Flying Into Fall: Five Destinations for Leaf Peepers

Fall foliage will soon be on display, and these are good places to find it.

Flying in the fall as changing foliage marks the advancing seasons is a treat in part because pilots can almost always find more stunning views than folks on the ground. There is also the simple joy of descending onto runways lined with colorful trees on the way to fun family outings.

As my kids often tell me, looking at leaves is not that exciting. But their splash of color adds one more lovely element to the outdoor pursuits we enjoy in the fall because the conditions tend to be just right. Besides, aren’t we always trying to cram in as much fair-weather fun as possible before the snow flies? Whether you are out for lunch, hiking, visiting historic sites, or picking pumpkins, autumn’s colors make the occasion more memorable. Following are some of the fall foliage hotspots we hope to visit soon.

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport/Sardy Field (KASE), Aspen Colorado

A challenging field pays handsome dividends

Pilots from outside the Rockies flying into Aspen during the fall might be surprised by its changing foliage, dominated by aspen trees (of course) that highlight the valleys in bright yellow, contrasting with neighboring evergreens. Aspen trees cover 20 percent of the state’s forest land, according to the Colorado State Forest Service. They grow at elevations from 6,500 to 11,500 feet, which fits well with the airport’s field elevation of just over 7,800 feet msl. This is a challenging airport where complicating factors, including density altitude and rising terrain mean you will have to plan the trip carefully. Peak foliage generally occurs by the third week of September. You can track it using the Aspen cam feed.

Walter J. Koladza Airport (KGBR), Great Barrington, Massachusetts

A New England oasis surrounded by mountains

Leaf peeping in the Berkshire hills is a classic New England autumn outing and Great Barrington is surrounded by scenic landscapes, making it an ideal base of operations for a foliage-themed family weekend. High ridges form a ring around much of the airport, hiding it from aircraft usually approaching at relatively low altitudes. But as soon as you clear the ridge, the terrain seems to fall away to reveal the 2,579-foot runway. The effect is impressive any time of year but especially so during autumn. If you want to go into town or explore the surrounding area for an hour or two, there might even be a crew car available at the airport office.  

Mammoth Yosemite Airport (KMMH), Mammoth Lakes, California

Outdoor activities abound in the High Sierras

At more than 7,100 feet msl, this is another high-elevation field requiring attention to density altitude and terrain. The rewards for careful planning are great, though, as the surrounding Sierras and mountain lakes form a striking backdrop beginning long before you reach the runway. The airport is a gateway to hiking, horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities. The timing of peak foliage varies depending on weather, generally a good time to see the most dramatic displays starts during mid-September, with colors generally lasting through the first two weeks of October. 

Glacier Park International (KGPI), Kalispell, Montana

Two opportunities to take in the park's beauty

Glacier National Park arguably has two autumns each year. First, the cottonwood and aspen trees change from green to bright gold. These trees mainly occupy the western side of the park, near rivers and lake shores at lower elevations. Their transition typically takes place in mid to late September. The so-called second autumn usually begins in mid-October when the needles on western larch or tamarack trees begin to turn gold before dropping their leaves. Many of these trees cover the mountains on the park’s western side at higher elevations, where their gold displays often stretch up to the snowy peaks.

Jackson County Airport (24A), Sylva, North Carolina

Smoky Mountains on full display

The airport’s 3,210-foot runway sits at 2,857 feet msl atop Berry Ridge in the Smoky Mountains. From the air, it looks as if someone sliced off the top of the ridge and built the airport on the resulting flat spot. Indeed, that is essentially what happened when the county sought to relocate an existing airport that had become hemmed-in by development. By mid to late October the changing leaves of the rolling, forested landscape surrounding the airport should be their most colorful. There are many hiking trails nearby for additional scenic views.


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