Americans are often accused of bragging that things are “bigger and better in the US”. While that boast is arguable in many cases, when it comes to autumn colour, the New World wins hands down.
In much of the northern hemisphere, leaves turn soft yellow and brown, with a splash of red here and there. But these are mere Roman candles compared to the pyrotechnics in North America. Photographs can’t do justice to the startling scarlet, gold, purple and orange that blaze across hills and sweep into valleys. Views are beautiful for the first-timer – but just as memorable the 50th time around. Best of all, this annual show is absolutely free.
The shimmering hues follow the Appalachian Mountains from eastern Canada down to North Carolina, but the must-see region is New England. What makes it special are its russet-red barns and white farmhouses, steepled churches and village greens – all photogenic props for the pageant.
As for the intensity of colour, that is down to a combination of soil, altitude and weather, plus particular species of trees. Not surprisingly, the familiar red maple flaunts bright red leaves. Black maples turn gold, while sugar maples can be fiery vermilion, yellow or orange. Sumac and sourwood are crimson; dogwood turns purple and birch gold; hickory is gleaming bronze. At ground level, blueberry barrens and cranberry bogs provide splashes of scarlet.
This annual phenomenon has its own language: “leaf peepers” arrive to see “the color” in “the foliage season”. The spectacle is such an attraction that the US Forest Service website (fs.fed.us/fallcolors) devotes pages to it.
When to go
In September and October, days are sunny and warm, but nights turn chilly. This drop in temperature triggers the change in leaves. A cold snap can alter the landscape almost overnight. Chlorophyll production grinds to a halt, allowing the natural anthocyanins (reds and purples) and carotenoids (oranges and lemons) to show through the leaves.
Predicting the autumnal peak is nigh impossible
Up in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, the transformation starts in mid-September, then moves south through the New England states. Mother Nature disdains timetables, so forecasting the “peak” is impossible. But even in years rated disappointing by locals, first-timers are usually impressed. And finding the best spots is easy: radio and TV provide regular news; the provinces and states post daily updates on websites and telephone hotlines.
How to leaf peep
The temptation is to drive through a region, searching for the perfect leafy vista. Aficionados prefer to find a base and take time to include other autumnal traditions: country fairs and harvest festivals, pumpkin-carving contests and excursions aboard old-fashioned trains (foliagetrains.com).
Be warned: this is high season, with prices to match. Do not leave hotel and rental car bookings to chance; both should be made well in advance, particularly for weekends. Even then, many small inns and b bs insist on a minimum two- or three-night stay. So, a package holiday saves time and worry. Specialist UK tour operators also offer informed advice and tailor-made itineraries, as well as financial protection.
New England’s best-known scenic byways (byways.org) are very busy at weekends. Head, instead, for the backroads of the heavily wooded but lightly populated Northeast Kingdom (travelthekingdom.com), near St Johnsbury in north-eastern Vermont.
From Gorham, New Hampshire, follow Route 16 north into the Great North Woods (gorhamnewhampshire.com) for grand mountain views and the occasional moose.
In western Massachusetts, drive south along the Connecticut River from Greenfield to Amherst, stopping in beautifully conserved Deerfield (historic-deerfield.org). For a panorama over the broad valley, take the road to the summit in Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation.
Another way to escape the crowds is to ride a cable car to the top of a ski resort, where there are often easy strolls with majestic panoramas. Near the Victorian village of Bethel, for example, ride the Chondola cable car at Sunday River resort (sundayriver.com) for vistas of the Mahoosuc Mountains. In Vermont, take the Super Bravo Express Quad at Sugarbush Resort (sugarbush.com) to the 3,150ft (960m) summit of Gadd Peak. Walk back down, or enjoy more gorgeous views on the return ride.
New Hampshire has 93 state parks, so, even near popular villages you can be on your own. From North Conway, for example, head into Echo Lake State Park (nhstateparks.org) and hike up to Cathedral Ledge, with its 700ft (213m) drop.
For a squirrel’s view of forest life, interspersed with Tarzan-like rides between the boughs, sign up for a soft adventure on one of the now-numerous canopy or zip line tours in the Green Mountains of Vermont (vermontvacation.com), the White Mountains of New Hampshire (visitwhitemountains.com) or Maine’s Carrabassett Valley (mainelakesandmountains.com).
In New Hampshire (visitnh.gov) water provides a mirror for the trees and often clear, blue skies. So rent a sea kayak or canoe; go sailing on a windjammer/schooner among the rocky islets on the Maine coast (sailmainecoast.com); or cruise down Vermont’s 120-mile (193km) Lake Champlain on the Spirit of Ethan Allen III (soea.com), with views of the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to the east.
Serious trail-baggers can follow part of the Appalachian Trail (appalachiantrail.org), featured in Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods. Or look at Vermont’s Long Trail, running along the ridge of the Green Mountains. Based in Brandon, Vermont, Country Inns Along the Trail (001 802 247 3300; inntoinn.com) offers self-guided inn-to-inn packages to suit all abilities.
Trees by train
Travelling by rail in this region is surprisingly affordable. Amtrak’s (0800 033 7810; amtraktraintickets.co.uk) New England routes link some of the region’s prettiest destinations. A single fare, for example, from Boston to Portland, Maine, costs $24/£18. If you are flying into New York, the fare to St Albans, Vermont is $71/£53.
Or, board the Maple Leaf train to Toronto. The run of 550 miles (885km) follows the lovely Hudson River Valley, then cuts past the vineyards of New York state and Ontario, with a stop at Niagara Falls; it costs $126/£95, but takes a leisurely 12 hours.
If you prefer a package, Holidays by Rail (0800 033 7960; holidaysbyrail.com) has an annual Fall Colours, Scenic Trains Martha’s Vineyard 10-day escorted tour, including excursions on tourist railways in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. 2018 departures are offered on September 22 and October 4. From £1,920 per person; flights not included.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com) offers autumn rail trips (from £2,595, including flights), where colours and mountain scenery come together on America’s east coast, including stays in Falmouth, Boston and the White Mountains. Also featured are Martha’s Vineyard, a Downeaster railway journey, the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the North Conway Scenic Railway, Mount Washington Valley, whale watching and a tour of Boston.
Getting out on the water is a great way to enjoy a private view. Near Montpelier, Vermont’s tiny state capital, paddle the Winooski River, also known for its trout fishing. Give your muscles a work out or take it easy. In Stowe and South Burlington, Umiak Outdoor Outfitters rents canoes or kayaks. Go on your own, or join a guided trip past woods and wildlife: deer, otters, even moose. Vans shuttle you to the put-in spot (from $45/£35, umiak.com).
Alternative: From Burlington, board The Spirit of Ethan Allen III for a 90-minute scenic cruise on Lake Champlain (from $21/£16, soea.com).
Head for a mountain top. Close to the cute village of Stowe (gostowe.com), with its shops and restaurants, is 4,393-ft Mount Mansfield. Glide up on the Gondola SkyRide (10 minutes, $28/£22) or drive up the Auto Toll Road (car, two passengers $31/£24). Wear proper boots to hike out 1.3 miles along the ridge to the ‘Chin’, with panoramas of New Hampshire, Lake Champlain and New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Gliding is a memorable experience. Stowe Soaring offers a Mile High Mount Mansfield ride, far above Mother Nature’s handiwork (40 minutes, $305/£235 for two, stowesoaring.com).
Mad River Valley is a winter ski destination, but in autumn the mountains look like a painter’s palette. Instead of driving, hiking or biking, swing into the saddle at the Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm. The sure-footed, sweet-natured ponies are bred right here; guided trail rides follow a leisurely pace through meadows and along forest tracks (book in advance, three-hour rides cost $120/£93; icelandichorses.com). Or try mountain biking at Killington, a popular ski resort. One-day Learn to Ride courses include a bike, protective gear and two hours with an instructor. Take the lift up, savour the vista, race back down ($100/£75, killington.com).
Vermont has hundreds of miles of marked footpaths, so escaping the crowds is easy. Serious hikers head for the Long Trail, the USA’s oldest long-distance route. But less strenuous walks abound, particularly in state parks; and at day’s end, there are comfy inns a-plenty. Country Inns Along the Trail have self-guided tours, covering some 10 miles a day in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area. Stay in three inns; included are maps, meals, shuttles to and from trail heads (three nights from $645/£485; inntoinn.com). Country Inns Along the Trail also organises cycle tours. Pedal on back roads in the Champlain Valley.
New England’s highest peaks are in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where the Big Daddy is Mount Washington. Ride up the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway, built in 1868. Extra special is the 9.00am run, with a coal-burning steam locomotive chuffing its way to the 6,288-ft summit. On a clear day, views stretch as far as Canada and even the Atlantic ($75/£58, thecog.com). Only half as high, Mount Monadnock, near Jaffrey, is North America’s most-climbed mountain. Allow four hours for the relatively-gentle four-mile round trip hike, see six states from the summit ($4/£3, nhstateparks.com/monadnock.html).
The 1981 film On Golden Pond was shot at Squam Lake and fans still come to the location, which is gorgeous with autumn leaves reflected in the water. From Holderness, the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center runs 90-minute guided boat excursions ($27/£21, nhnature.org). Or, at the nearby Asquam Marina, rent a five-passenger Boston Whaler. Spot bald eagles; listen for loons ($200/£155 for a day, no licence required, includes charts, asquammarina.com). From Wolfeboro, cruise around Winnipesaukee, one of the USA’s largest lakes, aboard the M/S Mount Washington. The surrounding mountains present a sweep of vibrant hues (2.5 hours, $32/£24, cruisenh.com).
Add an adrenaline charge to your leaf peeping by zooming down a zipline into full-on colour. Near Lincoln, Alpine Adventures has a 2.5-hour SkyRider Tour. Reaching speeds up to 50 mph, you cross valley after valley, some 200 ft above the forest floor and the five ziplines range from 800 to 1,600 ft in length. Catch your breath on sky bridges and platforms in the trees ($99/£75, alpinezipline.com). Or from Charlestown, take a tandem hang gliding flight with a professional pilot. From 2,000 ft, look down on the Connecticut River Valley ($175/£135, flymorningside.kittyhawk.com).
Although Connecticut’s landscape has an English softness, the leaves are bright in autumn. In New Canaan, an hour from New York City, Philip Johnson’s Glass House is an architectural landmark. With nothing but glass between you and the trees, this is the perfect time to appreciate the late architect’s quip that he had “expensive wallpaper”. Giant maples and oaks, thick with scarlet and gold leaves, fill the floor-to-ceiling picture windows on all four sides (from $25/£19; book ahead; theglasshouse.org).
At weekends, affluent New Yorkers head for the Litchfield Hills. A classic New England town, Litchfield itself has a tidy village green, historic houses and posh restaurants. Supposedly, Sinclair Lewis wrote that “The only street in America more beautiful than North Street in Litchfield is South Street in Litchfield.” Surrounding attractions include the Haight-Brown Vineyard and the covered, wooden Bull’s Bridge, where George Washington’s horse came a cropper. Ride high above the Litchfield Hills in a hot air balloon on a 2.5 hour fall foliage flight from Bethlehem; finish with a glass of bubbly ($375/£290; aerblarney.com).
The state is dotted with English place names. Gloucester, Essex, Ipswich and Newbury, for example, were founded in the 17th century. Only 25 miles apart, linked by Route 133 and Route 1A, these coastal towns north of Boston offer lots to see. Both Gloucester and Rockport have long been artist’s colonies, with painters such as Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer spending summers there. Essex, once a world-leader for building wooden schooners, is now known for antiques shops. Renascent Newburyport has well-preserved heritage and architecture (northofboston.org).
Sights and the city
You don’t have to go to the country for foliage. In Boston, the Arnold Arboretum (free; arboretum.harvard.edu) is a link in the Emerald Necklace, a chain of six parks designed by America’s first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Out in Brookline, visit his home and design studios; join National Park ranger-led walks through the grounds and local Olmsted-designed landscapes (free; nps.gov/frla). Across the Charles River, in West Cambridge, the trees are beautiful in Mount Auburn, the USA’s first “garden cemetery” (mountauburn.org). Urban Adventours lead 15-mile Emerald Necklace and Fall Foliage cycle tours (four hours; $75/£58 for bike, helmet, guide; urbanadventours.com).
Mountains and moose
Bigger, wilder and less populated than other New England states, Maine provides miles of empty roads. Running for 70 miles from Portland to Bethel, Route 26 has views galore. Stop by Sabbathday Lake, the world’s last Shaker Community; detour to Paris, with its impressive homes; stroll round pretty Bethel. At Sunday River resort, ride the eight-passenger Chondola to North Peak; hike back down (sundayriver.com).
Special treat: In the fall breeding season, drive to Moosehead Lake to see bull moose with huge antlers. At dawn or dusk, observe them on a guided moose watch (motel, four-hour tour from $235/£182 for two; 001 207 695 0151; mainemoosewatching.com).
Cruise aboard a windjammer, one of the eight historic schooners based in Rockland and Camden. Sails are usually raised and trimmed by hand; whether you help is up to you. In autumn, the sailing breezes are at their best, the harbours are quiet and prices are lower. Along the coast, splashes of colour stand out against the clear skies. Below deck, woodstoves provide warmth after sunset (four days from $738/£570; sailmainecoast.com).
Special treat: An hour from Camden, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge boasts the world’s tallest bridge observatory, 420 feet above the river, with 360-degree, 40-mile views ($8/£6; maine.gov/mdot/pnbo/).
In southern New England, the leaves in America’s smallest state often change later in October. Head down Route 77 to Little Rhody’s eastern strip. In Tiverton Four Corners, stop at Gray’s for home-made ice cream; seasonal flavours include pumpkin. Stroll round Little Compton, with its Colonial heritage: village green; church; 300-year-old working grist mill. At The Commons Lunch, order Rhode Island specialities, such as quahog chowder (local clam soup), cornmeal jonny cakes and a cabinet (milk shake). The road ends at tiny Sakonnet Harbor (visitrhodeisland.com). Taste seven estate wines at Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard ($14/£11; sakonnetwine.com).
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) has 14-night leaf peepers’ holidays from £1,585 per person (based on two sharing). Includes flights from London Heathrow to Boston, car hire, two nights in downtown Boston to start the trip, then four nights in Maine, three nights in New Hampshire, three nights in Vermont, and two nights in Massachusetts.
Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) offers Autumn Colours, a nine-day Trafalgar Escorted Holiday from £2,865 (based on two sharing), including door-to-door airport transfers, flights from London Heathrow to Boston, luxury coach transport, most meals, taxes, tips and a tour director.
Fall foliage trackers
Each state posts daily information on the best places to enjoy the display:
New Hampshire: visitnh.gov/trip-ideas/fall/foliage-map
Rhode Island: visitrhodeisland.com
Cruises and coach
Unlike most of North America, New England is well-suited to those who prefer not to drive. Growing fast in popularity are cruises along the Atlantic coast.
Holland America Line (0843 374 2300; hollandamerica.com) has attractive trips between Boston and Montreal, with views of the foliage along the rugged shoreline.
Titan (0808 231 7034; titantravel.co.uk) regularly features an autumn colours tour of New England as one of its escorted coach holidays.
You can go it alone, finding flights, cars and accommodation (booking.com) online. Many major airlines feature direct flights from the UK to Boston, the gateway to New England: American Airlines (aa.com); British Airways (britishairways.com); Delta (delta.com); Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com), plus low-cost competitors, who also offer direct flights, such as Norwegian (norwegian.com) to Hartford, CT and Thomas Cook Airlines to Providence, RI (thomascookairlines.com). WOW Air (wowair.com) stops in Iceland. NEW from 2016 is the Aer Lingus (0333 004 5000; aerlingus.com) service from the UK via Dublin to Hartford, Connecticut in the heart of New England. You can pre-clear US Customs and Border Protection at Dublin or Shannon airports en route, saving you time and hassle. In 2018, Primera Air (primeraair.com) launch new services from Birmingham and London Stansted to Boston.
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) finds that many regulars like two-centre holidays, based, for example, in the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As well as offering access to nearby peaks and lakes, there are back roads and cycle trails, country stores and Colonial-era taverns.
Canadian Affair (0203 424 6305; canadianaffair.com) has an array of itineraries in Atlantic Canada, where there are fewer visitors. Fly to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for tours with grand scenery along the Bay of Fundy, on Prince Edward Island and on Cape Breton Island. The drive around the Cabot Trail and Bras d’Or Lake – actually an inland sea – is genuinely spectacular.
One way to hedge your bets on where to see the “best” foliage is on a tour that includes both sides of the border. Complete North America (0115 961 0590; completenorthamerica.co.uk) has a 15-day New England and Canada Fly Drive that starts in Boston and finishes in Toronto. From £2,499 per person, including flights.
Before you go
For detailed information and suggested driving tours, check out the official tourism websites for New England (discovernewengland.co.uk) and Atlantic Canada (atlanticcanadaholiday.co.uk). Be aware of travel requirements: Electronic System for Travel Authorization/ESTA (US) and Electronic Travel Authorization/eTA (Canada).
Get in the mood with America’s favourite poet, Robert Frost. Tree at my Window was inspired by a maple at his farm in Derry, New Hampshire; Maple is a classic example of his dry wit.
What to pack
Although autumn days are delightful, temperatures drop considerably at dusk. Take the usual layers, with sweaters, fleeces and a wind and waterproof jacket.
If you intend to walk, take sensible footwear for the forest paths and mountain trails.
How to pack for a weekend away
Yankee Magazine (newengland.com/yankee-magazine) is devoted largely to New England travel and its Leaf Peepr app (newengland.com/today/seasons/fall/leaf-peepr/) keeps you up to date with the hot spots in New England.
And if you take a photo of a leaf, LeafSnap (leafsnap.com), a free app, cleverly identifies the tree.
What to avoid
Avoid the best-known roads on weekends, such as Route 100 (in Vermont), the Kancamagus Highway (New Hampshire) and the Mohawk Trail (Massachusetts).
Columbus Day Weekend. On the second Monday of October, this popular three-day holiday in the US is synonymous with crowds of peepers.
Finding a quiet lunch spot can be difficult. Take sandwiches; buy apples from road-side stands; picnic in the woods on a back road.