Top Ten Fall Foliage Hikes in New England
These ten hikes deliver on the Northeast’s best fall foliage, minus the expected crowds.
The American Northeast is a landscape built for fall. As soon as the sharp crack of autumn arrives in the morning air, chimneys give off their first puff, apple-picking season begins, and the leaves burst into flames of reds, oranges, and yellows. Home to some of the best “leaf peeping” in America, the Northeast is also home to some of the densest populations in the country. But our ten favorite places to take in the fall colors are a bit out of the way, so you can beat the crowds and enjoy some quality time with just the trees, the locals, and the cool fall air.
10. Camden, Maine
A traditional Maine fishing village nestled in a narrow cove, this bustling town maintains an honest mix of quality shopping, dining, and art with the seafaring tradition that has sustained it for more than 100 years. Set just back from the town is Camden Hills State Park, with miles of trails for hiking and a road so drivers can take in the scenery from the comfort of their cars. Suffering from scenery deficit disorder? Try this outing: From the top of Mt. Battie, look east to the ocean and watch the breakers crash into the rugged coastline, then rotate 180 degrees for an awe-inspiring view of the low coastal mountains bursting into fall color. Repeat as needed. When you’ve explored the trails and byways, check out downtown Camden or take a quick cruise to visit local populations of puffins and whales.
9. Portland, Maine
Mainers call Portland “the city.” New Yorkers, hold your laughter, and take some time to appreciate Portland’s ideal blend of Yankee bustle and laid-back style. The cultural center of this city is known as the Old Port, and you’re just as likely to see a lobsterman knocking back beers at Gritty McDuff’s brewpub as you are to get a great deal on artesian local preserves at Stonecoast Kitchen. As the tourists drain out in late August and a chill creeps in, the city comes alive with fall color. For a quick fix, wander the eastern promenade, with your back to the opulent captains’ mansions, and feel your face stung by sea breeze. For a classic Maine experience, take one of the frequent ferries into Casco Bay to admire the foliage on Peaks Island, Little Diamond Island, or Chebeague Island.
8. Rangeley, Maine
Nestled in the high, rounded Appalachians is a town of unique balance. Rangeley has enough New England character to be authentic, and it has enough connection with civilization to be approachable. The modest downtown features a charming public beach (worth a dip if Indian Summer arrives in full force), and a good mixture of outfitters and local arts and crafts stores. For full immersion in fall scenery, drive west toward the village of Oquossoc to visit the sprawling Organon, the estate-turned-museum of eccentric psychologist Willhelm Reich, who thought Rangeley’s balanced vibe was perfect for his unusual experiments in rain-making. This 160-acre natural area features a trail system, open meadows, and an appealing mixture of young pines and older hardwoods, plus it affords great views of nearby Dodge Pond and Rangeley Lake. If the weather doesn’t cooperate for a fall foliage hike, visit Rangeley’s micro-cinema that verges on doll-house quaint and shows discount movies months after first release.
7. Tyringham, Massachusetts
James Taylor once sung: “And the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of their frosting….10,000 miles behind me and 10,000 more to go.” You won’t have to travel 10,000 miles to visit this Massachusetts hill outpost; what you will have is a front seat to one of the best foliage shows in New England, and possibly America. Here in the Berkshires, cool nights and warm days produce one of the earliest and most vivid displays of fall colors: maples flash vivid red, and stands of pine provide green for contrast. Better yet, the famous Appalachian Trail winds through the center of the community, offering an easy day hike to the south, and a challenging but short walk to the north that skirts the shore of Upper Goose Pond, where a canoe is often available if you dare to ripple the incredible reflections of this mirror-like lake.
6. Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Great Barrington rewards the patient adventurer. June and July bring swarms of vacationers from Boston and New York, not to mention swarms of mosquitoes. By fall, both disperse and the spectacular New England leaf show begins. Though Great Barrington’s bustling downtown is plenty of fun, the real show is on the numerous country roads that head west off Route 7 into Beartown State Forest and Monument Mountain Reservation. Here, you can find numerous hiking, biking, and walking trails where the cool air and the soft, piney soil will paint your cheeks with some fall color of your own! Don’t miss the historic church where Arlo Guthrie dined with Alice Brock in his famous “Alice’s Restaurant,” and head into nearby Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to visit the still-open Alice’s Restaurant.
5. Letchworth State Park, New York
No time to drive to the Grand Canyon this weekend? That’s okay because the “big ditch” doesn’t have nearly the fall firecrackers that Letchworth State Park does. Located less than an hour from Buffalo, New York, Letchworth is close enough to burn off the beer and wings after lunch and still make it back to see a Bills game before dark. The civilized carriage roads leading into the park feature beautiful draping canopies of a variety of eastern hardwoods, but the real view is ahead. As you approach the deep gorge the Genesee River has carved through the bedrock, you’ll be rewarded with a view to remember. Maples, beech, and countless other trees display their vivid leaves on the stark ledges of this deep, dramatic gorge. The Genesee River descends over a series of three steep waterfalls, the highest of which is more than 100 feet tall. Don’t settle for the view from the parking lot, because this park boasts plenty to do. There are horseback-riding trails, hot-air balloon rides, and an easy, level hiking trail that parallels the rim of the gorge.
4. Bennington, Vermont
Bennington is as close to the definition of Vermont as you can get. It has all the important ingredients: a quaint main street, the rounded humps of the Green Mountains just over your shoulder, and…is that the faint aroma of maple syrup in the air? Perched on the border of Vermont and Massachusetts, Bennington is a perfect launching-pad for a fall-color adventure. As you begin your day with a cup of Green Mountain Roasters Coffee at one of the several bakeries downtown, the view from the window is staggering. Take a baguette with you and cruise up Vt. Route 9 into the notches between the mountains, and watch as the colors become overwhelmingly vivid. You’ll soon cross the Long Trail, one of the oldest long-distance hiking trails in America. Here, you’ll find parking near the roaring Deerfield River. Walking south, you amble up Harmon Hill (warning: the steep trail will make you wonder why it’s a “hill”), and prepare for a jaw-dropping view of Bennington and the surrounding valley from the top.
3. Burlington, Vermont
Do you have to be a hippy to love Burlington? Certainly not, but a tolerance for tofu will take you far in this fair city! A paradise for fall multi-taskers, Burlington is easy to get to (fly, train, bus, drive), and the cool breezes off nearby Lake Champlain stoke a furious display of fall colors from the abundant trees in the foothills of the Green Mountains. Don’t miss a walk up Church Street, four blocks of pure window- shopping, café stopping, and street-musician listening pleasure. After you’re sated with commercial culture, stroll down to the riverfront park and admire the distant Adirondack Mountains from across pristine Lake Champlain. If you’re invigorated by the view, rent a bike and take level, easy “Island Line” bike path north eight miles under a sheltering canopy of shady trees until you pop out on a narrow jetty that crosses Lake Champlain. From this narrow path, you can see nearly a hundred miles in every direction, enjoying a 360-degree view of the mountainous surroundings.
2. Conway, New Hampshire
The New Hampshire State Motto says it all, “Live Free or Die!” As you travel along New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway, en route to Conway, you’ll feel a taste of this freedom, without the threat of imminent death. This narrow, winding, 28-mile route takes nearly an hour to drive and treats visitors to a jaw-dropping view of the jagged White Mountain National Forest. Even early in the season, expect the lush evergreens and red conifers to be dappled with the white of an early snowfall, and look out for moose, especially early in the morning and late in the evening. At the southern terminus of the highway, Conway, New Hampshire, is a quaint mixture of rugged and civilized, old and new. The stores mix the standard tourist fare with specialty mountaineering shops that cater to the bold mountaineers that ascend nearby Mt. Washington. Crampons or commemorative moose T-shirts? It’s your pick.
Photo by Kimberly Vardeman
1. Kent, Connecticut
Leaving the Berkshires of Massachusetts, you’ll quickly realize that Connecticut is so much more than a New York City suburb. This sedate town has its share of white picket fences and a quaint coffee shop or two, but the real treasures lie just north and just south of town. Walk south less than a half mile, and you’ll hit the 10 Mile River. This maple-lined masterpiece is an incredibly level, pleasant walk on the famous Appalachian Trail. The trees here are short in stature but giants in color. Expect deep reds, flaring oranges, and a moveable carpet of these wonderful colors sliding away on the surface of the river. Up for a challenge? Walk north of town just a few miles and stop for a cold draft of cider and an apple at the picnic shelter in a clearing. Turning to face the hill you’ve just climbed, you’ll be treated to a view of the Hudson River Valley that can’t be beat.