THE autumn color is beginning in the northernmost reaches of New England. And floods of tourists, all eager to catch those elusive leaves at their most glorious, are soon to follow. Incidentally, predictions are that the peak may be a few days later this year, because of higher-than-normal summer rainfall. If you are planning to catch the color in New England, the six state tourist boards have a number of helpful services you should know about. For example, they all offer foliage ``hot lines'' -- recorded messages that tell where the colors will be at their best for the coming weekend.
Many also dispense lodging lists. Reservations for lodging are a must everywhere at this time of year. (One year the citizens of Bennington, Vt., set up cots in the basements of local churches to handle the influx of desperate visitors who had no place to stay.) If you haven't made your reservations, it may take a bit of patience to unearth an empty room.
But the situation is not impossible, although if you have firm ideas about the place you'd like to stay -- particularly in Vermont and New Hampshire -- it might be a good idea to make your reservations now for next year.
Here is a list of addresses and telephone numbers:
Vermont. For a recorded message on foliage status updated twice weekly, call (802) 828-3239. This message, which will be in operation through Oct. 24, also suggests what routes to take to see the best color.
Other information can be obtained through the Vermont Travel Division, 134 State Street, Montpelier, Vt. 05602; (802) 828-3236. Vermont information offices and welcome centers will be continually checking with hotels and inns to find out where there are empty rooms. The tourist division will give you the number of the organization that is monitoring the area you want to visit. It will also give you the number of the nearest ski resort, which often has rooms open during foliage season. If you can plan your outing for midweek, it's easier to find a room. Many lodging operators require a two-night minimum stay at this time of year.
The travel division will mail out whatever information you request within a day, but if you send a dollar, you'll get it by first-class mail.
Maine. To get weekly foliage updates, call the Maine Publicity Bureau Inc. at (207) 289-2423. (Address: 97 Winthrop Street, Hallowell, Maine 04347.)
The last week in September in the north to the first two weeks in October in the south and coastal regions are considered peak times.
The Publicity Bureau offers a ``Great Escape'' kit, which has a map of Maine, a calendar of events and suggested routes, and a list of hotels.
New Hampshire. Foliage has just started to turn, and hot-line numbers for updates are (603) 224-2525 inside New Hampshire, updated by noon every Monday and Thursday, or 800-258-3608 or 800-258-3609 from outside.
The New Hampshire Office of Vacation Travel (Box 856, Concord, N.H 03301;  271-2665) has a kit of vacation information. It doesn't suggest routes, however, on the theory that recommended roads would then become virtually impassable.
As for lodging, all highway rest areas and state troopers, as well as the Office of Vacation Travel, have telephone numbers of organizations that list available rooms.
Connecticut. There are two recorded messages for visitor information: within the state, 800-842-7492; out of state, 800-243-1685. If you leave your name and address at the end of the message, you'll get a visitors' information kit. The vacation guide has a map, calendar of events, and lists of accommodations, tours, and day trips.
If you need further assistance, call the Department of Economic Development, Tourism Division, 210 Washington Street, Hartford, Conn., 06106; (203) 566-3385. This state's foliage season is usually the first two weeks in October.
Massachusetts. The Fall Foliage Hotline number within the state is 800-632-8038; from other Northeastern states, 800-343-9072, from elsewhere (617) 727-3201. For a Fall Foliage Guide or a Calendar of Events, contact Lauren Hackett, Massachusetts Division of Tourism, 100 Cambridge Street, 13th Floor, Boston, Mass. 02202, or call (617) 727-2303.
The viewing tips suggest ways of seeing the foliage other than by driving your car. For instance, on weekends the Berkshire Scenic Railway is offering a 1920s-vintage ride through the colors. Call (413) 243-2872 for reservations. And in Northfield you can see the upper Connecticut Valley aboard the boat Quinnetukut 2. Call (413) 659-3714.
The Berkshire Mountains area is one of the most popular parts of the state for leaf-peepers. Many hotels and inns here contact the Berkshire Visitors Bureau when they have vacancies, making the lodging search a lot easier. To reach them, write Berkshire Hills Conference/Visitors Bureau, Berkshire Common, Plaza Level, Pittsfield, Mass. 01201, or call (413) 443-9186.
New York. This state claims to have foliage that is just as glorious as New England's, but -- owing to what one spokesman referred to as ``the New England mystique'' -- it has fewer visitors and less congestion. The toll-free number, good for the continental US, is 800-CALLNYS. From Canada, Alaska, or Hawaii, call (518) 474-4116.