Autumn in the Northeast is one of those reliable natural events that landscape photographers mark on their calendar with giddy excitement. The intensity of color may vary from year to year, as does the timing of its peak, but fall never fails to provide ample scenery worthy of a good photo.
Foliage season is short, however. Fall colors may start to appear in the far north in mid-September, and can linger in southern New England and New York into mid-November, but the full spectacle of peak foliage usually lasts only a few days. Exact timing varies from year to year, but peak in northern New England and New York usually occurs between October 1st and Columbus Day, and generally peaks in the southern part of the region during the last week of the month. Whether your trip coincides with peak or not, you are bound to find some great colors and scenery to work with in the following foliage hotspots.
Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (the northeast corner of the state) presents photographers with some classic rural New England photo ops, from rolling hillsides dotted with cows, to covered bridges and white-steeple churches, to quiet ponds and mountain views. A few of my favorite photo locations here include the small village of Peacham, Foster Covered Bridge in Cabot and the undeveloped beauty of Groton State Forest and Lake Willoughby State Forest.
Peacham Village has become one of the most-photographed scenes in Vermont in recent years because of its beautiful church set next to a red barn complete with grazing Holsteins in the adjacent pasture. To get the best view, drive up the hill from the village center and park at the fire station. The village looks the most dramatic in late afternoon light.
If you’re looking for some pure nature photography, head to one of the state forests. Sunset views in Groton State Forest are best from Owls Head peak (a short 10-minute hike), and Kettle Pond. The forest here is an excellent cloudy day place to explore and shoot fall color close-ups. If you’re up for a little hiking, head to Lake Willoughby and hike the steep South Trail up Mount Pisgah. It climbs more than 1400 feet over 1.7 miles, and you’ll be rewarded with dazzling views of Lake Willoughby from the cliff ledges below the summit.
Vermont’s Green Mountains stretch the length of the state, from the Massachusetts border in the south to Quebec in the north. Vermont Route 100 (VT 100) is the classic north-south route that traverses the valleys to the east of the main mountain ridges, and it provides a great starting point for exploring the state. It’s also a great road to drive in search of peak foliage. Not yet peak? Just keep heading north on VT 100 and you’re bound to find some sweet fall colors. But I do consider VT 100 to be just a starting point.
I’ve found some of my best Green Mountain locations by driving the east-west roads that head west from VT 100 over mountain gaps, next to tumbling mountain streams and through hardwood forests that are full of rich color in the fall. The most dramatic of these east-west roads is Vermont Route 108 which passes through the cliffs of Smugglers’ Notch between Jefferson and Stowe. Heading south from Stowe on VT 100 (and stopping at the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury), you’ll encounter several gap roads that head through the mountains: Vermont Route 17, Lincoln Gap Road and Vermont Route 125. All three offer up some easy-access vistas in the heart of the Green Mountain National Forest. In this area, you’ll also find a couple of beautiful waterfalls: Moss Glen Falls on VT 100 in Granville and Texas Falls (just off Vermont Route 125) in Hancock.
Way down in southern Vermont is Kelly Stand Road, one of my favorite mountain roads in the state. This quiet dirt road starts in West Wardsboro and rises to meet the Appalachian Trail below Stratton Mountain before meandering next to Roaring Branch Brook on its way to Arlington. This is an ideal road to drive and shoot fall colors on overcast, foggy and drizzly days. The maples and birches provide an abundance of color, and there is easy access to the tumbling waters of the brook.
Acadia National Park in Maine is a favorite destination any time of year. This is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Acadia, so it seems fitting to include the northeast’s most popular national park on this list. Ironically, 100 years ago, leaf peepers wouldn’t have found Acadia to be very satisfying as its forests consisted primarily of evergreens. Today however, you can find some dramatic foliage here, particularly on the eastern half of Mount Desert Island, where a forest fire in 1947 burned many of the spruce and fir forests in the park. Much of that forest has grown back as a mix of hardwoods and white pines, making for an excellent combination of reds, greens and yellows during foliage season.
A drive on the park loop road will bring you to some foliage hot spots, including Bubble Pond and Jordan Pond. Driving the summit road to Cadillac Mountain will provide 360-degree views from the peak’s granite ledges. You will also find some amazing pockets of stunted evergreens surrounded by fiery red blueberry bushes. The summit can be a busy place, though. At sunrise, expect a few hundred other visitors, many with tripods, as this is the first place in the U.S. to be touched by the morning sun.
On cloudy days, my favorite places to photograph foliage in Acadia are the streams and bridges found on the park’s extensive system of carriage roads. In particular, I always visit the Duck Brook Bridge, just outside of the town of Bar Harbor, and Jordan Stream near Jordan Pond.
Maine’s Baxter State Park is one of the premier wilderness parks in the eastern U.S., and in the fall it is an ideal place to get your L.L. Bean flannel coolness on. You’ll want to make camping and/or cabin reservations well ahead of time (the park uses a rolling reservation system that allows you to reserve four months ahead of your first night’s stay) as access is limited and accommodations often sell out months in advance. But once you’re in, you’ll love it.
You can canoe on mountain ponds with views of perhaps the most dramatic mountain in the east—mile-high Mount Katahdin, which also happens to be the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The hiking and backpacking in the park is excellent and after hitting the trail you quickly feel like you are in one of the wildest corners of the northeast (because you are.)
For foliage landscapes, head to the ponds. Kidney, Daicey and Lower South Branch Ponds are my favorite drive-up locations. If you want a more remote experience, hike to Upper South Branch Pond, Russell Pond or Wassataquoik Pond. All of these ponds feature some kind of combination of maples, beeches, birches and evergreens on their shorelines with mountains in the background.
Baxter is also known as one of the premier moose-watching locations in the northeast, and you’re likely to encounter them just about anywhere in the park. The most reliable spot for moose photography in the park is Sandy Stream Pond, which is a short (and flat) 20-minute hike from Roaring Brook Campground. The pond is relatively small, and in addition to moose it provides an excellent view of Mount Katahdin.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains are where I cut my teeth as a young photographer 25 years ago, and they are still one of my favorite places to photograph fall colors. Several state parks and the White Mountain National Forest protect nearly 1 million acres of forests, rivers and mountains, 48 of which rise above 4,000 feet in elevation. Mount Washington and the Presidential Range are known for their intense weather and miles of above-tree-line hiking. However, the best fall foliage is found below 3,000 feet, where you’ll find the colorful mix of northern hardwoods that New England is famous for.
Two classic foliage drives in the “Whites” are the Kancamagus Highway and Crawford Notch. “The Kanc” is NH Route 112 as it climbs over the range from Lincoln to Conway. There are numerous scenic pull-outs over the 30-plus-mile route that provide some great foliage hot spots. North of the Kanc, U.S. Route 302 winds its way through Crawford Notch, following the upper reaches of the Saco River. Good photos spots in the notch include the Willey House Historic Site and Silver Cascade, a roadside ribbon of a waterfall that falls several hundred feet next to a forest of paper birch and sugar maple.
If you’re willing to spend some time on the trail, the fall color photo ops in the White Mountains are nearly endless. There more than 100 photo-worthy waterfalls to explore and dozens of mountain peaks and granite ledges that provide views of the valleys ablaze in fall color. One of my favorite—and relatively easy to get to—backcountry destinations is Zealand Falls near Twin Mountain, where 2.7 miles of mostly level hiking will get you to the falls and its views of Zealand Notch and the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area. You can also spend the night here in relative comfort in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Zealand Falls Hut (reservations are recommended).
The Monadnock Region in southwestern New Hampshire is my favorite part of New England to photograph once the colors are past peak in the north country. The area’s pastoral look is complemented by rugged ledges atop Mount Monadnock and the thick hardwood forests of Pisgah State Park. This is also covered bridge country, with four bridges in the 15 miles between Keene and Hinsdale. The most photogenic of the bridges is the white and red Ashuelot Covered Bridge on NH Route 119 between Winchester and Hinsdale.
Several good views of Mount Monadnock can be found from NH Route 124 between Jaffrey and Marlborough, as well as from Dublin Pond on NH Route 101. Also worth a stop on NH 124 is the Old Burying Ground and Meetinghouse in Jaffrey Center. If it’s a mountain top view you’re looking for, you can find them the hard way or the easy way. Mount Monadnock is often called the most-climbed mountain in the world, and there are several different options for climbing to the summit (check in at Monadnock State Park headquarters in Jaffrey for trail maps and hike suggestions.) If driving is more your style, then head to Miller State Park, four miles east of Peterborough on NH 101. Here you can drive to the summit of Pack Monadnock and enjoy good views to the east and north. There are more extensive views from the fire tower on the summit.