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For Fall Leaf-Peepers, Timing Is Key

Plan ahead and book reservations early to see New England's brilliant autumn foliage

By Suzanne L. MacLachlanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 1995


TO American Indians living in New England, it must have seemed a wondrous transformation: the green leaves of summer slowly turning brilliant shades of red, orange, and gold as autumn tiptoed in. In this neck of the woods, Indian legends abound to explain why the trees turn and what the change symbolizes.

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There is also a scientific explanation: The warm days and cool nights of early fall produce a corky substance that blocks the flow of water to leaves. The chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, and the sugar that remains produces the vibrant colors that ''leaf peepers'' relish.

Science or legend, it's hard not to be moved by the vibrant colors of autumn. And judging by the hundreds of thousands of tourists who pass through each September and October, New England is an ideal location to witness this seasonal change.

Some leaf-peepers come by bus or car, armed with maps and an itinerary, and stay for a week. Some set out on spur-of-the-moment day trips, and wander back roads. Still others view the foliage from the seat of a bike, the bow of a canoe, or even from a hot-air balloon.

The key, of course, is timing. When the leaf colors peak depends on a number of natural factors, as well as locale. In Vermont, the last week of September and the first week of October are usually the best for leaf-peeping. In the vast state of Maine, the north typically peaks the second weekend in September, while the southern portion is at its best the second weekend of October. In Massachusetts, the more mountainous areas in the west, such as the Berkshires, turn first, usually in early October.

'THE advice I'd give would-be leaf-peepers, especially non-New Englanders, is to plan an expedition for longer than one day because the weather can change so quickly,'' says Ray Wiggers, a botanist, traveler, and author of ''The Plant Explorer's Guide to New England'' (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1994).

Mr. Wiggers, a native Midwesterner, set out to explore New England while he was living here several years ago. His goal was to learn about the wild-plant community, but along the way he discovered that the region's diversity, climate, and compact size all add up to a leaf-peeping experience unrivaled by other regions. In his book, Wiggers maps out 54 tours of the area, 18 of which are specially recommended for viewing fall colors.

''I fumbled my way around the states,'' Wiggers says. ''Eventually, I could connect the dots.''

For colors ''at their crispest,'' he recommends a 70-mile Vermont route from Barre to Rutland. [See map.] In New Hampshire and Maine, Wiggers directs leaf-peepers on a 120-mile tour from Wolfeboro to Sebago Lake State Park. And in Massachusetts, he suggests an 18-miler from Northampton to West Chesterfield.

Wiggers says one of his first discoveries about leaf-peeping in New England was that the ''southern'' states have a lot of good fall-foliage sites. ''You don't have to go to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to see great color,'' he says.