Where to See the Most Beautiful Fall Foliage in New England
A leaf-peeping guide for all six states in the region.
Panicking over the coming colder weather? As the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of stopping, leaf-peeping might be one of the few sure-fire ways to enjoy fall. And here’s a silver lining: we’ll likely see far fewer New York peepers.
So get your picnic baskets ready. We’ve sussed out both iconic drives and lesser-traveled roads in all six states in the region, all of which offer optimum chroma, worthwhile detours, and seasonal foodstuffs (think all the cider donuts). Just remember that the colors don’t peak at the same time in the different states -- the transformation generally travels north to south -- so stagger your weekend drives accordingly.
And as always, abide by the travel rules of each state -- including our own. (Rhode Island is still not a lower-risk state, so if you do venture down there, you’ll need to fill out a Massachusetts travel form and quarantine for 14 days.)
Here's why the White Mountains are the new Green Mountains
If you’re in the know, you call it “the Kanc.” Otherwise, you’re about to learn about the incomparable beauty of the 35-mile Kancamagus Pass, which takes you directly through the White Mountain National Forest. The northern NH roadway doesn’t even demand you get out of the car -- at one point, you’ll have climbed as high as 3,000 feet above sea level without once stretching your legs -- so it’s super COVID-19 safe. Just know that there are exactly zero gas stations or services along this stretch, so fill the tank and pack a lunch.
The Great North Woods region of the state is far less popular with leaf hunters, but just as lovely, and you’re a lot more likely to encounter a moose. Milan State Park also contains a 132-foot fire tower that alone is worth the visit -- from there, you’ll be gaping at the red and yellow treetops all the way in Maine, Vermont, and Canada.
Ain’t no foliage drive like a Vermont foliage drive
The state’s loveliest drive might just be its largest highway, Route 100 -- a 200-mile-plus thoroughfare that vertically dissects the state from Massachusetts to Canada. In fact, nature photographers from all over the country hit the highway for guaranteed peak foliage photography. Two reasons? The route’s lack of billboards and its close proximity to the Green Mountains. The other reason is that the highway leads you directly to some of Vermont’s most stereotypically charming small towns, from Weston (which houses the revered Vermont Country Store) to Plymouth Notch (home of the award-winning Plymouth Artisan Cheese).
But the main event comes when you turn off Route 100 onto the Green Mountain Byway, which takes you from Waterbury to Stowe. This means leaf-watching against a backdrop of bucolic mountains and farmland, cider donuts from Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and a detour into the Ben and Jerry’s Factory (for pickup orders only). Lesser known is historic Route 7A, AKA the Shires of Vermont Byway, which takes you between 17 tiny towns and villages, including the historic enclaves of Bennington and Manchester.
The best leaf-viewing spot in the state may well be atop the 306-foot-tall stone obelisk Bennington Battle Monument (typically open through October 31, but check the website for details). Or you can (carefully, carefully) cruise up the hairpin-y Skyline Drive, a privately owned toll road favored by motorcyclists that winds up to the top of Equinox Mountain. There -- at 3,848 feet above sea level -- you’ll have simultaneous views of the Green, White, Adirondack, Berkshire, and Taconic mountains.
Where leaves meet seashores
There’s never a bad time to meander up the coastline via Route 1, but in the fall you get the double whammy of water and foliage views. If you wanted, you could start in Kittery and spend many, many hours winding your way to the Canadian border.
But we say make pit stops in Ogunquit for a leaf-peeping stroll along the Marginal Way (periodic benches invite pauses and chances for social distancing); Kennebunk/Kennebunkport for a colorful drive through Cape Porpoise and along Goose Rocks Beach, and a stop by the normally mobbed Clam Shack for a hamburger-bunned lobster roll (open through mid-October, and strictly abiding by social distancing rules); and a more active hike of the Eastern Trail in Arundel.
Or think truly outside the box: Maine’s many islands might not even be on your radar in the summer, never mind as a foliage destination. But between the ferry ride over and the destination itself, any archipelago hop will force you to slow down and marvel at our region’s color show. Just stay plugged into the scene. Casco Bay Lines, for example, is reducing service starting August 29 (also, not every Maine island is crazy about outside visitors). If a rocky ferry ride isn’t your cup of off-season tea, drive up to Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island for more accessible island visits.
Don’t ever knock the Nutmeg State
The Last Green Valley is a National Heritage Corridor and a no-brainer for foliage hunters. Seventy-seven percent of its lands are either forest or farm, which means a whole lotta psychedelic leaf patterns and not a lot of commercial build to distract. The 36-town-strong route also offers all manner of classic New England autumnal fun: apple- and pumpkin-picking at Buell’s Orchard, wine-tasting at Sharpe Hill Vineyard, and hiking at Macedonia Brook State Park. (Alas, the route’s alpaca farm has closed).
Want to peep where Meryl Streep peeps? Then head for CT’s still-undersung Northwest Corner (Streep has a home there). Come fall, Litchfield Hills and their 26 charming towns actually get their moment in the fading fall sun, owing to the truly singular foliage along Route 7. The roadway also shows you two gorgeous covered bridges (West Cornwall Covered Bridge and Bulls Bridge) and leads toward the working farm Kent Falls Brewing Co. Detour a bit more to hike up the Heublein Tower in Simsbury -- the 165-foot-tall relic grants you one of the best panoramic views in the state.
The Berkshires, duh, but there’s a lot more
Route 2 is the state’s foliage highway. The drive through Central and Western Massachusetts takes you through the need-no-introduction Berkshires, where the prismatic flora is truly breathtaking. By the time you hit the 42-mile Mohawk Trail, you’ll be perpetually breathless at the scenery -- then doubly breathless as you maneuver the infamous hairpin turn just before North Adams. If you’re looking to get out of the car, The Clark Art Institute’s 140-acre grounds are open 24-7 for hikes, picnics, and a perusal of the outdoor art installations. (If you can’t get enough art, there’s also a self-guided artwork tour throughout Berkshires County.)
But you’d also be a fool to discount the Cape in fall. Once you cross the Sagamore Bridge, detour over to Route 6A for a leisurely, color-speckled meander through the towns you typically pass by on the way to Provincetown. The Old King’s Highway also invites foliage-friendly stops at the Heritage Museums & Gardens and the stone Scargo Tower in Dennis -- the latter a little-known lookout. In the meantime, still-open farm stands along the route let you stock up on fall veggies and decorative gourds. One last thing: Don't forget about the many apple-picking options near Boston -- leaf-peeping close to town is a perfectly fine option.
Little state, big-leaf impact
There is no more iconic New England foliage drive than ending in Newport. So how to get there? Start in Woonsocket on Route 146, taking time to grab a candy apple at Jaswell’s Farm (check online ahead of time to make sure it’s open), and continue through Providence for a double-dose of autumnal vistas and classic New England architecture. Then turn onto Route 114 and meander into Portsmouth for a leafy pedal aboard the Rail Explorers. Eventually, you’ll end up in “America’s First Resort” for two archetypal leaf-peeps: a slow car crawl down Ocean Drive and a stroll along the Cliff Walk (which is actually maneuverable in the fall).
Or you can take I-95 south to Blackstone Valley for a twofer of leaves and water. The Scituate Loop is a favorite, taking you around much of the serene Scituate Reservoir (just brake for bikers, as it’s a favorite motorcycle ride).
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