The bright reds, oranges, and yellows of trees in autumn make for compelling subjects, but it can be tricky to plan travel around nature. If you want to give yourself the best odds for success, you need to plan ahead. Crowd-sourced foliage maps and reports can let you know when and where the color is at the peak.
Some of the biggest regions for fall color tourism, like New York and New England have their own dedicated maps, typically maintained by volunteers or the board of tourism. For New York, consider checking out I Love NY's fall foliage report. This informative map and report presents an easy-to-read view of the colors, points of interest, and provides a detailed account of conditions in various areas. To get a sense of just how detailed these reports can be, check out this sample:
"In Crown Point, spotters are calling for 10-20% color change with a sprinkling of muted golds and rusts and some occasional sparks of bright color, especially at higher elevations. Color change is rapidly progressing in Hamilton County, according to spotters in Lake Pleasant. Look for near-peak conditions with 80% leaf transition and average-to-very bright orange and red leaves."
Similar resources are available for the broader New England area, with NewEngland.com's crowdsourced fall foliage map providing information on a per-zip-code basis. If you live near one of these areas or already have travel planned, these resources can be a great way to direct your travel to get the best views possible. Unfortunately, they don't provide great forecasting power, making it difficult to use them to plan future trips.
Many national parks and forests also have detailed information on their websites, although these vary in quality and style by location. For an example, check out Coconino National Forest's fall color report. Beyond just the report's photos, the Parks Service provides helpful information about road closures, parking conditions, and other useful info, making these sites a valuable resource for planning.
Also, make sure to consider the chamber of commerce and hotel concierges of potential areas. Locals in the tourism industry can have a good read on conditions, making for a great resource if your ideal location is too small for a dedicated report.
For a more generalized view or to plan future travel, consider the state-based guidelines created by Tripsavvy. While much more general, they can help you set a travel date or find a more specific local resource for planning.
Given the fickle nature of fall foliage, I've found it helps to be flexible with expectations and plans. I've driven out to an area, only to find a heavy wind had already swept many leaves off the trees a few nights before. While this can be a disappointing, it makes the successes all the better.
To get a better shot at success, plan on visiting a few areas with different elevations, since the leaves can change quickly, while being highly correlated with local conditions. Even a few hundred feet of elevation change on a brief hike can take you from "just changing" to deep reds and golds, so don't pack too many lenses.
For gear, nothing too special is required. I've typically brought a wide angle and midrange zoom, occasionally supplementing with a telephoto or macro lens for unique shots. Polarizing filters can breathe a little extra color into the leaves, as well as giving the sky a little extra blue right out of camera.
In the field, look to compose with strong backlighting to really bring out the color of the leaves. If you are going to work into the light, remember to bring a lens hood to cut down on flare.
A successful fall colors shoot is 60% planning, 20% execution, and 20% luck, so take advantage of every resource available for planning. Whether you're driving 30 minutes or flying across the country, you can find out about the conditions before you ever leave your house. Are you planning on traveling to capture the colors of fall?