Peak foliage, when leaves are at their most vibrant and colorful, is an unfailingly beautiful time of year. Why not prolong it and chase the changing colors southbound along the Appalachian Trail, with stops along the way for easy to moderate hiking?
1. GORHAM MOUNTAIN AND OCEAN PATH | Acadia National Park, Maine
To begin your foliage trek, park in the lot across from Monument Cove and enter the forest of paper birch and red spruce trees. After a few minutes of walking, the trees should change to pitch pine as you near the ledges of pink Cadillac granite, for which this area is so well-known. At 0.3 mile, continue straight at the fork in the trail. Then, turn right to hike over open granite ledges to the summit of Gorham Mountain. The vista will greet you with a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean. Continue along the trail as it descends into the forest below, eventually intersecting with various other paths. At this point, turn right and follow the Bowl Trail 0.5 miles to the Park Loop Road. Cross this road and turn right onto Ocean Path to finish the final mile to the parking lot. Along this last stretch of mile, enjoy the park’s best access to Mount Desert Island’s famed pink granite coastline.
Difficulty: Moderate, then easy
Distance: 3.5 miles round-trip
Peak Foliage: October 2 to 12
Info: AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide; AMC’s Outdoor Adventures: Acadia National Park
2. WIESSNER WOODS | Stowe, Vt.
Continue your trip with a leisurely hike through the woody hills of Wiessner Woods. Starting at the kiosk near the trailhead, look for blue paw-print markers, indicating Catamount Trail. Follow the flat path around a few bends, take a right at the Four Corners junction, and pass a tree decorated with gnomes to enter a hemlock grove. Eventually you’ll reach a sugarhouse, signaling the property boundary. If you’re lucky, the mailbox flag of this privately-owned warming hut will be up, letting hikers know there are dog treats inside for four-legged companions. Continuing onto another small section of the Catamount Trail, you will arrive at a scenic meadow overlook, showing off the area’s foliage, before you begin the last stretch of the loop back to the parking area.
Distance: 1.5-mile loop
Peak Foliage: September 28 to October 10
Info: Stowe Land Trust; AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Vermont
3. MOUNT MAJOR | Alton Bay, N.H.
All trails lead to the summit of this 1,785-foot peak overlooking New Hampshire’s largest lake, Lake Winnipesaukee, and some prime foliage spotting. Start at the Main Trail trailhead off Rte. 11 and follow the blue blazes. In 0.6 mile, turn left at the junction, continuing to follow the blue blazes another 0.7 mile to the summit of Mount Major. The trail requires some steep, rocky climbing toward the top, so be prepared to scramble. Once you reach the peak, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the water and the surrounding forest, giving you the perfect angle to see the colors reflected in the water. Continue on yellow-blazed Brook Trail for 1.6 miles, looping back to the original intersection. From there, follow the blue blazes back to your car.
Distance: 3.7 miles round trip
Peak Foliage: September 30 to October 14
Info: All Trails
4. JONES NOSE AND ROUNDS ROCK TRAIL | Mount Greylock, Berkshire Mountains, Mass.
Beginning at the trail’s kiosk, cross Rockwell Road to the blue-blazed Northrup Trail. The path leads through a meadow surrounded by cherry, mountain ash, and gray birch trees, all adept at showing off the Berkshire’s beautiful foliage. At the first junction you reach, turn left to encounter even more species of trees as you cross a brook and pass a ledge outcropping. Take another left when you reach the side trail and enjoy the canopy above you while wandering towards the intersection. Another left takes you to the site of a 1948 plane crash, complete with preserved wreckage and a memorial to the pilot. Backtracking to the crossroads, continue straight to view a ridgeline of wind turbines, the Taconic Range, and the Catskill Mountains, all amazing sights during the fall season. The remainder of the trail winds through the woods, adjacent to a small brook for the final stretch.
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Distance: 2.6 miles out-and-back
Peak Foliage: October 9 to 20
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Berkshires
5. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK | East Haddam, Conn.
The main attraction of this hiking spot is the impressive castle at the Seven Sisters Hills summit. Originally the home of stage actor, director, and playwright William Gillette (1853–1937), the castle now opens its doors to interested hikers, providing an unsurpassed view of the Connecticut River and surrounding wooded areas. While beautiful on its own, the castle is even more striking as the leaves change and cover the stone walls in the reds, yellows, and oranges of autumn. There is a parking lot a few hundred feet from the castle, where hikers can park before exploring the various trails around the castle grounds. The hikes themselves are relaxed and undemanding, winding down gradually sloping hills, up stone steps, across bridges, along abandoned railroads, and through tunnels. Once you finish the 3 miles of trails, you can take a lunch break in the picnic area next to the castle, followed by a short climb up the castle stairs to admire the view on top.
Distance: 3 miles overall
Peak Foliage: October 10 to 26
Info: Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection
6. CHEESEQUAKE STATE PARK | Matawan, N.J.
This state park is a must-see if you’re an amateur botanist or even a casual plant lover. With lowland salt marshes, tidal creeks, pine barrens, and more, Cheesequake is home to a uniquely unparalleled ecosystem. While anyone can hike each of the five official trails, the green trail is an especially fitting beginner’s hike, thanks to clear and easy-to-follow blazing. From the trailhead, it’s only a couple turns to a bridge over freshwater wetlands and up wooden stairs to the park’s interpretive center. Continue following the markers up and down hills, through a meadow vista, and across multiple boardwalks and bridges alongside swamps and hollows. The entire route is shaded by white pines, red cedars, river birches, and oak trees, giving hikers a beautiful view of New Jersey’s foliage. After the hike, catch your breath and have some snacks at one of the picnic areas along the trailhead.
Distance: 3.2-mile loop
Peak Foliage: October 15 to 31
Info: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; AMC’s Best Day Hikes in New Jersey
7. ROTHROCK STATE PARK | Boalsburg, Pa.
Nearly 97,000-acre Rothrock State Park provides hikers with some 300 miles of hiking trails to choose from. While the park contains two longer routes, 42-mile Mid State Trail and 16-mile Standing Stone Trail, there are plenty of shorter loops you can follow. Explore the red-blazed section of the Tussey Mountain Trail, rated as moderate solely because of its length, about four miles out and four miles back. The uphill sections are not steep or overly strenuous, and the path itself remains relatively flat once you reach the ridge. Along the ridge, you’ll find yourself surrounded by incredible views. The foliage stretches as far as the eye can see, providing memorable views of the shifting reds, yellows, and oranges of Pennsylvania’s fall.
Distance: 8.1 miles out-and-back
Peak Foliage: October 12 to 26
Info: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
8. MARYLAND HEIGHTS TRAIL | Knoxville, Md.
While this trail is on the moderate side of easy, it’s also frequently cited as the most beautiful hike in Maryland. The fall foliage makes the view even more jaw-dropping, as you look down at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Yes, that’s right: This Maryland hiking trail gives you a view of West Virginia, as the path lies almost atop the state border. Beginning at the C&O Canal towpath along the Potomac River, the trail passes an abundance of historical markers before slanting uphill and away from the river. In 0.5 mile, turn left onto the blue-blazed Maryland Heights Trail and start the real ascent towards the stone fort at the hill’s peak. The incline gets quite steep for about 0.5 mile but levels out and eventually winds around to the fort, then downhill to Overlook Cliff Trail, where the view will steal any breath you have left. Top off your hike with a closer-up view of Harpers Ferry by making the short walk into town for lunch.
Distance: 5.3 miles out-and-back. Note: Maryland Heights Trail is temporarily closed for diseased tree removal weekdays September 9 to October 11, 2019; the trail remains open weekends between sunrise and sunset.
Peak Foliage: October 19 to 30
Info: National Park Service; AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C.
9. SENECA ROCKS TRAIL | Monongahela National Forest, W.Va.
Even from a distance, you can see the stunning outcrop of Seneca Rocks jutting into the sky, promising a great hike and an amazing view that stretches for miles. Begin your hike at Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, crossing over a boardwalk and bridge to the picnic area and further on to Seneca Rocks Trail. You’ll hike 1.3 miles of trail, steps, and switchbacks to gain 700 feet in elevation, culminating at an observation platform near the top of Seneca Rocks. From here, you can admire the vast view of West Virginia’s Mononogahela National Forest. Return the way you came, stopping at the discovery center or picnic area for a bite to eat and a place to relax.
Distance: 2.6 miles out-and-back
Peak Foliage: October 12 to November 4
Info: Monongahela National Forest
10. STONY MAN TRAIL | Shenandoah National Park, Va.
The sunset from the top of Stony Man Trail is unforgettable, as anyone who has hiked the trail will tell you. With a view stretching across the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, your eyes will have a hard time taking in all of the foliage as it shifts and changes colors in the light of the setting sun. To reach this outlook, park at the Stony Man Trail parking lot. Begin hiking at the Appalachian Trail, marked by blue and white blazes, and continue until you reach a junction. From here, follow the blue-blazed markers for the Stony Man Trail up a steady incline about 1.5 miles to the vista and enjoy the view. If Stony Man Trail is too crowded, Shenandoah has countless other routes that display Virginia’s beautiful foliage, for every hiker’s skill level.
Distance: 3.7 miles out-and-back
Peak Foliage: October 15 to November 9
Info: National Park Service
Contributors: Annie Eddy, Priscilla Estes, Beth Homicz, René Laubach, Macy Monkman, Jerry Monkman, Jen Lamphere Roberts
Peak Foliage Information: AccuWeather