BETHEL, Maine – You know you’ve found a worthy fall colors spot when you plan to
go far in a day but don’t go far at all.
On my first day in the mountains
of western Maine last October, I planned to hit three stops – three places to
soak in the tall reds, yellows and oranges – while passing nearly 100 miles in
my rental car.
I made one of those stops and crossed about 20
The one place was Caribou Mountain, just east of the New Hampshire
border, on a lovely little driving loop southwest of Bethel, a lovely little
western Maine town of 2,400. I figured I would spend an hour there – 30 minutes
in and 30 minutes out – before moving on to the next bit of fall beauty. But
when I learned there was a 6.5-mile loop traveling to the top of Caribou
Mountain, and the opportunity to walk through the color, then look down at it, I
had to do it.
I quickly knew I had picked the right spot, not just
because the colors were lovely – they were, even in the gravel parking lot,
where bright yellow trees huddled beside bright orange bushes – and not because
the three people I met in that parking lot embarking on the same trail were
locals, and locals always know where to go. It was because those locals brought
their pet llamas.
Clipper and Peppersass (named for the Little Engine
That Could, you might recall) had thick coats, wide, alert eyes and hefty bottom
teeth hiding behind their fuzzy little whiskers. They didn’t seem to mind their
backpacks a bit, but still – walking your pet llamas? “This is what they were
built for,” said Don Ware, 69, a doctor from nearby Norway,
Perhaps. But can they appreciate the colors? He and his wife,
Hilary, were stumped at that one (llamas apparently see just a narrow range of
color, so they probably got more from the walk than the leaves.) The llamas
proved pokey, and soon I was beyond them, embarking on a steady climb to 3,000
feet, accompanied by a gently rushing river soundtrack.
The trees still
were mostly green and yellow, with the reds spread out on the ground in a
luminous carpet. I pushed on and at the top found the reward: a bald mountain
with patches of scrubby pine while fall color rolled out for miles in every
A hurried fall-colors trip would have meant five minutes up
there before descending into my next adventure, but there was no way;
yellow-orange hills and peaks stretched to infinity, and they had to be
Midsavor, Tommy and Barbara O’Brien arrived in matching hiking
boots and L.L.
Bean backpacks. They’re from Natchez, Miss., and visit
Maine most summers. This was the first time they had come in the fall, they
said, which led to a startling revelation.
“We’ve never seen fall foliage
before,” said Tommy, 61.
They live in the South, so it made some sense.
But still: a lifetime without fall color? And here we were, looking down on a
sea of it.
“I hate to say it, but we’ve missed out,” Tommy
“It’s like God took his paint buckets and spilled all his colors
here,” said Barbara, 57.
By the time I worked my way back down the
mountain, it was close to dinner time. I took a leisurely drive back to my hotel
in Bethel, and that was it. My ambitions for the day were thwarted by
Western Maine’s most popular tourist seasons are winter (for
skiing) and summer (when New England is gentle and warm), which leaves autumn
not exactly a secret but criminally underrated, as illustrated by the fact that
on my six-hour hike, I saw almost as many llamas (two) as people
Fall’s rewards can be found throughout the region, a tangle of
small highways that are worth driving aimlessly. Those roads boast roadside
signs such as “PUMPKINS + SQUASH,” “Pony Rides” and “Farm Stand
In those farm stands, they sell eggs, honey, tomatoes, apples,
pumpkins and Maine maple syrup. Many of the roads are narrow and winding,
tree-shaded and split by double- yellow lines. In some cases, they’re barely
wide enough for two cars.
The leaves above and beyond put color literally
around every bend – orange, red, yellow, purple and the colors in between, lush
and vibrant like sherbet, especially when illuminated by the morning
It’s clear who was there for the same reasons as me: They drove
slowly, bearing license plates from Texas, Florida and Georgia.
Bethel is a perfect, if quiet, hub for it all: good food, good drink, hospitable
locals and a main street where the trees turn colorful in fall while clouds kiss
The next day, I set out for what I had intended to
accomplish the day before, heading north of town toward state Route 26, pausing
at the well-named Good Food Store, widely considered the best sandwich shop in
town. I got the turkey and cheddar sandwich, mostly for the lure of the homemade
bourbon barbecue sauce, then headed up toward five miles of road that any state
would love to call its own: Grafton Notch State Park.
The highway cuts
through the park, which makes it a series of stops within the autumn color,
rather than one place to park and explore.
And on a rainy Thursday, the
stops were largely mine: Moose Cave, Screw Auger Falls, Mother Walker Falls
Gorge and the series of walks within each.
I blazed up Table Rock trail,
which felt at times like a straight vertical climb through forest. Halfway up, I
was socked in with gray and mist, so the climb was for its own sake; no colors
but no problem on a quiet weekday afternoon. The way down on the backside was
far gentler. The last mile was on the Appalachian Trail, one mile of the 2,181
miles stretching from all the way up here to Georgia.
Back low, the color
was in full effect once more, and I ate my turkey, cheddar and bourbon barbecue
sandwich in the parking lot, facing a tall wall of yellow, orange and
I drove past the other sights, largely alone, left to marvel in
particular at Screw Auger Falls, where if you let your eyes relax, you see
autumn: all those colors trapped in the water, sent over the falls in a flash
and plunged into the foamy white below.
I spent five hours in those five
miles. It was yet another lesson that the hunt for fall colors doesn’t depend on
covering massive distance.