Foliage tourism never gets old. The sight of individual trees or whole forests flaming with color does the heart good, no matter how many New England autumns have quickened that heart. In fact, fall is the biggest tourist season in New England, surpassing even summer as bus tours flock here like migrating geese in early October.
If you live far away, the bus tour is most likely how you view New England’s annual pyrotechnic show; if you live in the area, you will probably drive. Either way, most guides to leaf peeping tell their readers to drive two venerable scenic roads: the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest and the Mohawk Trail in northern Massachusetts. And while these are beautiful drives, they can get crowded, especially on a sunny Saturday in October.
Drive, instead, on the roads less traveled, and you will be rewarded with lovely views, a sense of leisurely discovery, charming villages, and foliage that’s every bit as dramatic as that along the busier routes.
Vermont’s Route 100
Free of billboards, Route 100 winds through some of the most quintessentially Vermont villages, with all the cider donuts and country stores that go with them. Wending its way along the eastern edge of the Green Mountains for 216 miles, this scenic two-lane byway runs from Newport, near the Canadian border, to the Massachusetts state line.
Though driving the whole length of Route 100 is a rewarding weekend experience, any section of the road is delightful for visitors short on time. Route 100 passes through some of Vermont’s most scenic towns, including Wilmington, Ludlow, Killington, Warren, and Stowe. The biggest town through which the road passes is Morristown, with a population of just over 5,200.
Route 124, New Hampshire
New Hampshire Route 124 is a 28-mile-long east-west highway in southern New Hampshire that runs from Marlborough to the Massachusetts border. Along the way, the road skirts the southern slopes of Mount Monadnock and continues into Sharon. In Sharon, stop and look at the historic marker on the northern side of the road, commemorating the site of a gate that once collected tolls for the third New Hampshire Turnpike, which followed much of the present-day route of NH 124. The road then enters New Ipswich and continues through that town.
In New Ipswich, stop to explore the grounds of Barrett House, a grand manse built ca. 1800. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the house is not open for tours at the time of this writing, though that may change by fall. But even if the house is closed to visitors, you may stroll around the property, which, along with the buildings, belongs to Historic New England.
The mansion site includes more than 70 acres and boasts perennial gardens, annual gardens, and a Gothic Revival summer house. This building crowns the hillside overlooking the expansive grounds and is an ideal place to rest and take in nature’s beauty.
Mount Battie Auto Road, Camden, Maine
Renowned for the view of Camden Harbor and Penobscot Bay from the top of Mount Battie, Camden Hills State Park inspires wonder. The 5,700-acre park treats visitors to 30 miles of hiking trails that range from short and easy to long and moderately strenuous.
Or you can drive up Mount Battie in your car, a quick trip that nonetheless provides the same gorgeous views. Once at the summit, you will get a full panoramic view of surrounding lakes, the beautiful wooded hillsides, and the picture-perfect Camden Harbor and Penobscot Bay. By foot, the hike to the top of Mount Battie will normally take up to two hours. A fee is charged for the drive up to the summit.
The Hidden Hills of Western Massachusetts
Between Massachusetts Route 20, known as the Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway, and Route 2, the famous Mohawk Trail, is one of the loveliest, least-visited parts of the Bay State. On the east side of the Berkshires and west of Springfield are the towns that the Mass Turnpike left forgotten.
One of these is Cummington, home of the William Cullen Bryant Homestead. With serene vistas of the Westfield River Valley, the celebrated poet’s home is a testament to his ideal of living mindfully on the land. There is a quintessential red New England barn and, especially beautiful in fall, an elegant allée of maples leading to the main house. Walking under these magnificent old trees glowing with autumn foliage is worth the trip all by itself.
Route 7, Connecticut
The “secret corner” of Connecticut has rolling hills and lush forests, as well as some of New England’s best antiquing destinations.
Follow the Housatonic River in western Connecticut for a view of the state’s best brightly colored leaves. As you drive through Kent, keep an eye out for the town’s two historic covered bridges off of Route 7, which were reconstructed to match the originals from the 1840s.
Make a stop at the Iron Mountain Reservation in Kent. Hike the 1.5-mile trail through woodlands and see how many birds you can spot of the 27 species that live there.