10 places to get on the water for ultimate leaf peeping

Attack fall colors with new momentum on an autumn float along some of the West’s most majestic waters. Paddles up! 

Salmon River | Gleneden Beach, Ore.

Summer brings the crowds to coastal Oregon for beach time and a break from the heat. Hold off until autumn and hit the highway for the central Oregon coast. The crowds have dissipated and fall foliage transforms the focus from the seawater to the canopy of colors unfolding above the freshwater flows.

Destination: The Salishan Spa and Golf Resort is conveniently located across the street from the Pacific Ocean, making it pretty easy to access the float of the tides in salt water. However, to get a little more adventurous, the Resort recommends a trip to the Salmon River for the best color. 

Adventure: The Salmon River is a 20-minute drive from the resort. Kayak Tillamook offers guided trips along the estuary of the river during autumn. In the 1980’s, this estuary system became part of the United Nations Biosphere Reserve after numerous dykes were removed and its tidal waters were restored. Now, guests can book kayak trips to take a two-hour paddle through mountain meadows of Cascade Head, salt marshes and forested mountanisides loaded with leaves.

Entry point: Salmon River, 20 minutes north of Gleneden Beach.

Leaf peep: Aspens of reds, yellows and oranges amongst oodles of evergreens.

Lake Tahoe | Tahoe, Calif.

Golden hues on Lake Tahoe — Photo courtesy of Resort at Squaw Creek

Regardless of drought, fire or flood, there is something incredible about Northern California that provides for impressive oranges and yellows resilient to the wrath of human impact and Mother Earth. Sensibly, the bigger the color change you want to experience, the further north you must go.

Destination: Resort at Squaw Creek is 10 minutes from the shores of Lake Tahoe. Located in Olympic Valley, it’s an expansive, year-round, 405-room resort that serves as base camp for all northern Cali outdoor activity.

Entry point: Tahoe City Marina

Adventure: Choose either a SUP, kayak or speedboat rental at the Tahoe City Marina and cruise around Lake Tahoe.

Leaf peep: Aspen and cottonwood trees turn vibrant colors of orange and yellow surrounding the largest freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Payette River | Banks, Idaho

A faster flowing fall float on the Main Payette River in Idaho — Photo courtesy of Visit Idaho

Idaho can be a little tricky come autumn. The Salmon River is closed in numerous areas for the precious spawning of its namesake. Therefore, always call ahead in Idaho before putting the paddle in.

Destination: Bear Valley Rafting located between Cascade and Boise.

Entry point: The outfitter will accompany you to a river entry.

Adventure: Choose the full day trip so you can get away from the highway noise and above tree line to see most of the foliage. On the full day trip, it’s scenic more than anything, with more opportunity to view wildlife.

Leaf peep: Ponderosa pines scattered amongst Douglas fir, tamaracks and numerous other species for fall colors of red, yellow and orange.

Pearl Lake | Clark, Colo.

Heck, the state has a town named Aspen. Obviously, come fall, Colorado can over-deliver on brilliant reds, oranges, yellows and purples. 

Destination: Elk River Guest Ranch, located just minutes from Pearl Lake. However, the guest ranch adds an extra special element for the autumn float. Call a few days ahead and book something extraordinary – saddle up on one of Becky “Bex” Damman’s Quarter Horses and ride two hours from her ranch in Clark to Pearl Lake.

Entry point: The parking lot at Pearl Lake. The horses can access the lake via a trail that leads right to the parking lot. Bex can have the SUPs waiting your arrival and transport you back to her ranch after a float.

Adventure: Either take it standing or sitting, but put the paddle in Pearl Lake for a smooth sail across this often glass-calm body of water to take in the surrounding aspens changing amongst the evergreens. Leaf peepers can arrange for SUPS at the lake or use Bex’s kayaks she has waiting with a picnic lunch, while she trails your horses back.

Leaf peep: The colorful aspens along the rolling mountains surrounding the lake.

Arkansas River | Canon City, Colo.

Fall color on the Arkansas River — Photo courtesy of iStock/chapin31

What makes Colorado’s leaves a bit more exciting is that aspen trees don’t necessarily produce the same color leaf each year – it changes based on moisture and sunlight. What might be red one year can be yellow another. Oh, the mystery.

Destination: Among the oldest and largest tourism companies on Colorado’s Arkansas River (the most commercially rafted river in the world!), Echo Canyon River Expeditions offers a variety of rafting adventures.

Entry point: Just west of Echo Canyon River Expeditions is a private launch the company also uses for special events.

Adventure: Rafters through the Royal Gorge will see the Royal Gorge Bridge more than 1,000 feet above them and often are treated to the Royal Gorge Route Railroad train meandering its way through the canyon.

Leaf peep: Rafters will most often see Gambel oak, which turn a vivid orange and yellow, and cottonwood trees which are renowned for their bright yellows.

Provo River | Heber City, Utah

From the Wasatch Range mountains to a desert and one enormously large salt lake in Antelope Island State Park that attracts the swimmers, Utah runs the gamut in terms of outdoor attractions (and places to leaf peep).

Destination: Heber Valley Railroad has teamed up with High Country Adventure to ride and float.

Entry point: The Heber Valley Railroad is at 450 South 600 West, Heber, Utah.

Adventure: The day starts with a train ride through the farmlands of Midway and rolls past Soldier Hollow, home of the 2002 Winter Olympic cross-country skiing events, before it wanders around Deer Creek Reservoir and then descends down Provo Canyon to the river’s edge. The train makes a quick stop at the Provo River put-in and from there you leave the train and are outfitted with life jackets.  Then you’re shuttled down to the water’s edge.

Leaf peep: Near Park City, Utah, the Heber Valley Railroad takes passengers through the alpine splendor of Mt. Timpanogos and the dramatic, glacier-carved landscape of the Provo Canyon alongside towering aspens.

Green River | Dutch John, Utah


Come cooler temperatures, it’s the northeast corner of the state that might provide the most spectacular ensemble.

Destination: Right below the dam on the Green River in the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, there is a section of river that is in a deep ravine surrounded by red rock and foliage.

Entry point: Park at the lower parking lot of Flaming Gorge Dam and enter the Green River from the boat ramp. Exit 7 miles downstream, at Little Hole.

Adventure: Most visitors take a guided raft tour, but standup paddlers and kayaks are quickly becoming popular, especially at this mellower time of year when the water isn’t as rough. Flaming Gorge Resort and Guides is the go-to outfitter in the area.

Leaf peep: The walls of Red Canyon are brightly colored, beautifully contrasting with changing box elders against the stately ponderosa pine along the banks.

Rio Grande | Taos area, N.M.

Test your skills on the mighty Rio Grande in New Mexico and let the autumn foliage be your guide — Photo courtesy of New Mexico River Adventures

It’s not all arid desert in this mountainous region. The fifth largest state serves up colorful landscapes of oranges and yellows along its northern waterways. With plenty of snow-capped peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range, there’s enough run-off to produce steady streams come leaf-peeping months.

Destination: Taos Ski Valley is more than a ski haven and a summer festival spot; its rugged landscape is apt for fall adventure, and the mighty Rio will delight with autumn color.

Entry point: Latter part of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument area.

Adventure: New Mexico River Adventures offers whitewater experiences on specific areas of their territory come fall. Their season is dependent upon water flow, so it can end anywhere from mid-September through October. Rafters will have incredible views of lush riparian areas while rafting through the infamous Racecourse whitewater section.

Leaf peep: Keep your eyes and cameras ready for the Orilla Verde area where you’ll view the most pops of color from the cottonwoods, fall vegetation and underbrush.

Verde River | Clarkdale, Ariz.

While this one might be considered a bit of a stretch, remember, there’s even skiing in Arizona; those mountain melts must run off somewhere!

Destination: Clarkdale Kayak Company runs their season through October. They offer a three-hour trip with four different launch times each day. 

Entry point: Tapco River Access Point

Adventure: Kayak through a 3.5-mile riparian habitat and your guides will go over the history of Native American ruins in the area and the tribes, as well as the plant and animal life.

Leaf peep: Along the river are cottonwoods, willow trees and oak trees to pop in that brilliant red amongst the browns and greens of the area.

Columbia River Gorge | Stevenson, Wash.

Sure, it’s the Evergreen State, but that doesn’t mean hues of reds and yellows don’t appear each September and October.

Destination: Beacon Rock State Park has over 9,000 feet of shoreline on the Columbia River in addition to 20-plus miles of trails. Plus, the historic Columbia River Highway is spectacular to warm up for the colors with peeps up and down the road.

Entry point: The Washington side of the Columbia River. Easiest access point is along Highway 14.

Adventure: Flows will be much slower come autumn making kayaking, SUPing, rafting and even canoeing accessible through some parts of the river. And, if fishing floats are a fantasy as well, the lower Columbia River below Bonneville Dam has sturgeon, salmon, steelhead, bass, and walleye.

Leaf peep: Surrounded mostly by evergreens, the colors pop with enormous magnitude when they are far and few between.

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