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Why (and Where) You Should Go on Vacation in the Fall

Photograph by Twenty20

Squeezed between the relaxing pace of summer break and the blistering chaos of the holiday season is the perfect time to take a family vacation.

Not sure where to go? Offer up these seven ideas to the family.

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

For the ultimate leaf-peeping experience, head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. People descend on the park especially during the last three weeks of October, so it can be crowded, but the spectacularly colored leaves above and fall wildflowers on the ground make the trip worth it. Drive along Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Foothills Parkway for the best views, and stop off for short hikes to escape some of the people.

The color and longevity of fall leaves depends on elevation and weather conditions, so it's best to follow the National Park's fall leaves report so you hit the park when there are optimal viewing conditions.

2. Arizona

Autumn signals the end of Arizona's often oppressive heat, but snowbirds have not yet escaped to the state, making this the ideal time to visit. While many states hold their annual state fairs during the summer, Arizona's is held in October, so your family doesn't have to give up delicious fair food, entertainment, amusement rides or the rodeo quite yet.

Though you won't find New England-esque fall foliage here, the Verde Canyon Railroad offers a leisurely ride through canyons that are still splashed with plenty of color.

3. Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Crisp fall weather with temperatures in the 60s and lots of outdoor activities offer the perfect end-of-year opportunity to run all that energy off. The city is located near Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, both of which have miles of hiking trails lined with colorful foliage without the summer crowds. In the fall, keep your ears open for calls from male elk in search of mates, or get eye to eye with them at the National Elk Refuge.

Because it is shoulder season, expect to find good deals on room rates.

4. Boston, Mass.

With school back in session, Boston offers the perfect blend of leisure and education. The two-and-a-half mile Freedom Trail is a foot-friendly way to wander throughout the city, admiring the trees that line the streets while talking with your school-aged kids about the significant historical events that took place here.

Take advantage of free walking tours at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University on Saturdays and Sundays through October. The three-day Honkfest! is a family event with lots of upbeat music and a nighttime parade lit by lanterns.

5. Southern California

If your family isn't ready for winter quite yet, head to Southern California, where the sun still shines and the weather is as beautiful as ever. You can make time for the beach (and you should!), but SoCal is also known for its wine country and plentiful orchards, both of which are at their peak during the fall. Snack on fruit plucked right from the trees, and don't forget to take home cider and wine to enjoy in the months ahead.

6. Stowe, Vt.

For families with older kids who want to add a bit of spook to their Halloween, head to Stowe, Vt., which is said to have a number of haunted establishments. Vermont's covered bridge (officially known as the Gold Brook Bridge or Stowe Hollow Bridge but locally called Emily's Bridge) has reported paranormal activity, though there are conflicting accounts about why it is haunted. Nightly tours led by lantern light shine some insight into this story and others in the area. Check into the Brass Lantern Inn for encounters with friendly spirits that can be heard laughing in the hallway.

Of course, Vermont is also known for its picturesque landscape, so take time for a self-guided driving tour (available from the local tourism board) or book a guided fall foliage boat trip on the Waterbury Reservoir. If the weather is superb, check out the Percy Farm Corn Maze or visit the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, a well-known New England cider mill established in an old barn.

7. Washington, D.C.

Visiting the nation's capital is a worthwhile destination for families any time of the year, and fall is no exception. Take advantage of the city's wealth of free museums and other noteworthy attractions without the summer crowds (the U.S. National Arboretum is especially beautiful this time of year), but then get out of town for many fall-friendly destinations that can be reached with just a short road trip.

Several farms in Maryland and Virginia are outfitted with apple picking, corn mazes and hayrides—perfect for entertaining the kids. In late October, George Washington's former home Mount Vernon hosts Harvest Family Days, which melds standard autumn activities like wagon rides with traditional activities like early American games, corn husk doll demonstrations and dancing.

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