Road Trip USA: Leaf Peeking in New England

New England’s beautiful display of nature, charming towns and friendly faces make Vermont and New Hampshire perfect choices for a family road trip, especially in autumn.

Vermont’s small size and little traveled roads make it super for a family driving trip, and October brings leaf peepers to view nature’s annual display of autumn colors. The northern part of Vermont is remote enough to never crowd. Of course, you’ll need more than colorful leaves to keep the kids entertained, so I’ve suggested stops that provide a variety of more active pursuits.

autmn in New England
The region’s lakes accentuate the colors of changing leaves, making Fall a busy time to visit.

Burlington is a fine spot to start your trip, as it is easy to reach via Interstate 89. Additionally, its small airport is well served by budget airline Jet Blue and it is about as pleasant as an airport can be. It’s an easy place to rent a car for your family New England road trip. Your road trip will take you across the Northeast Kingdom, Vermont’s most rural region, known for its unspoiled beauty. The entire drive form Burlington to St. Johnsbury is only 76 miles, so you will have plenty of time to get out and enjoy the scenery.

If your quest for charm has not been satiated, head across the state line to Hanover, New Hampshire, home to Dartmouth College. Your children will enjoy seeing more of this area that is just across the state line from Hanover: Norwich, Vermont.

Our suggested 3-day itinerary follows:

Day 1: Burlington to St. Johnsbury, Vermont

Day 2: St. Johnsbury to Lake Willoughby

Day 3: Lake Willoughby to Hanover, New Hampshire

Day 1: Burlington to St. Johnsbury, Vermont – 76 miles

The picturesque city of Burlington, Vermont sits on the shores of Lake Champlain. Its waterfront has recently been developed into a playground for locals and tourists alike. You can rent boats, bike the 10-mile path that hugs the river or catch the ferry across the lake to New York State. Browse car-free Church Street Marketplace, where quirky local shops sit side-by-side with familiar favorites. If the weather is fine, you can enjoy entertainers including street musicians, mimes and assorted performers.

Stroll around the campus of the University of Vermont and have lunch at Henry’s Diner, established in 1925. It is on Bank Street, just off Church Street and is an authentic, kid-friendly diner that is the perfect place to tempt little appetites.

Head out of town on Route 89 for the 30-minute drive to Waterbury, home to the Ben and Jerry’s factory where the ice cream tour is a must do for all ages. Continue on Route 89 for 25 minutes to the state capital, Montpelier. The smallest capital city of any state, you can explore the State Capitol building on a free, 20-minute guided tour, the perfect length for kids to get a taste of government’s workings.

After you have had a walk around town, head towards St. Johnsbury on scenic Route 2. You can follow this road directly to St. Johnsbury, but you would miss the Cabot Creamery at 2878 Main Street, Cabot, VT, 05647. Founded in 1919, it is worth a stop, and it is only a few minute’s detour. To get there, catch Route 215 in Marshfield, which will take you into the center of tiny Cabot, where the visitor-friendly factory is located. You will see a variety of dairy products being made, and sample some world-class cheddar cheese. This is the largest cooperative in the region, owned by 1,200 farm families. The factory workers are members of the co-op, and are happy to answer questions, so it is a fascinating glimpse into the agrarian lifestyle of Vermonters.

Getting back onto Route 2, you will arrive in St. Johnsbury in 30 minutes. This active little town, fondly known as St. Jay, has a variety of lodging choices ranging from cottages to B&Bs to motels, many of which are on the Discover St. Johnsbury website.

Day 2: St. Johnsbury to Lake Willoughby – 28 miles

New England road
Autumn leaves complement the pastoral feel of New England’s back roads.

St. Johnsbury is a wonderful family destination and is home to the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. The Victorian building that houses it is a gem, set among residential Victorian homes on Main Street. Exhibits include Bug Art, a collection of mosaics created by thousands of beetles, moths and butterflies; the Exploration Station, an interactive area focusing on ecology, electricity and engineering; and the only planetarium in Vermont. The lower level is home to a real weather station, and you may see Eyes on the Skies, a regional weather broadcast being prepared. It is small enough so that it is not overwhelming to kids, yet there is plenty to stimulate their scientific curiosity.

If your family is game for another factory tour, Maple Grove Maple Factory is located on Route 2. The Maple Grove Museum re-creates the maple sugar process, starting from gathering the sap all the way to the boil down stage. See how the maple syrup is converted into candy and enjoy a free sample.

This part of the state is full of diners, and the Miss Lyndonville Diner, 10 minutes’ north of town on Interstate 5 in Lyndonville, is one of the finest. The diner has a bargain-priced kid’s menu and features real maple syrup and homemade baked goods. The town is famous for its covered bridges, so be on the lookout.

Continue 10 miles north on Route 91 to tiny Barton, where you can connect to scenic Route 16 to Lake Willoughby, about a 15-minute drive.  Ancient glaciers carved this remote600-foot deep lake and it’s considered one of the state’s prettiest lakes. It is secluded and largely undiscovered; the perfect place to have a refreshing (some would say bracing) dip in summer, or a hike in cooler months. You can spend a peaceful afternoon surrounded by natural beauty in any season in this remote corner of Vermont. Make plans ahead of time if you want to spend the night as B&Bs and rental units are limited.

Day 3: Lake Willoughby to Hanover, New Hampshire – 84 miles

Backtrack to Route 91 South, which will take you to Norwich, Vermont, where the Montshire Museum of Science is located. Interactive, hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages, as well as beautiful nature trails located on this 110-acre site make this a must-see for families.

Cross over the Connecticut River into New Hampshire to visit Hanover. This elegant college town is home to Dartmouth College and is a great family destination. The village green, church steeples and friendly faces make this the most quintessential New England town, and a fun place to spend an afternoon enjoying its charms. The town is full of cute cafes and shops. The college houses the Hood Museum of Art, whose collection is rich in contemporary works, including paintings by Picasso. The collection is small enough to appeal to kids who may not like art, as its manageable size will not overwhelm them.

If you choose to settle for the night in this idyllic town, the classic Hanover Inn has been welcoming guests since 1780. New England in style and temperament, its white-clapboard facade, Persian rugs and big fireplaces — along with 93 comfortable rooms — impart that crusty Ivy League feel of the town itself.  On the country roads surrounding Hanover are several of the small chain motels that you might find around any college campus.

Whatever time of year you choose to visit, this part of New England offers a range of recreational activities, suited to all ages. From skiing and skating on a frozen pond in winter to hiking and biking in summer, take a moment to soak in the natural beauty of the land while engaging in an outdoor activity.

The Green Mountain state and its neighbor, the Granite State of New Hampshire, are sure to enchant you.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.

4 Replies to “Road Trip USA: Leaf Peeking in New England”

  • Airtechaim

    Fall is very busy in the mountainous regions with the influx of leaf peepers from the New England area, around the United States and the world. In these extremely popular areas, you ll want to make lodging reservations at least several weeks ahead, especially on weekends. Columbus Day weekend (Oct 7-9, 2017) is another time in which advanced booking is advised throughout the region.

  • David willey

    Thank you for sharing the Information and images… Its very good and I am traveling soon on this place

  • moderator

    A road trip through New England is beautiful at any time of year, but when the leaves begin to turn (anywhere from early September to late October) it can be spectacular.

    The common wisdom is that the leaves get their signal to change color when night time temperatures drop below 40 F degrees. The farther north you go towards Canada, and the higher the elevation, the sooner this occurs.  By mid-September you may see a whole range of colors in northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. 

    In New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, those colors could reach their peak around early October.  In Manhattan, New York City where my family lives, we always count on Columbus Day as being the height of leaf color around us, but a big storm or early frost can change all that.

    The safest bet is to ask the source — tourism offices in the states you are interested in — as they monitor the climate and moisture in the leaves very closely.  Here is a round up of resources for leaf peepers:
    Leaf Peekers Guide Americas Fall Foliage


  • Anonymous

    any idea about what time leaves turn?  thanks, [email protected]