Planning early for fall foliage peeping

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of July 30 — August 6, 1998
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Planning early for fall foliage peeping
Question: I am planning a hiking/camping trip to see the fall colors. I live in New Jersey and would like to go to either upstate New York, Vermont or New Hampshire. When is the best time to go? Which states, camping sites, and places do you recommend checking out?

Jennifer Stuart
North Brusnwick, New Jersey

Autumn trees stand on a sloping hillside on New Hampshire's White Mountain
Adventure Adviser: More than 2.8 million people flock to New England each fall for the colorful display, so you’ll have some company. Peak foliage time varies from year to year, and the further north you venture, the earlier the leaves change. Generally speaking, the best time to revel in New England’s rightfully adored fall colors is from mid-September through mid-October, or until after the first few frosts. In each particular region, peak color lasts a mere three or four days, so it’s a challenge to time your visit perfectly. If you’re camping, keep in mind that many of the national forest campgrounds close in early October because nights start to get very, very chilly by then.

Basically, the closer you are to the mountains, the more brilliant the foliage display. High on the list of top-viewing spots is New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, the country’s most popular forest. In a state that boasts 84 percent of forest land, the National Forest encompasses more than 750,000 acres of trees that become aflame in brilliant red, yellow and orange hues each fall, luring many a leaf-peeper. There are 23 campgrounds and 1200 miles of hiking trails in this wilderness to choose from, so call 603-528-8721 for the particulars. Just north of Woodstock, the Franconia Notch area is another great spot for a fall foliage fling. Call 603-823-9513 for camping information, and contact the White Mountain Guide at 603-528-8721 for hiking suggestions.

Although Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest is a bit smaller (35,000 acres to be exact), it’s equally as stunning and has some stellar hikes, complete with leaf-drenched rushing streams that are quite a spectacle in fall. There are several good camping areas within the forest, so check in with the forest service at 802-747-6700 for advice. Personally, I love the Mount Mansfield/Mad River valley area around the tiny towns of Warren and Waitsfield (although this area had terrible flooding not too long ago, which may affect this year’s foliage). From here, you’ll have easy access to the notorious Long Trail (265 miles long), which ambles along the crest of the Green Mountains, and Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak (4393’). The easiest trek to the summit is along the Long Trail beginning on Route 108 near Stowe. Check in with Little River State Park for camping information at 802-244-7103. For a campsite with a view, head further north to Mount Philo (802-425-2390), where you can pitch your tent atop the peak and admire the sweeping panoramas of the Lake Champlain Valley. The Green Mountain Club can offer additional hiking suggestions (802-244-7037).

My favorite spots for leaf peeping also include Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, which begins in St. Johnsbury and stretches all the way to the Canadian border. This is rural Vermont at its finest. Foliage peaks earlier here, and nights are even colder, so check the forecasts before you set out to camp. If it’s before Columbus Day, pretty Brighton State Park is a good place to set-up your tent (802-723-4360). For hiking, head out on the Mount Pisgah Trail (6.9 miles), which crosses over the peak and passes through dense forests and beaver ponds, or along the Wheeler Mountain Trail (5.4 miles), which leads up to the 2,371-foot summit and a view of Mount Mansfield in its fall glory. My other preferred spot is in the Berkshires, in the northwest corner of Connecticut — not a bad drive for you. Here you’ll find foliage galore, hikes aplenty, and a collection of quintessential New England hamlets. So numerous are cozy inns in this area, you may even be tempted out of your tent (The White Hart in Salisbury is an excellent choice; 800-832-0041). For hiking and camping, try the Housatonic Meadows State Park (860-927-3238), which has miles of trails, lots of tenting spots, and a particularly sweet vantage point on the kaleidoscope of fall colors. A nice fall hike is the steep climb up the summit of Bear Mountain, accessed via the Undermountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail, just north of Salisbury. As fall looms closer, check in with the foliage hotlines — sponsored by each of the prime states during autumn — for updates on this year’s peak projections. Vermont (802-828-3239); New Hampshire (603-271-6870); Connecticut (860-258-4290); Massachusetts (800-227-6277); and New York (800-225-5697). Happy peeping.

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