New England Fall Foliage: When To Go

How to Time Your Autumn Travels

New England Best Time for Fall Foliage
When will you see the most vibrant fall foliage in New England? Here's expert advice for timing your trip. © Kim Knox Beckius

"When should I go?" This is absolutely the most burning New England fall foliage question on leaf seekers’ minds. You may wish you had a crystal ball to foretell peak fall foliage dates. But even lifelong New Englanders will tell you: There’s just no knowing exactly what course nature will take.

Why is "when to go" such a tricky question? During the autumn months, New England can experience every whim of weather. A freak early October snow storm or a tropical storm or even hurricane can devastate leaves and trees. October can also bring surprisingly warm 80-degree days and leaves that seem bound and determined to hang on until at least Halloween.

Fickle weather is certainly frustrating. Unless you live close enough to New England to drive home at the end of each day, spontaneity is out of the question. Accommodations are just too booked up during the busy fall season to take a chance that you'll find something at the last minute. Your decision of "where to go" is also tied to the timing of the leaves. The color change begins in New England’s northernmost regions and highest elevations and works its way south and down mountainsides.

So, What's a Determined Leaf Peeper To Do?

First, it’s important to understand the science behind the scenery. When you learn a bit about why leaves change color in the fall, you’ll realize the process that begins each September and lasts through early November involves a variety of factors that are impossible to predict or control.

Armed with knowledge of the conditions that influence the progression of the fall season, the next step is to stack the odds in your favor. There are no guarantees, but there are steps you can take to increase the likelihood you’ll see New England fall foliage at its peak.

Another useful tool for getting a general sense of when the "normal" peak arrives at various places in New England is this day-by-day peak fall foliage map from NewEngland.com. Keep in mind, though, that this is just an estimation, and each year, the colors emerge on their own schedule.

Embrace the Crowds or Avoid the Crowds?

Another crucial thing to keep in mind as you select your fall travel dates: Do you want to be in New England at the peak of the frenzy, or would you prefer to avoid the worst of the traffic... and the longest lines for cider doughnuts?

The Columbus Day holiday weekend is traditionally associated with peak fall color in all but the northernmost and southernmost areas of New England. But it’s also the three days when competition for hotel rooms is most fierce, and prices soar. Traffic on the Kancamagus Highway—New England’s most stunning fall drive—can slow to a crawl. And you’ll wait for everything from sky rides to tables at popular restaurants.

If you can delay your trip until the Tuesday after Columbus Day, you should still see pretty leaves and can cut costs and hassles. Arriving prior to Columbus Day—particularly if you plan to concentrate your sightseeing in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont—is also a smart alternative. Midweek, you’ll always find more availability at inns and hotels in the region, and you’ll be able to cover more ground, which always improves the chance you'll spy gorgeous autumn scenes.

Follow the Foliage

If you have some flexibility in your travel timing... for example, if you'll be staying with friends or making day trips... these online leaf reports for the New England states and neighboring New York will help you find the best foliage once the season gets rolling. These authentic updates on leaf peeping conditions can help you decide in which direction to drive from wherever you happen to be staying.

Don't Leave It Up To Chance

Fun Things To Do in New England in the Fall

Let's face it. Lack of leaves. Crappy Weather. Factors beyond your control can put a damper on your fall foliage vacation. Your best bet is to not put too much pressure on the leaves to perform for you. There are plenty of other fall activities to focus on and enjoy while you're in New England, whether the leaves cooperate when you are here or not.

Here's a quick list of some of the best things to do in New England in the fall...

  1. Go for a hike/walk on crunchy leaves.
  2. Take photographs.
  3. Go on a hay ride.
  4. Pick pumpkins.
  5. Eat cider donuts.
  6. Pick up spectacular fall leaves and press them to preserve them.
  7. Drink warm apple cider. (Here’s how to make hot mulled cider at home.)
  8. Visit a winery.
  9. Take a fall foliage cruise.
  10. Drive the back roads.

Fall Festivals Galore

Another way to fend off potential foliage disappointment is to plan your trip around something fun, such as a festival or football game. Check our Fall Weekend Events guide for the best things happening each autumn weekend in New England, or make it your goal to attend at least one of these Top 10 New England Fall Festivals.