Falling for New England
As the road softly curved under a canopy of maples, rusty reds and golden yellows tumbled to the ground. A solitary man, belt braces strapped over his checked shirt, stood out against the wall of crimson trees. Tailgate down on his Chevy pickup, twin American flags bookending his sign, his bottles of homemade liquid sweetness magnified the sun’s rays. This is how you sell maple syrup in Vermont.
Fall, as the Americans call autumn, is a golden season in New England and nowhere more so than the Green Mountain State. Ironically, it is when these mountains lose their colour that the ‘Leaf Peepers’ come out to play. Every year thousands of tourists take to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts in an effort to catch the most vibrant yellows, burnt bronzes and deep oranges.
The trick though, is the timing. ‘Peak Fall’ doesn’t send out a calendar invite in advance, and the degree to which colours change depends on the season before. If the summer is too dry the leaves will change early; too wet and they suffer from fungi and insect attacks. Then, warm sunny days and crisp nights are needed to bring out the bright hues, as the green chlorophyll breaks down and red pigment begins to emerge. Fall’s colour change begins in the higher, cooler areas first and typically runs north to south, so from late September to mid-October people get in their cars and take their chances.
Among the destinations: Smugglers Notch, Vermont’s first designated Scenic Highway. At times a narrow sharp-turning lane carved out between boulders and birches, it was here that Mr Maple Syrup was selling his wares. He’d driven 30 miles that morning to find the most picturesque spot on the Notch, but not before his young granddaughters had helped out by ‘testing’ the syrup for sweetness.
To the south of his glistening bottles lay one of Vermont’s most quintessential villages, Stowe. A picturesque destination when nearby Mount Mansfield is covered in snow, Stowe is also a beacon for photographers in the fall. Its white church punching through a carpet of colour is the classic New England picture postcard. As popular as it is pretty, don’t be surprised if you end up sad-faced outside a Stowe restaurant whose earliest availability is next Wednesday, or if you have to queue to enter a boutique store. Thankfully there is more on offer in Stowe like the Annual Pumpkin Chuckin' Festival. Timed for the month of Halloween, the highly competitive event involves three rounds of launching trebuchets to hurl pumpkins as far as possible until they become… squash.
Vermont’s Route 100 has long been described as the most scenic road in New England, and even the casual visitor can appreciate its beauty. Quaint red barns stand guard between rolling hills, as the light dapples onto covered bridges. Tourist attractions in their own right, Vermont’s covered bridges are typically made of timber trusses with the majority built in the 1800s for livestock and pedestrians. The reason for the roof? To protect the wooden decking and siding from the harsh elements and rot-inducing rain.
Not content with just one covered bridge, the southern Vermont town of Woodstock has three of them. Named ‘The Most Beautiful Town in America’ by Traveller Magazine, and blessed with seriously impressive foliage and charming film-set-worthy buildings, you can see why it’s on many an autumnal itinerary. Woodstock is also a magnet for mountain bikers, turning their head on a swivel, hands hovering over brakes, as they soak in the colours on the outskirts of town.
But not everyone welcomes the influx of insta-tourists. In neighbouring Pomfret, Windsor County deputy sheriffs have set up checkpoints after locals voted to keep tourists out, fed up with the damage to the environment, trespassing and trash left behind. Thankfully that behaviour is few and far between and it’s yet to be seen whether the ban will be repeated next fall – or expanded.
Across the state line in New Hampshire, things couldn't be more different. The Saco Ranger Station warmly welcomes visitors at the beginning of ‘The Kanc’ - a 34-mile stretch of oaks, aspens and ash trees linking the towns of Conway and Lincoln. Officially named the Kancamagus Highway after Chief Kancamagus who was a leader of a confederacy of native American tribes, The Kanc is the #1 scenic route in all of New Hampshire.
The HOGs know it. Harley after Harley roar into the bends, not a helmet to be seen, leather-clad nature lovers living the state motto of ‘Live Free or Die’. At picnic sites they’re joined by Bostonian day trippers and hard core hikers, all appreciating the burst of colour in the White Mountain National Forest.
While there is no cellphone coverage in much of The Kanc you can pick up detailed maps at the ranger station for some old-school orientation. The first notable point of interest is the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area where a footbridge leads you past the hornets' nests to a slight hill, revealing shimmering Falls Pond. Six miles on and there’s another reason to pull over: Sabbaday Falls. A short walk from the trailhead takes you to an outstanding waterfall and emerald pool where you can appreciate the fresh scent of crisp leaves drifting down the river.
White Mountain National Forest has another Notch on the fall belt - Franconia Notch. Recognised for its scenic vista of Echo Lake surrounded by deep shades of orange and red, the best vantage point is from Artists’ Bluff. Be warned: it’s a steep uneven climb to the rocky outcrop and the track does get busy, but once you reach the top it’s like your phone filter is already set to vivid.
Sometimes nature doesn’t play ball. Earlier this year floods hit parts of New England, adding to the woes after a particularly harsh cold snap. While not too detrimental to the changing leaves, this was not the case for other crops. A majority of pumpkin patches were destroyed after being underwater for two days, and the traditional pick-your-own-apples became a ‘next fall’ thing to do. Even the most hardy of corn was affected, with some of the region’s family-friendly corn mazes not opening this season.
Thankfully all was not lost, as every restaurant worth its pumpkin still offered its take on New Hampshire’s official state fruit: pumpkin spiced latte, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin chilli, pumpkin fudge and the ubiquitous fresh pumpkin pie.
Of course, if pumpkin isn’t your thing and it’s time to take a break from all that stunning scenery, you don’t have to go far to find bacon pancakes drizzled with home-made, driven 30-miles, tested by granddaughters, maple syrup.
Plan well in advance as accommodation books out early, and try to avoid weekends if you can. The best time for viewing is in the mornings before the heavy traffic and after any fog clears. Drones generally aren’t allowed over the national parks so check restrictions before you go. Some park stops require a $5 day pass that can be purchased from a ranger station.
FIND OUT MORE
Vermont Tourism: www.vermontvacation.com
Stowe, VT, tourism: gostowe.com
Visit New Hampshire: www.visitnh.gov
Kancamagus Highway: kancamagushighway.com
Smugglers Notch State Park: https://vtstateparks.com/smugglers.html
Original publication: New Zealand Herald