The Exhaust-Free, Self-Propelled Foliage Tour

Let the motorized leaf peepers have their New England. It'll keep them far away from ours.

Sep 18, 2001
Outside Magazine

Migrationally speaking, almost everything leaves New England in autumn. The exception? Tour buses, of course, fall foliage tours in the Northeast being the single most popular trip in busdom. Every year, thousands of motor coaches rumble through at the peak of leaf-peeping season—no wonder the birds, butterflies, even whales get a little antsy and head elsewhere. The indigenous primates know the feeling, too: It's easy to view the 16-wheelers as a pestilence. But the more evolved view is this: Let the buses have their clichéd itineraries—you know, North Conway, Route 100 in central Vermont, the coastal road that runs past the Bush estate in Kennebunkport. That leaves about 65,000 square miles for the rest of us.

Flying Above the Green Mountains
Sure, the fall-color voyeurs along Vermont 100 can make the river-hugging two-lane as congested as the Long Island Expressway at rush hour. But nowhere in New England are the aviation options for foliage-watching better than right in the middle of the Green Mountains—since you can't beat 'em, might as well fly over 'em. In the fall, the standing mountain waves—dramatic updrafts caused by prevailing westerlies—are at their best. Coming over Lake Champlain, these winds run up against a wall of 4,000-footers, contour over the rounded summits, and ricochet off more stable air below, giving whatever's afloat a goose toward the heavens. Meanwhile, the massive Green Mountain National Forest unfolds below, a seamless canopy dolloped in the season's glory: crimson red, flaming orange, and mind-bogglingly deep shades of purple.

Sugarbush Soaring, based at the Warren-Sugarbush Airport right off Route 100, pioneered the concept of the multiday soaring camp in 1978. Its three-flight weekend sampler for novices ($179; 802-496-2290) puts you at the controls with an FAA-certified instructor flying in tandem and will teach you how to fly level, control speed, and soar in thermal, ridge, and wave lifts. Participants are eligible for discounted lodging at The Valley Inn in Waitsfield (doubles, $65, including breakfast; 802-496-3450).

With its cooler air providing more buoyancy—and an easier time humping up a hill with 30 pounds of parachute on your back—autumn in Vermont is also ideal for paragliding. This fact was not lost on Rick Sharp and Ruth Masters, who a decade ago bought and cleared Cobble Hill, arguably the best place in the region for learning how to launch and land. Of course, when they cleared the top of the 900-foot slope 12 miles north of Burlington, they made sure to preserve its autumnal crest, a brilliant 20-acre sugar maple grove that gives customers their first airborne glimpse of the Green Mountains' pigment extravaganza. Beyond it, the views stretch across Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks. A weekend package, which includes up to 40 flights over two days, costs $250; for an extra $25 a night, Sharp and Masters provide accommodations at their own B&B. For information and reservations, call 800-727-2359.

On the eastern slope of the range, there's Brian Boland's hot-air balloon operation (802-333-9254), based at the Post Mills Airport off Vermont 113. One of the country's premier pilots (he holds 30 world records for altitude, distance, and duration) and most respected balloon makers, Boland offers customized trips in addition to his two regularly scheduled daily outings ($150 per person). The latter depart at dawn and dusk, last about 90 minutes, and cover up to 20 miles of the southern Green Mountains.

Mountain Biking near Randolph
With no ski resorts to draw crowds or chic commerce, central Vermont's White River Valley looks much as it did 100 years ago—some huge dairy farms, a few country stores, and lots of bumpy paths through the woods. In fact, Orange County has 242 miles of maintained dirt roads and designated trails. From a mountain biker's perspective it's manna from heaven, providing the one thing autumnal that New England has never had: a first-class off-road multiday bike loop.

Now, thanks to a few intrepid trailblazers, there's the Circus Ride, a single-track double entendre that's been hailed as one of North America's gnarliest. The 45-mile loop crosses three passes, including the 2,500-foot Randolph Gap over Rochester Mountain, on the same trail that was used to bring the circus into Randolph during the late 1800s. The route was pioneered in 1993 by the folks at Randolph's Slab City Bike & Sport (rentals, $20 per day; 802-728-5747), who have since added side trips that let you extend the dawn-to-dusk marathon to more than 100 miles. For the less suicidal, the route can be broken up quite nicely with a couple of well-chosen overnights. The campground at Allis State Park, off Vermont 12 in Brookfield, ten miles north of Randolph, has 28 sites with potable water, flush toilets, and coin-operated showers ($10 per night; 802-276-3175). The Three Stallion Inn (doubles, $103; 800-424-5575), perched on a quiet meadow 1.5 miles west of Randolph, is a popular haunt for cyclists.