in the fall for its mild weather, outdoor activities, cultural events, college football, and opportunities to explore its history and natural beauty,” Jones said. “Tallahassee offers visitors the opportunity to be treated to colorful views rarely seen in the state.”

Jones said peak foliage season is mid-October through November. Some of the recommended ways to take in the changing color palette are via a scenic drive on one of the historic roads that were once throughways traveled by native tribes.

“There are nine protected roads and 78 miles of canopy road,” Jones said. “They are absolutely stunning.”

Six of those nine protected roads fan out from the city’s core in a hub-and-spoke fashion. Combine Miccosukee Road, Moccasin Gap Road and Centerville Road into a loop for scenic views of changing flora while winding through historic, live-oak-graced neighborhoods.

On the northern, outer rim of town, groups can stroll Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park for a curated garden paradise. In the heart of downtown, include group tours (booked well in advance through the Florida Welcome Center) of the Florida Capitol Complex. Thirty minutes south of Tallahassee is the Wakulla Springs State Park, a crystal-clear freshwater spring perfect for birdwatching, glass bottom boats and a beautiful spot for a Florida fall picnic.

Anchorage, Alaska

Taking in the changing colors of fall in Alaska’s largest city is an immersive experience. Sandwiched between the staggering Chugach Mountain Range and the sparkling Cook Inlet, Anchorage is vast — nearly the size of Delaware — and an unexpected delight for leaf peepers.

“It’s a very scenic area, and fall is a lovely season here,” said Kathy Dunn, vice president of communications for Visit Anchorage.

This destination reaches peak season earliest of all the offerings on this list in September and early October. Not only do deciduous trees like birch and aspen change into shades of brilliant yellow and scarlet, but the ground cover weaves itself into a tapestry of native growth as raspberries, currants and blueberries unfurl over the tundra’s carpet of golds and oranges.

For Anchorage, fall colors transform the ground, the surrounding foliage — and the sky. Couple leaf peeping with Northern Lights viewing in the brief season of overlap in September.

“It’s really an amazing, awe-inspiring experience,” Dunn said. “The sky is normally blue or black, and to have these greens and yellows and purples and reds dancing across the sky is amazing.”

The Glen Alps Trailhead of the Chugach State Park is a popular hiking destination, thanks to its rewarding vistas and 25-minute proximity to downtown. A flightseeing tour through local operators like Rust’s Flying Service offers even large groups of 40 or more the nearly unimaginable opportunity to see Denali, wildlife and glaciers from above — just reach out well in advance.

Year-round Anchorage Trolley Tours give ample occasion to get to know the urban side of the city, and groups can top that four-hour ride with a stroll along the world-famous Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to see autumnal glory against an impressive Alaskan coastline. The Anchorage Museum provides year-round programming. Look into 49 State Brewing and The Bridge Company for group-friendly dining.