Peak Bagging of a Different Kind

We’re coming into my favorite time of year to hike as a family.

The last few nights have been cool, and the days have finally lost that sticky feeling. This morning, for the first time in weeks, Virgil and Ursula wanted jackets on before they went outside. The cool, dry air makes for perfect walking. Even better, biting bugs are gone, or going. Best of all in this part of the world, the leaves are starting to turn. Even before August ended, I caught glimpses of bright red in the marshy areas, the swamp maples heralding the changes to come.

True, now that summer’s over — and once school starts, it’s over, regardless of what the calendar says — we no longer have long stretches of time for adventures. But we don’t need them. Living in New England, we’re always near great hiking.

Some of our best hiking memories are from the fall. Ursula and Virgil look for leaves with the brightest colors or most perfect shape, and we all play leaf tag, trying to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. It looks so easy — just reach out and grab a leaf as it floats by — but it is amazingly, hilariously hard. Try it and see!

It’s a little easier to catch fall color at its peak. The weather that produces the most brilliant fall color is days that are sunny and cool and nights that dip toward but not below freezing. Each fall is different, but in general, color peaks at the end of September in the far north and up high, at the beginning of October at middle elevations, and about a week later in the valleys of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Coastal areas and lower elevations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York hit peak color from the middle to the end of October.

Combining the two kinds of “peak-bagging” experiences — hiking mountains and tracking fall color — can create long-lasting family memories. But I also try to remember that the same conditions that create New England’s glorious foliage are conditions that require extra caution and care when I plan our family hikes. The days are shorter, and they cool off quickly once the sun is low in the sky. As the season progresses, the chance of snow increases, especially in the higher terrain. I always pack fleece jackets for fall hikes; at a certain point I start adding hats and mittens to the pile.

The kids have great memories of staying overnight at AMC huts in the fall. We’ve learned the hard way to remind them that the weather up high is not the same as the weather down low. Then they take pride in the alpine conditions and enjoy snuggling into their sleeping bags.

One final safety note: Hunting season also starts in the fall, although it’s mostly bow-and-arrow hunting (and some bear and moose hunting) that overlaps with prime hiking season. We see a lot of hunters on our road, so we have a collection of reflective biking vests and brightly colored bandanas that we all wear whenever we’re outside, including on the trail.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be posting descriptions of fall-season hikes, walks, and rambles (and a couple of overnights) around the Northeast that are good bets for families. I’ll start in the north country, where fall flames first, then track the warm front southward as the season tips toward winter.

Learn more
Check AMC hut or lodge availability. Fall weekends can be crowded at AMC huts and lodges. Lake of the Clouds and Madison Springs huts close in mid-September; full-service season for the other huts ends on October 17.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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