While main routes are beautiful, the backroads offer so many opportunities to explore New England’s true charm!
Have you always dreamed of visiting New England in the fall? Are you planning a visit but you’re not sure where to begin? When is peak color? Where can you find it? What should you bring on a foliage road trip? There’s a lot to learn in making the most of your New England fall adventure. Every year we publish new posts highlighting different foliage road trip ideas, places to see, things to do, and food to eat along the way, but we rarely step back and put ourselves in the shoes of an honest-to-goodness foliage newbie. So here it is: the complete beginner’s guide to New England fall foliage.
Leaf Peeping for Newbies | A Beginner’s Guide to Experiencing Fall in New England
Fall Leaves 101: When Is Peak and How Long Does It Last?
The fall colors in New England are beautiful every year, and the timing of the annual show and progression of peak color is generally predictable. The leaves begin to change in the far north and at high elevations in mid-September, and the peak wave typically slides south, downhill, and toward the coast between late September and early November. By the time peak arrives far south in Mystic, Connecticut, the trees up north in Rangeley, Maine, are bare, and snow may even be on the ground.
Color usually lasts for two to three weeks at any given location, punctuated by a few days in the middle when people argue over whether peak color has arrived. Some consider peak to be when the reds are the brightest but green is still mixed in, while others say it’s when some leaves have already fallen but the hillsides are all orange and gold. Either way, it’s beautiful.
While the path of peak color looks much the same from year to year, there’s always variation in timing, tone, and intensity. Rarely does this variation extend beyond a week from normal, but if you miss the wave in any location, it’s a great opportunity to explore a bit. Differences in terrain, temperature, and forest type mean that there can be big contrasts in how the leaves look over relatively short distances. So it’s best to be a relaxed leaf peeper. Doing it right is all about finding the best-looking hillsides and photo ops along the way.
How to Choose When and Where to Go
Vacationers and weekend warriors may not have control over the “when” part of their foliage trip, but if there’s flexibility around “where,” the good news is that peak color is always happening somewhere in New England from late September to early November. To narrow your search for where to find the best color on any given weekend, checking the Peak Fall Foliage Map showing anticipated peak times across the whole region is a great place to start.
But there is so much more to foliage season than just seeing the color show! Autumn in New England is an immersive experience, with many community and cultural events to enhance your leaf-peeping trip. Do some research to find out if there’s a pumpkin festival, agricultural fair, or cider doughnut spot from which to kick off your itinerary, then plan to travel north or south to find the best color from there.
Regardless of whether it’s a place or a time that you’re focused on, here’s one thing we cannot recommend strongly enough: If you are able to travel midweek, you absolutely should. For instance, the three-day holiday weekend in October is one of the biggest travel and tourism weekends of the year in northern New England, and the small towns that bring so much charm to a rural adventure are often quite crowded. But if you must travel weekends, be sure to book campgrounds and hotels early.
What to Wear in Fall in New England (Hint: Be Prepared)
The best fall foliage in New England is brought out by what we think of as ideal fall weather: bright, sunny days and cool, crisp nights. Not only does this really kick-start the colors, it’s also perfect for outdoor activities. However, afternoons can be breezy, and mornings can be damp and foggy, or frosty. And it certainly can — and does — rain. Sometimes, there’s even snow.
When you think of dressing for fall in New England, things like sweaters, fleece, and flannel will come to mind, but remember that layering is important. You should also pack hats and gloves for cooler mornings and evenings. As for leaf-peeping footwear, the best option is sturdy boots. Muddy fields and trails are common, as the hot sun of summer that quickly dried things is by now long gone.
If longer trail hikes are part of your plans, the packing list will necessarily be longer. Consider carrying the 10 backcountry essentials on your hikes, and bring enough supplies for an emergency overnight. Many day hikers find themselves unprepared for harsh weather on New England’s higher peaks in autumn, stretching rescue resources during a busy time of year.
Planning the Perfect Foliage Drive: Route & Essentials
One of the biggest foliage hurdles that we hear about from road travelers is knowing when to stop (or not). Our advice: Keep your foliage road trip route and itinerary manageable. When it comes to leaf peeping, less is more. When planning a visit to the White Mountains or the Green Mountains, newcomers have a tendency to underestimate the size of the region and overestimate how much there is to see along the way. You could easily spend a whole day exploring just the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire or Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont. Remember, slow is better.
To help make the most of your journey, research some popular stops along your route — hikes, parks, orchards, covered bridges, museums, farm stands, and so on. You’ll find plenty of possibilities on our website, which has entire sections dedicated to road trip ideas in every New England state. But we also always say that the best stories of any great road trip aren’t about what’s planned, but what’s not planned. So leave time and flexibility to stop at random places that may catch your eye, from a local craft brewery to a flea market.
It’s also important to bear in mind that large stretches of rural New England, such as the national forests, may lack basic services. In those areas, you can go miles without seeing gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, or even cell reception. Plan ahead for this with a full tank of gas, ample snacks, and — most important — an actual paper map. You’ll be glad you did.
Our last piece of advice is to make some reservations for dinner (or brunch, if you prefer). Visiting New England’s small independent restaurants, which rely on busy autumn weekends for a lot of their annual business, is a great way to add local flavor to your road trip. Compared with chain restaurants, many local places are set up for smaller crowds, and their space might be even more limited due to Covid safety considerations, so reservations can save you time — and hunger pangs!
Final Foliage Thoughts
Though meant to be relaxing and fun, traveling to new places and doing things for the first time can also bring a bit of stress. The more planning you do beforehand and the more flexibility you build into those plans, the better experience you’ll have.
We have many resources and links to help you get started, so please consider this list a jumping-off point for your first trip. Good luck, new foliage fan!
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