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The Northeast's Best Day Hikes for Leaf Viewing

There's an easy and quick getaway for fall leaf peeping, no matter where you are in the region

All you have to do to escape the throngs of leaf peepers is set out for a not overly congested day hike. (Photo: Courtesy AMC)
Cardigan Mountain

Fall in the Northeast is a foliage frenzy. But many people who come to spot the changing colors don’t venture far from their cars or B&Bs. So all you have to do to escape the throngs of leaf peepers is set out on a day hike. You’ll find striking views of tinted maples and oaks and, with some luck, have a slice of wilderness to yourself. Even better, this time of year offers other season-specific experiences, like foraging for wild mushrooms and wildlife viewing. From a trail that leads to one of Maine’s tallest peaks to a family-friendly outing that overlooks Lake George in upstate New York, there’s an easy and quick getaway, no matter where you are in the region.

Best for Panoramic View Seekers

Fall in New England
(Photo: Courtesy AMC)

Mount Cardigan, New Hampshire

The hike to the top of 3,155-foot Mount Cardigan isn’t long—the most direct route, up the West Ridge Trail, climbs 1,200 vertical feet and is just a three-mile round-trip—but the payoff is immense. From the bare granite summit, you’ll get a 360-degree panorama of the entire Lakes Region of New Hampshire, with unobstructed views of the White Mountains. Walk through groves of sugar maple and yellow birch trees, and look for salamanders and wild mushrooms before reaching the treeless peak and its fire-tower lookout. The rocky ledges at the top make for stellar picnic sites. Stay or camp at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cardigan Lodge (camping from $32), at the base of the mountain, and you’ll have 50 miles of trails just beyond your campsite, or hike in for a night and bed at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s High Cabin (from $110), a backcountry hut just below the Cardigan summit.

Best for Peak Baggers

Fall in New England
(Photo: Holcy/iStock)

Bigelow Mountain, Maine

Maine’s expansive Bigelow Preserve is a 36,000-acre wilderness area consisting of seven summits in the Bigelow Range. There are endless hikes, but climbing to the top of Bigelow Mountain’s 4,145-foot West Peak, one of the tallest mountains in the state, is worth the effort. It’s a nine-mile round-trip from the Fire Warden’s Trailhead on Stratton Brook Pond Road and includes clear views of Flagtaff Lake and its surrounding fall colors. Some 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail crosses the preserve and the range, making the trail easy to follow, thanks to the AT’s white markers. Stay at the Stratton Brook Hut (bunks from $40), operated by Maine Huts and Trails, and hike the short, 1.5-mile Bigelow Approach Trail directly from the lodge.

Best for History Buffs

Fall in New England
(Photo: KenWiedemann/iStock)

Camel’s Hump, Vermont

From the towns of Charlotte to Stowe, you can’t miss Camel’s Hump in the distance—the distinct peak has two camel-like humps. There are several trails that access the summit of the 4,083-foot mountain, which is the third highest in the state, and the fall colors are insane, no matter which direction you choose. Start on the Duxbury side at the Monroe Trailhead, merge with the famous Long Trail, and it’s 6.6 miles up and down the peak’s eastern flank. Or take the more popular Burrows Trail up the western side from Huntington, Vermont, and it’s a 4.2-mile round-trip, the most direct route. You’ll be able to see across the Green Mountains and to the Adirondacks from the summit. Keep your eyes peeled just below the peak on the Alpine Trail for wreckage from a World War II fighter plane that crashed into the side of the mountain in 1944 during a training mission. Backpack in to the Green Mountain Club’s rustic Bryant Camp (from $97), an unfurnished loft that sleeps up to eight, or spend the night in a luxurious two-story treehouse (from $475) at Moose Meadow Lodge in the nearby town of Waterbury, a 20-minute drive from the trailhead.  

Best for Wildlife and Nature Photographers

Fall in New England
(Photo: Benjamin SB/Creative Commons)

Gulf Hagas, Maine

Dubbed the Grand Canyon of Maine, Gulf Hagas has nearly 12 miles of craggy trails, with stunning waterfalls and rocky gorges that tower 150 feet above the aptly named Pleasant River. There’s no mountain to summit here, but you’ll still climb around 1,000 vertical feet through part of Maine’s Appalachian Trail corridor. Access the trailhead by driving through Katahdin Iron Works, a preserved site where iron ore was produced in the mid-1800s. Set out on the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail loop, which connects a number of paths and passes through old-growth forest. Look for moose—fall is their breeding season and the time of year when the antlers of the bull moose become fully formed. Book a room at the Mill Inn and CafĂ© (from $125), a six-room hotel inside a renovated historic mill in the town of Dover-Foxcroft, 45 minutes away.

Best for Families

Fall in New England
(Photo: Courtesy Lake George Land Conservancy)

Schumann Preserve at Pilot Knob, New York

Looking for a scenic hike you can do with young children? Check out the Schumann Preserve at Pilot Knob, near Lake George in Fort Ann. The meandering trail involves a 620-foot ascent over the course of a mile to reach a wooden gazebo that offers stunning views of southern Lake George. Continue past the gazebo through tinted hemlock forests for another mile to reach a waterfall loop (though the falls tend to flow in the springtime and may be dried up this time of year). Come with a big group and rent out the Brampton Lodge (exclusive-use from $550), 20 minutes away, where up to 20 guests can stay in a log home with an outdoor yoga dock, an on-site Airstream trailer, a converted van, and a glamping tent.

Best for Quick Escapers

macedonia-brook-state-park_h.jpg
(Photo: Courtesy Connecticut Office of Tourism)

Macedonia Ridge Trail, Connecticut

Just two hours north of New York City, in Kent, Connecticut, the blue-blazed Macedonia Ridge Trail inside 2,300-acre Macedonia Brook State Park is a moderate, 6.4-mile loop across 1,380-foot Cobble Mountain. You’ll gain about 700 feet in elevation and hike through a sea of changing sugar maples and ash trees. At the summit of Cobble Mountain, you’ll be treated to glorious views of the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley. The Macedonia Brook State Park campground closed September 1, but you can pitch a tent via Tentrr (from $63) on the 17-acre Flirtation Farms, 20 minutes away, or opt for a one of five guest rooms or a cottage at Candlelight Farms Inn (from $175), a bed-and-breakfast that sits on a 600-acre estate.

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