Ever wonder why the phrase “autumn in New England” sounds as magical as “springtime in Paris”? Take a drive on any of the following 10 foliage-filled byways, covering each of the six New England states — OK, one just barely — and you will see.
Kancamagus Highway, N.H.: No roadway in New England is as synonymous with fall as Route 112, the rambling two-lane road informally known as “the Kanc," which cuts like a ribbon through White Mountain National Forest. It’s heavy on the ground with tourists but is ice cream for the eyes. Kancamagus Falls, the highest point on the road, pokes up at 2,980 feet. From here one can see the entire Presidential Range. The Swift River parallels much of the eastern half of the Kanc and there are many opportunities to park and explore.
Smugglers Notch, Vt.: Smugglers Notch in northern Vermont is a mountain pass once used to smuggle contraband to Canada from the early 1800s through Prohibition. Route 108 winds through the notch from the resort village of Stowe to Jeffersonville, taking one up and down hills that pass some of the best works of nature, including the craggy peak of massive Mount Mansfield. Packed a picnic? Consider spreading out the red-checkered tablecloth at Smuggler’s Notch State Park. While there, take a walk for close encounters with fall.
The former Cornish Colony, N.H.: With Mount Ascutney jutting up over rows and rows of thick forest, it is hard to believe this area was once called “Little New York.” But the Cornish Colony, home to arty types from Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Ethel Barrymore, thrived by the Connecticut River 100 years ago. The whitewashed home of sculptor Saint-Gaudens, along with his studios and sculpture gardens, constitute a National Park Service historic site that's open to the public.
Also in this area, spanning the Connecticut River between Cornish and Windsor, Vt., is the nation’s longest covered bridge, dating from 1870. And about 10 miles west of the bridge is Quechee Gorge, straddled by Route 4 and visible when hiking or standing on the spacious overpass.
White Mountains of Maine: A chunk of White Mountain National Forest spills into Maine, and during the fall its woodlands and languid lakes urge rambling trips. Fryeburg, at the junction of routes 113 and 302 south, brims with white clapboard buildings and is home to the agricultural bonanza called the Fryeburg Fair (Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, 2013).
Route 113 takes one through the thick of the national forest. At Gilead, turn right onto Route 2, skirting the forest’s northern edge and paralleling the Androscoggin River until reaching Bethel. Base for Sunday River and Mount Abram ski areas, Bethel is also the home to the stately Broad Street Historic District.
Molly Stark Trail (Route 9), Vt.: Straddling southern Vermont, the sinuous two-lane (mostly) road begins in the east in West Brattleboro, home to the stoplight-red Creamery Covered Bridge. The view from Hogback Mountain, 10 minutes to the west, is one of central New England’s most spectacular vistas.
Molly Stark State Park in Marlboro welcomes leisurely strollers through the woods, while the specialty stores of Wilmington, base for Mount Snow Ski Area, are prime places to remove wrinkles from one’s wallet. Bennington, at the western terminus, boasts the towering Bennington Monument, the Bennington Museum with its renowned Grandma Moses gallery, and the grave of America’s poet, Robert Frost.
New Hampshire’s Monadnock Region: The villages in southwestern New Hampshire have grown since Thornton Wilder introduced them in “Our Town” nearly 80 years ago. But the feel has changed little. In Hancock, a bandstand dominates the town green and the John Hancock Inn has been providing room and board since 1789. The buildings of former mill village Harrisville are of sturdy industrial brick, and their reflections in the mill pond make a favorite photo shoot.
Jaffrey is home to Mount Monadnock State Park. The climb to the summit of the 3,165-foot-high peak takes two to three hours and no one will be lonely here in fall. An alternative for nonclimbers is the drive to the 2,288-foot summit of Pack Monadnock Mountain in Peterborough. On a proverbial clear day, one can see the skyscrapers of Boston in the distance.
Mohawk Trail, Mass.: Don’t be put off by critics who say you can’t see the forest for the cars. Western Massachusetts’s Mohawk Trail (Route 2) is often crowded but is worth braving the sea of humanity. Landmarks interspersed among the multicolored hillsides afford places to stretch one’s legs.
In Shelburne Falls is the Bridge of Flowers, a 1908 trolley bridge turned floral garden. Further west is “Hail to the Sunrise,” an 8-foot-high bronze statue of a Native American, arms outstretched, welcoming the morning sun. From the village of Florida, motorists wind and swerve before reaching Whitcomb Summit, 2,200 feet above sea level.
By the Quabbin Reservoir, Mass.: In this area often ignored by tourists, Barre is a masterpiece of a village whose huge town green includes a war memorial and a bandstand. About 12 miles south along Route 32 is Gilbertville, where an 1886 covered bridge spans the Ware River. Between Ware and Belchertown are miles of color-filled woods fronting ranges of blue hills as Route 202 parallels the Quabbin’s western shore, a fun place to take in the view, take a walk or take out the picnic basket.
Litchfield Hills, Conn.: Cozy Litchfield can thank the snubbing of the railroad for its preserved status. The National Park Service once called Litchfield “probably the finest example of a typical late 18th-century New England town.” Goshen, to the north, is smaller and less polished, making it more real to some. In West Cornwall is one of Connecticut’s few remaining covered bridges, built in 1841 and crossing the Housatonic River. Norfolk’s green is bordered by handsome buildings such as Whitehouse mansion, bathed in glorious colonial white and home to Yale University’s Summer School of Music.
Connecticut’s Quiet Corner: In the state’s northeastern corner is Pomfret, dominated by the brick campus of Pomfret School, although the medieval-styled chapel seems like a transplant from the Rhine River Valley. To the north is yet another Woodstock, this one home to apple orchards, an academy and the candy-colored Roseland Cottage.
Woodstock’s prettiest view is seen by turning one’s back to the Woodstock Academy and looking across the green toward the Congregational Church. An inviting picnic spot is Bigelow Hollow State Park, while just across the Connecticut border to the east is the highest point in Rhode Island. Don’t brag to your friends in Colorado, though — it’s only 812 feet high.
Fall foliage information:
New Hampshire: www.visitnh.gov, 802-271-2665
Vermont: www.vermontvacation.com/fall, 800-VERMONT (837-6668)
Maine: www.mainefoliage.com, 888-MAINE45 (624-6345)
Massachusetts: www.massvacation.com, 800-227-MASS (6277)
Connecticut: www.depdata.ct.gov/forestry/foliage/foliagemap.htm; www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2697&q=322764&deepNav_GID=1631, 860-424-3000
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at email@example.com.