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A pilot's guide to autumn color

Check the foliage maps, chart your course

Tourism trade measured in billions of dollars hinges on a fleeting blast of color that will rise and fade in a matter of weeks. The time to plan your fall foliage flights has arrived, and the clock is ticking.

Mist blanketed the Taconic Mountains in Arlington, Vermont, in late September 2020. The color this year is expected to peak around the same time: starting in late September to the north, and early October here. Photo by Jim Moore.

The practice of “leaf peeping” at industrial scale is not confined to New England, though a combination of biology and climate renders the region uniquely colorful in most years, and conditions in 2022 have set the stage for "spectacular" color in inland regions of New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, with warm days and cool nights completing a recipe for brilliant hues. Yankee magazine’s resident foliage expert Jim Salge previewed the foliage season in August, noting concern for the Boston area due to drought conditions likely to limit color brilliance and duration:

“Where the drought has had less impact—especially in the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the mountains of western Maine—we should see typical foliage conditions, which is to say the colors should be spectacular,” Salge wrote. “Outside those areas, drought becomes the dominant factor: With warm, sunny days, it can bring about a brief, bright punch of color (reds can be especially bright in drought years), but if it stays too warm and too dry for too long, we’ll see browning and early leaf drop. Some tropical rainfall could be very welcome this fall, as long as it doesn’t come with hurricane winds.”

The magazine's interactive map is updated each year to display predicted foliage color intensity by date. It is a go-to resource for foliage enthusiasts, and lines up well with another produced by the tourism website of the Smoky Mountains region. One or both of these resources, and a sectional chart, can guide you to the most brilliant displays.

National outlook

The Smoky Mountains map was featured in a foliage hunting outlook published by The Washington Post, with regional outlooks and recommendations across the country. On the West Coast, North Cascades National Park promises a “magical fall experience,” and is among the most popular destinations in the region. Rocky Mountain National Park ranks among the nation’s best foliage, the newspaper reports, as does Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan, where color is predicted to peak in late September into early October (a similar timeline is expected across the northern latitudes).

The newspaper picked Quechee, Vermont, home of the ever-scenic Quechee Gorge, as the place to go "to see that special fiery burn that Vermont is famous for."

Two views from the same location (different altitudes) in Vermont, showing the summer green on the left, and autumn color on the right. Photos by Jim Moore.

New England

Another view from Arlington, Vermont, taken September 26, 2020, as the color approached the peak. Photo by Jim Moore. The brilliant red color Vermont is known for will soon return, first in the northern part of the state in late September, moving south into early October. Photo by Jim Moore. Sunrise in Arlington, Vermont, September 26, 2020. Photo by Jim Moore. Manchester, Vermont, just east of Equinox Mountain (rising to the right) is southern Vermont's most popular tourist destination. The colors pictured here on September 3 have just begun their seasonal transformation. Photo by Jim Moore.

Opinions vary, and Quechee, a roughly 15-minute drive west from Lebanon Municipal Airport in New Hampshire, did not make Yankee's most recently updated list of Vermont foliage-viewing destinations. The honor of first place among that loaded field of contenders went to Manchester, a year-round tourist destination in southern Vermont with fine dining and boutique shopping in the shadow of Equinox Mountain, the highest peak in the Taconic range. Skyline Drive, a private toll road, leads to a summit equipped with a paved parking lot and visitor's center with views of surrounding states. The road is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through October 31 (the last vehicle is admitted at 4 p.m.).

The summit of Equinox Mountain, 3,855 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in the Taconic Range, and offers sweeping views (pictured here in early September 2020) into New York and Massachusetts. Photo by Jim Moore.

While there is no local airport in Manchester, the town is about a 40-minute drive south of Rutland, where rental cars can be arranged by the FBO at Rutland-Southern Vermont Regional Airport. To the south, William H. Morse State Airport in Bennington, Vermont, is about a half-hour drive on Route 7 away from Manchester. (Pro tip: Use a low gear descending Equinox Mountain, as brakes have been known to catch fire on the steep road.)

Other attractions in Manchester include Hildene, the summer home built by Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president.

The color will peak sooner in northern Vermont, and Burlington, the state's largest city on the shore of Lake Champlain, offers a range of activities and experiences beyond gazing at glorious foliage. Locals recommend The Essex for a high-end spa experience with great views of the Green Mountains. Burlington International Airport is on the southeast side of the city and was also mentioned in our January roundup of ski trip options across the state. (Many ski resorts in the region welcome warmer-weather visitors with gondola rides available, lodging and restaurants nearby or on the resort property.)

Local sources also advise that national rental car chains (which have a presence at the local airport) have begun adding electric vehicles to their fleet, and Burlington has more charging stations available than many places, if you're inclined to give electric transportation a try. The new and growing CarShare Vermont program is another potential ground transportation option that is also expected to add electric vehicles to the mix.

Burlington offers the option of a truly multimodal getaway: With a little planning and at least one overnight stay, you can fly into the airport, take a dinner cruise (through October) on Lake Champlain aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen, ride in a hot air balloon (see sidebar), and top that off with another scenic ride on the Champlain Valley dinner train (also running through October).

AOPA Eastern Regional Manager Sean Collins was invited to make a case for his home state, Maine, where Bar Harbor, featured in our August article on vacationing like a Vanderbilt, is also a prime destination for foliage “for its views of Cadillac Mountain, our rocky coasts, and seafood.”

Collins noted that lodging rates “drop back to reasonable in the post-summer rush” after Labor Day. “Most of the lobster pounds will stay open a few more weeks as well with many great eateries immediately off the airport road—Smokey’s BBQ and Lobster, Gateway Lunts’ Lobster Pound, [Maine] Sugar Bakery, Downeast Lobster Pound, and Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound to name a few.”

The closest airport for all of these is Hancock County/Bar Harbor Airport. Collins also recommends a visit to Augusta State Airport in central Maine, a shorter trip from points south that is “home to the University of Maine’s aviation program and a very good Thai restaurant that I’ve eaten at more than once. The airport is only about a half-mile as the crow flies from the Maine State House, which was designed by the great New England architect, Charles Bulfinch. He also designed the Massachusetts State House and the United States Capitol.”

The Northshire Bookstore, seen here around sunset on September 3, to the left of Vermont Route 7A (which passes through both traffic circles) in Manchester, with solar panels on the roof, is another popular stop in this tourist-friendly town. Photo by Jim Moore.
Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Travel, U.S. Travel

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