Every year pilgrimages begin nationwide to find the best places to partake in the natural splendor of leaves changing from the green of summer to the gold and crimson of autumn. Websites, renowned climatologists and even far-flung relatives all weigh in on the subject, but there’s one thing we know for sure: you’re missing out on a spectacular experience if you haven’t taken a boat along on your annual trek to the trees. You’ll leave the crowds behind and be treated to the spectacle of the vibrant colors reflecting off the water. Add to that the tranquility of a quiet, off-season lake and comfortable temperatures, and you’ve got a getaway you won’t soon forget. Here’s our guide to some of the top fall foliage boating destinations across the country.
Assateague Island National Seashore
Virginia & Maryland
This natural wonder is a sight to behold any time of the year, but when the leaves begin to change, boaters are able to enjoy it in an entirely different way. Widely considered to be one of the best beaches on the East Coast, Assateague offers 37 miles of coastline between Virginia’s Chincoteague Island and Maryland’s famed Ocean City. Home to hundreds of wild ponies, an incredible number of birds and marine life such as dolphins, the island is best explored by boat. And, during the fall, the lighter crowds make leaf-watching a real pleasure.
Where to dock: Sunset Marina or White Marlin Marina in Ocean City.
Hudson River Valley
If you only think of the Hudson River as something that comes between the urban sprawl of New York City and New Jersey, try experiencing it the way Henry Hudson did back in the early 17th century — by boat. Traveling north past Yonkers, Sleepy Hollow and onward toward the United States Military Academy at West Point, it doesn’t take long to get into some of the most beautiful fall scenery you’ll find anywhere in the country. And the further up you go, the more remote and breathtaking it gets. If you make it all the way to Saugerties, plan on staying a couple of days.
Where to dock: Tarrytown Marina near the Tappan Zee Bridge or Donovan’s Shady Harbor Marina just south of Albany.
New York & Vermont
This famous freshwater lake is considered by many enthusiasts to be the mecca of American fall foliage. Lake Champlain is the sixth largest lake in the country — bordered by the Adirondacks on the New York side and the Green Mountains on the Vermont side — so there’s no shortage of grandeur no matter where you launch. It’s also home to historic lighthouses, great fishing and humble villages hugging the shoreline. The local tree varieties change color later here, generally mid-to-late October, so plan accordingly.
Where to dock: Whitehall Marina, Champlain Boatworks or Snug Harbor Marina.
Tennessee River Valley
Tennessee & Alabama
While it may arrive at the fall foliage party a little later than the northern destinations, the Tennessee River from Pickwick Dam down to Decatur, Alabama, holds some spectacular autumn leaf colors. Cutting a wide swath through northern Alabama, this stretch of water crosses the famed Natchez Trace and is bordered by numerous state parks and wildlife refuges. Parks such as J.P. Coleman and Joe Wheeler State Park cater to boaters and make perfect starting points for your cruise.
Where to dock: Joe Wheeler State Park.
Lake of the Ozarks
One of the most beautiful lakes in the Midwest, this man-made destination draws boaters from all over for nature’s own fall foliage extravaganza. With numerous boating and fishing facilities, you can make the most of your trip by overnighting and waking to the sun shining through the magnificent assortment of hickories, cottonwoods and thong trees. The best starting point is the popular Osage Beach area, which is home to Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
Where to dock: MarineMax Lake Ozark.
Door County, Wisconsin
No list of fall foliage boat trips would be complete without the stunning Door County peninsula on Lake Michigan. Set against 300 miles of shoreline and featuring five state parks, Door County is an incredible autumn destination, with quaint towns and one of the most devoted and accommodating boating communities you’ll find anywhere in the country. Fall colors begin to turn in late September and usually peak by mid-October.
Where to dock: CenterPointe Sturgeon Bay Marina or Egg Harbor Marina in Egg Harbor.
Columbia River Gorge
Orgeon & Washington
The Columbia River Gorge definitely holds its own in the best fall foliage competition. Working your way west from Portland through the Cascade Locks up to the Dalles, you’ll encounter incredible sheer cliffs that rise from the water’s edge — in addition to beautiful waterfalls — and you’ll even have the chance to spot bald eagles as you meander through an explosion of color from big-leaf maples, cottonwoods and Oregon ash and vine maples.
Where to dock: Riverplace Marina in downtown Portland or Big Eddy Marina on the Columbia River.
This article was originally published in MarineMax Lifestyles magazine, www.marinemax.com.