How to Plan a Fall Foliage Trip

I have no idea what I’m talking about. Seriously. I’ve never been to New England to shoot fall foliage. But I’m about to fix that.

Shooting fall foliage just about anywhere is usually a top priority with me, but I have to admit I’ve fallen down on the job in the past couple of years. It seems I’ve been distracted by the desire to have a booth in the huge festival held here on the first weekend of October every year, Issaquah Salmon Days.

Several years ago I asked my photographer friend Lee if he ever had a booth there, and I’ll never forget his answer. He said Salmon Days fell on the absolute worst weekend of the year for a nature photographer, because that was exactly the time you should be out shooting fall color. Well, I guess I had something to prove, so I applied and was accepted and had a booth there last year. I was wait-listed the year before, so I was just as pinned down that year as if I had been accepted outright. I usually like to learn from other people’s mistakes, but this time I had to figure it out myself. Salmon Days is a great festival, but I have far more important things to do. Lee, you were right!

So, this year I’m free! Now what?

The Colors of Fall Road Trip Guide Cover

The Colors of Fall Road Trip Guide, by Jerry and Marcy Monkman

Well, I thought I’d begin by trying to find a New England fall color road trip guide written by and for photographers, and that’s exactly what I found in Jerry and Marcy Monkman’s The Colors of Fall Road Trip Guide. I’d skimmed through this book before (while waiting patiently to hear from the Salmon Days committee), so I picked it up again and studied it more carefully this time. This little gem lists 25 scenic drives around New England, all optimized to take photographers to the most photogenic spots to capture fall color.

So that’s great, but here’s the problem. I grew up in Louisiana. I now live in Washington State. I’m looking at all of these little maps and directions that say to start in Grafton, Vermont, or Mexico, Maine, but I’m not familiar enough with New England to judge how all these 25 parts fit together. Yes, the book has an index map, but I felt I needed something more to get a grasp for the lay of the land, to wrap my brain around it, so to speak.

So I bought a Rand McNally New England travel map and was just about to start marking it up with a highlighter when it hit me. Why don’t I create Google maps from these route descriptions, and then I can not only see how they relate to each other, but I can use them on my phone/GPS to navigate once I get out there! So I created maps with driving directions, complete with markers for attractions such as waterfalls, covered bridges, and the best reflective ponds. Genius! Well, maybe. We’ll see how well it works when I get out there in the mountains without a cell-phone signal. I may be getting out the highlighter yet.

OK, next problem: when to go, and its companion problem, how to plan accommodations. Peak fall color starts in Canada and sweeps to the southeast through Vermont, New Hampshire, and all the New England states on the way to the Atlantic coast. In fact, there’s a great little interactive tool that demonstrates how peak fall color behaves on average. “On average” is the tricky part. Will this be an average year? Forecasts based on recent weather suggest that it might be, but we won’t know until it happens.

Anyway, here’s the tool. Give it a try. I love playing with this map, imagining myself immersed in the middle of the bright red sections!

Fall Color Forecast Map

Fall Color Forecast Map

So based on this map I see that I should probably start heading to New England around the second to last week of September. But once I get there, I need to be flexible. (Again, this is all speculation. I’ve never done this.) There are fall color reports I can watch, and I even have an app on my phone that I can personally contribute to as I try to optimize my travels to be in the areas with best peak color. (My gut tells me the whole country will light up bright red on those maps as everyone who spots a pretty leaf will post a report that their given area is in peak, but we’ll see.)

The New England hospitality industry has a short high season while all of this “leaf peeping”, as they call it, is going on, and that means that rooms will be scarce and rates at a premium. But I can’t reserve ahead because I won’t know where I want to be until the leaves start turning. Well, fortunately there’s a solution, and that solution is that I like to camp. And while I don’t expect to be alone out there, it appears that campsites won’t be in nearly the same demand as B&Bs and hotels, so I’ll just try to find campsites near my road trip routes.

Best Tent Camping New England

Best Tent Camping New England, by Lafe Low

And how to do that without driving all over looking for campgrounds? Well, back to the books. I found a great little book called Best Tent Camping New England by Lafe Low. The Best Tent Camping series is for people like me who, while not always in a position to hike into the backcountry to camp, would still rather not camp next to a 600 square foot diesel-spewing monstrosity, complete with generator, satellite dish, and flat screen TV – all there because I guess nature just isn’t that interesting. But I digress.

So I have this baby on my phone as a Kindle book (no data connection needed), but I went one step further. I took those Google maps of my road trips (one map per state due to Google Maps limitations) and plotted the best campgrounds on them as well, along with notes such as cost, season closing date, facilities, etc. Now we’re getting somewhere! As I follow the peak color, I can find a campground that is located near the fall color loops I want to be nearby and I’m all set! Theoretically, anyway.

The maps are a bit cluttered when you view the entire state, but as you zoom in you begin to see the individual loops, and good campgrounds appear to be everywhere!

Vermont Map with Routes

Vermont Map with Routes

So is all of this overkill? Probably, but the thing is, once I get out there I need to be efficient. Fall color comes and goes on its own terms, sometimes in a flash, and I can’t afford to be floundering helplessly due to logistics issues and lack of preparation.

So there it is, my plan for fall color, such as it is. We’ll know in a few weeks whether it worked or not.

Wish me luck!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Responses to “How to Plan a Fall Foliage Trip”

  1. Rachel says: