What do New England and part of Japan have in common? They’re the only two places in the world that are said to have truly spectacular displays of Fall color, thanks to the diversity of species of deciduous trees in those regions.
As experts predicted prime Fall foliage in New England for the 2019 season, leaf-peepers like us prepared for an unforgettable sight. In fact, it turned out to be so spectacular that photographs really don’t do it justice.
The explanation for this natural phenomenon is straightforward, but timing a trip around it can be challenging. Cold nights, followed by sunny and warm days, produce eye-popping color changes in deciduous tree leaves. As trees stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment in their leaves diminishes and shades of reds, oranges and yellows begin to show. Those glorious autumn colors found in the leaves of maple, tamarack, mountain ash, beech, birch, aspen, sumac and basswood reach peak color intensity and variety farther north and at higher elevations of New England first, in late September and early October. By mid-October, the blazing palette of gold, orange and scarlet has reached the southern and western parts of the region. Dry, warm weather helps the leaves stay attached to the trees, providing a longer display; heavy winds and downpours can call an abrupt halt to the show.
“O hushed October morning mild, Begin the hours of this day slow, Make the day seem to us less brief,” Robert Frost wrote in his poem, “October.” That’s exactly what I thought as our leaf-peeping touring day – and my 50th birthday – began. After all, “Thy leaves have ripened to the fall; Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all.”
In the hills of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, the maples were glowing a brilliant red and orange, while the birches and beeches were shining yellow and gold. Tall, dense regions of coniferous trees provided the perfect backdrop to the colorful display.
As our meandering back-roads journey to New Hampshire continued, we encountered one scenic vista after another. After stopping at the covered bridge in Jackson that is one of more than 50 covered bridges still standing in New Hampshire, we admired pine forests, waterfalls, and the rounded summits, deep valleys and “notches,” or U-shaped mountain passes, of the White Mountains, so named for the almost year-round blanket of snow that covers them. Traveling into the White Mountain National Forest, we passed Crawford’s Notch, then Franconia Notch, where Robert Frost once lived. There, we beheld the Old Man of the Mountains, a rocky outcropping jutting out from a mountainside above a lake once resembled the profile of a man. The Ice Age formation reminded Native Americans of the profile of their Great Spirit; when it was discovered in 1805, the profile formation that measured almost 50 feet long from its chin to its forehead was compared to a likeness of President Thomas Jefferson. Later, Nathaniel Hawthorne described it in his short story, “The Great Stone Face.” The outcropping might have fallen down in 2003, but the scenery is still attention-getting.
Walking through what Frost would describe as a “yellow wood” made all the difference to experiencing the natural beauty of Franconia Notch State Park. We followed a boardwalk and stairways to Flume Gorge, a narrow, granite chasm between which the Flume Brook flows.
A waterfall empties into a large granite pothole called The Basin, where the rushing, churning waters have formed a natural pool 30 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep, with smooth side walls and a rock formation known as “The Old Man’s Foot.” On his first trip to the White Mountains in September 1839, Henry David Thoreau stood here, watched the water cascade into the basin, and wrote in his journal, “This pothole is perhaps the most remarkable curiosity of its kind in New England.”
Flowing nearby is a stream of the river known as the Pemigewasset, an Abenaki Indian word meaning “swift.” Sixty miles to the south, the “Pemi” becomes the Merrimack, a river important to New England’s industrial development, and is home to the Eastern Brook Trout, also known as the “Squaretail.”
David Govatski, a New Hampshire naturalist, introduced us to more natural wonders of the region, from the moose, the wingless grasshopper and the Harebell to the Bohemian Waxwing, Canada Jay and the spruce needle-eating Spruce Grouse.
The most famous leaf-peeping road in New England is the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Running through the White Mountain National Forest between Lincoln and Conway, the 34-mile scenic byway along Route 112 offers exceptional vistas. Be prepared for thousands of leaf-peepers driving the route in peak season.
For more on New England’s natural beauty, check out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England, by Peter Alden, et al., and Naturally Curious Day by Day: A Photographic Field Guide and Daily Visit to the Forests, Fields, and Wetlands of Eastern North America, a collection of short essays about daily observations that can be made year-round in the Northeast, by Mary Holland of Vermont. The White Mountain Guide Book, written by Samuel Eastman in 1858, includes a description of the Basin as “one of the beautiful haunts of Nature, a luxurious and delicious bath fit for the ablutions of a goddess.”
“George Perkins Marsh: Man and Nature,” part of Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea, provides an introduction to George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont scholar and naturalist who is considered one of the founders of the environmental conservation movement. Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, Marsh’s influential book first published in 1864, discusses the importance of a harmonious relationship with the natural world.
To create a virtual version of our leaf-peepers’ drive through Vermont and New Hampshire, listen to Vermont Serenades and In the Light of Autumn, both by Spencer Lewis. For the full effect, imagine how the colorful Fall leaves look as you listen to someone read aloud from “Ole and Trufa (A Story of Two Leaves),” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and “The Road Not Taken” and “October,” both by Robert Frost.