Leaf Peeping Is Not Canceled: 6 Drives and Hikes to Try This Fall

A leafy drive in Nashville, hikes in the Appalachian wilderness, a spin on a scenic Colorado byway: There are many ways to savor autumn while being mindful of pandemic travel precautions. Below are six fall outings in Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, Tennessee and Colorado, replete with apple cider doughnuts, a highway ghost and sightings of otters, beavers and wild turkeys.


The Berkshires

The first frosty nights (farewell, mosquitoes); T-shirt days under Windex-hued skies; a nearly unbroken tapestry of the foliage that inspired Herman Melville to write that “sunrises and sunsets grow side by side in these woods”; and warm bags of the cider-infused doughnuts that are every hiker’s reward: Fall is far and away my favorite time in the Berkshires.

This autumn, the region offers opportunities to alternate new trails with old favorites. But first, a few planning tips. I recommend the BNRC Berkshire Trails app from the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. You could spend a wonderful week wandering Berkshire County’s back roads, using this app to guide you from one secluded wonder to the next. Note, too, that many leading cultural venues — including the Clark Art Institute, Hancock Shaker Village and The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former home — are not only open, but are surrounded by paths and gentle trails on which it’s easy to socially distance, and to sidestep, too, that tough Berkshires call: culture or nature?

Most important, check Massachusetts’s strict quarantine rules before you leave home. Oh, and dress brightly — it’s hunting season. And watch out for bears.

Start your day at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, my hometown, where Jess Lamb (who previously practiced her craft at Joe Coffee on East 13th Street in Manhattan) and her colleagues create the county’s richest-tasting lattes with beans from Barrington Coffee and milk from High Lawn Farm, both in nearby Lee. Then drive west to Pittsfield State Forest (free).

Around 30 miles of trails lace this roughly 11,000-acre realm, which once formed part of Mohican and Mohawk hunting grounds. Later, the Shakers settled here. Their graves, former settlements and dancing sites still can still be found among the stands of sugar maple, oak, birch and white pine.

First-time visitors should head to Berry Pond. At around 2,150 feet, it’s the state’s highest natural body of water. My mother and I often came here to pick blueberries, so imagine my surprise when I learned that it was named for William Berry, a Revolutionary War hero.

A network of steepish trails or a scenic one-way loop road, built by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, can take you up (the road is curvy and narrow; pedestrians, cyclists and motorists should keep a close eye out for one another). Enjoy the spectacular westerly overlook (hello, to paraphrase the McGarrigle sisters, to the state of old New York!). Then head downhill to the pond for a view of the season’s colors, pleasingly doubled by the water’s mirror.

The world’s most mouthwatering cider doughnuts still come from Bartlett’s Orchard in Richmond. So busy was their farm shop this summer that they’ve instituted weekend online ordering and curbside pickup for the fall; you can still pick apples in the orchards behind the shop. From here, drive or cycle to Parsons Marsh, a B.N.R.C. property in Lenox that opened in 2018. A trail and boardwalk (free; one-third of a mile each way; wheelchair accessible) wind through a woodland worthy of Tolkien’s Galadriel, and wetlands even now bursting with life. Along the marsh’s edge you’ll find haunting examples of the still-standing dead trees known as snags — fine lookouts for raptors — and your own tranquil views (see the beaver lodge?) from the deck at the boardwalk’s end.

Then head to Bousquet Mountain, site of my first childhood ski lessons on Drifter, a gentle slope that’s now also the start of the three-season Mahanna Cobble Trail (free; 1.4 miles each way; elevation gain, around 750 feet). Mahanna Cobble opened in June. It’s the newest stretch of the B.N.R.C.’s High Road initiative, a long-term plan, inspired in part by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain, to use both old and recently cut trails to reconnect Berkshire landscapes and communities.

Along the trail’s first few hundred yards I was surprised to find myself ascending, for the first time, a ski slope I once knew well. But under the shimmering dragonflies and a still-warm September sun, the slope I long ago slid down seemed only a steep meadow, overgrown with late-season blooms of chicory and white wood aster. Soon the trail leaves the ski run — and memories of cooler kids racing past me like Oz’s winged monkeys — behind and climbs into a forest of oak, hickory, birch and beech. When you’re out of breath, take heart, and perhaps a photograph: Temperature generally falls with elevation, so the more vertical your hike, the more likely you are to find yourself surrounded by foliage at its peak of color.

A view is the more obvious gift of altitude. You’ll soon reach a south-facing overlook above a steep clearing. It’s a good spot to count how few doughnuts remain, and to console yourself with as fine a perspective as any on Monument Mountain, not far at all as the hawks above you might fly.

This overlook marks the end of the Mahanna Cobble Trail, but it’s only the beginning of other paths that lead away along the ridge and the High Road you’ve already started down. Go far enough and you’ll reach my mom’s memorial bench — “who loved these hills,” reads the inscription my brother and I chose — where she’d be as happy as I always am to find a traveler at rest. MARK VANHOENACKER


Cuyahoga Valley National Park

The meandering routes between my suburban hometown of Hudson, Ohio, and the nearby village of Peninsula, a time capsule of a town midway between Akron and Cleveland, have had different effects on me over the years. As a restless teenager, I wandered the area in my peppy stick-shift sedan, hoping to accelerate through the highs and lows of high-school life — and burning out a clutch along the way. (Sorry, Dad; I blame the steep hills on West Hines Hill Road.) Later, when I discovered the beauty of the waters and trails in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the roads became a means to explore new interests in hiking, canoeing and photography. And more recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, when so much of our daily reality plays out on screens, cruising the roads — and hopping out to explore both new and familiar trails — has been a real-world balm.

Any road that gets you close to the Cuyahoga River is worth traveling, particularly in mid- to late-October, when the leaves erupt in a breathtakingly beautiful display. Snaking its way along a roughly 80-mile U-shape path before emptying into Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga plays an outsize role in the story of Northeast Ohio; it was vital to Cleveland’s industrial growth before the many fires along its waters made it infamous, helping to prompt the passage of the Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. These days, after half a century of cleanup efforts, it is held up as an ecological success story. (Having once submerged myself and inadvertently drunk a fair amount of it while sinking and retrieving a canoe, I can attest to its cleanliness.)

But the river itself is often overshadowed — particularly in the fall — by its tangential allures: the 87-mile-long Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, whose light, crushed-stone surface is brightly mottled with autumnal leaves; the waterfalls (around 100 in total) and rock gorges that pop with the warm colors; the Old World farms and markets, such as Heritage Farms and Szalay’s, where people flock for pumpkins, apple butter, roasted sweet corn and, yes, the annual fall corn maze.

The valley’s unexpected grandeur is nowhere more evident than in and around Peninsula, a postcard-esque (and postage-stamp-size) village that is, in many ways, the heart of the 33,000-acre national park. From the small train depot, board the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (there’s even a Fall Flyer train) for a memorable view of the foliage.

Roving the area by car (or on bicycle) will lead you past dozens of worthwhile trails. A personal favorite — the completion of which has become a familial Christmas Day tradition — is a hike that links the Haskell Run and Ledges loops and includes some of the valley’s most distinctive features. Beginning near the Happy Days Lodge, built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the trail wanders beside a 19th-century cemetery, over gentle streams (via footbridge crossings), near bat caves, and past the dramatic Sharon Conglomerate rock faces of the Ritchie Ledges, formed from the sand and quartz deposited by ancient streams — all while immersing you in the richest of fall colors.

The national park and its trails feel like an oasis from the suburban sprawl that surrounds them. To the east, along Route 8, commercialism — in the form of car lots, industrial sites and a relatively new Costco — plays the role of a sorry landscape architect. But mere miles away, and within a few steps of any given trailhead, the blunting effects of strip-mall development evaporate under the fiery palettes of oak, hickory and beech trees, and amid the calls of the many migratory songbirds whose seasonal routes carry them through the park in the spring and fall.

Moreover, a simple stroll along the locks of the Ohio and Erie Canal — the 19th-century animating spirit not just of the region’s economy but also of Peninsula’s development as a historical center, once home to five hotels and 14 saloons — is enough to stoke curiosities about Northeast Ohio’s historical ties to Connecticut, via that colony’s (and, later, state’s) Western Reserve.

In many ways, Cuyahoga Valley can’t compete with the scale or sublimity of the national parks in the West. But that’s largely irrelevant. Standing among the cliffs at Ledges, or resting at the banks of Sylvan Pond on the brilliantly pigmented Oak Hill Trail, or cruising into the valley on a scenic leaf-covered road to Peninsula, I feel something that — for me and many others, especially in this long moment of isolation — is only available in this particular pocket of the world: the decades-long pull of a regenerative haven, here in my own suburban backyard. STEPHEN HILTNER

West Virginia

Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks

While many traditional foliage tours are done from packed trains and buses that follow well-worn railways and roads, fall tourism this year demands a novel approach. And with travelers forced to chart their own course, some of the best places to take in the autumn colors are those that cannot be reached at all on the standard guided excursions.

One of the most rewarding options for those living in and around Appalachia is to forgo the winding roads at lower elevations and peer down at the landscape from atop Spruce Knob, the tallest peak in both West Virginia and the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Nestled within a 100,000-acre section of the surrounding 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, the top of Spruce Knob is perched high above an all-but-unspoiled tract of forest extending out in all directions.

At 4,863 feet, the summit provides not only breathtaking views, but also an unusual landscape of its own. Gnarled red spruce trees, after which the mountain is named, grow deformed on one side, shorn by punishing westerly winds that tear over the ridge. And stands of evergreens at the top gradually mix in with other species, like mountain ash, which produces dense clusters of brilliant flame-colored berries that last through the winter, and turn from green to a spectrum of yellow and orange shades in the fall.

The drive to the peak requires resolve and care. From a base point near Judy Gap, W.Va., a serpentine drive up Route 33 narrows to a nine-mile stretch of old forestry road, with several blind curves and switchbacks, barely wide enough to pass traffic coming down, and with no guardrails protecting against steep drops down the mountain slope. The path is not treated to remove ice or snow.

At the top, however, visitors are rewarded with a wealth of options for taking in the scenery. About 1,000 feet from the parking lot is a two-story observation tower that provides an even higher vantage from which to survey the surrounding area. And the easy, half-mile Whispering Spruce Trail leads visitors along a gravel path that circles the tower for panoramic views across both sides of the ridge.

The more intrepid can seek out other overlooks to enjoy all to themselves. At the other end of the parking lot, the Huckleberry Trail carves a roughly five-mile path along the ridge, running northeast away from Spruce Knob. The trail passes by nearly a dozen backcountry campsites that lead slightly off the trail and, sometimes, down to an opening in the trees — a private window from which to view the vistas below, away from the main area.

Beyond that, the trail continues to a longer loop, which passes through a number of high altitude meadows, allowing hikers an opportunity to pause and observe the woods all around the clearing. However, the full hike is over 15 miles, and frigid fall temperatures necessitate serious cold weather gear for anyone planning to camp out overnight and complete the loop over multiple days.

According to the United States Forest Service, Spruce Knob lies within a day’s drive of about half of the populace, accessible from points all along the East Coast and the Midwest, and roughly four hours from Washington. And while it may be the most impressive vantage point in the area, it is not the only one.

Kelly Bridges, the public affairs officer for Monongahela National Forest, said that fall weather at the peak can be unpredictable, and heavy fog and clouds can, at times, obscure the very best views at the top of Spruce Knob. But on those days, an easy backup lies 10 miles northeast up Route 33 at Seneca Rocks, a soaring crag popular among rock climbers, with razor thin fins that stick up vertically and rise nearly 900 feet. There, a steep trail leads to another observation deck that looks down into the valley, where a variety of hardwood trees that thrive at lower elevations take on deep red and yellow hues along a river.

For another option, partway up the route to Spruce Knob, the road divides, allowing drivers to pull off by an overlook far enough down to avoid clouds and haze, but high enough to provide a striking view.

The drive through miles of national forest and up to the mountaintop is a passageway to a genuinely remote part of the East, and the Spruce Knob area offers visitors a menu of possibilities for savoring the auburn colors of fall. And in a celebration of continuity in an otherwise unfamiliar year, Monongahela, officially designated on April 28, 1920, is commemorating its centennial. ZACH MONTAGUE


Grafton Notch

A fall excursion to Grafton Notch from Portland, Maine, includes not just colorful swaths of foliage, but a Shaker community, a ghost and a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The area’s glacial gorges, waterfalls and caves add further intrigue to the predominantly beech, birch and maple forest. Not to mention, a fall drive and hike support both sanity and social distancing.

Before heading out, check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website for its Covid-19 recommendations, which include carrying a mask and practicing social distancing when passing people on the trail. Maine visitors should check Keep Maine Healthy for the latest Covid-19 testing and quarantine guidelines.

The hour-and-50-minute trip from Portland begins with 10 miles of surprisingly vibrant leaf peeping on Maine’s primary artery, I-95 North. At Gray, Route 26 North heads inland to New Gloucester where it passes the last active Shaker community in the country, founded on Sabbathday Lake in the late 1700s. Though closed to the public for 2020, the historic buildings and farmlands of Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village can still be easily viewed from the car.

Next comes the township of Poland, namesake of the Poland Spring bottled water company and home to the Poland Spring Resort. It is also the territory of a ghost called the Route 26 Hitchhiker, which is said to manifest as a young lady wearing a fancy dress. It’s rumored she died in a roadside accident on her wedding or prom night, and while she may ask for a ride, she’ll likely disappear from the car before reaching the destination.

Past the Oxford Casino and views of distant mountains, Route 26 parallels the Little Androscoggin River through Paris to Snow Falls, a popular pull-off for the waterfalls and picnic area. In Woodstock, the Mollyockett Motel is named for a Native American Algonquin princess who is the source of many legends. The mountain views and foliage increase around Greenwood, birthplace of L.L. Bean’s founder, Leon Leonwood Bean, and home to the Mt. Abram Ski Area & Bike Park, popular in fall for the lift-accessed mountain bike trails.

Food and lodging can be had in Bethel, founded in the fertile Androscoggin River Valley in 1796, and at the Sunday River ski resort in nearby Newry. Continuing through Bethel on Route 26 North, The Good Food Store and Smokin’ Good BBQ (try the smoked beef brisket or pulled pork/chicken on a bun) is a popular stop. From there, expect excellent foliage on the last stretch to Bear River Road and the 12 miles of the Grafton Notch Scenic Byway leading to the Appalachian Trail parking lot. On the way, Mother Walker and Screw Auger falls are worth a visit, and Grafton Notch Campground on the Bear River is a great option for overnight camping.

The Appalachian Trail parking lot in Grafton Notch State Park connects a number of hikes, including one of the toughest sections of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail: the Old Speck summit, elevation, about 4,180 feet, the fifth highest point in Maine, which can be reached on a 3.8-mile hike.

Heading northeast on the trail to Mount Katahdin, Baldpate Mountain’s West Peak is a 2.9-mile hike and East Peak is about 3.8 miles.

Shorter but steeper hikes include the Eyebrow on Old Speck, a 2.1-mile loop, and Table Rock, a 2.4-mile loop with fantastic views of Old Speck. A popular favorite for its wide-open rock plateau and valley views, Table Rock Trail is also quite steep, with metal rungs on the rocks. (A sampling of the trail and views from Table Rock, and the surrounding lakes, can be found in the GLP Films video Maine Lakes and Mountains.)

The best choice for a good day hike is Baldpate’s West Peak. Across the road from the Appalachian Trail’s parking lot, the path is well maintained and includes a variety of terrain, from rocky to rooty, much under deciduous tree cover. The 5.8-mile round-trip trek takes five to six hours at a decent pace with time for a picnic lunch at the summit. Just when you think you might never reach the end, the trail hits a steep section that comes out to an exposed rock area looking across a saddle to the East Peak of Baldpate, with a panoramic spread of the Mahoosuc Mountain Range. Keep going another mile to the East Peak summit or just enjoy the view and head back down. MELISSA COLEMAN


Percy Warner Park and Radnor Lake

Fall in Nashville is the most vibrant season, and there is no better way for an immersion in the season’s rich reds, corals and ochers than a drive along the canopied blacktop through Percy Warner Park, just nine miles south of downtown. Tag on a hike around another Nashville gem, Radnor Lake, and you have the makings of a dazzling day trip, all within the confines of the city limits, and a perfect outing during the pandemic. Both parks abide by the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance on social distancing, and numerous trails in both parks make it easy to avoid crowds.

Percy Warner Park and Edwin Warner Park — on the National Register of Historic Places — span 3,131 acres of wooded hills, open meadows and streams. The adjoining parks, which opened in 1927, offer hiking trails, mountain bike paths and bridle paths. However, a slow-rolling, scenic drive through the mature deciduous forest during peak fall is nothing short of stunning: The sun strobes through the trees above drivers who share the roadway with hikers, cyclists and dog walkers. Once inside the park, the tulip poplars, dogwoods, black cherry, sassafras and pawpaw trees are breathtaking. Given the park’s designation as a nature sanctuary, it’s not unusual to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, Eastern chipmunks and coyotes.

The roadway — a roughly four-mile loop — can be found at the Old Hickory Boulevard entrance. You’ll pass the tall wooden lookout that oversees the grounds (and beyond) of the annual Iroquois Steeplechase, which was canceled this year because of the pandemic, and along the route are scenic overlooks.

You can also enter Percy Warner via Belle Meade Boulevard. This is the main entrance with a ceremonial-style arch and dramatic limestone steps reminiscent of a European allée that was designed by the landscape architect Bryant Fleming, who also designed the early 20th-century Cheek Mansion at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens.

From the Belle Meade Boulevard entrance, you can find trails like the Warner Woods trail, a two-and-a-half-mile unpaved walking path that traverses the interior of Percy Warner, as well as a 5.8-mile stretch of paved pedestrian trail.

Next, set your GPS to Radnor Lake State Park off Otter Creek Road, another of the city’s natural jewels, about seven miles east. Because Radnor Lake does not allow food, it may be wise to first swing by a Nashville standard, Mere Bulles, just off Old Hickory Boulevard, for their famous crab bisque, available to go (call first). You won’t regret it (or forget it).

Signage throughout the park reminds those visiting Radnor Lake to abide by appropriate social distancing rules. (For more information on Covid-19 rules, go to the Tennessee State Parks’ website.)

The sublime glassy Radnor Lake pulls in photographers from around mid-Tennessee who often arrive early enough to shoot the morning brume that rises from the lake. Here, too, you can glimpse plenty of wildlife: deer, turtles, turkey, eagles, owls, waterfowl and coyotes; ranger-led programs throughout the year include canoe floats, night hikes and wildflower walks.

All the trails are blazingly colorful during autumn, often heightened on cloudless days by an azure sky. One trail — Otter Creek Road Trail — is an accessible mile-long stroll that hugs the curves of the lake and is paved for those in wheelchairs. Black gum, American beech and other deciduous trees line the trail, offering some respite from the sun. Still, hikers are close enough to the water to catch glimpses of lake inhabitants like beavers, minks and otters. For more experienced hikers, Radnor Lake’s strenuous Ganier Ridge Trail delivers a gorgeous view of downtown Nashville. COLLEEN CREAMER


Guanella Pass, Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway and more

After a summer of record heat and forest-fire smoke, a revitalizing road trip or hike in the cool hinterlands of Denver may be irresistible. Outdoor enthusiasts will have their choice of satisfying adventures and explosions of color right now: The foothills and mountains surrounding the mile-high city have begun to blaze in swoon-worthy, spectacular foliage, and Indian summers can stretch all the way into November before the winter snow begins to stick.

Denver was founded in 1858 as a gold mining settlement, and to this day, leaf peepers will find that surrounding town and country vistas remain inextricably etched with that aspect of Colorado history. Cloaked in Victorian mining antiquity, buildings are bedecked with towers, turrets, dormers and wraparound porches, while the adjoining slopes are dotted with shaft holes, multihued rock tailing piles and tottering old mine shacks.

Enveloping that human history are the ancient Rocky Mountains. The green summer tundra on the high peaks has already gone buttery yellow and blood-red on top, as the tiny plants yield to frosts before browning with winter. Halfway down, the mountains are clad in evergreens, while the lower slopes will soon be lit by the luminescent gold of aspen trees.

One day trip to a stunning, high-alpine cirque allows you to bear witness to this whole spectacle, from aspens to tundra. It begins with a drive west on Route 285 and a turn north at Grant onto Route 62. About 5.5 miles up the 11-mile road to Guanella Pass is the Abyss Lake Trail. This challenging 7.5-mile, 3,000-foot hike passes through numerous stands of aspen, and, for the first few miles, the trail is wide enough for social distancing. Then it climbs more steeply up along a creek leading to the treeless and Lilliputian plant landscape of the 12,650-foot-high Abyss Lake. Look for moose and pronghorn antelope along the way.

If you’d rather stay in the comfort of your car, continue driving on the Guanella Pass Road through the aspen forest, with its golden leaves rippling in fall winds. The gravel road climbs to 11,700 feet, with views of Mounts Bierstadt and Evans above a sea of flamboyantly tinted fall willows. At the bottom of the pass road, alongside I-70, is the old mining locale of Georgetown, with an old-time railroad offering daily rides through the aspen forest. Plan for the round-trip drive from Denver to take about four hours.

For a shorter tour, drive roughly 30 miles south out of Denver on Route 85 until it becomes Colorado Highway 121, which takes you directly to the Waterton Canyon parking area. This moderate six-mile hike on a dirt road, alongside the South Platte River, swirling with fishing holes, is also ideal for bicycling and horseback riding. The popular trail — known for up-close big horn sheep viewing — has plenty of toilets and is rimmed with huge cottonwood trees that blush as ripe as lemons in the fall.

But the state’s oldest road trip, with brilliant foliage and Continental Divide viewing, is the four-hour, 149-mile Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway from Estes Park through the Gold Rush mining country to Black Hawk. One stop could be Nederland’s antediluvian Goldminer Hotel, listed in the Registrar of Historic Places. Or, near the town of Ward, a 5.5-mile hike loops around the well-traveled Brainard Lake — but don’t forget you’ll be hiking above 10,000 feet.

For an alternative with thicker air, begin with a 45-minute drive out of Denver to Boulder. Turning up Flagstaff Road, a six-mile drive up and over Flagstaff Mountain (a quick stop on the overlook reveals a panorama of Boulder and the surrounding plains) will continue to the Myers Gulch trailhead. From there, follow the old wagon trail (with plenty of social-distancing room) that winds 2.7 miles up to the top of an unnamed peak that offers incredible views.

Along the way, an old hay barn and sawmill speak to the bygone homesteader and miner days in the region. The crinkling yellow leaves cast penumbral light around pale aspen trunks, while the air is redolent with that sweet, sharp smell of change found only in the autumn aspen groves of Colorado. Surrounded by this all-too brief and soul-stirring beauty, one is reminded, as Robert Frost once wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.” JON WATERMAN

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