Route 100 is a restless road. As it salamanders its way through the mountainous middle of Vermont, it seems perpetually on the verge of decision, only to change its mind in a mile.
One minute, it’s slaloming along a rocky riverbed through dense cover of birch and maple; the next, it’s soaring up to a sudden vista as if God has suddenly pulled away a curtain. There’s a reason this stretch of highway — some 200 miles from Massachusetts to Lake Memphremagog — has been called the most scenic in New England.
In some circles, it’s known as the “Skiers’ Highway,” since it connects Vermont’s giants — Snow, Okemo, Killington, Sugarbush, Stowe, Jay — like knots on a whip.
But the road really comes into its own in autumn, hitting the peak of fall foliage not once but many times as it traces an up-and-down course along the unspoiled edge of Green Mountain National Forest. When civilization does break through, it’s in the form of some of Vermont’s most quintessential villages. Leaf-peeping, after all, is about more than just leaves. It’s about the foliage experience — farmstands and country stores, craft galleries and hot cider — and route 100, with its many off-the-beaten-path side trips, offers all of that in one long winding package. And because the road never makes up its mind, you don’t have to, either.
After hemming and hawing a bit with some doglegs from the border, Route 100 really takes off on its northern trajectory in Wilmington, one of those towns that make travelers doubt whether Wal-Mart really exists. The downtown’s appearance hasn’t changed much from the 1930s, with the exception that art galleries and craft stores now occupy some of its historic buildings. Heading out of town, yellow beeches and orange sugar maples start painting the highway, with white lines of paper birch cutting through like scratches of a palette knife. It’s hard to believe that decades of timbering and sheep and dairy farming once reduced tree cover to 20 percent of Vermont’s landscape. Now it’s more like 80.
Even so, hard rock farms still cling to the mountainsides, and the green and yellow of John Deere is as ubiquitous come harvest time as the reds and oranges of the maples. A sputtering 1959 diesel carries fourth-generation farmer Bill Adams as he gives tours of Adams Family Farm, which has produced timber, maple syrup, sheep, and milk, depending on Vermont’s economic circumstances. Since the 1980s, the farm has expanded its seasonal sleighrides pulled by Belgian draft horses into full-fledged agritourism. Children are drawn to the livestock, while evening hayrides bring guests to a bonfire pit for s’mores under the stars and the smoky blues vocals of Bill’s daughter, fifth-generation farmer Jill.
Spontaneous fields of wildflowers and perfectly distressed barns color the highway as it cruises northward into Weston. Few gazebos are as happily situated as the bandstand gracing the town green, surrounded by spreading sugar maples that turn the meeting space into a golden-roofed amphitheatre every fall. Weston is justly famous for the Vermont Country Store, where you’ll find homespun clothing, foods, and handicrafts. (Particularly popular is the candy counter, with sweets from yesteryear: Zagnut bars, Necco wafers, and such.)
A more contemplative taste of the season is found up a steep hill on the way out of town at the Weston Priory, a community of Benedictine monks who grace the views with plainsong in the evening, wind and insects joining in for counterpoint.
The foliage takes some time to look at its reflection during the next stretch, as a string of lovely little lakes–Lake Rescue, Echo Lake, and Amherst Lake–run along the road. At the end, a feng shui expert would no doubt approve of the location of the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, situated atop a hill in Plymouth Notch, surrounded by a bowl of mountains that makes a visitor unconsciously start breathing a little more deeply to see it. The site includes the house (and bed) in which the president was born, the homestead where he grew up, the cheese factory his father founded, and the “summer White House,” a converted grange hall (above the general store) from which Coolidge ran the country in August 1924. More than a historical homage to the man, however, the site is virtually indistinguishable from the early-20th-century village around it, with big barns full of sleighs, carriages, and farming implements bringing alive the hard work and pleasures of the period.
After that expansive view, the commercial clutter where Route 100 briefly joins U.S. Route 4 is a bit of a shock; thankfully it’s just a palate cleanser for the stunning second half of the drive. After teasing for 100 miles, the mountains now finally shake off their shyness and step back from the highway, with fields of corn and pumpkins providing a welcome mat for the set-piece town of Rochester. True to form, the road then abruptly changes course, plunging into the intimate seven miles of dense forest along Granville Gulf State Reservation. A prime spotting ground for moose and home to some of Vermont’s remaining old growth, these woods also offer the irresistible photo op of Moss Glen Falls, a multitiered vertical rivulet visible from a wooden walkway along the highway.
After the Gulf’s cozy rock wall, the route again opens up into Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Tucked between the Greens and the Northfield Range and replete with farmhouses and covered bridges, this area has drawn carpetbaggers from New York and Boston who came to ski and never left. That makes for a cosmopolitan streak among locals, who flock en masse every Saturday to the Waitsfield Farmers’ Market–a weekly music festival, arts-and-crafts fair, community social, and organic vegetable market. Often, they go from there to gourmet pizzeria American Flatbread, to sip wine around the firepit and watch the kids fly Frisbees on the lawn while waiting their turn to sit down for clay-and-stone-oven flatbreads. (The ingredients from local farms are all highlighted with asterisks on the menu.)
Climbing out of the valley and crossing I-89, the traffic glut signals the proximity of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour in Waterbury, with attendant cheese and syrup shops circling the tourist chum. The town of Stowe, while just as much of a madhouse this time of year, nevertheless offers a way above the fray if you ride the Stowe Mountain Resort gondola to the top of Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest peak. The ride is most colorful up the middle slopes before the spruces take over, but the last-minute ascent up the steep peak arguably inspires more awe.
After that, the rest of Route 100 is literally a come-down, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The final stretch through the Lamoille Valley meanders through sleepy farmlands graced by Holsteins so healthy they could model for a Ben & Jerry’s pint cup. The two major rivers that cut the valley, the Lamoille and Winooski, offer a great excuse to get out of the car.
Umiak Outdoor Outfitters, for one, leads a two-hour fall foliage canoe trip framed by the foothills of the Greens–which never seem so misnamed as when they’re reflecting their foliage in the water–and a more adventurous “River & Spirits” tour, which includes a stop to sample at the Boyden Valley Winery & Farm in Cambridge.
When the road finally ends, merging into Route 105, and then I-91, some 10 miles short of Canada, the most difficult decision is the one to turn the car around and head home. The only comfort is that you get to see the whole show over again in reverse.
What’s your pick for the best foliage drive in VT? Have you driven Route 100 in the fall?