11 Fall Travel Bucket-List Experiences

It's the absolute best time to be outdoors, when some of our unique landscapes come brilliantly alive.

Camping's secret season

Kelsey Sheofsky, co-owner of Shelter Co. luxury camping service, shares her reasons why this is the best month to take your weekend getaway outside.

The fire becomes the camp centerpiece. "Mornings start with coffee around the fire," says Sheofsky. Evenings mean dinner, stories, and games around the fire.

You have the place to yourself. Most campgrounds have ample availability, and though higher-altitude locations are getting cold, many desert, coastal, and lowland forest areas "actually become more enjoyable in fall, because you don't sweat to death," says Sheofsky.

Food is for lingering. Out are summer's grab-and-go sandwiches and chips. In is anything that warms you. Tomato soup with grilled cheese. Pancakes. Hot cornbread. Anything grilled. Cocoa all day long.

There's more time to enjoy the night. Look up-the fall sky has stars that you didn't see in summer. Lighting your camp becomes more important too.

Cozy is comfortable. Cooler temperatures plus longer nights add up to big sweaters, flannel coats, whiskey in flasks, plaid wool blankets, and other touches that make the outdoors feel homey.

More: Where to camp in autumn

Storm watching

You can feel the weather system starting to come in. Technically, it's called a drop in barometric pressure: The air gets denser, seeming to gather together as if the world is inhaling, all while there's still barely a cloud in the sky. The smell of salt in the air gets thicker. You can see the birds start to look as if they're hurrying through their day. Then the storm begins, at first like a gentle touch on the arm, but then like a punch. Quickly the horizon shuts down. Where the edge of the world sits depends on how tightly you do a Clint Eastwood squint. Fifty-knot (58 mph) winds are common; the waves rise to 30 feet.

Determined surfers stay out until the water is the color of a beeswax candle, though soon they, too, have to bail, which means the water's not even a good place to be a fish. But it you like to be part of the storm, there are great places in the West to watch it all begin.

More: Where to watch storms in the NW

Puget Sound oysters are back

Technically, you can eat oysters in summer. But come glorious fall, the rains add fresh water to the sea, temperatures cool, spawning dissipates, and once again all the crooked inlets and rocky beaches of Washington's Puget Sound offer up their beautifully broad array of oysters, from funky to crystalline.

More: Amazing fall oysters

Thanksgiving goes Grand

Here, in a place deep down in the earth, it's natural to feel gratitude. But on Thanksgiving, Phantom Ranch (park entry $25/vehicle, dorm beds $44, cabins from $144; grandcanyonlodges.com/phantomranch or 888/297-2757) makes the day even more special: Only on this day and on Christmas does the kitchen vary its menu from the standard steak, stew, and veggie chili options. Mules trek supplies down to the ranch, where the chef and kitchen staff prepare turkey, gravy, stuffing, and all the sides. A "pie lady" (the name they give the baker, male or female) makes the selection of fruit, pumpkin, and pecan pies. And it's all from scratch, miles from anywhere.

More about Thanksgiving at Phantom Ranch

It's desert prime time

Go Wild: Wildflowers, clear night skies, temperate weather--the California desert has it all this month. If your pleasure is an active vacation, Joshua Tree is the place to be.

More: Where to stay in Joshua Tree

Go Mild: Does your taste tend more toward poolside R&R than to rock climbing? Head to Palm Springs.

More: Where to stay in Palm Springs

Wild mushrooms bloom

Those rich, ribbed, bulbous, and billowy fungus turning up at your local market are being harvested right now in parts of California and Oregon where the cool, rainy climate is ideal.

More: 6 mushroom species to eat now
More: Mushroom foraging tips

Lodges rekindle the romance

When fireplaces crackle again, you can't deny the allure of the rustic lodge after a day outside. Here are the best spots to warm up.

TIMBERLINE LODGE, MT. HOOD, OR (pictured)

  • Total fireplace count: 14
  • Must-see hearth: Built in 1937 by Italian immigrant stonemasons, the central chimney is 98 feet high, with 6 hearths on 2 levels. The basalt came from Mt. Hood. The original Cascadian-style furniture by the hearths was also handmade in the '30s.
  • Why go now: It's quiet before Thanksgiving, and if the slopes open by midmonth, you can beat the crowds. From $125; timberlinelodge.com

NITA LAKE LODGE, WHISTLER, B.C.

  • Total fireplace count: 79
  • Must-see hearth: A see-through fireplace of basalt separates the lobby from the Cure Lounge-with great displays of art from Whistler's White Dog Studio above the mantels.
  • Why go now: Serious deals. It's officially shoulder season in Whistler-especially at Nita Lake, where the rates can be slashed by as much as $400. From $159; nitalakelodge.com

More cozy lodges

Aurora borealis season heats up

The aurora borealis (the northern lights) is the most mind-altering spectacle on our planet. It's also nature's biggest tease. It happens at the poles and is visible only in the clear night sky.

More: Where to watch

Big birds are on the move

For new birders, the sport can be frustrating, requiring laser-sharp vision and bionic hearing. Good news: While the small, delicate (and harder to see) species have already flown south for the winter, the hardy birds arrive this month. Their large size and easy-to-observe behavior make them ideal gateway birds for casual watchers.

More: Birds to watch
More: Expert bird-watching tips

You can watch massive swells

In November, Pacific storms begin to generate huge waves on Oahu's North Shore, attracting the world's best surfers to compete in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing series.

More: First-hand account from three-time series champ, Joel Parkinson

Wine country is all yours

The time to go to wine country, it's said, is during the crush, in late September, early October. Pay a flat fee, go to a participating winery, hold a red-stained glass at the ready. Drink.

More: Where to experience wine country

Related:
Top 18 spots for fall color
Top 5 fall hikes
Amazing fall trips