A weekend-by-weekend guide to where you’re likely to find the best foliage in New England.
By Jim Salge
Aug 26 2022
As the calendar switches to September, signs of the coming New England fall season are everywhere. Asters emerge, nighthawks migrate through the evening sky, and New England apple orchards open for picking. The first areas of peak fall foliage are still weeks away, but in the meantime, there’s often a holding pattern, waiting for the cooler air to arrive and kick-start the process.
Attempting to time the New England foliage season can cause significant anxiety for those fearing they will miss the mythical “peak.” This is especially true for visitors who have planned their trip for months, sometimes even years, and are now praying that they didn’t pick the wrong week. It is important to stress two things though as the season nears:
High elevation and northern areas turn first, and coastal southern areas turn last. The entire season can last five to seven weeks, and given that you can drive across the entire region in as little as half a day, with a little exploring you would most certainly find peak foliage in between.
To take some of the guesswork out of the process, we’ve put together a weekend-by-weekend guide to where we think the most colorful foliage will be, based on historic averages. If you arrive and the leaves haven’t yet turned … simply review the plan for the previous weekend. If you are too late, move ahead a week. We think you’ll be surprised how short the driving times between the week-to-week activities turn out to be. Happy leaf-peeping!
In northern New England, foliage usually begins to emerge during the last weekend in September, and when the foliage is on the early side , it’s possible that some high, cool valleys will be at or approaching peak. Think Pittsburg, New Hampshire, and Newport, Vermont, way up by the Canadian border. Drive Route 5A in Vermont through the Willoughby Gap, or Route 3 along the Connecticut Lakes. Hikers can head to the Zealand Valley, the earliest place in the White Mountains to turn.
If you could forgive yourself for not finding the brightest early foliage weekend, other classic autumn favorites might be in order. Apple picking should be peaking, with hot cider and apple cider donuts adding appeal, and fairs and festivals abound during the first official weekend in fall.
Your travel options increase dramatically during the first few weeks of fall, and you’ll now have many more chances for finding peak color. These will still be limited to the most northern parts of the three northern states, but widespread color definitely provides many loop options once you are there.
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and an area extending to the northern spine of the Green Mountains will be beautiful. Hiking or canoeing in Groton State Forest cannot be beat. The northern half of the White Mountains and high elevations of the Kancamagus Highway area will be bright. The mountains of western Maine are less visited but just as beautiful, and there are few better roadside views than the Height of Land scenic overlook on Rt. 17 near Rangeley, Maine. Baxter State Park usually peaks in the first ten days of October, so if things are ahead of schedule, this might be the weekend there, too.
By now the majority of Vermont has often reached peak, and most of New Hampshire and Maine outside of the coastal plain as well. This is the weekend to drive the beautiful rural Route 100 in Vermont, or visit Woodstock and Quechee Gorge.
The southern towns of the White Mountains, like Waterville Valley, North Conway, and Tamworth, will likely be at their best, and the area offers plenty of activities for visitors. And a quiet getaway near Sebago Lake in Maine might make for the perfect weekend.
If the foliage comes early, the Berkshires might be peaking on Columbus Day Weekend as well, venturing out from Boston, west is just as good an option as north. For a different take on autumn color, plan a weekend at the Cranberry harvest on Cape Cod.
Columbus Day Weekend is usually the big leaf-peeping weekend in all of northern New England. Leaves are usually falling fast in far northern New England by mid-October, while central and southern New England are just coming into their own. There are exceptions though—the coast of Maine (this will likely be the brightest time in Acadia National Park) and Lake Champlain and Lake Winnipesaukee, where the water holds enough heat to create a slightly later peak than the rest of the northern zone. Start in Bar Harbor and explore the unparalleled scenery during the centennial celebration of our National Parks, or try a hike of Mount Major in New Hampshire or Mount Philo in Vermont for some surprising color in the canopy!
In Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail is a beautiful drive through the northern Pioneer Valley, and the Berkshires should still be holding plenty of color. Northern and western Connecticut, including Kent—one of our favorite foliage towns—should have leaves that are brightly ablaze as well. Peak foliage around Old Sturbridge Village usually spans two weekends, and their celebration is a favorite among New England visitors.
This is usually southern New England’s big foliage weekend, when Connecticut, Rhode Island, and eastern Massachusetts are all reaching peak. There are plentiful red maples (which turn earlier) and oaks (which turn later) in southern New England, so this region tends to have an extended season, with the best color usually arriving in late October. This would be the ideal weekend to hike in the Blue Hills near Boston, with great views of the skyline, or Talcott Mountain State Park in Connecticut.
The Cape and Islands off of Rhode Island will be showcasing great color as well. The colors in the salt marshes and shorelines are not to be missed.
And while southern New England is putting on the big show, subtle colors should also reemerge in northern New England. Many forests in the mountains have a beech understory that turns late, and the tamarack, our deciduous conifer, turns the edges of bogs and wetlands a stunning gold.
By late October, the foliage season is winding down across most of New England as we gear up for Halloween. Salem, Massachusetts, is the place to be for this haunted holiday, and some great fall color usually hangs on right along the coast of the Massachusetts North Shore and Cape Ann. Peak should also be occurring along our southern coast. Newport, Rhode Island, and Mystic, Connecticut, are two coastal towns with year-round charm and beauty, but they’re even more memorable with the foliage as a backdrop. A surprisingly nice foliage drive is the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. It may be a busy highway, but its trees are tight to the road, and the architecture of the bridges in world-renowned.
We don’t typically see many leaf peepers lingering into November, and by this point, the mountains are usually covered in snow. A few ski resorts might even be preparing to open. But Boston Common, and our southern coastlines treat the stragglers to a final, colorful sendoff at the conclusion of this most beautiful season.
As you can see, while the New England fall foliage season only lasts a couple of weeks in any one location, the entirety of the season always offers travelers something to see. Certainly, we can put the qualifier on all of this, saying it’s just a forecast, but historically, the progression rarely deviates more than ten days early or late.
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.