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Hitting the highs of autumn: 10 hikes with colorful vistas

By Jeffrey Romano
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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There is no better time of year than fall to hit the hiking trails of New England. Gone is the humidity of summer, swarming insects, and hazy visibility. In its place are cool crisp days and, of course, an ever changing array of colorful leaves.

There are many choices available for the eager hiker. The 10 recommendations that follow provide geographic variety, different degrees of difficulty, and diverse natural features. Choose the waterfalls and lakes on the overcast days. When skies are blue, opt for those paths that lead above the trees for an eagle’s-eye view of the vibrant surroundings.

In most years, peak foliage arrives in northern New England by late September. Start there and make your way south for a month of incredible hikes. Remember, days are getting shorter, the temperatures cooler, and snow is a possibility in the higher elevations. Be sure to pack ample clothing and don’t forget to grab your camera.

DOUBLETOP MOUNTAIN Maine Its prism-shaped, ledge-covered profile forms a perfect backdrop for a photographer, especially when the area’s hardwood forests are aglow in bright yellows, reds, and oranges. After a challenging ascent to the high point, one is equally rewarded with incredible views of Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park, and the surrounding lakes and forests of northern Maine.

Hike: Follow the Doubletop Mountain Trail 4.7 miles past picturesque ponds, moose tracks, and demanding terrain to reach spectacular scenes from the mountain’s south peak. An easier, but slightly less scenic, 6.6-mile round-trip hike to the top can be completed from Nesowadnehunk Field.

Trailhead: Baxter State Park’s Kidney Pond Campground

CARIBOU MOUNTAIN Maine Bubbling streams, tumbling waterfalls, and a rocky ridge with a limitless panorama dominated by the nearby Presidential Range make Caribou Mountain in Evans Notch the perfect place to savor autumn beauty. In addition to changing leaves, this hike often provides excellent views of migratory raptors as they ride the wind above the area’s narrow valleys.

Hike: The 6.9-mile loop traverses the Caribou and Mud Brook trails. A moderately-difficult hike throughout, the circuit does include an occasional steep climb with uneven terrain. Young hikers will enjoy scrambling along the summit ledges.

Trailhead: Located on Route 113 in Gilead, 5.8 miles north of the New Hampshire border

MOUNT EISENHOWER New Hampshire While tourists from all over the world venture to New England to enjoy the changing foliage, few experience the dynamic above tree line where low alpine vegetation’s green summer growth turns to vibrant reds and purples. The domed summit of Mount Eisenhower is an ideal location to enjoy fall’s transition in the region’s highest elevations, and perhaps experience the season’s first snowfall.

Hike: The 2.9-mile Edmands Path rises considerably, but is one of the easier trails to ascend a peak in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Continue on the Mount Eisenhower Loop Trail 0.4 mile to reach the high point and 360-degree views.

Trailhead: Located on the Mount Clinton Road, 2.3 miles north of Route 302 in Bretton Woods

MOUNT GARFIELD New Hampshire A long, but gradual ascent, the climb to Mount Garfield culminates atop a barren summit that provides sweeping views of the White Mountains. During peak fall foliage, one could spend hours admiring the colorful display of the Pemigewasset Wilderness far below, as it lies bordered by the towering Franconia and Twin Mountain ridges.

Hike: The 10-mile round-trip hike follows the Garfield and Garfield Ridge trails. In the forest until the very end, the trek provides optimum leaf peeping throughout: expansive scenes from the top as well as close up shots from the trail.

Trailhead: Located on the Gale River Loop Road, 1.2 miles south from the road’s western entrance on Route 3 in Bethlehem.

NANCY CASCADES New Hampshire A great option for enjoying fall colors on an overcast day in the White Mountains, this is a delightful excursion to impressive waterfalls on a lightly-traveled trail. For more adventure, push on to Nancy and Norcross ponds for more sprawling vistas and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

Hike: The Nancy Pond Trail leads 1.6 miles to a crossing of Nancy Brook (may be difficult with high water) and then it proceeds 0.8 mile to the base of the cascading falls. From here, the path climbs steeply, but soon levels off and in 1.9 miles reaches breathtaking views from Norcross Pond.

Trailhead: Located on Route 302, 5.3 miles west of Bartlett.

MOUNT HUNGER Vermont At 3,539 feet, Mount Hunger showcases some of the finest views in Vermont. An ideal year-round destination, this scenic, rock-covered mountain located east of Stowe is best visited in fall, when the surrounding valleys, peaks, and farmland are covered in a rainbow of colors.

Hike: Leading steeply 2.2 miles to the wide-open, south summit of Hunger Mountain, the Waterbury Trail is as rewarding as it is challenging. Consider extending the hike 2 miles round trip by including a stop at White Rock Mountain. This quieter locale can be reached by following a trail that leads south 2 miles from the start.

Trailhead: Located on Sweet Road in Waterbury, 1.4 miles north of junction with Loomis Hill Road.

MOUNT ASCUTNEY Vermont Standing alone and rising impressively above the Connecticut River Valley, Mount Ascutney commands sweeping views in all directions. Standing on the summit tower or one of many prominent rocky outcrops, fall visitors can enjoy a dramatic collage of colorful forests, rolling hills, and pastures.

Hike: The 2.7-mile Windsor and 3.2-mile Brownsville trails can be combined with a 1.2-mile road walk to complete a wonderful loop that includes stops at waterfalls, an old quarry, and numerous scenic ledges. Both trails rise steeply out of the valley, but moderate as they approach the mountain’s high point.

Trailhead: The Windsor Trail is located on Route 44A in Windsor, 0.2 mile east of its junction with Route 44. The Brownsville Trail is located on Route 44, one mile west of the same junction.

THE BEEHIVE Maine Short, but challenging, Acadia National Park’s Beehive Trail showcases awe-inspiring fall scenes on slopes rising steeply from the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. The hike includes a stop at the Bowl, a pond nestled high in the mountain. Consider extending the hike a bit by visiting nearby Gorham Mountain.

Hike: Complete the 1.6-mile loop by following the Bowl and Beehive trails. Be sure to use the Beehive Trail for the ascent, as it uses iron rungs (not for people who fear heights) to negotiate the mountain’s steep cliff-face.

Trailhead: Located on Acadia National Park’s loop road, near Sand Beach

ALANDER MOUNTAIN Massachusetts Dotted with picturesque towns and surrounded by rolling ridges of hardwood forests, the Berkshires are a must-visit autumn hiking destination. Among the many locations from which to choose, Alander Mountain stands above the rest with its expansive views and interesting natural features.

Hike: A 7.6-mile hike can be completed by following the Bash-Bish Gorge, South Taconic, and Bash-Bish Falls trails. Excellent views can be found along the ridge leading south to the mountain’s wide-open western summit. Complete the journey by swinging through New York’s Taconic State Park and past the Bay State’s highest falls.

Trailhead: On Falls Road in the town of Mount Washington, 0.3 mile east of the New York border. Due to Hurricane Irene, the trailhead is currently only accessible from Copake Falls, N.Y.

TULLY MOUNTAIN Massachusetts Located in central Massachusetts, Tully Mountain and its namesake pond offer a splendid autumn hiking venue. Pick the mountain for colorful scenes extending from Mount Monadnock to the hills surrounding the Quabbin. Conversely, stick to the easier paths circling the pond for alluring reflections and impressive shots of Doane’s Falls.

Hike: Follow the Tully Trail west 2.2 miles to the summit’s scenic ledges, just below the mountain’s high point. To complete a 4.4-mile loop of the lake, follow the Tully, Doane’s Falls, and Tully Lake Loop trails. Complete the circuit by walking 0.2 mile north along the road.

Trailhead: On Route 32 in Royalston, 0.1 mile north of Tully Lake Dam

Jeffrey Romano, the author of “Classic Hikes in New England’’ (2010) and “Best Loop Hikes: From New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the Maine Coast’’ (2006), can be reached at