Like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Rocky Mountains, autumn in New England deserves its reputation as something great. When the first flash of crimson appears on the northern horizon in mid-September, the message goes out: Company's coming.
And company does come. As the color moves south through six states in about six weeks, the frosty dawns hum with the sound of motors revving up in country inn parking lots. The roadside stands are dwarfed by piles of pumpkins, bushel baskets of apples and pots of chrysanthemums.
Although New Englanders may claim to know the best back roads for fall leaf-peeping, you can't go wrong with some of the main roads from northern Massachusetts to the Canadian border, which may be a bit crowded, but they're also paved and accessible.
Mohawk Trail: Beginning the first weekend in October, charter buses, vans and sports cars will file west from Concord, Mass., on Route 2, the Mohawk Trail. They will stop at Whitcomb Summit to allow passengers and drivers to breathe deeply and photograph the vista. The trail has 14 state parks and forests plus a 10-mile spur to Mount Greylock, where you can see five states and color blazing by the side of the road. The town of Shelburne Falls is a crafts colony.
At Williamstown, you can go south to the Berkshires or north into Vermont. If you right-face to Bennington, Vt., then turn east on Route 9, you will be on a road named for the wife of an American Revolution hero, Maj. Gen. John Stark.
Molly Stark Trail: From Bennington to Brattleboro, Vt., the road, Route 9, links ski runs in winter and blue-eyed ponds the rest of the year. Have your camera ready for villages like Wilmington and Marlboro.
Skyline Restaurant at Hogback Mountain serves apple pancakes along with an eagle's-eye 100-mile sweep of three states.
You can buy a gallon of maple syrup at one of the roadside stands ("Now you're taking home the real Vermont," one seller always says), then proceed to Brattleboro on the Connecticut River, where you join Interstate 91.
Woodstock, Stowe: An all-Vermont favorite requires going with the flow in a stream of prime tourist destinations and celebrity hangouts from Laurance and Mary Rockefeller's Woodstock to the Trapp Family's Stowe. Leave Interstate 91 for Interstate 89 west, then exit to U.S. 4.
You can expect to encounter a nest of buzzing buses at Quechee's gorgeous gorge, but never mind. Pull in and share the admiration. You can even hike to the bottom. It's only 165 feet deep.
Continue to well-groomed Woodstock, where the architecture is Federal, then west past Killington, where the passion is skiing. Turn north on State Route 100.
The route may look shorter on the map than the interstates, but it is slower because the temptation to stop in places like Warren, Granville and Waitsfield is irresistible.
Between Waterbury and Stowe, foliage yields to shopping. Tour buses will be lined up outside Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream works and Harrington's Smokehouse. These are worth a stop, even if you don't join the queue for a factory tour.
North Country and back: Hold the thought that traffic thins as you go north, and, at Stowe, take Route 108, which slants northwest through the mountains past Smugglers Notch to Jeffersonville. Out of range for all but the most persistent buses, the road is uncrowded and the deciduous color tempered by pine forest as you cut southwest on Route 15 to the outskirts of Burlington.
In Burlington you can take a ferry or excursion steamer -- the better to see autumn mirrored in Lake Champlain. Then, ignoring the fast-food franchises and used-car lots of upper U.S. 7, but after stopping at the Shelburne Museum, you continue south toward the college town of Middlebury.
With its wide-porch inn, book stores and galleries on the green, Middlebury is a good place to stop for a mug of herb tea and a fistful of Joe Frogger cookies, or to spend the night.
Continue south on Route 30 past meadows filled with Morgan horses and join Route 7A into Manchester. Beyond the upscale designer discount malls is the old village where pre-Revolutionary plots were hatched and the sidewalks are paved with marble. Abraham Lincoln's family and other 19th-century notables spent summers at the Equinox, an elegant inn now restored to its original appearance.
If Arlington looks familiar, you may be remembering Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell. He was born here, and there's a museum in his name.
Kancamagus Highway: Possibly No. 1 in popular treks is to New Hampshire's White Mountains and Kancamagus Highway, a 34-mile red-and-gold corridor of National Forest road between Lincoln and Conway accessible from Interstate 93 or Route 16.
Pullovers by or near waterfalls let you view the larger scene and put traffic in its proper perspective -- minuscule in the great scheme of autumn.
The only road that interrupts Kancamagus Highway is Bear Notch Road, which connects with U.S. 302. It may be prudent to take it (even the buses avoid bumper-to-bumper North Conway), then go west and north, looping south on U.S. 3.
Eventually, you will come to the granite cliffs of Franconia Notch State Park, including the craggy profile of the "Old Man of the Mountains," a favorite sight since the days of horse and buggy touring.
The coasts: And what of Maine? The brief but quintessential strand of New Hampshire? Newburyport, Gloucester, and the North Shore of Massachusetts? The blueberry barrens are crimson to magenta to deep purple, the Atlantic coves are rimmed with gold, and the white homes of long-ago sea captains have scarlet leaves aplenty sifting down on the lawns and picket fences.
Though Atlantic tourism peaks in midsummer, there are still whales to be watched, antiques to be acquired and ferries to be ridden to islands. If you want serenity, perhaps the coast is your last chance.
Yet, last year when we stopped to buy postcards in a country store, the old Yankee who took our money offered a qualified approval.
"Nice pictures," he said, adding, " 'Course, it don't look natural without a bus in it."
As for the crowds, if you can't lose them, join them.
If you go
Lodging: Arlington Inn, Route 7A, Arlington, Vt., (800) 443-9442 The Inn at Ormsby Hill, Route 7A, Manchester Center, Vt., (800) 670-2841
The Inn at Round Barn Farm, Waitsfield, Vt., (802) 496-2276 Middlebury Inn, Middlebury, Vt., (800) 842-4666
Snow Village Inn, Snowville, N.H., (800) 447-4345
Woodstock Inn, Woodstock, Vt. (800) 448-7900 If the inns are full, you can usually find space at moderate prices in the condominiums of ski resorts in Killington, Vt., (800) 343-0762; Okemo, Vt., (800) 78-OKEMO; or Stratton Mountain, Vt., (800) 843-6867; or in the Lodge Condominiums in Lincoln, N.H., (800) 854-6188.
More information: Maine, (800) 533-9595; Massachusetts, (800) 447-6277; New Hampshire, (800) 386-4664; Vermont, (800) 837-6668.
Pub Date: 8/25/96