Autumn may not be the busiest time of the year on our state’s many miles of hiking trails, but it certainly is the prettiest. The annual fall color show is obviously the main attraction once late September and early October roll around and there’s nothing finer than a woods walk through a mixed hardwood forest where the reds, yellows and golds of foliage season light up the surroundings in an ofttimes dizzying display of color.
Because the fall colors migrate north to south during the foliage season, hikers who don’t mind traveling a bit can extend the season to a month or more by merely following the leaves on their southward migration. Start with a hike in New Hampshire’s mostly unspoiled North Country, then follow the changing leaves south into the White Mountains, the Lakes Region, and then to the Merrimack River valley, the Seacoast, and/or the Monadnock Region in southwestern New Hampshire.
Most hikers, I’m sure, have their own list of fall favorites to choose from and I’m no different in that respect. My problem is that my list is so long and so full of possibilities that it’s hard for me to squeeze into my working schedule even a small percentage of these preferred fall hikes.
A couple of hikes that rest near the top of my list are some obvious ones that I’ve written about numerous times in this space. These would include the always enjoyable walk into the Zealand Valley (near Twin Mountain), the moderately easy hike up Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, and the short walks to Lost Pond in Pinkham Notch and Diana’s Bath in North Conway. These are all wildly popular destinations and you’ll find no solitude on any of them if you are a weekend-only tramper. They’re always less crowded midweek, so if your schedule allows hike them on a Tuesday or a Wednesday morning.
While I love the mixed colors of the fall foliage season, I’m also very partial to the single-color show on display when you walk through a stand of white birches. Over the years my autumn hikes have taken me through several of these stunning seas of yellow and I usually try to include at least one of these on my fall hiking schedule. A few I’d recommend include the lower sections of the Skookumchuck Trail up Mount Lafayette just north of Cannon Mountain, the mid-section of the Garfield Trail in Bethlehem, and the lower section of the Mount Tripyramid Trail near Waterville Valley, mainly between the Livermore Trail and the base of the so-called South Slide. (There’s also a brilliant stand of birches along the previously mentioned Zealand Trail a little more than two miles from the trailhead. This stand extends east toward the base of Mount Tom and the Willey Range and can be accessed by the connecting A-Z Trail. The first half mile along the A-Z is particularly beautiful during the peak of the season and should not be missed.)
Any stream-side trek is also beautiful during the height of the season and I can think of several that I’ve enjoyed in years past. The first mile or two of the North Twin Trail, which follows alongside the Little River near Twin Mountain, is a delightfully easy walk as it primarily traverses an old logging railroad grade. Similarly, the first few miles of the Gale River Trail toward the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut provide excellent stream-side foliage opportunities.
For the more ambitious tramper, the Thoreau Falls Trail deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness is another wonderful place to walk during the fall leaf-peeping season. I’m particularly smitten with the two-mile stretch of trail below Thoreau Falls themselves as you parallel the North Fork of the East Branch for a lengthy stretch of time and the atmosphere can be overwhelming.
My good friend Steve Smith, co-editor of the venerable AMC White Mountain Guide and as knowledgeable a person about our trails as anyone I’ve every met, has a few recommended fall favorites of his own. These include:
—The Boulder Loop Trail off the Kancamagus Highway, which leads to a series of ledges on a southwest spur of the Moat Range. The view from these ledges features a stunning view across the Swift River valley toward Mounts Chocorua and Passaconaway;
– The Mount Pemigewasset Trail to the top of the Indian Head profile, just south of Franconia Notch. The view from the summit ledges provides a sweeping vista of the Pemigewasset River valley far below, while also offering views east toward the peaks of Franconia Ridge and west toward the lower slopes of Kinsman Ridge. There are actually two paths leading to the summit, with the northern one that leaves from The Flume parking lot off Route 3 the more heavily used of the two.
– The Three Ponds Trail off Stinson Lake Road in the less-visited southwest corner of the White Mountain National Forest. Steve’s favorite part of this trek is the visit to the Middle of the Three Ponds, where the hardwood forest on the slopes surrounding the pond are especially colorful;
– The family-friendly trek up Black Cap Mountain overlooking North Conway village. This 1.1-mile hike to the highest peak (2369 ft.) in the Green Hills Preserve begins at the height-of-land on Hurricane Mountain Road and climbs just 650 feet in elevation. From the mostly open summit there are views in every direction (though not from any single spot), with the vista to the west considered the best.
In the Lakes Region, Steve’s recommended hikes include treks up Bald Knob and Mount Roberts in the Ossipee Mountain Range, while I’m partial to the Squam Range summits of Mounts Percival and Cotton, which, coincidentally, I visited for the first just about a year ago, at the tail end of the foliage viewing season.
As I’ve provided just brief snippets of information regarding these fall favorites, one should not rely solely on what I’ve penned to get you to and from any of the destinations mentioned above. Always consult an appropriate hiking guide, such as the AMC White Mountain Guide or the AMC Guide to Southern New Hampshire for more detailed descriptions.
By Mike Dickerman — A longtime hiking enthusiast, award-winning columnist, and author or coauthor of nine books related to the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. He lives in Littleton.
Article published Oct 4, 2009