The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip

The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip

If there is one quintessential fall road trip, it’s a leaf-peeping drive in (or through) New England. There are several excellent options: Vermont’s Green Mountains, the Mohawk Trail and Massachusetts’ Berkshires, and the Connecticut River Valley all made our short list. In the end, we chose to follow advice received from our favorite travel gal, Samantha Brown: New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (We suspect there was a bit of home state bias, but we’re okay with that.)

White Mountains Moose Crossing Signs

We saw dozens of Moose Crossing signs, but our Moose Count was zero.

New Hampshire is blessed with more than a thousand square miles of natural beauty in the White Mountains National Forest. The forest itself is blessed with two of America’s Byways: the White Mountains Trail and The Kancamagus Scenic Byway. During the fall, these mountains are ablaze in color, and the roads and trails that traverse them offer front row seats for Mother Nature’s arboreal fireworks – making this one of America’s premiere leaf-peeping destinations. Along the way, you also see quaint mountain towns, beautiful streams and waterfalls, iconic covered bridges, and maybe even a moose! (No such luck for us. We saw many Moose Crossing signs, but apparently nobody told the moose where to cross.)

Where to Go

Most maps and web sites highlight the White Mountains Trail, a scenic 100-mile loop that concentrates on the foliage and attractions of Franconia Notch, Crawford Notch, the Mount Washington Valley, and the Kancamagus Highway (locally referred to as The Kanc). Don’t let the distance fool you into thinking this is an easy afternoon’s drive though! While the driving is easy, there is much to see and do. It’s very easy to spend a whole day and only cover half the loop.

Kancamagus Highway - America's Byways via @TravelLatte

The famous Kancamagus Highway, a Scenic Byway recognized for its a leaf-peeping views.

Our plan was a little more ambitious. We expanded the loop to include Pinkham Notch to the east, and the small towns on the western slope just outside of the National Forest. We broke it into two sections to cover in two days: A 105-mile eastern loop, and a 144-mile western itinerary (not exactly a loop). Even at that pace, we wouldn’t have time for the tempting attractions, such as the Mount Washington Cog Railroad or the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. This was by design, knowing we’d want to come back for more! There are several amusement parks and family attractions also, which were also off the table for this trip. In this case, our destination really was the journey and the roadside scenery along the way. In two posts, we’ll explore our White Mountains Road Trip:

  • The Notch Loop: Pinkham Notch and Crawford Notch, featuring the stunning Silver Cascade, Saco Lake, Mount Washington, and the Appalachian Trail.
  • The Western Whites: Franconia Notch & The Kanc, including the famous Kancamagus Highway, Franconia Notch State Park, and the oldest general store in America.
The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Road Trip Map via @TravelLatte.net

Many guide maps outline the White Mountains Loop (yellow). We added our own Notch Loop (orange) and Western Whites (pink) itineraries. (Map courtesy White Mountains Attractions and Visit NH)

Where to Stay

We made the village of North Conway our base camp for the long weekend. Although the decision was driven mostly by availability (we chose a crowded holiday weekend), it turned out to be a good one. The two American Byways meet in Conway, in the southeastern corner of the forest. It’s part of the Mount Washington Valley, which has plenty of charming shops, restaurants, and lodging options. The towns of Lincoln and North Woodstock are about an hour west, right on Interstate 93, near many of the area’s larger attractions. Quaint Littleton is further north, outside of the forest but also convenient to the major roads through the mountains. If you plan on following our expanded route, Conway is the area you’ll want to stay in.

North Conway - White Mountains Highway Photo Collage via @TravelLatte.net

Scenes from charming North Conway: (Clockwise from Left) The stairs and menu from Stairway Cafe, Maple Leaf Motel, White Mountain Highway, Schouler Park and the Conway Scenic Railroad Depot.

There are few national chain hotels or restaurants here, so it’s a great opportunity to enjoy local establishments. There are many small hotels and Bed & Breakfasts, along with some larger, independent resort hotels. Views from the aptly named Red Jacket Mountain View Resort are spectacular, while the boutique Stonehurst Manor offers Travel & Leisure-recommended luxury, and the historic 1785 Inn boasts one of the world’s best views, according to Yankee Magazine’s Best of New England. During the fall and winter, book far ahead as they can fill up fast; often the best rooms are gone a year in advance!

1785 Inn October View in North Conway

The legendary view of fall foliage from North Conway’s historic 1785. (Photo: 1785 Inn)

There is a wide range of dining options as well, from fast food to fine dining. Starbucks fans might be disappointed, as there is only one location, but Dunkin’ Donuts devotees will be delighted – they are almost literally everywhere. Of the restaurants we visited in North Conway, our favorites are the Stairway Café (serving breakfast and lunch) and mostly-New England chain Sea Dog Brewing Company. Of particular note at the Stairway Café were the wild game sausages and awesome service, but beware: the restaurant is upstairs (hence the name) and extremely small. Sea Dog’s clam chowder was the best of our entire trip, and their wheat Sea Dog Pumpkin Ale was delightful. (It’s fall – Pumpkin Beer is required!)

White Mountains Attractions and Visit New Hampshire put out a very useful Travel Guide and Travel Map, available at merchants and visitors centers all around the area. Be sure to also check the Foliage Tracker at visitnh.gov.

White Mountains Travel Guide and Map Guide via @TravelLatte.net

Good resources can make or break a road trip. Our dog-eared White Mountains Attractions’ Travel Guide and Map served us well!

When to Go

Leaf-peeping is all about Mother Nature working her magic to make green leaves turn delicious shades of yellow, orange, and red. The catalyst is just the right combination of cooler temperatures, light, and water supply. Then Bang! The fireworks ignite and White Mountains look more like the Rainbow Mountains. This magic doesn’t follow a set schedule, but you can generally count on some stunning scenery across the northern states starting in late September and peaking around mid-October, with higher elevations peaking earlier than warmer, lower regions.

Most guides and locals will tell you that peak color is around the second weekend in October, so expect it to be busy. Then, double your expectation, because that’s often Columbus Day Weekend. While it may be a sleepy, overlooked holiday in some parts of the country, New Englanders capitalize on the last hurrah of warmer weather. They like getting out for county fairs, craft shows, picnics, one last hike before winter, and maybe even a drive through the mountains looking at foliage. It’s crowded, is what I’m saying.

Overflow Parking along the Kancamagus via @TravelLatte.net

On busy weekends, the parking lots fill up fast and cars line the Kancamagus Highway while drivers take in the fall foliage.

How to Get There

If you need (or want) to fly in for this road trip, you have a few airport options. The closest large airport is in Portland, Maine, but there are others in Manchester (most carriers) and Portsmouth (Allegiant Airlines), NH. We chose to fly into Boston Logan Airport which is about three hours away but can be much less expensive. Unfortunately, we arrived just in time for rush hour, so it took almost as long to get out of Boston as it took to get to the White Mountains. We drove inland along Interstate 93, as far as New Hampton, then east to picturesque Meredith on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. State roads took us the rest of the way to Conway. On the way back to Boston, we left Conway on Route 16, which gradually grew larger and larger, until it eventually merged with Interstate 95 outside of Portsmouth. In all, we spent $3.95 on tolls leaving Boston, and about $3 in tolls in New Hampshire on the way back.

Next: The most breathtaking vistas of our road trip on The Notch Loop

Skip to: Taking it farther on the famous Kancamagus Highway in The Western Whites

See more Fall Foliage in Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip Gallery, and A Fall Weekend in Vermont’s Green Mountains

Like this post? Why not Pin it for later, and share it with your friends? The Best White Mountains Fall Leaf Peeping Road Trip


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71 comments on “The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip

  1. Pingback: Leaf Peeping Coast to Coast: Where to find brilliant autumn color across America - TravelLatte

    • Plus, it’s a bit cooler and (usually) not as crowded. Win Win Win! We’re planning out more trips to/through New England and Canada for more Fall colors. Can’t wait! Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  2. Getting to go Leaf Peeping in New England is a dream of mine. I’ll have to wait until I’m an empty nester though, because my kids’ school schedules keep me planted at home. I did visit New Hampshire this summer and enjoyed driving the rural back roads. Like you, I didn’t see a single moose despite all the crossing signs warning me about them.

  3. Amazing stuff – I want to drive around New England during the fall – it is one of the regions of USA which I haven’t visited yet and it’s definitely on my bucket list. Thanks for the insightful post!

    • Hey Lexx – Sadly, New England is one of the last regions we’re getting to visit, but are really glad to finally be able to spend some time there. It’s gorgeous, the people are great, and there is so much great outdoor adventure. You’re going to love it! Thanks for the comment!

    • Hi Corinne – thanks for stopping by! We have not made it to Connecticut yet – so obviously, we need to explore more in New England. The fall colors are just amazing! A little jealous that you got to call the area home, but really glad to be seeing your old stomping grounds.

  4. Your post and beautiful photos reminded me of the beauty of fall foliage in New England at this time of year. I was there two years ago at the end of September and I’ll never forget those colors.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Anda! You are so right – those brilliant colors don’t dim in your memory! We find they also call us back; we won’t make it this year, but can’t wait to return for another New England fall! Thanks so much for stopping by our blog!

  5. I’ve always fancied a visit to New England to see the Fall foliage. Such stunning colours. I particularly fancy staying in some of those wonderful-looking New England inns. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Us too, Clare! On our last trip, we planned too late to get a B&B or local inn, but there are some real beauties! There are also a few hotels that really spoil you with service and luxury. Something for everyone, is what we’re saying. 😉 As we mentioned in the post, plan ahead if you decide to go – they fill up fast! Thanks for your comment!

  6. Oh- regarding moose, Frank is obsessed. We now have a few spots we regularly look and have good luck. With any wild animal there are no guarantees. There are guarantees on moose tours though- we haven’t gone on one yet but I see they have high rates of success and guarantee a sighting!

    • So there’s hope for us? I’m sure our dismal Moose Spotting performance is mostly because we stuck to the main roads. If we ventured down some of the smaller roads, or hiked further into the woods, I’ll bet the moose were there. Hopefully, waiting with some warm toddy’s and hot chocolate! 😉

  7. I’m glad to hear you picked New Hampshire- I love it here too! Yes, I’m partial as it is my home state. You really can’t go wrong in all of New England though! I’ll be using your tips this year to see some foliage. Normally we see some on hikes but have never gone out to just see foliage- I can’t say I like crowds so I may have to find some local favorite spots that are less crowded:)

    • Hi guys! We were really glad we picked New Hampshire, too! We’re a little jeally that you get to live in all of that natural beauty. Everywhere we went in the state, we were awed, and mentioned (about every 20 minutes) how great it would be to live there! Thanks for visiting our blog, and for the kind words. Deeply appreciated!

  8. Rob, I just love the colour of those leaves, just gorgeous. Unfortunately we do no have the same impact in our Autumn in Australia. Isn’t it always the way? A few days after you leave things get even better, but looking at your photos it’s hard to imagine how Mother Nature could improve on that. Truly fabulous!

    • Hi Lyn – Us too! The colors were completely stunning, even on our rainy day. It really was amazing, and we’re glad that came across in the articles and pictures! We were so impressed, we don’t feel like we missed anything even if someone says the next week was even more colorful. That’s Mother Nature, though! Thanks so much for your comments!

  9. Argh! We uploaded our bucket list today 149 places! I’m gonna have to change it to 150 places, how could I miss out New England in your ‘fall’ it looks incredible, and I know we’ve love to do a road trip like this. Our best times in America have been road trips, so combined with all those stunning colours it would be just magic! thanks for sharing guys.

    • While we were there, Garth, we had breakfast with a couple of couples from Manchester who were touring the New England mountain ranges in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. They were doing it right! We have yet to hit upstate New York or the Berkshires in Massachusetts, but they’re definitely on our New England Bucket List! You might get some more inspiration from our post on Vermont in the fall, too. We’ll have to add a link in this article. Thanks for reading. We hope you get to make the trip soon!

    • Hi Lorelei! We are children “two seasons” territories, so Fall in New England – or anywhere there’s an actual Autumn – is amazing to us. This might be the trip we looked forward to the most, and New Hampshire did not disappoint! You will love it – we sure did! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Those colours are fantastic. I think autumn can be one of the best times to travel places as you get to it in such a fascinating state. I have to say I’ve only ever heard of the concept of “leaf-peeping” in the context of the US, specifically New England. Seems like an essential experience for those parts.

    • Hi David – Thanks for your comment. We were stunned by the colors. We’re told a few days after we left, they got even bolder! The mountains themselves are beautiful, and some of the waterfalls are just spectacular. Leaf-peeping has become a major draw for the region, but it’s nice to see that locals are out enjoying the views as much as visitors! We had a great time, and highly recommend it!

  11. White Mountains are on my go to list. I’m in Ohio so we leaf peek too here but I want to hike those mountains and visit the small towns. My kinda roadtrip!

    • Hi Lisa – This was our first trip to New Hampshire, and we were wowed by the White Mountains! So much great hiking, too. The Appalachian Trail winds through the mountains, and there are hikes from easy to extreme all around the area. And, because the area is so popular with hikers, the services are fantastic. Thanks for commenting – we hope you get up there soon!

    • Hi Jessica, thanks for stopping by! Just the other day, we were commenting that this was our favorite trip of the past couple of years. It was really relaxing, and obviously beautiful! Hope you find this useful when planning your getaway!

  12. Really great article and photos! Jo and I have been talking about doing this for years and never seem to make. This is just more motivation!

    • Hi Arnie – We talked about this trip for a long time, too. Finally, we just booked the tickets and did it! One of the best travel decisions ever. We thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and Mother Nature completely wowed us! Thanks for reading!

  13. I love seeing the fall colors, so far though I have really only explored upstate New York. I need to check out the White Mountains! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • Hello, Anisa! We haven’t been to upstate New York yet, but would love to go. That’s actually true for most of New England for us…which we really need to fix! You’ll love the White Mountains and area – so pretty and not so far for you, right? It’s not like Texas, where you have to drive three weeks to get anywhere… 😉

    • Hi guys, thanks for reading! Our journey had similar beginnings – we saw the beautiful pictures and wanted to see for ourselves. New Hampshire did not disappoint! We’re hooked now, and want to do more fall travels throughout New England. We come from tropical and desert areas, so it’s like a whole different world for us, and we love it! Thanks for stopping by – we hope you get to New England soon!

  14. Thanks for sharing this story and awesome autumn pics! such an inspiration for the upcoming fall season! I would really like to visit New England after this! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Uh oh, Anna – it sounds like we got you infected! #SorryNotSorry 😉 Seriously, it was a fantastic trip and so pretty. We are really eager to explore more of New England now. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

    • Hi Rhonda – We are hoping to see it more, coming from areas where “fall” usually lasted one day. 😉 We were really stunned by the colors. We had read about it and seen tons of photos, but when you step out and see it all around…wow. We could get used to that! Thanks for your comment!

  15. Just the other morning we uttered the words “New England was a great holiday wasn’t it!” – so it was so lovely to read this post as you touched on some of the places we visited (although it was May, a lot quieter than Fall but not as beautiful) AND, we DID see a Moose on the Kama-whatya highway (can never remember how to pronounce it). There we were driving along saying that there probably weren’t any Moose here, turned a bend and there was a young guy stood in the road – refusing to budge! We screeched to a halt and watched him saunter off. One of the highlights of our trip! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • “Kama-whatya” – that made us laugh out loud, because we can’t say it, either! So jealous that you got to see a moose. I think they have a sixth sense and hide when they know we’re close. The way we see it, that just means we have to go back. And we’re with you – one of our best trips ever! Thanks for sharing your story!

  16. I absolutely love the colours in Autumn (or “the Fall”), they are just stunning so I need to visit New England at that time of year to see nature’s spectacular display. In the UK, we are lucky to have Westonbirt Arboretum just down the road from us and I love visiting at that time of year – I also adore looking at houses that have leaves all over them and watching them turn throughout the season – makes for stunning photos doesn’t it! Thanks for sharing this post and all the information for me to travel there! #FeetDoTravel

    • Hi Angie – All the Autumn color really does make for dramatic photos! We’ve only been in New England around that time of year, so we’re also anxious to spend more time there in other months. But first, we really want to see more of Mother Nature’s fireworks in the region. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  17. Pingback: In Case You Missed It - Travel News This Week for 3 September - TravelLatte

  18. Pingback: Beauty, History & Mystery in the White Mountains - TravelLatte

    • Thank you so much, Allane! The colors were fantastic, even in the fog and drizzle. Coupled with the beautiful ponds and waterfalls, covered bridges and beautiful mountains, it was one of the most scenic road trips we’ve taken. Hope you get to visit and try it out one day!

  19. I super love New England, even if I haven’t been there. Read so much and seen so many beautiful photos of its autumn scene. My sister and I have always been planning to go there during fall, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition. We thinking of Vermont, but after reading this, we’d definitely include New Hampshire’s White Mountains; I want to see those quaint mountain towns!

    • Hi Olivia – Before you make your mind up for good, check out our post on Vermont’s Green Mountains – also great for fall foliage and charming villages! Recently, we met a group from England who were doing it right – driving through the White Mountains, Green Mountains, and the Berkshires. What a trip that would be! Thanks again for the comment!

  20. I have seen so little of the northeastern states. This would be a fantastic road trip! I love doing fall foliage photos and I know that area is fantastic. Your photos are beautiful with all the colors. Great info too! Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi AOMS, and thanks for the kind comments – Rob #1 likes to think he’s a photographer, but he’s more like a kid with a new toy. 😉 We have not explored the northeast very much either. In fact, seeing more of New England is exactly what inspired this trip. Leaf-peeping was a bonus! We had so much fun, and can’t wait to go back for more.

    • The colors were fantastic! We timed this trip for what we hear is peak color – about the second week of October – but heard later that the next week was even more spectacular! I just can’t imagine living there and being greeted by that riot of color every morning! And whoever thought to paint the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven on the stairs…Genius! 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by!

    • Hi Anda – thanks for visiting! Being West Coast and Middle America kids, we are officially jealous of the northeast and all of their beautiful fall foliage! We have not been to Connecticut (yet!) but are anxious to explore more of New England. If you have any Connecticut tips, we are all ears!

    • Aren’t they beautiful? As mentioned earlier, our crew is all from warmer areas where “fall” lasts about a week and our colors are basically green and brown. So we were really excited for this trip and can’t wait to go see more! Thanks for stopping by again!

  21. You’re right about the crowds, Rob. I used to live in the Great Smoky Mountains and experienced it first-hand every year. My best tip is to do your leaf-peeping during the week. The traffic is at its worst on weekends.

    Thanks for linking to #TheWeeklyPostcard. 🙂

    • Hi Linda – Thanks for stopping by, and for the good advice. We did notice a huge difference between Thursday and Saturday. At least you have something nice to look at while sitting in traffic – not like our usual view of concrete and more cars. 😉

    • Hi Tanja – Thanks for stopping by! It was gorgeous, and we had lots of fun exploring the small towns and shops along way. It made a great long weekend, but it would be really fun to spend even more time and do some hiking or biking, too. Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to see New England, too!

  22. Pingback: The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip – Part Two: The Western Whites - TravelLatte

  23. Pingback: The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip – Part One: The Notch Loop - TravelLatte

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