The rhythm of the American seasons

Fall guy Tony Wheeler shows you where to go to savour the US autumn in its golden prime

We'd call it autumn, of course. Although curiously it's one of those cases where Americans stuck with the old English word, the one the Pilgrim Fathers and other early settlers brought across the Atlantic with them. We decided to move on and anglicised that fancy French word automne.

Fall is a favourite American season. Officially it begins the day after Labor Day, so this year it started on 4 September, and it morphs into winter on Thanksgiving, which this year falls on 22 November. Everybody loves fall: the gridiron football season kicks off, new television series premiere, while Halloween, earlier this week, gave trick-or-treaters another evening of fun.

And, of course, it's the season when the leaves fall – though it's seeing those beautiful leaves still on the trees, not carpeting the forest floor, that fall appreciation is all about. The leaves go through their green to yellow-orange-gold-brown colour transition in a north-south sweep. The further north you start the earlier fall begins, so if you've got the time to enjoy the spectacle, you could drift gradually south, enjoying the slow transformation.

There's an east-west transition as well. The timing varies with each year's weather variations, but for many fall chasers it's the New England states that provide the highlights. Typically the spectacle is in its golden prime until mid-October in the northern parts of New England – Vermont, New Hampshire and particularly Maine, the most northerly state. This stage arrives around a month later in the south of the region, in Massachusetts, Connecticut and tiny Rhode Island.

Fall colours are certainly not confined to New England: you could head west to New York State or south-west to Pennsylvania and Maryland, or continue even deeper through Virginia right down to Arkansas and Alabama, where you need to wait until around now for the best colours. In Georgia, Cloudland Canyon State Park hosts a special fall event this weekend.

Michigan can put on a superb fall display, around the same time as New England's. Or you could wander all the way west and south to Colorado. Here, in the "Centennial State", altitude comes into the picture, bringing the season on earlier and completing it more quickly.

While you drive through the fall forest scenery, keep an eye out for the wildlife as well as the leaves. A collision with a large animal is never pleasant and in northern New England one of the biggest also tends to be the one with the least road sense: the moose. When moose meets car, the moose may be the ultimate loser, but the car is not going to look very pretty either. Driving through New Hampshire on my last fall outing I even came upon a moose warning sign with three real ones standing shyly beside it.

"See, we look just like the picture," they seemed to say. "Now drive slowly."

Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of Lonely Planet travel guides

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