Autumn's glories fascinate


The leaves may be gorgeous, all reds, yellows and golds, but meandering along winding country lanes admiring the colors won't cut it. Not with the kids, anyway.

They're bored and start fighting. One inevitably gets carsick. They refuse to poke around any of the quaint shops once their souvenir key chain is chosen. ("Hurry up, Mom, I've got to go to the bathroom!") or linger over a fancy dinner, no matter how wonderful the food at that country inn ("How come they don't have any chocolate milk here?").

The kids' take on a fall weekend in the country is nothing like the relaxing escape-the-rat-race excursion exhausted parents had in mind. That's not to say such getaways can't work. They can -- so long as moms and dads are willing to shift expectations and gears for leaf-peeping, family-style.

They'll have plenty of company. Especially on weekends, New England tourism officials report, growing numbers of families are joining the throngs of couples who traditionally have headed to New England during late September and October. Some family-minded resorts, such as Vermont's award-winning Smugglers' Notch ([800] 451-8752), even tout fall packages that are especially popular with those whose children aren't yet in school, while New Hampshire campgrounds are crowded with parents and kids on weekends.

Parents and kids are heading to apple orchards, pumpkin patches, farms and parks across the country in an effort to cram in every moment outdoors they can before winter sets in.

Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, for one, reports October is its busiest month, largely as a result of all the families who make the 100-mile drive from Washington. (Call [540] 999-3500 and ask what family programs are in the offing.)

"Families need to get out of their cars," suggests Tim Taglauer, Shenandoah's educational programming supervisor. "Let the kids get out and explore the forest," he suggests.

Elementary-school teacher and naturalist Paul Kelly couldn't agree more. Mr. Kelly spent his summer creating and overseeing nature programs for children vacationing at Smuggler's Notch and plans to take his third and fourth graders in Lake George, N.Y., out in the woods often this fall.

"You do get the rolling of the eyes from the kids," Mr. Kelly acknowledges. "Enthusiasm is everything. You've got to be really enthusiastic."

His advice: Tie on a blindfold and go hug a tree.

Seriously. Feel the bark, the leaves, the roots. Then lead the kids away from "their" tree, remove the blindfold and see if they can find it again (I couldn't).

The more competitive the activity, the better the kids will like it. If there are enough youngsters in the group, try organizing teams. Which team can spot the most different leaves first? The most colors? The most animals?

Here's another game: Bury something similarly colored in a pile of leaves -- a tennis ball, for example, or a pair of sunglasses, and see if the kids can find it. Better yet, let the kids see if mom and dad can. The kids can photograph their camouflaged "treasure" and see if their friends can spot it in the picture later (I couldn't).

"Get a simple field guide and make it a goal to learn five trees before you head out," Mr. Kelly suggests. The more trivia the better. The more the kids can stump mom and dad, the better they'll like it. (Do you know which tree typically changes color first? Red maples.)

It's not necessary to go beyond the nearest state park or local forest preserve to enjoy the season, wherever you may live. The leaves seem to be as glorious as ever, despite this summer's drought and some early reports to the contrary. (For fall foliage reports, call Connecticut at [800] CT-BOUND, Maine at [800] 533-9595, Massachusetts at [800] 227-MASS, New Hampshire at 386-4664, Vermont at [802] 828-3239, Virginia at [800] 434-5323, Pennsylvania at [800] 325-5467 and Maryland at [800] 532-8371.)

Vermont, by the way, takes credit for starting the leaf-peeping tradition back in the '50s as a way to bolster tourism, notes state tourism spokesman Greg Gerdel. Now autumn is Vermont's busiest tourist season.

Wherever you go, the idea is to keep moving -- preferably outdoors. Lace up the hiking boots and lead the crew into the woods on a scavenger hunt. Strap on a bike helmet and start peddling. Even better for older kids might be a mountain-bike excursion down steep trails.

Let preschoolers collect different-colored leaves during a walk that they can use for a collage. (Remember the glue!) Older siblings who like to draw might take markers, paints and paper into a field to record their own vision.

Try making up a story about some of the animals you encounter: a family of ducks; a doe and a fawn; a squirrel. It may sound corny, but the characters you invent might keep everyone entertained over some of those long winter nights. Really.

On a recent trip to Vermont, we signed on with Green River Canoe Guides for a beaver-watching trip down the Lamoille River at dusk ([802] 644-8336).

Along with several other families, we paddled -- "just like Pocahontas," 4-year-old Melanie informed us -- under a covered bridge and past several beaver dams of various sizes and shapes, watching the sun set and listening to the night sounds.

Never mind the leaves; nearly a month later, Melanie is still talking about all the beavers she didn't see.

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