In September and October, New England is the only place to be. Like love and marriage and horse and carriage, fall foliage and New England go together. Across the six states, the green leaves of summer change into shimmering colors, from orange and gold to purple and scarlet. Add in clear blue skies and crisp clean air: autumn doesn’t get any better than this. You have to see it to believe it.
It all starts in northern New England in late September. Like a giant paintbrush moving across the region, the color starts in northern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont then sweeps south through Massachusetts, right down to Connecticut and Rhode Island. But it’s not just the foliage that makes New England so appealing in the fall. Completing the picture are classic villages, with their white-steepled churches, clapboard houses and village greens. Many of these communities date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Some are close to the sea, others hidden inland at the end of wandering lanes. All have welcoming country inns and cosy bed-and-breakfasts, where the crisp evenings are just the excuse for a crackling log fire.
Of all the writers who have described the season, perhaps British author Rudyard Kipling succeeded best: “No pen can describe the turning of the leaves – the insurrection of the tree people against the waning year. A little maple began it, flaming blood-red of a sudden where he stood against the dark green of a pine belt. Next morning there was an answering signal from the swamp where the sumacs grow. Three days later, the hillsides as far as the eye could range were afire, and the roads paved with crimson and gold.”
Traditionally, the color is at its peak during the first two weeks of October. The Columbus Day holiday weekend is particularly busy with ‘leaf peepers’. In Vermont, Route 100 is a famous scenic drive, but you can avoid the crowds by heading to the Northeast Kingdom, up by the Canadian border. In southern Vermont, take a road that runs east-west through the Green Mountains, such as Route 9, the Molly Stark Trail, running from Brattleboro to Bennington, where a 306-ft tall monument recalls General John Stark’s 1777 Revolutionary victory. Alternatively, take a cruise on Lake Champlain and enjoy the foliage from the water.
You can also take a boat in New Hampshire, cruising Lake Winnipesaukee, with its superb mountain views. Or, drive the Kancamagus Trail. This 35-mile long stretch of Route 112 between Conway and Lincoln, known as ‘The Kanc’, runs through unspoiled countryside. If you like vistas from on high, take the undemanding hike (4 hours round trip) to the top of Mount Monadnock; the second most-climbed mountain in the world is only 3,165 ft high. Much, much higher is Mount Washington, at 6,288ft, the highest peak in the Northeast. It’s fun to take the Cog Railway, running since 1869, but dress warmly, since it is always cold at the summit.
Fall is glorious in Maine, a state that has trees, trees and more trees. See them in their fall finery along Route 26, the dramatic drive from Portland to the pretty mountain village of Bethel. In northern Maine, the roads are never crowded even at the height of fall color: just drive the loop of Route 1 and Route 11 - you won’t be disappointed. As for the famous Maine coastline, that also is ablaze with color, set off by the blue of the water and the blue of the sky. Board a windjammer in Camden, and carve through the islands under sail: all you have to do is take the photos.
In Massachusetts, color covers the state. Many leaf peepers follow the famous Mohawk Trail, the section of Route 2 between Greenfield and Williamstown in the Berkshire Hills; look out for the Hail to the Sunrise statue of a Mohawk warrior near Charlemont. Even close to Boston, however, the foliage can be stunning. In Concord and Lincoln, it provides a fiery backdrop to waterways and meadows. North of Boston, the drive from Essex up to Newburyport passes old farms and handsome houses, while down on Cape Cod, there is color in the woods and thickets around freshwater ponds.
Linking one photogenic village after another, pretty lanes criss-cross Connecticut’s wooded Litchfield Hills. In the northwest, near Salisbury, the trail up Bear Mountain is steep but you can see three states from the 2,316-ft summit. Over in the northeastern part of the state, the Quiet Corner is a land of rolling hills, where Route 169 is particularly scenic, while down in the southeast, Route 49 runs between state forests all the way to North Stonington .
In Rhode Island, the trail along the Blackstone River Valley opens up all sorts of delights. Rent a bike, breathe in the fresh air and enjoy Nature in all her glory. Turn down back roads, such as Route 146A near Slatersville; explore conservation areas such as Lincoln Woods State Park. With stone walls, winding rivers and gentle hills, there is plenty of delightful countryside in the state – and the color stays on till the end of October.
In Native American lore, after hunters killed the Great Bear in the sky, its blood dripped down, turning the leaves red. The yellow was the fat of the bear meat splashing out of the cooking pot. Scientists have a more mundane explanation: sunny days combined with cool nights slow down the production of chlorophyll, the chemical that makes leaves green. This allows other pigments to show through the thin leaves: carotenoids for yellow and orange, anthocyanin for scarlet. Colors vary according to the acidity of the soil and the type of tree.
Dark green: fir and spruce
Crimson and scarlet: red maple, red oak, dogwood and sassafras
Yellow and gold: ginkgo, elm, polar and birch
Orange: mountain ash, hickory, mountain maple
Reserve well in advance, whether it is for a car at the airport or for accommodation. Apart from that, you are a guest at one of the best free shows on earth!
Most states have a special hotline with up-to-the-minute information on where to see the fall color. Toll free 1 800/888 numbers can only be accessed in North America.
Connecticut: 1 888 282 4748, www.ctvisit.org
Maine: 1 888 624 6345, www.mainefoliage.com
Massachusetts: 1 800 227 6277 / 1 617 973 8500, www.massvacation.com
New Hampshire: 1 800 258 3608, www.visitnh.com
Rhode Island: 1 800 556 2484, www.visitrhodeisland.com
Vermont: 1 802 828 3239, www.vermontvacation.com