BETHEL, Maine – You know you’ve found a worthy fall colors spot when you plan to go far in a day but don’t go far at all.
On my first day in the mountains of western Maine last October, I planned to hit three stops – three places to soak in the tall reds, yellows and oranges – while passing nearly 100 miles in my rental car. I made one of those stops and crossed about 20 miles.
The one place was Caribou Mountain, just east of the New Hampshire border, on a lovely little driving loop southwest of Bethel, a lovely little western Maine town of 2,400. I figured I would spend an hour there – 30 minutes in and 30 minutes out – before moving on to the next bit of fall beauty. But when I learned there was a 6.5-mile loop traveling to the top of Caribou Mountain, and the opportunity to walk through the color, then look down at it, I had to do it.
I quickly knew I had picked the right spot, not just because the colors were lovely – they were, even in the gravel parking lot, where bright yellow trees huddled beside bright orange bushes – and not because the three people I met in that parking lot embarking on the same trail were locals, and locals always know where to go. It was because those locals brought their pet llamas.
Clipper and Peppersass (named for the Little Engine That Could, you might recall) had thick coats, wide, alert eyes and hefty bottom teeth hiding behind their fuzzy little whiskers. They didn’t seem to mind their backpacks a bit, but still – walking your pet llamas?
“This is what they were built for,” said Don Ware, 69, a doctor from nearby Norway, Maine.
Perhaps. But can they appreciate the colors?
He and his wife, Hilary, were stumped at that one (llamas apparently see just a narrow range of color, so they probably got more from the walk than the leaves.)
The llamas proved pokey, and soon I was beyond them, embarking on a steady climb to 3,000 feet, accompanied by a gently rushing river soundtrack. The trees still were mostly green and yellow, with the reds spread out on the ground in a luminous carpet. I pushed on and at the top found the reward: a bald mountain with patches of scrubby pine while fall color rolled out for miles in every direction.
A hurried fall-colors trip would have meant five minutes up there before descending into my next adventure, but there was no way; yellow-orange hills and peaks stretched to infinity, and they had to be savored.
Midsavor, Tommy and Barbara O’Brien arrived in matching hiking boots and L.L. Bean backpacks. They’re from Natchez, Miss., and visit Maine most summers. This was the first time they had come in the fall, they said, which led to a startling revelation.
“We’ve never seen fall foliage before,” said Tommy, 61.
They live in the South, so it made some sense. But still: a lifetime without fall color? And here we were, looking down on a sea of it.
“I hate to say it, but we’ve missed out,” Tommy said.
“It’s like God took his paint buckets and spilled all his colors here,” said Barbara, 57.
By the time I worked my way back down the mountain, it was close to dinner time. I took a leisurely drive back to my hotel in Bethel, and that was it. My ambitions for the day were thwarted by beauty.
Western Maine’s most popular tourist seasons are winter (for skiing) and summer (when New England is gentle and warm), which leaves autumn not exactly a secret but criminally underrated, as illustrated by the fact that on my six-hour hike, I saw almost as many llamas (two) as people (five).
Fall’s rewards can be found throughout the region, a tangle of small highways that are worth driving aimlessly. Those roads boast roadside signs such as “PUMPKINS + SQUASH,” “Pony Rides” and “Farm Stand Ahead.” In those farm stands, they sell eggs, honey, tomatoes, apples, pumpkins and Maine maple syrup. Many of the roads are narrow and winding, tree-shaded and split by double-yellow lines. In some cases, they’re barely wide enough for two cars.
The leaves above and beyond put color literally around every bend – orange, red, yellow, purple and the colors in between, lush and vibrant like sherbet, especially when illuminated by the morning sun. It’s clear who was there for the same reasons as me: They drove slowly, bearing license plates from Texas, Florida and Georgia.
And Bethel is a perfect, if quiet, hub for it all: good food, good drink, hospitable locals and a main street where the trees turn colorful in fall while clouds kiss distant mountaintops.
The next day, I set out for what I had intended to accomplish the day before, heading north of town toward state Route 26, pausing at the well-named Good Food Store, widely considered the best sandwich shop in town. I got the turkey and cheddar sandwich, mostly for the lure of the homemade bourbon barbecue sauce, then headed up toward five miles of road that any state would love to call its own: Grafton Notch State Park.
The highway cuts through the park, which makes it a series of stops within the autumn color, rather than one place to park and explore. And on a rainy Thursday, the stops were largely mine: Moose Cave, Screw Auger Falls, Mother Walker Falls Gorge and the series of walks within each.
I blazed up Table Rock trail, which felt at times like a straight vertical climb through forest. Halfway up, I was socked in with gray and mist, so the climb was for its own sake; no colors but no problem on a quiet weekday afternoon. The way down on the backside was far gentler. The last mile was on the Appalachian Trail, one mile of the 2,181 miles stretching from all the way up here to Georgia.
Back low, the color was in full effect once more, and I ate my turkey, cheddar and bourbon barbecue sandwich in the parking lot, facing a tall wall of yellow, orange and rock.
I drove past the other sights, largely alone, left to marvel in particular at Screw Auger Falls, where if you let your eyes relax, you see autumn: all those colors trapped in the water, sent over the falls in a flash and plunged into the foamy white below.
I spent five hours in those five miles. It was yet another lesson that the hunt for fall colors doesn’t depend on covering massive distance. It’s taking in the distance slowly.