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Road Trip—Good to the Last (Leaf) Drop: New England’s Best Fall Foliage Drives

By: Bridget Clerkin October 6, 2017
From Acadia National Park in Maine on its eastern end to Vermont in the west, New England's autumn colors are a sight to behold. These five fall road trips will leaf you breathless.

Bathing the world in warm colors and cool weather, autumn is the season of balance and bounty, the break of summer’s fever and last light before winter, time to reap harvests and give thanks.

The world itself comes alive to celebrate the season, decorating its canopy in dark reds, purples, oranges, and golds. Nowhere are the hues more tone-perfect than New England, with the region’s oaks, maples, poplars, elms, and birches spraying streaks of all colors from mighty boughs.

The country’s Northeastern corner embodies the allure of autumn, filled from Labor Day to Thanksgiving with crisp air, wisps of campfire, and plenty of coziness.

There’s no way to go wrong spending fall in New England, but there are several scenic routes in the area offering especially fantastic vistas—and make easily drivable day trips.

Acadia National Park, Maine

BarHarbor
Quaint Bar Harbor, Maine, is a great base for your fall voyages.

A mountainous and momentous coastal reserve located on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, this national park is abundantly beautiful, featuring woodlands, rocky beaches, and glacier-marked granite peaks. The park’s Cadillac Mountain earns its elite name, as the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard. Several trails lead to the top for a spectacular view of the reserve’s autumnal patchwork.

The island is also home to a variety of wildlife—from seabirds and whales to moose and bear—and a wide range of ways to see them, with hiking, biking, kayaking, and horseback riding all available. If you’d rather stick to your car, you can take a lap around the 27-mile Park Loop Road, which also intersects a number of popular trails.

And day-trip visits can easily be extended, with nearby port town Bar Harbor offering plenty of places to stay, eat, and shop.

Green Mountain Byway, Vermont

StoweVermont
Watch the Green Mountains shed their namesake hue near Stowe, Vermont.

Don’t let the name fool you: the 21-mile stretch of Vermont’s Route 100 features the complete fall color palette in the autumn months.

Flanked by the Stegosaurus peaks of the Green Mountains (to the west) and the Worcester Range (to the east), the byway is nestled in a beautiful valley full of expansive views from farmland to forests to cascading falls.

The region is also home to a rich history, with the road passing by a number of museums and antique churches, houses, and covered bridges. The von Trapp family from the Sound of Music made a home there—and still operate the farmstead today as an Austrian-themed lodge. And President Calvin Coolidge lived not far from the route in the house where he would eventually take the Oath of Office.

Those with sweeter intentions can stop at the Ben & Jerry’s factory, located in Waterbury, and see if the ice cream artists are offering anything pumpkin-spiced. (The factory also gives tours and free samples and may well rival Disneyland as the happiest place on earth.)

The route also passes through Stowe, a gorgeous getaway in the shadow of Mount Mansfield with quaint shops and eateries and plenty of chances to enjoy the outdoors.

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire

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A covered bridge stretches over the Swift River on New Hampshire's Kancamagus Highway.

If you’re really looking to immerse yourself in the splendor of nature, New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway (locally shortened to “the Kanc”) offers 34.5 miles of untouched pine forests, rocky ridges, rivers, and gorges.

The scenic byway, part of the state’s Route 112, is completely free of gas stations, restaurants, or rest stops as it cuts a path directly through the White Mountain National Forest. Instead, by way of amenities, it offers access to a large number of trails and a smattering of campgrounds. The park is also home to good rock climbing opportunities, as well as places to go fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, picnicking, and playing in the snow or water, depending on the season.

In the fall, it acts as a showcase for nature’s best-dressed trees, which add a colorful backdrop to stunning natural features like the park’s Swift River, Sabbaday Falls, Lower Falls, and Rocky Gorge—all easily reachable from the route. History buffs can also watch out for special postings along the highway, which serve up historical tidbits about the road dating back to the 1600s.

Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway, Massachusetts

Berkshires
Western Massachusetts' Berkshire Range rises majestically in its autumn colors.

Western Massachusetts’ Berkshire Range puts on another sensational display of the season, covered with colorful canopies and dotted with beautiful antique farm houses, barns, and businesses. A drive down Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway—a 27-mile span along U.S. Route 20—gives you a front-row seat to the area’s quaint beauty.

Lenox, Massachusetts, where the route starts, offers the best of man and nature, acting as both a gateway to beautiful October Mountain and Beartown State Forest and home to The Mount, the sprawling estate of author Edith Wharton, where visitors can still wander the grounds and marvel at the gorgeous architecture, including a classical-inspired main house and a Georgian Revival stable, as well as formal gardens, which will surely be bursting will autumnal hues.

The road will also take you past a restored railroad station from the 1840s, a number of historic churches, and two mill towns. And all along the highway is access to a number of local trails for biking, hiking, and otherwise enjoying the crisp mountain air and crunchy leaves.

Connecticut River Scenic Byway—Massachusetts, New Hampshire & Vermont

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The Connecticut River separates New Hampshire and Vermont, which both burst with color in autumn.

To really go for the gold (and red, and orange, and purple), you can travel across New England along the Connecticut River Scenic Byway, which starts at the Massachusetts state line and follows the river—Vermont and New Hampshire’s natural border—north, stopping just short of the Canadian border.

The route is buttressed on both sides by charming hamlets and plenty of vistas to enjoy the foliage. Along the way, you can stop at any number of natural preserves, like Mount Sugarloaf in Massachusetts, Mt. Wantastiquet in New Hampshire, and Vermont’s White River region.

The route will also take you past a number of celebrated academic establishments, including the campuses for Smith College and Ivy League university Dartmouth. Bookish types can also visit Rudyard Kipling’s former home, Naulakha, in the Brattleboro region of Vermont, and see where famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens forged his effigies of Abraham Lincoln.

And for an extra dose of fall—without the massive “leafer” crowds that flock to the region in the autumn months—Vermont’s picturesque St. Johnsbury was practically made for the season, overlooking some of the area’s finest scenery and dotted with historic homes and crafty local shops to buy enough sweaters, maple syrup, and pumpkin-themed décor to get you through until next fall.

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