Last October, our San Diego-based friend Priscilla Lister decided to check off one of the boxes on her bucket list by visiting New England to see our famous fall colors. She scrutinized the foliage forecaster page on Vermont’s state tourism site, picked some dates, and made a reservation at the Woodstock Inn & Resort because it looked like it was smack dab in the middle of Vermont.
Cilla blocked out much of her stay with hikes (she’s written one of the premier hiking guides to southern California). To add a little variety, we volunteered to put together a one-day itinerary that would introduce her to the auto tourist’s take on New England fall foliage. Talk about pressure …
As New Englanders, we can be blasé about foliage, so it was a challenge to imagine a quick day that would show Cilla the leaves, some quintessential landscapes, and at least one covered bridge. For good measure, we also wanted to throw in a few cultural stops.
Foliage topped the list, so we concocted a route on the slow roads southeast of Woodstock. Three miles south of town on VT-106 (which is plenty scenic in its own right), we turned left at Densmore Hill Road for the complete rural Vermont experience. We anticipated that the high ridges through farm country would glow with reds and oranges from the various species of maples, interspersed with brilliant yellows from birch and beech trees. But the goats and horses in the tree-lined roadside pastures were just dumb luck. The farm critters seemed to be posing for their close-ups, so we stopped to indulge in a snap-shooting frenzy. It seemed so obvious, but we were reminded just how special New England can be in the fall. And, in contrast to the usual stall-and-crawl traffic of foliage season, we never saw another vehicle until we encountered a farmer’s pickup truck at the intersection with Jenneville Road, where we turned left to cruise through Hartland Four Corners.
Turning right onto VT-12 south in Hartland village, then onto US-5 south, we continued to Windsor for a few more iconic New England sights. Asher Benjamin designed the Old South Church that anchors the village. Its Greek Revival portico and the rectangular ‶wedding cake″ bell tower gleamed a brilliant white against the surrounding oak and maple foliage. (The Colonial Revival columns were added in the 1920s, but they fit Benjamin’s 1797 design and complete the archetype of a New England white-spired church.) The moss-encrusted stones of the adjacent burying ground poked up through a carpet of fallen orange leaves.
Once we’d photographed the village from every angle, we drove literally around the corner (on Bridge Street, no less) to cross the Connecticut River on the longest covered bridge in New England. The 449-foot Cornish-Windsor bridge has spanned the river between Vermont and New Hampshire since 1866. ‶Walk your horses or pay two dollar fine″ admonishes the legend over the entrance.
Honestly, the Vermont foliage forecaster was a little off in 2022, as many of the most intense red leaves in the high country had already fallen. But foliage in the upper valley of the Connecticut River was just unfolding. At the bridge, the foliage-lined valley almost looked like it had been imagined by a special effects crew in Hollywood. The abrupt banks of Cornish, N.H., rose on one side, while the rounded majesty of Mount Ascutney loomed on the other.
We were hardly the first to appreciate the location. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens bought an estate on the Cornish side in 1892. It became the anchor for a summer art colony, and Saint-Gaudens lived there year-round toward the end of his life. His gardens, studio, and home are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. Castings of some of his monumental sculptures stand on the grounds, including his final version of Boston’s Shaw memorial. Blazing foliage framed one of the most recent castings, a 2016 rendering of the 12-foot-high Abraham Lincoln: The Man from 1887. It was the first monument that Saint-Gaudens sculpted in Cornish.
Ever the aesthete, Saint-Gaudens designed his complex with careful attention to the views, which meant that we could all see the landscape through the artist’s eyes. The pergola on the Little Studio was a perfect spot to sit beneath autumn-mottled grape leaves to take in the long view to the distant mountain vistas of Vermont. The sculptor also grafted a west-facing porch onto his house, an 1817 former inn. We followed his lead by sitting on that porch for a few minutes in contented rustic splendor, gazing out at Mount Ascutney. We could have stayed all afternoon to watch the day march down the sloping hayfield, but we weren’t done with our journey.
College towns are as iconic as foliage in New England, so we drove north on NH-12A and I-91 to Hanover, N.H. The broad green of the Dartmouth campus bustled with students and dog walkers enjoying the golden sunlight of a perfect autumn afternoon. We could have steered Cilla to Dartmouth’s excellent Hood Museum of Art, but we always like an itinerary with a hidden surprise. Dartmouth has a great one in the Baker-Berry Library. Given nearly 3,200 square feet of blank walls in the basement reading room, Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco created a sweeping vision of ancient and modern history. The Epic of American Civilization was completed in February 1934 and has since been recognized as a National Historic Landmark. The radical polemics of the panels must have seemed incendiary in the 1930s. Now their sheer artistic achievement makes their politics seem almost quaint.
The sun was getting low by the time we approached Woodstock on US-4. Not quite 8 miles east of town, we stopped and walked to the center of a bridge to get a vertigo-inducing view down into Quechee Gorge. Cilla had already planned her farewell hike the next day on trails leading into the deep cleft in the rocky landscape.
Back in Woodstock, we treated Cilla to her first maple creemee, a swirl of maple-flavored soft serve topped with maple sugar crumbles. The day was complete. Who knows? Maybe we can coax her back east for sugaring season.
If you go . . .
Vermont foliage forecaster: vermontvacation.com/landing-pages/recreation/foliage/foliage-forecaster
Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park
139 Saint-Gaudens Road, Cornish, N.H.
Buildings and grounds open daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. until October 31. 7-day entry pass $10. Grounds open year-round.
25 North Main Street, Hanover, N.H.
Open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-midnight, Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m.-midnight. Free.