Summer might be the most popular season for hiking in the mountains and woods of the Northeast, but fall is hands down the best season to do it. It’s not just because of the brilliant foliage that lights up the woods and the landscapes in classic rich colors that makes the autumn months so appealing. Also, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, hiking is an activity that can easily be done with social distancing in mind.
Because most families plan their vacations during the summer months when the kids are out of school, the trails are often crowded, the huts are long since reserved and the traffic to the mountains and home can try the most patient among us. In the fall, you’ll have much more room to roam with far fewer people competing for the same favorite places.
And what about the heat? Temperatures soar fast and early in July and August, bringing extreme heat and humidity that often causes us to sweat through our shirts before we’re barely out of the trailhead. Hydration is a very serious challenge as the summer months pose threats of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, asthma and other respiratory issues. Fall brings welcome relief but also beckons in extreme temperature changes so smart layering will optimize comfort and performance.
Perhaps best of all, gone will be those black flies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, deer flies and horse flies that can drive you insane on those hot summer days.
Hiking in the fall is not without its challenges, however. With less daylight to work with, hikers need to be mindful about how long a loop will take. You should always carry a flashlight or headlamp. Also, trails can become blanketed with leaves, making navigation more challenging. Wet leaves on a steep trail can be very slippery.
Here are some popular hikes that are especially rewarding in the fall. Please be aware that you should check ahead prior to your arrival to ensure that there are no COVID-19 changes to each park’s procedures or each state’s quarantine requirements.
Pawtuckaway State Park
▪ Nottingham, N.H.
This 5,500-acre park and its crown jewel — the 800-acre Lake Pawtuckaway — is an extremely popular summer destination, but fall might be the best time to explore the park’s many miles of hiking trails. Hikes lead to many special points of interest, including the South Mountain Peak fire tower; an extensive marsh for wildlife viewing of beavers and great blue herons; and a geologically unique field where large boulders called glacial erratics were deposited when glacial ice melted near the end of the Ice Age.
▪ Smugglers’ Notch, Vt.
You’ll see outdoor enthusiasts with hiking poles and fishing poles on this short (1.1 miles) yet steep (1,000 feet of elevation gained) hike from the trailhead to Sterling Pond. The parking area is located on Route 108, three miles south of Smugglers’ Notch Resort. The challenging hike on a well-worn trail is characterized by large boulders and tree roots. Anglers with permits are welcome to cast lines into Vermont’s highest elevation trout pond at 3,000 feet. Once there, the hike can be extended around the pond’s 1.4-mile perimeter trail.
▪ Princeton, Mass.
With 3,000 acres that encompass 17 miles of trails, Mount Wachusett offers hikers plenty of options for getting to the summit with a range of length and steepness to choose from. Popular routes to the summit include Mountain House, Pine Hill and Old Indian Trails. Summit trails gain 500 feet of elevation to Wachusett’s peak at 2,006 feet. When conditions are clear, hikers at the top will enjoy views of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, the Berkshires and the Boston skyline. Keep in mind that the mountain’s property connects with a larger greenway, so hikers can link up to trails that venture into the Leominster State Forest, Minns Wildlife Sanctuary and Audubon’s Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary.
Fox State Forest
▪ Hillsboro, N.H.
This 1,445-acre tract has served as New Hampshire’s forest research station since 1933. The forest includes 22 miles of hiking trails, which can be broken down in shorter loops. Highlights in the forest include Black Gum Swamp with its centuries old tupelo trees, a boardwalk traverse over Mud Pond Bog and Monroe Hill Tower, which provides views of Mount Monadnock.
▪ Franconia, N.H.
This long and gradual hike to 4,500-foot Mount Garfield is a quintessentially perfect fall outing as the climb yields sweeping views of the emblazoned White Mountains foliage. Garfield connects the mountains of the Franconia Ridge to the Twin Mountain range with open views over the Pemigewasset River, Owl’s Head and Franconia Ridge. The 10-mile round trip hike follows the Garfield and Garfield Ridge trails.
▪ Waterbury, Vt.
It’s not Mount Mansfield, but Hunger’s 3,539 feet is hard to beat for scenery as its open rock summit opens up remarkable 360-degree views of Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Waterbury Reservoir and New Hampshire’s Presidential range. This short but challenging 3.5-mile trail, which also features a waterfall, is a moderately difficult task, climbing 2,300 feet in elevation from the Sweet Farm Road trailhead.
▪ Camden, Maine
The Mount Battie trail is one of several in the Southern Trail Network within Camden Hills State Park. It is a short (a half-mile each way) but rewarding hike up Battie’s south side. You’ll ascend 600 feet to the top for views over Camden and the islands that dot Penobscot Bay. Ascending the stone tower on the summit further enhances the 360-degree panorama. The trail is a well-known destination during the fall season, where colors from the maple, birch, aspen, oak and ash trees light up the trail.
▪ Mount Desert Island, Maine
For a spectacular view that looks out over Northeast Harbor in the 1,000-acre Land & Garden Preserve outside of Acadia National Park, the summit of Eliot Mountain (450 feet) is the place to be. The 1.9-mile loop trail to the top is said to date back to the 1800s. On the western slope of Eliot, you’ll find Thuya Lodge and Thuya Garden, a private 140-acre preserve featuring flower gardens and native Maine woodlands.
Owl’s Head Mountain
▪ Groton, Vt.
It certainly isn’t the most rigorous hike, but the view from the top of Owl’s Head is extraordinary, especially given the 3-mile round-trip hike climbs a mere 200 feet from the trailhead. With an elevation of 1,958 feet, the rock face near the peak offers spectacular views of Lake Groton, Kettle Pond, Peacham Bog and an unbroken expanse of forest that is awe-inspiring, especially in vibrant fall. The trailhead begins in New Discovery Park in the Groton State Forest off state Route 232. While the 1.5-mile hike is rated easy, it’s also possible to drive to a parking area near the top for a short walk, making Owl’s Head a perfect fall option for peepers of all ages.
▪ Raymond, Maine
This ridge north of Sebago Lake is a terrific fall day hike for families that’s within an hour’s drive of Portland. Parking for the 2.5-mile Bri-Mar trailhead (the most popular approach to the 1,035-foot summit) can be found off Webbs Mills Road (Route 85). From the parking area, the best views looking over Panther Lake await just a half-mile away. The general ease of the terrain, just 623 feet of elevation gained, and its rewarding views make Rattlesnake a great family choice, though some steep sections will be challenging for kids under age 6 or so. Also note that while dogs are not permitted on the Bri-Mar trail, there are other approaches to the summit, most notably from Route 121 (Meadow Road).