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5 drives and hikes to try this fall around the country

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Hikers enjoy the views in Grafton Notch State Park near Newry, Maine, in September.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Hikers enjoy the views in Grafton Notch State Park near Newry, Maine, in September.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Hikers in the Berkshires in Massachusetts take in the view in September.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Hikers in the Berkshires in Massachusetts take in the view in September.

A leafy drive in Nashville, Tenn., hikes in the Appalachian wilderness, a spin on a scenic Colorado byway: There are many ways to savor autumn while being mindful of pandemic travel precautions. Below are five fall outings, in Massachusetts, West Virginia, Maine, Tennessee and Colorado.

Maine

Grafton Notch

A fall excursion to Grafton Notch from Portland, Maine, includes not just colorful swaths of foliage but a Shaker community, a ghost and a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The area’s glacial gorges, waterfalls and caves add further intrigue to the predominantly beech, birch and maple forest. Not to mention, a fall drive and hike support both sanity and social distancing.

Before heading out, check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website for its COVID-19 recommendations, which include carrying a mask and practicing social distancing when passing people on the trail. Maine visitors should check Keep Maine Healthy for the latest COVID-19 testing and quarantine guidelines.

The nearly two-hour trip from Portland begins with 10 miles of surprisingly vibrant leaf peeping on Maine’s primary artery, I-95 North. At Gray, Route 26 North heads inland to New Gloucester where it passes the last active Shaker community in the country, founded on Sabbathday Lake in the late 1700s. Though closed to the public for 2020, the historic buildings and farmlands of Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village can be easily viewed from the car.

Next comes the township of Poland, namesake of the Poland Spring bottled water company and home to the Poland Spring Resort. It is also the territory of a ghost called the Route 26 Hitchhiker, which is said to manifest as a young lady wearing a fancy dress. It’s rumored she died in a roadside accident on her wedding or prom night, and while she may ask for a ride, she’ll likely disappear from the car before reaching the destination.

Past the Oxford Casino and views of distant mountains, Route 26 parallels the Little Androscoggin River through Paris to Snow Falls, a popular pull-off for the waterfalls and picnic area. In Woodstock, the Mollyockett Motel is named for a Native American Algonquin princess who is the source of many legends. The mountain views and foliage increase around Greenwood, birthplace of L.L. Bean’s founder, Leon Leonwood Bean, and home to the Mount Abram Ski Area & Bike Park, popular in fall for the lift-accessed mountain bike trails.

Food and lodging can be had in Bethel, founded in the fertile Androscoggin River Valley in 1796, and at the Sunday River ski resort in nearby Newry. Continuing through Bethel on Route 26 North, The Good Food Store and Smokin’ Good BBQ (try the smoked beef brisket or pulled pork/chicken on a bun) is a popular stop. From there, expect excellent foliage on the last stretch to Bear River Road and the 12 miles of the Grafton Notch Scenic Byway leading to the Appalachian Trail parking lot. On the way, Mother Walker and Screw ­Auger falls are worth a visit, and Grafton Notch Campground on the Bear River is a great option for overnight camping.

The Appalachian Trail parking lot in Grafton Notch State Park connects a number of hikes, including one of the toughest sections of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail: the Old Speck summit, elevation 4,180 feet, which can be reached on a 3.8-mile hike.

— Melissa Coleman

Massachusetts

The Berkshires

The first frosty nights (farewell, mosquitoes), T-shirt days under Windex-hued skies, a nearly ­unbroken tapestry of the foliage that inspired Herman Melville to write that “sunrises and sunsets grow side by side in these woods,” and warm bags of cider-infused doughnuts that are every hiker’s reward: Fall is far and away my favorite time in the Berkshires.

This autumn, the region offers opportunities to alternate new trails with old ­favorites. But first, a few planning tips. I recommend the BNRC Berkshire Trails app from the Berkshire ­Natural Resources Council. You could spend a wonderful week wandering Berkshire County’s back roads, using this app to guide you from one secluded wonder to the next.

Note, too, that many ­leading cultural venues — including the Clark Art Institute, Hancock Shaker Village and The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former home — are not only open but are surrounded by paths and gentle trails on which it’s easy to socially distance, and to sidestep that tough Berkshires call: culture or ­nature?

Most important, check Massachusetts’s strict quarantine rules before you leave home. Oh, and dress brightly — it’s hunting season. And watch out for bears.

Start your day at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield, my hometown, where Jess Lamb (who previously practiced her craft at Joe Coffee on E. 13th St. in Manhattan) and her colleagues create the county’s richest-tasting lattes with beans from Barrington Coffee and milk from High Lawn Farm, both in nearby Lee. Then drive west to Pittsfield State Forest (free).

Around 30 miles of trails lace this roughly 11,000-acre realm, which once formed part of Mohican and Mohawk hunting grounds. Later, the Shakers settled here. Their graves, former settlements and dancing sites can still be found among the stands of sugar maple, oak, birch and white pine.

First-time visitors should head to Berry Pond. At around 2,150 feet, it’s the state’s highest natural body of water. My mother and I ­often came here to pick blueberries, so imagine my surprise when I learned that it was named for William Berry, a Revolutionary War hero.

A network of steepish trails or a scenic one-way loop road, built by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, can take you up (the road is curvy and narrow; pedestrians, cyclists and motorists should keep a close eye out for one another). Enjoy the spectacular westerly overlook (hello, to paraphrase the McGarrigle sisters, to the state of old New York!). Then head downhill to the pond for a view of the season’s colors, pleasingly doubled by the water’s mirror.

The world’s most mouthwatering cider doughnuts still come from Bartlett’s ­Orchard in Richmond. So busy was their farm shop this summer that they’ve instituted weekend online ordering and curbside pickup for the fall; you can still pick apples in the orchards behind the shop. From here, drive or cycle to Parsons Marsh, a BNRC property in Lenox that opened in 2018. A trail and boardwalk (free; one-third of a mile each way; wheelchair accessible) wind through a woodland worthy of Tolkien’s Galadriel, and wetlands even now bursting with life. Along the marsh’s edge you’ll find haunting examples of the still-standing dead trees known as snags — fine lookouts for raptors — and your own tranquil views (see the beaver lodge?) from the deck at the boardwalk’s end.

Then head to Bousquet Mountain, site of my first childhood ski lessons on Drifter, a gentle slope that’s now also the start of the three-season Mahanna ­Cobble Trail (free; 1.4 miles each way; elevation gain, around 750 feet). Mahanna Cobble opened in June. It’s the newest stretch of the BNRC’s High Road initiative, a long-term plan, inspired in part by the Camino de ­Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain, to use both old and recently cut trails to reconnect Berkshire landscapes and communities.

— Mark Vanhoenacker

West Virginia

Spruce Knob

While many traditional foliage tours are done from packed trains and buses that follow well-worn railways and roads, fall tourism this year demands a novel approach. And with travelers forced to chart their own course, some of the best places to take in the autumn colors are those that cannot be reached at all on the standard guided excursions.

One of the most rewarding options for those living in and around Appalachia is to forgo the winding roads at lower elevations and peer down at the landscape from atop Spruce Knob, the ­tallest peak in both West ­Virginia and the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Nestled within a 100,000-acre section of the surrounding 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, Spruce Knob rises above an all-but-unspoiled tract of forest extending out in all directions.

The drive to the peak requires resolve and care. From a base point near Judy Gap, W.V., a serpentine drive up Route 33 narrows to a 9-mile stretch of old forestry road, with several blind curves and switchbacks, barely wide enough to pass traffic coming down, and with no guardrails protecting against steep drops down the mountain slope. The path is not treated to remove ice or snow.

At the top, however, visitors are rewarded with a wealth of options for taking in the scenery. About 1,000 feet from the parking lot is a two-story observation tower that provides an even higher vantage from which to survey the surrounding area. And the easy, half-mile Whispering Spruce Trail leads visitors along a gravel path that circles the tower for panoramic views across both sides of the ridge.

For another option, partway up the route to Spruce Knob, the road divides, ­allowing drivers to pull off by an overlook far enough down to avoid clouds and haze, but high enough to provide a striking view.

The drive through miles of national forest and up to the mountaintop is a passageway to a genuinely remote part of the East, and the Spruce Knob area offers visitors a menu of possibilities for savoring the auburn ­colors of fall. And in a celebration of continuity, Mono­n­gahela, officially designated on April 28, 1920, is commemorating its centennial.

— Zach Montague

Nashville, Tenn.

Percy Warner Park and Radnor Lake

Fall in Nashville, Tenn., is the most vibrant season, and there is no better way for an immersion in the season’s rich reds, corals and ochers than a drive along the canopied blacktop through Percy Warner Park, just 9 miles south of downtown. Tag on a hike around another Nashville gem, Radnor Lake, and you have the makings of a dazzling day trip, all within the confines of the city limits, and a perfect outing during the pandemic. Both parks abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on social distancing, and numerous trails in both parks make it easy to avoid crowds.

Percy Warner Park and Edwin Warner Park — on the National Register of Historic Places — span 3,131 acres of wooded hills, open meadows and streams. The adjoining parks, which opened in 1927, offer hiking trails, mountain bike paths and bridle paths. However, a slow-rolling, scenic drive through the mature deciduous forest during peak fall is nothing short of stunning: The sun strobes through the trees above drivers, who share the roadway with hikers, cyclists and dog walkers. Once inside the park, the tulip poplars, dogwoods, black cherry, sassafras and pawpaw trees are breathtaking. Given the park’s designation as a nature sanctuary, it’s not unusual to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, Eastern chipmunks and coyotes.

The road — a roughly 4-mile loop — can be found at the Old Hickory Boulevard entrance. You’ll pass the tall wooden lookout that oversees the grounds (and beyond) of the annual ­Iroquois Steeplechase, which was canceled this year because of the pandemic, and along the route are scenic overlooks.

You can also enter Percy Warner via Belle Meade Boulevard. This is the main entrance with a ceremonial-­­ style arch and dramatic limestone steps that was designed by landscape architect Bryant Fleming, who also designed the early 20th-century Cheek Mansion at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens.

From the Belle Meade Boulevard entrance, you can find trails like the Warner Woods trail, a 2-1/2-mile unpaved walking path that traverses the interior of Percy Warner, as well as a 5.8-mile stretch of paved pedestrian trail.

Next, set your GPS to Radnor Lake State Park off Otter Creek Road, another of the city’s natural jewels, about 7 miles east. Because Radnor Lake does not allow food, it may be wise to first swing by a Nashville standard, Mere Bulles, just off Old Hickory Boulevard, for their famous crab bisque, available to go (call first). You won’t regret it (or forget it).

— Colleen Creamer

Denver

Guanella Pass, Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway and more

One day trip to a stunning, high-alpine cirque allows you to bear witness to a whole spectacle, from aspens to tundra. It begins with a drive west on Route 285 and a turn north at Grant onto Route 62. About 5.5 miles up the 11-mile road to Guanella Pass is the Abyss Lake Trail. This challenging 7.5-mile, 3,000-foot hike passes through numerous stands of aspen, and, for the first few miles, the trail is wide enough for social distancing. Then it climbs more steeply up along a creek leading to the treeless and Lilliputian plant landscape of the 12,650-foot-high Abyss Lake. Look for moose and pronghorn ­antelope along the way.

If you’d rather stay in the comfort of your car, ­continue driving on the Guanella Pass Road through the aspen forest. The gravel road climbs to 11,700 feet, with views of Mounts Bierstadt and Evans above a sea of flamboyantly tinted fall willows. At the bottom of the pass road, alongside I-70, is the old mining locale of Georgetown, with an old-time railroad offering daily rides through the aspen forest. Plan for the round-trip drive from Denver to take about four hours.

For a shorter tour, drive roughly 30 miles south out of Denver on Route 85, which takes you directly to the Waterton Canyon parking area, where it intersects with the end of Colorado Highway 121. This moderate 6-mile hike on a dirt road, alongside the South Platte River, swirling with fishing holes, is also ideal for bicycling and horseback riding. The popular trail — known for up-close big horn sheep viewing — has plenty of toilets and is rimmed with huge cottonwood trees that blush as ripe as lemons in the fall.

But the state’s oldest road trip, with brilliant foliage and Continental Divide viewing, is the four-hour, 149-mile Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway from Estes Park through the Gold Rush mining country to Black Hawk. One stop could be Nederland’s antediluvian Goldminer Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Or, near the town of Ward, a 5.5-mile hike loops around the well-traveled Brainard Lake — but don’t forget you’ll be hiking above 10,000 feet.

— Jon Waterman

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