There's something truly special about taking a trip to see a place at its peak of unique. Alaska in winter. Tucson in summer. The seasons can separate an exceptional experience from an expected one. Sure, you might get frostbite or heatstroke for your efforts, but go to a destination when no other place is like it and you're bound to have a spectacular time. In New England, that time of year lasts only three weeks and it's nearly upon us. So start planning a long weekend of hiking or inn-to-inn biking.
Fall is gorgeous just about anyplace in New England with mountains and trees, but Vermont is particularly beautiful thanks to the profusion of both. Hillsides turn ablaze as maples, oaks, elms, and all manner of their deciduous brethren make the splashy transition into winter. The quiet country roads, the quaint towns, and plenty of hiking and biking opportunities conspire to help you experience the state as its best. The season really gets going the last week in September and last until about mid-October. The business folks in the Mad River area, about 40 miles east of Burlington, say to expect the foliage to peak right around October 9, which unsurprisingly happens to fall on traditionally the busiest weekend of the year for leaf peepers. Whether that's a scientific estimate or a marketing ploy is uncertain. No matter: Book early, as the 3,500 beds in the valley tend to go fast, especially on weekends. Come during the week if you can. For those of you who can't plan anything, the Visitor Center in Waitsfield prints out a list of vacant rooms in the 26-mile-long valley each day. Wander in (they're open 24 hours) and you can probably find a place to sleep. But first you'll need to earn it.
The 270-mile Long Trail, the oldest long-distance trail in the East, is certainly a classic, and fall makes it doubly spectacular. For you Colorado types, this isn't your wimpy wander through the back-east woods; the portion of the trail that winds up toward Mount Mansfield, the state's highest peak, climbs 2,995 feet in just over two miles. Your sweat will be awarded with spectacular views over the Green Mountains, which will actually be red and yellow. To get there, head north to Stowe on Route 108 to the Long Trail parking lot about eight miles out of town. From there the trail rears back to reach a junction, where you then climb up to the top of the 4,393-foot peak. The Long Trail has numerous access points all along the valley. Plan a hut-to-hut backpacking trip if you want more time on this classic route. (Green Mountain Club has maps and beta: 802.244.7037; www.greenmountainclub.org). Stowe also hosts its annual Oktoberfest on September 23-24 (visit www.gostow.com for additional information)
While you're up on Mount Mansfield, look for the tight forests and lonely roads that make for superb cycling. Add the chance to ride from inn to inn along the way through so much color and you have a reason for a fatter camera chip. Country Inns Along the Trail offers self-guided and guided bike trips destined to show you the best of the state at its prettiest. How much you ride and where you go is largely up to youyou can even combine road- and mountain-biking trips. Start out at the Middlebury Inn, about an hour south of Burlington, and the outfitter will give you a detailed description of where you'll be riding and make arrangements to have your luggage shipped to the next inn. From there you can ride anywhere from 20 to 100-plus miles a day, hopping between places like the Fox Creek Inn or the Churchill House Inn, where you'll find easy access to the Long Trail. Trip costs depend on accommodations and time of year, but in general you should expect about $180 to $200 per person per day during peak leaf season. Bike rentals are also available if you don't want to bring yours and start at about $27 a day. Contact 800.838.3301 or visit www.inntoinn.com to find out more.
If you're just looking for a place to crash between staging trips into the mountains at your whim, check out the Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen (800.448.0707; www.blueberryhillinn.com). You'll find a cottage and 11 rooms seemingly decorated by a grandmother wielding all veto power. But you'll also find about 45 miles of trails that run into the 22,000 acres of the Moosalamoo region of the Green Mountain National Forest right out the backdoor. From the antique beds and floral wallpaper you're within easy striking distance of the Long Trail and sufficiently removed from the townsnot that any of them have stoplights anywayto make this an ideal base camp. Rates start around $130 to $180 per person per night and include a four-course meal and full breakfast. Come after October 22 and rates dropalong with the leavesto $120 per person. By that point you'll have all that gold covering the trails, which is still pretty cool if you ask us.
Foliage Time in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom