A Perfect Fall Road Trip
*Sunset on Sunset Ridge, Mt. Mansfield
Although it is still summertime, it’s never too early to start planning your next fall adventure. Whether you are just looking for a small weekend road trip through the midlands of Ohio or venturing out to the scenic Appalachian, there are many places to see. But if you need some inspiration, here’s a recap of one of my favorite fall adventures through the Northeast and New England.
Out of all the seasons to visit the northern states, fall is the best time to experience them. The mountain vistas colored by the fall foliage is breathtaking. My trip started south in Cincinnati and weaved its way through the Adirondacks of upper New York, Mount Mansfield just outside of Burlington, Vermont, to Baxter State Park in northern Maine and finally, Acadia National Park. Total trip time was around 10 days. We drove through the night to reach the trailhead of Mt. Marcy, New York’s Highest point. We arrived just before sunrise and began to ready our gear for a long 14.5 mile hike. Collectively there was 12 of us. We were all college students looking for the best way to enjoy our fall break. We rented a large 12 person van and packed ourselves like sardines. Sleeping through the night was tough, but we were soon energized by the sights that were all around us. The weather was cloudy, but set to clear up around midday. The air was damp and filled with the autumn aromas. The dates we chose were October 12th-22nd and, according to our research, the best time to experience peak fall foliage throughout the region. And right we were!
*Mt. Marcy to the upper left
We began our hike up through the lower forest filled with red maples, yellow birch trees, and tall pines. The trail moved up into the clouds. Just above treeline we reached a slippery portion of rocks and climbed our way closer to the summit. The elevation and corresponding exposure to harsh climatic conditions have resulted in some relatively unusual vegetation types along the mountain's summit ridge. The low, stunted-plants found in the alpine tundra near the summit, very rare in New England, are more typical of types found on broad expanses of Arctic tundra a thousand miles farther north. We were met with signs indicating the fragility of the alpine ecology. We had to strictly follow the path not to trample on the delicate brush. The forest service even went to the extreme of sending a person daily to the summit to monitor this. If I had thought the weather was bad today, I was soon reminded by her that it can be far worse. After a quick summit pic of our team, we headed back down the rocky 8-mile trail. Mt. Marcy is a long but gradual hike so make sure to be prepared with plenty of water and snacks to keep you going. After everybody was accounted for at the trailhead, we quickly saddled up and headed to our campground just outside of Lake Placid. Just down the road from our campsite we passed the enormous ski-jumps from the Winter Olympics held in 1980. The history of Lake Placid is fascinating and definitely worth exploring further in the town.
We woke up around 6am and quickly broke camp. Our next stop was four hours away in Vermont. Mount Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, sitting at 4,393′ ft. We arrived later than expected around 2pm to a crowded trailhead. Mt. Mansfield is center point of UnderHill State Park. The park is obviously best known for its hiking. There are four trails to the summit ridge of Mt. Mansfield throughout the park. Walking up to the gated road from the park headquarters, the trails begin branching off shortly above the group camp area. The Sunset Ridge Trail, 3 miles to the summit, is the most popular. Vermont’s Long Trail traverses the summit ridge and with several trails from the other side of the mountain, many loops are possible. Hiking information and trail maps are available at the park headquarters.
We found a spot for our enormous van and unloaded all our gear and moved it up to our small campground. Due to our size, we were split between two sites. After we pitched our tents, we raced to grab our daypacks and start the summit hike. It did not take long for the trail to pitch upwards into a very steep Appalachian ascend through the forest. The fall temperatures can be cool at the summit so make sure to bring a light breathable shell. After reaching the summit, we gazed out into the expanse of valleys filled with oranges and yellows. We retraced our steps back down sunset ridge and learned just why it is called that. The setting sun lit up the vista with its soft orange glow. If you are planning a hike up Mt. Mansfield it would 100% suggest planning your descend with the sunset. Makes sure you bring a headlamps with you though. Night can fall fast once you enter back into the forest.
The next morning, we began our long drive to Baxter State Park, northern Maine. It would take us the whole day via car to make it. Maine is very strict about access to park, especially to those camping. If you don’t make it in on time before the ranger hut closes, you will be shut out the park until morning time. There are over 40 peaks and ridges besides Mt. Katahdin in the Park. The trail system features over 215 miles of trails popular with hikers, mountain climbers, and naturalists. Baxter State Park operates eight 8 roadside campgrounds and two backcountry campgrounds. There are also numerous individual backcountry sites for backpackers. When we woke up the next morning, we stopped at the ranger hut before setting out on the trail to ask about the conditions. It had rained the previous day during our drive so we did not know how that would affect our plan. We wanted to know if the Knife-edge route above treeline would be too slippery for a safe traverse of our group. The experience levels varied person to person but we all had a good team spirit and understandings of our limits. My friend, Gary and I had built a great climbing relationship. We were both physically strong and always pushing to find our limits. He had organized all the planning and logistics of the trip and I took on a more co-leader role within the group. Together, we could set a good pace for everybody, myself as lead, and Gary taking up the rear of the line. The ranger, a rather odd fellow, said the trail would be perfect for a hike today with the clear skies, the above wind would have cleared the dampness of any of the rocks, if their own porous nature did not take care of the job. We were extremely uplifted by this and the team’s morale, already at a high level, shot to the skies. Leaving the ranger hut, there was a small model of the mountain with all its routes outlined. Mt. Katahdin is almost shaped like a giant U, with our trail climbing around the curve to the summit Pyramid. I still have only seen videos of the climb on Youtube which only visually conveyed the experience but other than that this enormous land reservation was unknown to me. The Knife-edge trail is not for the beginner. Sure footing is essential up the steep boulder scrambles. We were blessed with clear weather the whole day but I would definitely prepare for possible afternoon storms that could pop up. Weather is never a guarantee. We reached the summit around 1:30 pm, beginning our hike promptly at 7am. If you have the experience, I definitely recommend the Knife-edge trail up to the summit! We arrived back at camp past sunset and prepared for the following day.
*West Quoddy Head Lamp
For a quick stop on our way east from Baxter State Park, we decided to check out the eastern most point of the U.S. This is a beautiful must-see lighthouse, West Quoddy Head Light. Great views from the point and some trails to stretch your legs if you want. Depending how much you want to hike, this could be an all day affair or just a quick in and out of the car to see the lighthouse. There was a gift shop, museum, and visitor center in the lighthouse filled with interesting info and history. We hiked a quick coastal loop and enjoyed lunch on the many picnic tables surrounding the Head light. From there we headed to what is regarded as the Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic Coast, Acadia National Park.
Since all the hard hiking of the trip was done, we would relaxingly enjoy Acadia for three days. You have many options when it comes to camping and lodging at Acadia. We chose the Blackwoods National Park campground due its central location in the park. We were surrounded by great hikes all within a 25-minute drive or less. The first day of our exploration, we stopped at a quaint cafe, Coffee Hound Coffee Bar right next to the Blackwoods bath house. From there we headed to explore Jordan Pond. From the main parking lot, trails extend out in every direction and you can't go wrong with any of them.
*Sunrise from Cadillac Mountain
The second day we got up early, around 4 am, for sunrise over Cadillac Mountain. I would recommend leaving as early as possible, an hour or two before sunrise. This is one of the most crowded attractions in the park and the parking lots can fill up fast. Then, in the afternoon, we decided to give Precipice Trail a try. This trail is often closed during the summer months due to hawk nesting. Just like Knife-edge, this trail is not for the person afraid of heights. You begin bouldering through a rock field as you approach the Precipice cliff. Ascend granite stairs, ladders, and iron rungs as you make your make up the sheer cliff. You finish by reaching the summit along granite slopes. Stunning views await you at the top of Champlain Mountain. To descend down, you take the North Ridge Trail of Champlain Mountain along a granite ridgeline. Climb down a steep, rocky trail towards the Park Loop Road. You can walk the road back to the parking area, but to continue on trails, cross the park loop road where it intersects with Schooner Head Path. Take this easy forest path to Murphy Lane which will then place you just south of the Precipice parking area. Afterwards, we quickly drove to watch the sunset at the famous Acadia Lighthouse. We then drove to explore the city of Bar Harbor. All the restaurants were a hit in the small town, but you must scope a place out that’s offering lobster. It will be one of the freshest meals you ever have. That accompanied by a crisp blueberry beer from the closest craft brewery and you will be in for smooth night. There are also plenty of shops to walk through. The next morning, we sadly broke camp and left our fall haven to head back to Ohio.
In the end, no matter how you hike through New England, you are sure to be met with plenty of scenic overlooks and warm small towns to fill your fall season.
Quick Summary of the Itinerary