The first time I was exposed to the fall leaf change was in South Korea. I couldn’t get enough of how it changed the entire appearance of streets I had come all-too familiar with. Experiencing a vibrant leaf change easily bumped autumn to my favorite season. This, along with my favorite holiday (Halloween) is enough to make me one happy camper during those short couple of months.
This year, I got the chance to spend fall in one of the most renowned regions for leaf-change– New England! From mid-September to mid-October I led hiking tours around the region, camping along the way. After this fast paced month of running the same itinerary three times, I can say I now know some of the best hikes and campsites pretty well.
Here is what you need to know to get the highlights of hiking and camping in New England during fall:
What to know: Camping in New England during fall
There’s no better way to experience the leaf change than to sleep within it. Cooking around a campfire crunching over leaves, or hearing the wind rustle through the trees is such a nice way to experience fall.
While scenic, camping during fall in New England means lower temperatures and possibly unpredictable weather. Just make sure you’ve packed appropriately for the colder nights and you should be fine. If you’re worried about the weather, I recommend camping at “KOA”s. This chain of campgrounds most always have basic cabins available. All you need is your sleeping bag and a pillow and you’ve got a nice warm and dry place to stay. They also usually have a small porch and fire pit out front. Although it’ll cost a bit more than camping, these cabins are way more economical than any other hotel or indoor option in the region.
One benefit of camping during this season is that it is unlikely for a campground to book up in advance. Unless it is a holiday weekend like Labor Day, most campgrounds can take your reservation same day. This will allow for a bit of flexibility with your plans.
Past the month of September, most tent campers are few and far between. There are still a fair amount of RV campers though. For that, you would want to book ahead. The most important thing to note though is the closing season date. On October 15th, most all campgrounds in New England close for the season. While some KOAs might still be open, it’s crucial to check ahead of time.
What to know: Hiking in New England during fall
Although weather dependent, overall, hiking in New England during fall is a great time to do so. Not only are the trails less crowded, but it’s the best way to see the color change!
During peak season, walking through New England’s wilderness is dreamy. The leaves blanket the trails, surrounding you in color from top to bottom. Seeing the red maple leaves on the ground was my favorite. The reverse side is a light pink, leaving the appearance of rose petals when viewed at a distance.
The only downside of hiking during this season, is the unpredictability of weather. Especially on longer hikes, it is crucial you monitor the weather and pack appropriately. Layers and a waterproof jacket should always be taken, even if the sun is shining when you depart. Too many people underestimate the trails and mountains and find themselves needing rescue while facing hypothermia.
The weather shouldn’t deter you though. We had great luck and saw so many sunny and warm days! Other times the forecast said rain, but only occurred overnight leaving clear skies during the day for us to explore.
Hiking and Camping in New England: When is the Best Time to Go?
There are two things which will effect the best time to visit New England during fall. For one, the leaves only reach their peak for about 1-2 weeks each season. This changes every year, along with when it happens. All is dependent on how the weather has been the rest of the year and the current temperatures. Cold nights and warm days make for great colors.
There are many websites which predict the leaf change around the region. Typically the peak season will hit the more northern areas first and then travel south and to the coast. For us, we found that the first two weeks in October were the brightest in Northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Northern Maine. After this, the trees along the coast started to follow suit.
Secondly, the amount of importance you have on hiking should also influence your decision. If you plan on hiking some of New England’s mountains, shooting for late- September or early-October is your best bet. Any later and an early snow could effect your plans.
Coined, “The Ski Capital of the East”, Stowe is also highly ranked as one of the best places in New England to view the leaf change. I don’t know about the former, but the latter is definitely true. Additionally, Stowe has the most picture-perfect main street of any town in New England I’ve ever seen. From the iconic white church to the decorated store fronts, it really doesn’t get better than this.
That’s not all though. Along with the beautiful leaf change and scenery, Stowe has an abundance of great beer and artisan foods. Spend half a day, or a whole day even, eating your way through town and top it off with some beer from their most famous brewery– The Alchemist.
- Get a cup of ice cream at the original Ben & Jerry’s factory! For $4 you can go on the tour and get a free sample. In my opinion though, skip the tour and pay an extra $.50 and choose whichever flavor you want 🙂 Don’t forget to check out the flavor graveyard. It’s a pretty funny quirky addition.
- Try the to-die-for cider donut at Cold Hollow’s Cider Mill. You can also taste cider and wine at the adjacent building.
- Sample all the cheeses at Cabot Creamery, for local Vermont cheese.
- Get a free tasting of their famous beer at The Alchemist. Then buy yourself the award-winning “Heady Topper” IPA to take home with you. It’s only available in a 25 mile radius of Stowe!
- Take the short walk to Bingham Falls. If it’s early in the season, take a polar plunge! I did 😉
- Hike to the top of Mt. Hunger (6 miles RT although it says 4 miles on the trail) from the trailhead on Sweet Farm Road. The drive through farmland to the trail head is beautiful. From the top you get a 360 degree view of the region, including the Green Mountains, Mt. Mansfield and from the opposite direction, New Hampshire.
- Gold Brook Campground is about 10 minutes from town and right near the turn off to get to the Mt. Hunger trailhead. Although basic facilities, the large expanse of green lawn is great for tent camping. Many sites back right up to a small creek and are covered by tall leafy trees.
Franconia Notch State Park
Nestled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Franconia Notch is a fantastic place for hiking an intersection of the Appalachain Trail. Lincoln is the nearest large town full of tourist activities and accommodation. Alternatively, stay near Littleton, a quant and charming town with a better atmosphere. Also, if covered bridges are your thing, this is the place to be.
- Hike to Lonesome Lake (3.1 miles) to a small Appalachian Trail hut for lunch. They serve baked goods and usually soup and other hot drinks. Moose sighting are frequent at the lake, and from here you get a great view of the Franconia Ridge.
- Hike the Franconia Ridge loop (about 9 miles) and set foot on the Appalachain Trail while summiting two 5,000 footers in the White Mountains. A strenuous all-day hike, make sure you are very prepared. From the trail head I recommend going counter clockwise. First, summit Little Haystack, then follow the ridge over Mt. Lincoln and then up to the top of Mt. Lafayette. About a mile further, you’ll reach the Greenleaf Hut with baked goods and hot drinks. From there it’s about another 3 miles down until to meet back up with the trailhead.
- There are loads of options in this area. Lafayette Campground within the state park would be your first choice if being conveniently situated to the trails is your first priority. You can do both of the hikes above right from the campground.
- If you’re looking for more facilities, chose Littleton/Lisbon KOA. We stayed here for the nicer facilities and sites near the river. It’s about a 30 minute drive to Franconia, but you’re also nearby Littleton and have the KOA cabins as a backup accommodation option in case of a storm.
Baxter State Park
Once a refuge for Henry David Thoreau and the setting inspiration for Disney’s 1942 Bambi, Baxter State Park is remote wilderness at it’s prime. With only two (slow!) main dirt roads through the park, this place is a hiker’s paradise.
The site of Maine highest peak, Mt. Katahdin, it is also the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Towards the end of summer and through fall you’ll probably see the long distance hikers closing their 2,200 mile journey which begins in Georgia. Look for moose while enjoying the many glassy ponds throughout the park. The reflection of the leaves on the water was a definite highlight for me.
- Search for moose on the trails around Daicey Pond. Obtain a map at the Togue Pond visitor center and roam around the flat paths as you please. You can also rent a canoe for $1/hour on the honor system from the hut right when you get to the pond.
- Summit Mt. Kathadin for views of all the Baxter State Park and Maine’s expansive wilderness. There are multiple ways to get up, but I recommend starting at Roaring Brook Campground and taking the Chimney Pond Trail. From there, take the Saddle Trail to get to Baxter Peak. Of the other trails on the mountain, I found this one to be the most feasible. While some trails require 1 mile+ of bouldering, this route only requires a difficult .2 mile scramble. There are also restrooms at the Chimney Pond campground 3 miles in.
- While you may want to camp inside the park for convenience, we stayed outside the park. Big Moose Campground is basic, but near the delicious River Drivers Restaurant and very close to a General Store and bar.
- Although there is no bar or restaurant within a 15 minute drive over washboard dirt roads, Abol Bridge Campground (the one pictured with the green tents) would be my recommended choice. Down a turnoff before the entrance to the park, the Abol Bridge campsites are situated right on a tranquil pond with views of Mt. Katahdin. There was a small convenience store and even basic cabins for rent too.
Acadia National Park
Less of a hiker’s park than the other places listed above, Acadia still can’t be overlooked. Located on the charming island of Bar Harbor, Acadia has astonishing island dotted coastline and an extensive network of carriage roads perfect for biking and walking.
We found autumn to be a really nice time to be in Acadia. The town of Bar Harbor was festive, and all of the New England houses and neighborhoods were full of pumpkins and fall-themed decorations. This park can get extremely crowded in summer, and fall leads to less crowds than usual. You can’t go bored here either. From Whale Watching to scenic drives, it’s a beautiful slice of Maine.
- Get your hands dirty while cracking through a lobster in Bar Harbor. New England is famous for this dish and there’s no better place to have it. We loved Poor Boy’s Gourmet and they had a nightly special of boiled lobster for about $22.
- Drink a Blueberry Ale in town. Maine is famous for it’s wild blueberries, and the flavored ale version goes down a treat.
- Watch the first sunrise on all of North America from the top of Cadillac Mountain. I usually don’t get too excited about sunrises, but this one really is stunning. Try to get there at least 30 minutes early, it get very crowded. Also, the best colors show up before the sun peaks over the horizon!
- Spend half a day hiking around the Jordan Pond area and to Bubble Rock. Although called a “pond” Jordan Pond is actually quite large and the result of ancient glacial ice fields. There is also a restaurant on a scenic spot overlooking the pond.
- Walk the coastline along the Ocean Path from Sand beach to the Otter Cliff Overlook. The free shuttle system around the park (in operation until about October 15) makes this very easy.
- There are a few inside the park but we chose to stay at Hadley’s on the northern part of the island. Great facilities, big sites and the park shuttle bus stops right at the campground!