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Travel: The best cold weather drives in New England, US

Six months of planning go into a trip to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to enjoy the colours of fall, colonial covered bridges and local beers

New England in the US is the best place for a road trip to see beautiful fall foliage. A road into the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine, US. (Jesal Thakker)

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The end of the year always rouses a sense of reflection as well as looking ahead to the year to come. This year, I finally managed to do a drive across north-eastern US to witness the fall colours, a trip I had planned for years.

I’d been to the US’ New England region twice before, and during both visits I had been told “Oh, you should come by during fall”. So this year, I decided to sync my visit to the weather to witness the ‘turning of the leaves’—the bursts of orange, red, brown and rust just before they fall.

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The key components that make a road trip great are the route and the car. On my recent road trip through three states in the New England region, I was fortunate to be at the wheel of the very capable Ford Bronco. And, the routes that I had chalked out took us through some incredible scenery, through quiet country roads where brilliant bursts of colour, often reflected in the tranquil waters of lakes, were the norm. Attractive villages with cottages sitting pretty within picket fences, colonial covered bridges and 19th century churches complemented the constant and colourful canvas of fall. And, within these were diners, taverns and pubs were cheery staff, local beers on tap and generous portions of food.

Like predicting the weather, it is not possible to accurately predict when the leaves will turn and where. So, in July I started scouring the Internet to gather information about when I should go to New England and where I should go in New England. Very quickly I realized that my trip had to happen between the last week of September and the first 10 days of October. The latter was a bit trickier. All the blogs and mainstream guidebooks laid out generic information about New England with the focus on cities and towns that ‘leaf peeping’ tourists descend on at this time.

I chanced upon a book, Colours for Fall Road Trip Guide by Jerry and Marcy Monkman, on 25 autumn tours in New England. It listed road trips through the little country roads of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The focus was not on towns and cities but rather on routes and roads to take in the most spectacular foliage scenery. Every trip had a map and detailed descriptions of the route with GPS coordinates for points of interest. And there were ‘leg stretchers’ or hikes within each roadtrip to break the monotony of just driving.

I found Jerry Monkman on LinkedIn and asked him to suggest road atlases. He replied within minutes suggesting DeLorme atlases, a brand owned by Garmin. I promptly bought one for Maine and another for New Hampshire and Vermont. It was thanks to the combination of the book and these maps that over 10 days we were able to explore roads, tracks and trails usually used by locals. I chalked out eight trips that we would do in 10 days and I will tell you about two of them.

Colebrook, New Hampshire to the Canadian border along the Connecticut River

Called ‘Moose Alley’, this route offers a high probability of spotting these gentle giants that populate the woods and forests of New England. But hunting season was open and the moose had got the memo too and they were staying under cover. We did hear gunshots often on and it always made me think that wouldn’t it be a more pleasurable sport to go looking for them with a camera rather than a gun?

Shy moose notwithstanding the day’s drive was stunningly scenic. The weather was lovely at 14 degrees Celsius and the foliage was at its peak. This region is covered with hardwood forests of yellow birch, sugar maples and American beech. Their leaves turn vibrant orange, yellow and bronze. The vivid reds are from the less dominant red maple. Depending on the rainfall, temperature and soil conditions, sugar maples turn red too. Colebrook, where we started, epitomizes small town America and sits by the Connecticut River.

The drive took us north along the Connecticut River on US-3 past a one-horse town called Pittsburg where the solitary gas station looked like the salon from a Clint Eastwood Western. Shotgun shells shared shelves with chocolates and gum. About a mile and a half past Pittsburg we came upon Lake Francis, the first in the series of four lakes in the Connecticut River Headwaters Region. It was a still day and the foliage was reflected in the glass-like surface of the blue water. This region and the four lakes are a playground for boating and fishing.

We continued along US-3 stopping at the first, second and third Connecticut Lakes each of them with grassy banks that had trestle tables and barbeques for public use. At the third I fired up my camping stove and brewed some masala chai that we sipped with butter batasas from Paris Bakery, Princess Street, Bombay. The US-3 terminated at the Canadian Border, 40 miles from Colebrook. The severity of the grey border and customs building was somewhat lessened by the burst of colour in the forests around.

At the US-Canada border after following the Connecticut River.
At the US-Canada border after following the Connecticut River. (Jesal Thakker)

My book said it was possible to park the car next to the US Customs building and follow the foot trail to the Fourth Connecticut Lake and the true start of the Connecticut River. But that meant crossing into the no-man’s land between the US and Canada and taking the trail into the forest. We stepped into this piece of land with a fair bit of trepidation, almost expecting armed guards to come rushing out from either side but it remained eerily quiet and so we carried on. It was a medium to hard trail with steep inclines that had us scrambling over scree and splashing through slush. Hammered onto tree trunks were signs indicating the boundary line and my friend got a mighty kick from standing with one leg in Canada and the other in the US all the while wondering if there was an invisible eye in the sky watching our every move.

It was a 1.7 mile round trip to the lake and back and I sat on a fallen trunk and looked out at the not-so-inspiring puddle that was the start of the mighty Connecticut River. It was hard to believe that from this little body of water, akin to a serving of soup for Hagrid, goes on to become the mighty Connecticut River flowing 410 miles before discharging into the Long Island Sound lying between Connecticut to the north, and Long Island in New York to the south. Yet, sitting in that colourful copse with easy conversation flowing as autumn leaves slowly drifted down remains one of my most memorable moments of this roadtrip.

On the way back at Pittsburg we took a detour along New Hampshire state highway 145 to get to Colebrook and stopped for a photo at the 45th Parallel Marker. Here we were standing exactly halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

Three days later we were in Greenville, Maine, chalking up a route to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Mount Katahdin is Maine’s highest peak and in 2016 President Obama designated about 90,000 acres of Maine Woods in its vicinity as a national monument. Patricia, my AirBnb host, suggested a recently created road. “It’s raw and dirt but it will be super fun,” she said. “Oh, and wear orange or bright colours since it’s hunting season.”

The route was also spotted with lakes and ponds, with names like Moosehead, Indian, Rum, Quakish and Seboeis. The colours of fall were a constant source of sighs. The combination of unsealed surfaces and the multi-hued beauty of the trees that had us stopping for photographs meant it took us over three hours to cover 70 miles (113km).

We stopped at a campsite café just before just before entering the Katahdin Woods to buy some lunch. The sandwiches were so stacked that they needed a jaw that could be unhinged to bite into them.

The menu at a campsite café at the entrance of the Katahdin Woods in Maine, US
The menu at a campsite café at the entrance of the Katahdin Woods in Maine, US (Jesal Thakker)

Since the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a recent designation the infrastructure is minimal and we often crossed wooden bridges that squeaked and groaned under the weight of the car.

We took a road that the map indicated as a short cut. It started as a grassy track but soon became an overgrown trail that I was almost convinced that the last vehicle on it must have been a horse-drawn wagon. Thankfully, we came upon a clearing and unwrapped our sandwiches. I kept an ear cocked for tell-tale sounds from the woods beyond. This is bear country after all and by now the scent of pastrami and molten pepper jack slathered with cranberry honey mustard must have wafted deep into the forest. Fortunately, there were no rude interruptions. The path from that clearing led straight into a lake and we had to back track all the way, so much for the short cut.

By the time we finished the drive around the national monument the sun was casting long shadows and we headed back to Greenville, this time following Google Maps down the Interstate 95. It was so smooth and so devoid of traffic that my friend drove the 123 miles (197km) in just a tad over two hours. We got to Greenville just before the kitchen at the atmospheric Stress Free Moose Pub & Café closed for last orders. We sat there enjoying the laughter, conversation and the local brew, in eager anticipation of the drives to come over the next few days.

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