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Fall foliage: Avoid the crowds by going early in the season, or late

Kayakers and canoers enjoy foliage along the Androscoggin

Kayakers and canoers enjoy foliage along the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire. Credit: Alamy /Kevin Galvin

The Northeast is justly famous for its spectacular fall colors, and no one who’s been in the right place at the right time is likely to forget it. But those who’ve traveled hours to get there — and spent multiple days leaf-peeping — know there’s more to “peak season” than just peak colors: namely, peak prices, peak traffic, and often no rooms at the proverbial inn.

Add in the very real possibility that the days you select for your trip (usually well in advance) may not turn out to be peak at all and you face peak disappointment instead.

What’s a fall foliage fanatic to do? Well, you can avoid the “gold rush” altogether by going to equally spectacular but less popular destinations, timing your trip either before or after the first two weeks in October — the traditional heart of the fall foliage season in the White, Green, Adirondack, Berkshire, Catskill and Pocono mountains. You’ll still need a car, of course, but only a general destination. Once there, just follow the colors — not the crowds — wherever they lead.

Note: This year’s long winter has foliage experts predicting that the 2018 peak colors will arrive at their various destinations at least one week — and quite possibly two weeks — later than historic norms. So look before you peep by monitoring the southward progression of the colors on the biweekly (Mon. and Thurs.) regional updates provided by the impartial Foliage Network (


Those wanting to beat the fall foliage crowds will need to go the proverbial extra — OK, a couple hundred extra miles beyond central New England and upstate New York. Your reward: the first full-color contact of the season, with only preseason crowds.


WHEN TO GO Mid-September to early October  

For most non-New Englanders, Maine is just a state too far. But those willing to make the effort to get to its western mountains will experience a vast expanse of upland forests and lakes largely to themselves. Among the most rewarding destinations are the road-accessible southern shores of Moosehead Lake near Greenville; the entire Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic Lake area, and the course of Route 26 from Bethel up past Sunday River ski resort to Grafton Notch State Park.



WHEN TO GO Mid-September to early October  

Vermont is America’s undisputed fall foliage mecca. Fortunately, most long-distance peepers confine themselves to the picture-postcard-perfect central and southern part of the state, overlooking the rough-and-ready Northeast Kingdom and north central Vermont. Wander at will here, but don’t miss fjordlike Lake Willoughby, the areas surrounding Jay Peak and Burke Mountain ski resorts, and the quintessentially New England villages of Craftsbury and Craftsbury Common.



WHEN TO GO Mid-September to early October  

Significantly more rustic and isolated than Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is New Hampshire’s Great North Woods, a thickly forested area north of the towering Presidential Range. The mountains themselves are not as impressive, but the colors are every bit as sensational — and there’s the added lure of moose sightings, especially along Moose Alley (Route 3 north of Pittsburg to the Canadian border). Other prime foliage drives include the dramatic Dixville Notch area along Route 26, and Route 16 from Gorham north along the Androscoggin River.



Because they will know exactly when the colors have peaked to the immediate north, those waiting until after the gold rush can actually time their peeping perfectly. Nor will they have to travel as far, though they will encounter plenty of other aficionados arriving fashionably late to the show.  


WHEN TO GO Early October to early November  

For those whose ideal autumnal backdrop includes 18th-century villages complete with clapboard Congregational churches, it doesn’t get any better than nearby Connecticut. Constituting a compact, mini New England are the gently rolling Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut. For general autumnal charm, the town of Litchfield rivals anything farther north. But for the best foliage, head north up the Housatonic Valley on Route 7. Or enjoy the bucolic scenery of the lower Connecticut River Valley, where the towns of Old Lyme, Essex, and Chester provide counterpoint.



WHEN TO GO Mid-October to early November  

What southeast Pennsylvania lacks in stunning natural backdrops it compensates for in aesthetic man-made ones, thereby making a fall excursion here a two-for-one proposition. Those whose taste tends toward the pastoral will enjoy the tree-accented farms and pastures of Pennsylvania Dutch country, especially Lancaster County, many of which will still be in harvest mode. For those who prefer history, there is Gettysburg, whose monument-laden battlefield and distant mountains make for an aesthetic as well as educational experience.



WHEN TO GO Mid-October to early November  

Low in elevation and close to the ocean, the hardwood swamps and riverbanks of the Pine Barrens are routinely among the last spots in the Northeast to display their brilliant red (as in red maple) autumn finery. It’s hard to see them from the road, so head instead for one of the larger state forests and take them in leisurely by foot, bike or canoe. Among the most rewarding of these are Wharton, especially the area around historic Batsto Village; Lebanon, especially the area around equally Whitesbog Village; and Bass River.



WHEN TO GO Late October to mid-November  

If migratory waterfowl are your other fall passion, you’re sure to enjoy the inland fields and forests and coastal lowlands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where you can actually wait until November and not have missed much. What the Eastern Shore lacks in elevation, it makes up for in tidal estuaries, historic villages (Chestertown, Cambridge, St. Michael’s), and miles and miles of westward-facing shoreline along the magnificent Chesapeake Bay. Bring your binoculars.



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