The Northeast USA is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the entire world during fall. For that reason you NEED to add a New England fall road trip to your bucket list!
Prior to this trip, exploring the northeast had been on my travel radar for the longest time. I am stoked to say that New England definitely lived up tot he hype and I am excited to share this New England fall road trip itinerary with you all! (3 day, 5 day and 7 day itineraries)
Read on to find out all the must-see places for fall foliage, where to stay, what to pack, the top hikes to take, photography inspiration, and more! I even provide you with a handy map to use for planning and navigation. In my opinion this is the BEST New England fall road trip and I hope you get the chance to take it!
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New England Fall Road Trip Itinerary
Before we jump into it, I do want to add a disclaimer that this road trip was my own experience during the 2018 fall season. Every year is different, some more magical, and others less so.
I will do my best to help you plan the perfect New England fall road trip itinerary, but you will need to go in with an open mind! Honestly, some of the best trips I have ever taken have been when things haven’t gone to plan. Sometimes all the planning in the world cannot change the weather!
Okay, let’s jump into how to plan a fall New England road trip!
How to plan a New England fall road trip
There are generally two ways to approach planning for a New England fall road trip. The first is to meticulously plan everything in the attempt to not waste a moment, and the second (the option we went with) is to pretty much not plan at all. Sounds weird right? Why would you not plan and wouldn’t that potentially waste you time and money? Well, at this time of the year, it kind of works in the opposite way.
The reason for this is that fall colors gradually change from green, to yellow (or orange, red, purple) until they fall off. Not all trees in an area change at the exact same time. There’s a point in the fall transition where most trees are changed to their beautiful shades of yellow, orange or red prior to falling off and with minimal green trees. This is considered “peak fall foliage” or “peak fall color”.
Peak color doesn’t happen at the exact same time every year (usually varying a week or so either way). It can vary due to a variety of factors but this is mostly due to weather. By not booking hotels or camping prior to your Northeast fall road trip, this allows you to be flexible. You can go to the areas that are at “peak color” rather than spend time in a spot that isn’t yet fully changed or worse, the leaves have fallen.
When to start planning your New England fall road trip itinerary
Advantages and disadvantages comes with this method of not planning. The major advantage with not booking all your accommodation in advance is flexibility. You won’t miss the colors because they happened to be a week late or earlier than expected. You can drive to wherever the colors happen to be best in that moment.
This comes with a downside though… accommodation prices and availability. Fall is extremely busy in this part of the country. Like you, many others choose to take East Coast fall road trips in the hope of seeing the incredible beauty that comes with the changing of seasons. This means hotels and vacation rentals can book out well in advance, leaving the remaining last minute bookings quite expensive.
We ended up opting to mostly find accommodation as we went along, including some last minute vacation rentals and hotels/motels. We tried to stay at a budget of around $80-150 USD per night, which did narrow down our search a little but overall the places were more than adequate. A couple of times we did have to drive to places slightly further out of town to find a more affordable price but this was a okay compromise to have the extra flexibility.
Another option is to bring camping gear. Keep in mind though, at this time of the year some of the campgrounds are beginning to close. Some places we traveled through didn’t seem to have many tent camping options. In saying that, there was the possibility of sleeping in your car. I have a guide all about sleeping in your car on road trips – check it out!
With all that being said, how you want to plan your Northeast fall road trip is up to you. Do you want to take the chance of potentially missing the peak colors and pre-book more affordable/convenient accommodation? Or do you want to pay slightly more for accommodation and make sure you are seeing the best of the colors? It’s up to you. Either way, we found this be the most accurate and up-to-date map of where the colors are peaking.
For reference, we took our fall New England road trip on October 8 – 12, 2018. But don’t take those dates as a sure thing because peak color can change year to year!
Best New England fall road trip itinerary
Below I’m sharing a suggested itinerary for your New England fall road trip, based on our own adventure. First off, here is a map with all the best spots linked and pins for each day of the itinerary, see below.
Now let’s talk through the day-to-day itinerary…
Day 1 – Dixville Notch State Park
Fly into Boston, pick up a rental car, and drive 4 hours north to Dixville Notch to begin your New England fall road trip. Dixville Notch is a very small area, but for what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty!
The main road that travels over Dixville Notch initially winds its way past some cute farm land surrounded by rolling hills. The drive then passes stunning Lake Gloriette, up over Dixville Notch and down the other side of the pass through incredible fall foliage to a couple of serene picnic areas and walks.
Plan to do the stunning Table Rock trail which is a short one at only 1.5 miles round-trip, but a relatively steep 700 feet climb. This gives you an epic 360 degree views over Dixville Notch from above, and the photos are beautiful! If you have timed it right, you might even be able to enjoy sunset from up there.
Unfortunately when we were there, the clouds were low and covering the views. Instead, we parked at what is labeled Whittemore Family Cemetery on GoogleMaps and hiked a short trail that leaves from the parking lot. This is a great alternative if the weather is not cooperating.
This trail made its way through a vibrant forest that leads to a cute little bridge and stream. The hike would only take 10-15 minutes round-trip without stopping. It was a great way to stretch the legs and take a moment to snap some photos of our first glimpse of fall colors.
After finishing your hike at Table Rock, or the alternative trail, head back to nearby Colebrook for dinner and a good nights rest.
Day 2 – Stowe
Wake up early, grab some breakfast at Mostly Muffins in Colebrook (so yummy!) and then drive west towards Stowe, Vermont. On the way, you will pass loads of beautiful fall foliage and small rural towns including the memorable Island Pond. The Great Vermont Corn Maze is also a fun stop if you’re into that sort of thing.
After a beautiful drive to Stowe you can spend the rest of the day exploring its charm, cute gift stores and scenic walks. We had lunch at the Green Goddess Cafe and it was amazing! We then we took a quick walk along the bike path which leaves from behind the Stowe Community Church and runs along the river.
From this vantage, there are some great views of the church worth photographing. Finish the night off with a delicious pizza at Piecasso in town – we definitely recommend this restaurant! Stay the night in Stowe or closeby.
Day 3 – Smuggler’s Notch & White Mountains
Day 3 of your Northwest fall road trip will be a busy one! Wake up early and head to Smuggler’s Notch. This area has a road that goes up and through a small gap between two mountains (referred to as a “notch”). It is quite similar to Dixville Notch, but in my opinion, Smuggler’s is even more spectacular.
This was one of the spots we were most looking forward to on our New England fall road trip, and it didn’t disappoint! The mountains on either side are HUGE, and there are so many beautiful twists and turns in the road to photograph and check out.
Definitely drive this to the other side and back before moving on to your next location. Another option is taking the Gondola SkyRide at the Stowe Mountain Resort, for beautiful aerial mountain views.
From Smuggler’s Notch, drive south to Pomfret, Vermont. Taking Cloudland Road south from Pomfret to Woodstock will take you along cute dirt roads lined with fall colors, rolling hills and quaint farms. A necessary stop along this route is the farm located opposite “Elm Grove Farm” on Googlemaps, often referred to as “Sleepy Hollow Farm”. It’s a great little photography stop that captures one of the most photogenic farm properties you will ever see.
Sugarbush Farm is another local property you can visit, though we didn’t go there ourselves. I hear their maple syrup is delicious!
Now, time to head back to New Hampshire. At the base of the White Mountains, the town of Lincoln is a good place to end day 3 of your New England fall road trip.
Day 4 – White Mountains
Your New England fall road trip would not be complete without a drive along the famous Kancamagus Highway. Leaving early on day 4 from Lincoln, there are a lot of epic road-side views on this stretch of road. A number of pull-outs also allow for some great photo opportunities. Continue east until you hit the Rocky Gorge Parking Lot. Here you can take a walk along the beautiful Swift River and get views of the beautiful Falls Pond.
From Rocky Gorge, we backtracked a short distance to drive up Bear Notch Road. Bear Notch provides a scenic drive along a mountainside and more road-side pullouts for some gorgeous photo opportunities.
At the end of Bear Notch Road, drive north to Crawford Notch State Park. Here, you can explore the back-roads and snap photos of all the beautiful fall colors. A side-trip option in this area is a hike up the Mount Willard trail. It’s a relatively steep, but short 3.2 mile round-trip hike to a clifftop overlooking Crawford Notch. The views from there are unreal! Again, unfortunately weather wasn’t cooperating so we had to skip this one.
Next, continue north where you have the option of taking a short detour to the Mt Washington Cog Railway. Here, you can catch an old-school train up to the summit of Mt Washington, the tallest mountain in the north-eastern US at 6,289 feet. Due to the bad weather, we kept driving, but if you are a fan of trains then this should not be missed!
To end your day, depending on availability you can stay in the nearby towns of Carroll, Franconia, Littleton or Bethlethem. We stayed in Franconia ourselves and chose to drive to Bethlehem to have dinner at the Cold Mountain Cafe. It if works out with timing, we highly recommend it as a delicious way to end a busy day.
Day 5 – White Mountains
Day 5 is the last day of your New England fall road trip, and what better way to start than with a sunrise hike up to Artist’s Bluff. This is a short 1.4 mile walk up to a stunning hilltop that overlooks Echo Lake, and the fall foliage here is insane! Unfortunately it was raining when we drove past here (a common theme on our trip!) so we opted to skip the hike as the clouds were hiding most of the views.
We continued on to Flume Gorge which is a relatively easy 2 mile loop hike and one of our favorite stops of the trip. Multiple waterfalls, streams and covered bridges keep the eyes entertained for the whole 2 miles. Do note that there is a $16 per person entry fee but we felt it was very much worth it. We spent a couple of hours exploring this area and even in the rain it was absolutely gorgeous!
By now your Northeast fall road trip is coming to an end. It’s probably time to head back towards Boston to catch your flight… or onward to your next destination (see more below!)
7 day East Coast fall road trip
If you really want to take an incredible Northeast fall road trip and have some extra days (1 week total), here is what I would recommend. Add a couple of days in between Stowe/Smuggler’s Notch and the White Mountains. With these days, you can drive further east into Up State New York and the Adirondack Mountains, where the colors were absolutely incredible. There are also abundant hiking opportunities, and the beautiful town of Lake Placid to explore.
As I know many of you will ask, we opted to take a sunset hike in the Adirondacks (see photo above), however I have been asked by locals to please not share the exact location. There are some concerns about the potential damage of increased trail traffic and it was pointed out to us that parking spots are also very limited.
I urge you to be responsible and always abide by Leave No Trace Principles when exploring the outdoors.
3 day New England Road Trip
You could do this New England fall road trip in 3 days with some adventurous spirit! It would be kind of rushed, and you wouldn’t always be able to be in the best spots for sunrise or sunset. That being said, if it’s all you have, go for it! It’s definitely doable and would be a blast. I hope you don’t mind missing out on some sleep though 😉
Some options to put together a shorter Northeast fall road trip itinerary would be to cut out the Pomfret / Sleepy Hollow Farm section, as that does add some driving hours. Another way to cut down time would be to combine your visit to Stowe and Smuggler’s Notch into one day.
New England fall road trip packing guide
There are some essential items you should pack for your Northeast fall road trip to make it as enjoyable as possible! I hadn’t explored much of New England or Upstate New York before this trip and found the weather to be a little up and down. One minute it was sunny and the next freezing and rainy!
Here are some must-pack items for your East Coast fall road trip:
It’s likely to get colder than you are expecting, especially if you plan to be out during sunrise and sunset hours. It even snowed in New Hampshire towards the end of our trip! I would highly recommend packing a puffy jacket or a parka that has insulation. Here are some options:
Do not attempt to take an Northeast fall road trip without a rain jacket/coat! It rained at least once every that that we were on the East Coast. Although it didn’t ruin our trip, it could have if we didn’t have adequate rain protection. Here are some rain jacket options:
I was VERY happy that I packed waterproof boots for our East Coast fall adventure! We experienced wet, muddy and cold conditions and waterproof boots made a huge difference. I suggest choosing a pair that can be worn both casually and also when hiking. Some I would recommend:
For underneath your jackets I would recommend packing some layers, including a couple of long sleeve tops and a fleece/sweater. This will allow you to easily adjust your warmth as the weather changes. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t stress too much about bottom layers, just make sure they are comfortable and practical for road tripping. I personally like wearing leggings or jeggings on road trips, as they are stretchy and can be worn both in the car, around town, and on hikes. Here are some options:
Beanie and gloves
As I mentioned above, it even snowed during our New England fall road trip! I would highly suggest packing a beanie and some warm gloves. Maybe even throw in a scarf too! Here are my top picks:
You will likely want a small day backpack to carry important items as you explore towns and take hikes. You can use whatever you have at home but these are some suggestions if you’re looking to buy something new:
We often lost phone service when driving in the mountains of New England and down back-roads. I would suggest taking a GPS device along or having offline maps handy, such as the Maps.Me phone app.
You’ll want to take photos of all the pretty fall foliage, so I highly suggest packing a camera! Our go-to camera for this trip was the Sony a7RIII (and the iPhone 11 Pro for quick snaps), plus we also had fun using our DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone. Here is a full list of our camera gear set-up.
We found it challenging to find food between towns and also after hours in and often relied on snacks to keep us fueled. Be sure to throw in some nuts, seeds, granola bars, dried fruit, protein bars, tea, coffee etc. into your luggage. Even as a just-in-case item it’s always nice to know you won’t starve! Here are some good choices:
I hope that helps you plan an incredible East Coast fall road trip! Have an amazing time and feel free to send me a DM on Instagram (@ReneeRoaming) and let me know how you got on 😊