By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
“You’re going leaf peeping?”
“Leaf peeping. That’s what they call it up there.”
The woman waiting to board the plane with us was on her way to New England to celebrate Christmas with family. In October. Her packages were all neatly wrapped.
Fran and I were headed to New Hampshire to celebrate her birthday and experience autumn in the epicenter.
But leaf peeping? I kept coming across the term while researching the trip and thought it sounded creepy. Every time I mentioned where we were going, I’d hear it again: “Best place for leaf peeping. Hope you hit it at peak.
Hey, I’m not a peeper person. I don’t peep. OK?
I hadn’t laid eyes on nature’s psychedelic showcase since leaving the North many years ago, and never in New England. Growing up in Ohio, I never cared for the season. The changing of the leaves meant having to rake them, followed by many bleak months.
Now, after several decades in Florida, fall lends hope that we’ll soon stop sweating (as much) and fretting about hurricanes. The thought of sweater weather, leaves falling, pumpkins on the ground and cider, preferably spiced with rum, suddenly sounded enticing.
New Hampshire was chosen in the interest of making the most of four days available. An early flight on Southwest Airlines would get us to Manchester, N.H., before noon.
Once there, I had no idea. All I knew was New Hampshire was one of those little vertical states.
Research via the Net indicated the White Mountain National Forest was the place to go for spectacular scenery and color. The Foliage Tracker (www.visitnh.gov/vacation-ideas/Foliage-Tracker/), updated twice a week through October, tells the peak period for viewing nature’s fall show, which varies with weather conditions. That year, our visit the second weekend of October put us near the apex for prime color.
I also learned that all is not serene behind the National Geographic vistas. Our destination the first night, the tiny town of Franconia, was the scene of an ugly incident in early 2007 when the cousin of skier Bode Miller shot and killed a police officer and was in turn gunned down by a witness. The travel guide highlighted a more enticing landscape of mountain peaks, waterfalls, meandering streams, quaint towns, covered bridges and scenic railroad tours.
One of the advantages of traveling in those little vertical states is none of the attractions are too distant for a weekend getaway.
Beauty in the White Mountains
A couple of hours drive north on Interstate-93 and we reached the west side of the 100-mile loop known as the White Mountains Trail. A prominent attraction in the area used to be the Old Man of the Mountain, a rock formation in Franconia Notch State Park that resembled the profile of a face chipped out of the side of the mountain. At least it did until the rock face fell like that of an aging matinee idol in 2003.
There is still an overlook for the site, but we wouldn’t have been able to see if the face had a neon mustache because we arrived in a downpour. There was a colorful palate to the forest background somewhere under all that gloom, but the lens cap stayed on the camera. The dominant color of the day was gray.
The mood brightened when we pulled up to the Kinsman Lodge B&B and received the official greeting from a big, white dog with tail wagging, and then inside by proprietor Sue Thompson. This is the advantage of staying in a B&B. The lodge, with 11 guest rooms, has been in Thompson’s family since 1906, and she and husband Chet treat all their guests like long-lost relatives.
There was a fire crackling downstairs and a cozy comforter on the bed in the Cannon Room. After a nap, we took Sue’s advice and headed to the Lloyd Hill Restaurant in nearby Bethlehem. The Granite State scallops were huge, tender and topped with a maple syrup and Dijon glaze. Bourbon pecan pie a la mode provided the capper, and we hardly noticed the chill as we walked to the car.
Saturday morning brought the first glimpse of what we’d come to see, the view from the lodge’s spacious breakfast room revealing hills painted in multi-colored splendor through a filigree fog. As we enjoyed Sue’s warm pumpkin muffins and homemade granola, the sun shooed away the fog and autumn’s canvas came into vivid focus.
The first stop of the day, at the Cannon Aerial Tramway, promised a more expansive panorama of the colorful landscape with the view extending to Maine, Vermont and Canada. But as the tram approached the 4,200-foot summit of the Cannon Mountain ski resort the quest for autumn detoured suddenly to winter.
Frost had etched a sharp demarcation across the top of the mountain. As the temperature plunged the previous night, nature’s artisans were busy spray-painting every blade of grass and pine needle a ghostly white. The crowd scurried off the tram and onto the ski trails in amazement. Hardly anyone paused for a look at the array of colors in the valley. We were blinded by the white, and delighted by it.
It was one of those surprises that only nature can deliver. Suddenly I longed to strap on skis. Autumn could wait.
Kanc is mecca for fall colors
There are plenty of places outside New England to see colorful fall foliage: The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia’s Skyline Drive, the Ozarks in Missouri, the Adirondacks and Catskills of New York, even Texas’ Lost Maples Natural Area, among the notables. I found photos on the Internet of fall scenes around Seattle that rival those in the East, and leaf seekers flock to the mountains in Colorado before skiers hit the slopes.
The Japanese have their own term for leaf peeping: momijigari, aka the hunt for red leaves. The Japanese maples and gingkos put on a brilliant display throughout the country. Kyoto is renowned for its momijigari, lasting into early December.
In New England, the epicenter of autumn sightseeing is a 33-mile stretch of Route 112 between Lincoln and Conway known as the Kancamagus Highway, or the Kanc, in Peeper parlance. Apparently its reputation is far-reaching. The day we crossed it, many of our fellow sightseers were Indian. Not to be confused with the people who inhabited the region when Europeans first came upon the autumn spectacle. These were tourists from India.
The highway is named for Chief Kancamagus, leader of the confederacy of tribes in central New England that attempted to maintain peace with the English settlers. The tribes were ultimately pushed out of the region, but his legacy remains.
Entering from the west end at Lincoln, the allure of the Kanc is immediately evident. Each turn in the road reveals a fresh display of color, the varying shades of reds and yellows of the changing leaves heightened in contrast to the rich, green background of pines. It’s like watching a fireworks display in full daylight, and you can’t help but supply the “oohs!” and “aahs!”
“This is the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” Fran kept repeating.
The Kanc isn’t a drive as much as a visual smorgasbord. There are numerous scenic stops for this purpose. Some are mere photo ops for the peeparazzi, standing elbow to elbow to take the same picture. One, two, three, click! On a busy weekend, getting a parking space in these tiny lots requires the tenacity of 10-year-olds at a birthday party playing musical chairs.
Larger areas have picnic areas and campgrounds, and there are hiking trails that can be traversed in a half-hour or several days.
Parking permits are on the honor system. Put $3 in the yellow envelope, deposit it in boxes at any parking area and hang the tag on your rearview mirror, good for all day. It would be easy to display the permit and ditch the pay envelope, but that would seem a gross disrespect for nature’s gift, not to mention the memory of Chief Kancamagus. And where else can you get such a spectacular show for $3?
We stopped at Sabbaday Falls and began hiking on a dirt path blanketed with fallen leaves along a gently flowing stream. We never made it to the falls, which were rumbling farther up the trail, being too occupied with taking close-up photos of interesting arrangements of leaves and rocks at the edge of the stream. Collecting a fistful of the prettiest maples, oaks and aspens brought to mind a major science project during the fall of seventh grade.
This day had nothing to do with science and everything to do with mental health. Our daughter, in college at the time, had a different assessment when she heard of our leaf-collecting fascination.
Nearing the end of the Kanc, we pulled off at a campground where the featured attraction is the Albany covered bridge spanning the Swift River. New Hampshire has 56 covered bridges, quaint relics proudly preserved as magnets for tourists and tributes to 19th Century engineering. Most are still open to traffic. The secret to their longevity, I learned, is in the trusses, or crisscrossed frameworks that provide strength and enhance appeal as subjects of photographs.
After shooting the bridge from every conceivable angle, from inside and out, some views featuring the colors of its campanion trees, others the rocky river gurgling below, I gave silent thanks for the wonder of digital photography.
For directions, ask the quick, brown fox
Beware of handy mini-maps on common fold-up tourist pamphlets. They can be grossly out of scale. The one I was using to navigate to the Eagle Mountain House near the tiny town of Jackson showed access via a road that looped off Route 16. It appeared about equal distance from either entry point. I chose the first because we got to drive through a covered bridge. From there it proceeded in the general direction of oblivion.
We would later learn that the inn was only about a half-mile up the road from the other entrance of the loop. But had we taken the shorter rout, we never would have gotten to play chicken with the quick red fox or observe the tennis-playing turkey.
As we meandered into the wilderness, I could sense Fran’s thoughts: What kind of a place did you book us for the next two nights, a tent?
Then I made the wrong choice at a fork in the road and the scenery became even more rustic. No inn in sight, but at the top of a rise a fox stood in the middle of the narrow blacktop road. We stopped and the fox defiantly stood his ground while I fumbled for the camera.
As the camera went through the start-up sequence, the fox turned tail and calmly slipped out of sight into the brush.
Continuing another quarter-mile, a couple of houses flanked the road just before it narrowed into a dirt path. The only sign of life was a wild turkey frolicking with a tennis ball in the yard next to one of the houses. That surprise was topped a few minutes later as we headed back down the road. Suddenly our friend the fox leaped out of the ditch and dashed across the road in front of the car.
We were still laughing about that over a Tuckerman draught later in the bar at the Eagle Mountain House. The bartender heartily recommended the local brew, which is named after Tuckerman Ravine, a legendary extreme skiing site on the southeast side of nearby Mount Washington.
The venerable Eagle Mountain House, circa 1879, is listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Happy Hour crowd in the cozy Eagle Landing Tavern was old-guard New England. There was college football on the TV, No. 1 LSU being upset by Kentucky in overtime, but all the talk was of the Red Sox, who the previous night had beaten Cleveland in the opener of the 2007 American League Championship Series.
Fran gave me a knowing glance. I smiled and sipped my Tuckerman in silence. Only she knew my secret: an Indians fan infiltrating Red Sox Nation. Later I would root alone in our room as Cleveland evened the series in extra innings.
Pumpkin People take over town
Fueled by the expansive Sunday brunch at the Eagle Mountain House, I was ready for some serious mountain climbing. Well, sort of. The entrance to the Mount Washington Auto Road is just a few miles up Route 16. I figured we could take a drive and get a peek of the highest peak in the Northeast.
Fortunately, we stopped at the front desk on the way out for guidance and encountered two men in heavy winter coats recounting their aborted effort to do the same. Even the tourist literature touts Mount Washington as home of the “world’s worst weather.” The highest wind ever recorded on Earth was registered there: 231 mph. On this autumn morning, we learned, the auto road was closed due to heavy snowfall on the mountain.
So, what to do on a Sunday afternoon in Jackson, N.H.? Let’s ask the road construction crew in front of that covered bridge. Those workers with the orange faces, they seem to be hardly working. No wonder, it’s Sunday and they have … pumpkin heads?
It was our first brush with the Pumpkin People, a popular autumn attraction in the villages of Jackson, Bartlett, Glen and Intervale. Pick up a Pumpkin People map and you could spend the day touring all 52 displays and vote on your favorites. We saw quite a few of them: A pumpkin Hogwarts class in session, a pumpkin bride and groom getting married in the park, three pumpkin ski racers showing off their medals in front of the Conway Daily Sun and a Cat in the Hat pumpkin in front of an inn.
We made our way south on Route 16 to North Conway, the region’s hub of outdoors activities and shopping. The Settler’s Green Village is a big draw with tax-free shopping at more than 60 outlet stores.
North Conway is a quintessential Norman Rockwell New England town with the white, high-steepled church, old-fashioned railroad and an abundance of gift and antique shops. The tourist crowd was milling from shop to shop and through the crafts fair in the city square.
Most interesting was the quirky Naked Bohemian shop, which is off the main street in an old house and has everything from finely crafted wooden furniture and antique clocks to novelty items in cast iron. If you want a dragonfly door knocker or a cast iron moose head, they’ve got them.
The parade of people packing the shops soon had us feeling closed in. We left North Conway and had fresh cider at a roadside stand selling pumpkins and apples, then visited two more covered bridges.
The day was growing short and we were craving one more brush with autumn. We found it on a steep, winding road that climbed to the Cathedral Ledges. Tramping through the woods in the fading light, the feeling was slightly spooky, like an ominous setting in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. But the view from the rock cliff is spectacular with several mountain peaks visible.
We weren’t the only ones enjoying the vantage point. Three women were setting up a photo of a garden gnome statue, like the one in the Travelocity commercials. The women said they have photos of this one from numerous trips: “He’s been to Alaska, but not to Nome.”
It was a wry ending Hitchcock would appreciate.