In Search of Fall Colors: A Long Drive on New Hampshire Roads

I was born and raised in New Hampshire, and though I have lived many places over the years, I have set nearly every one of my novels in my home state. I give the towns fictional names. But in my head, as I write, I carry pictures of the real places that inspired them and of the seasons in which my stories unfold.

Seasons — and the changing of the seasons — are such a central aspect of New England life — never more so than in the fall, when the leaves explode in their final blaze of glory right before the air grows bitterly cold. It’s a cycle I have loved and cursed. Every time October approaches, I feel my heart crack a little with the oddest combination of joy and loss, a last hurrah before the serious business of winter settles in.

As a native of the state, I’m well acquainted with the annual pilgrimage of out-of-staters heading north to witness the turning of the colors. Most travelers in New Hampshire head to the White Mountains, and there’s no getting around the fact that the foliage puts on a spectacular show there. The problem is that on a peak leaf weekend, traffic on the legendary Kancamagus Highway may be more reminiscent of a Los Angeles freeway than some quiet road in a poem by Robert Frost.

What I’ve learned from six decades of foliage seasons is that there are many other spots where you can take in the spectacle. So this year, a few weeks before the leaves started turning, I went on a reconnaissance mission with my partner, Jordan, revisiting places from my past and scoping out new ones, designing an alternative approach to a tour that promised to offer as much glorious foliage and a lot fewer people and cars.

In New Hampshire, there are tucked-away places where what knocks you out is a single magnificent tree or a glimmering view across a pond or lake.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Driving companions: Road-trip songs, E.B. White and an old gazetteer

We set out just as the sun was coming up — with a playlist featuring old road-trip songs (“America,” by Simon & Garfunkel; “Fast Car,” by Tracy Chapman and an obscure, but beloved, favorite, “When Fall Comes to New England,” by Cheryl Wheeler. Having learned that Jordan had never read E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web”set over the course of a New England summer and fall — I brought along a copy to read aloud as he drove. And I didn’t forget my trusty New Hampshire gazetteer, which proved to be a wise choice considering how often we fell out of cellphone service on those back roads I favored.

Our guiding principle was simple: Stay off major highways whenever possible.

Anywhere deciduous trees are found — and in New Hampshire that means oak, maple, birch, aspen, ash — you’ll get dazzling color. If there’s elevation thrown in, you can expect broad, sweeping vistas, but I’m just as partial to those tucked-away places where what knocks you out is a single magnificent tree or a glimmering view across a pond or lake, or a path through the woods with a red and golden canopy overhead. Lowlands provide another way of taking in the fall colors. Don’t ever rule out marshes.

Anywhere deciduous trees are found — and in New Hampshire that means oak, maple, birch, aspen, ash — you’ll get dazzling color. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

We started out in the area known as the Monadnock Region, named for the mountain that dominates the horizon around the towns of Jaffrey, Dublin and Peterborough — home of MacDowell, where I wrote my novel “Labor Day.” I’ve climbed Mount Monadnock’s 3,165 feet many times — swearing every time I do that this will be my last ascent, until I reach the summit and take in the view, at which point all pain is forgotten.

But in foliage season, the trail can get crowded. So we opted for the far less taxing trek up Pack Monadnock — a steep, brisk, 40-minute climb with almost equally great views from the lookout tower at the top, where in the fall the horizon stretches below in a wide carpet of color dotted with farms and lakes I know from a lifetime of New Hampshire swimming.

The small town of Hancock is a great launching place for biking or hiking. It’s also home to New Hampshire’s oldest inn, The Hancock Inn.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

In the lovely small town of Hancock (home to New Hampshire’s oldest inn, The Hancock Inn — a great launching place for biking or hiking, or taking advantage of the Inn’s excellent croquet course), you’ll find a terrific general store, the Hancock Market, where you can get the makings of a fall picnic (don’t miss Orchard Hill bread if they’re not sold out).

From downtown Hancock, past Norway Pond, it’s just five minutes to the trails at Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, where the light shining through the leaves provides a kind of stained-glass effect as luminous as anything Tiffany ever created. Once, arriving at dusk, I was met by a moose — a definite possibility in the fall in these parts.

Another great Hancock option: the Harris Center, with miles of trails to explore and guided walks throughout the fall, led by a naturalist, focused on the quest for mushrooms or salamanders, hawks or minerals (check out their website for dates). Keep an eye out for strange-looking painted animals, made from old tree stumps and branches, left there by a local woodcarver.

The Hancock Market first opened in 1879.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

From Hancock, we checked out another favorite spot on Route 123 in Stoddard: Pitcher Mountain, where it’s a quick half-mile to the top. If you were here in July or early August, you’d want to bring a bucket for blueberries. No berries on Pitcher Mountain in October, but you can see for miles.

A half-hour east along Route 9, is a town most out-of-state travelers would bypass, Hillsboro, inspiration for my first novel “Baby Love,” written not long after the birth of my first child. As was true all those years back, Hillsboro’s main street offers nothing in the way of charming cafes or antique shops. But the place deserves a closer look.

The Union Chapel in Hillsborough, where the author was married, was completed in 1887.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Just a few miles up Center Road you come to another world: the antique village of Hillsborough Center, with its one-room schoolhouse and the very small, very old church where I got married the first time at age 23, back in 1977. Come October, the place, with its one-room schoolhouse and old colonial houses and 200-year-old stone walls — looks like a scene from an autumn postcard. Beside it, there’s a cemetery with gravestones dating back to the 1700s. Bring along butcher paper, masking tape to secure it on the stone, and a piece of charcoal and make yourself a rubbing.

For the drive, the author’s guiding principle was simple: Stay off major highways whenever possible.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Back roads, waterfalls and lakeside walks

A good fall drive calls for exploring back roads, preferably with no particular sense of where they’re going. I’ll direct you to one of my all-time favorites. A few miles farther along Center Road, you’ll find Gleason Falls Road (no longer tar, but dirt). Turn left a mile or so down onto Beard Brook Road and you’ll come to a stone arch bridge and waterfall — a place I memorialized it in another novel, “Count the Ways.” I used to bring my children to sail paper boats down the brook — just as the children in my novel do. Even in October, the water continues to race over the rocks, and the leaves on either side of the brook are ablaze.

From Gleason Falls we made our way north along Beard Brook Road toward Bradford to a half-mile walk along planks through a bog that leads to a lookout built years ago by a troop of Boy Scouts. Leaves from trees growing in a wetlands area turn red before the rest, so this one’s a great spot to visit early in the season, with the lookout tower at the end of the walk.

Less than a half-hour’s drive away, the town of Warner, home to a telephone museum, a couple of sweet cafes, a great bookstore and a market with local crafts and organic produce. Warner is home to a wonderful annual Fall Foliage Festival (alas, canceled this year). Ten minutes out of town, you’ll find the entrance to Mount Kearsarge State Forest Park. Drive partway up, then take the last half mile to the top on foot (about 2,900-feet elevation) for what I consider the best bang-for-your-buck view in a hundred miles.

Apples for sale at Muster Field Farm in Sutton.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Wending our way north to Kezar Lake, we arrived in the lakeside village of Sutton just as the church bell was chiming noon. The lovely, romantic old Follansbee Inn sits on the shores of the lake. It’s a three-mile walk around the lake, with views across the water guaranteed to provide spectacular fall views, with the mountain beyond every step of the way. The afternoon we were there, we spotted a couple of loons. (More important, we heard them. The call of a loon is like nothing else on earth, particularly when an eagle is after her young.)

A view from the property of the lovely, romantic old Follansbee Inn, which sits on the shores of Lake Kezar.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

A number of lakes occupy the area, but the one that dominates is Winnipesaukee — a 72-square-mile expanse of water with more than 250 islands. We followed a road that led us around the western lakeshore, past a lineup of attractions that looked straight out of our 1950s and ‘60s youth — bumper cars, an old-school arcade, mini golf and a hot spot called Pop’s Clam Shell, with a long line out front. It takes little imagination to project what this stretch of road would look like in the fall, with colors stretching across the horizon and reflected in the water.

Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times
Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

The final round of fireworks

We made our way to Holderness, on the shores of the lake many in the state consider its greatest jewel: Squam Lake, immortalized in the movie “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. This is an old New England summer community of grand estates. For $180 an hour for a group of up to 12, you can hire a private boat for the Fall Foliage tour, where you’re likely to catch sight of migratory birds heading south, along with mergansers, blue heron, cormorants and possibly a bald eagle. Long ago, when my children were young, our family camped overnight on one of these islands. Their father and I wrote a children’s book called “Campout”inspired by the experience.

Time. Always at our heels. It was midafternoon, with a whole other side of the state to check out, so we decided to take the highway I’d been trying to avoid, Route 93, as far as Plymouth, then cut across the state to Orford on the Connecticut River — the dividing line between New Hampshire and Vermont. The drive south is particularly lovely when the leaves reach full color, and you can look across the river to Vermont.

It was just after 5 p.m. when we reached the Saint Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish — a town I lived in once, in another lifetime and wrote about in my memoir, “At Home in the World.” It was the summer home of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the center of a group known as The Cornish Art Colony.

What draws me back are the grounds — 370 acres broken into intimate spaces with gardens and reflecting pools and majestic cedars. But the part that knocks me out every time are the gilded bronze statues by Saint-Gaudens in the gardens. One, a larger-than-life-size sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, stands on a high pedestal, positioned in such a way that when a person stands beneath it, Lincoln seems, uncannily, to be looking her directly in the eye.

The estate overlooks a glorious sight — a full view, dead ahead, of Mount Ascutney. I can still remember how, in the fall, that swath of land leading up to the mountain’s highest point lights the sky on fire.

Edgefield Farm in Plainfield sells autumnal gourds.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

If it were earlier in the day, this might have been the moment to take in the covered bridge leading into Windsor, Vt., or visit Riverview Farm in Plainfield, N.H., where you pick up a bag of apples or gourds and navigate the corn maze they build in the fall. No time.

If you have the time, pick up a bag of apples or gourds at Riverview Farm in Plainfield, or navigate the corn maze they build in the fall. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

The stretch of Route 12 from Cornish, going south, is one of my favorites in the state, with the kind of vast, sweeping views foliage seekers typically travel north to find. It was 6:30 p.m. when we reached Walpole — a town whose profile has been greatly elevated by the presence of the filmmaker Ken Burns. In the general store, there is an unusually fine array of cheeses and takeout — great for filmmaking crews and fall foliage picnics. Just down the road is a perfect place to consume these items: Alyson’s Orchard, where you can buy a half dozen or more varieties of apples, or pick your own and eat them in the orchard (possibly with that good cheese) looking out to the red and golden hills.

For Jordan and me, the hour was closer to dinner than lunch, so we headed back into my onetime home of Keene (I wrote my novels “Where Love Goes” and “To Die For’’there) — known as the town with America’s widest main street. A couple of years back, the city funded a project to paint murals on the sides of brick buildings featuring highlights of Keene’s history. My favorite is the portrait of Jonathan Daniels, who grew up a few houses from the one where my children and I once lived. Daniels was shot in Alabama in 1965 while participating in a Civil Rights action.

I still remember the town’s Pumpkin Festival. Every Halloween the residents would join forces to create a Guinness-world-record number of carved pumpkins that volunteers would set up with flickering candles on scaffolding throughout the square. But my favorite part came later — sometime around midnight on Festival Night — when I’d walk back into town alone to take in the sight of all those glowing jack-o’-lanterns with nobody else around. No pumpkin festival this year, because of Covid, but organizers promise it will return.

It was past 9 p.m. when we got back to the little cottage on a dirt road where I spend my summers now, a house I’d be locking up in a week or two, when the nights got too cold. Jordan and I had covered almost 400 miles since we headed out that morning, and I was feeling the weight of endings. Days getting shorter. My November birthday looming. Another year winding down.

I looked out at the lake on which my little New Hampshire summer cottage sits, with its solitary loon. The crickets were chirping, which made me think about the chapter of “Charlotte’s Web” I had just finished reading out loud in the car.

“Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into autumn — the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change,” wrote E.B. White. “‘Summer is over and gone,’ repeated the crickets.”

White got it right. Every autumn brings a small death, marked by the most glorious explosion of color, like the final round of a fireworks show before the sky goes silent. The good news: the seasons keep turning. Come spring, new leaves will sprout and we’ll begin the cycle again, if luck is with us.

Joyce Maynard’s most recent novel is “Count the Ways,” the story of one family’s four decades on a New Hampshire farm.

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