Watch the Leaves Turn

Walk a trail for a spectacular view of fall’s foliage; conservancy names top five trails for best autumn color.
By Katie Test for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
August 29, 2008
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A view along the Hudson Valley Rail Trail in New York.
Boyd Loving/Courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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Each year, the crunch and crackle of autumn’s harvest inspires outdoor enthusiasts everywhere to begin their quest for nature’s boldest foliage. And as trees flash their colors, there are few better seats for the show than on a rail-trail. To help kick off an autumn tour, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has put together a sampling of prime pathways for leaf-seekers. For more information, read “Rails to Trails” in the September/October issue of Grit.

Far from exhaustive, these suggestions are only a few solid bets to catch a rainbow of turning leaves as they sweep from New England and the upper Midwest, and down through the South. To locate a great rail-trail near you, log on to RTC’s rail-trail search engine to explore more than 15,000 miles of pathways, with trails in all 50 states. The site contains specific details about trailheads and driving directions, as well as photos and user reviews. So before a winter of bare branches and granite skies sets in, take a trip on these rail-trails that burn with the brightest colors of fall.

1. Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, Vermont

One surefire recommendation for early-season peepers – often ready by early September, in fact – is the 26-mile Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail in northern Vermont, nearly touching the Canadian border. This gentle, crushed-limestone pathway begins in St. Albans and winds through rolling hills and dairy farmland, generally following the Missisquoi River. Daytime temperatures should still be comfortable (nights quite a bit more chilly), and the autumn landscape radiates color and wildlife. Careful moose-seekers, as well, can hope for an extra batch of good fortune.

2. Paul Bunyan Trail, Minnesota

Farther west, northern Minnesota usually reaches its autumn heyday between late September and early October. One great stretch for the adventurous is the burly, 110-mile Paul Bunyan Trail, which simply screams of tall trees and thick leaves. The pathway offers an at-times rugged route – partly paved, partly ballast – suited for hikers and mountain bikers, and the foliage views are as epic as the trail’s lumberjack namesake. You’ll pass the shorelines of 21 lakes, through deep forests and welcoming communities like Hackensack and Bemidji.

3. North Central State Trail, Michigan

From late September through mid-October, the newly minted, 62-mile North Central State Trail in northern Michigan offers an arresting backdrop for fall – and on more than one canvas. More than 10 miles of the pathway, heading north from Indian River (a good base for trip accommodations) toward Cheboygan and Mackinaw City, streak along Mullet Lake, where birch and maples pop firecracker yellow and glow red and orange like coals in a campfire through mid- to late October.

4. Hudson Valley Rail Trail, New York

New York’s paved Hudson Valley Rail Trail is about 100 miles due north of New York City, and it is well worth a stroll for anyone eager to feel awash in golden leaves. At just over two miles long, the Hudson offers an easygoing trip from Highland to Lloyd, where the woods begin to glow by mid- to late October. Wide, richly forested and offering access to the Black River, the popular pathway bathes visitors in dramatic waves of foliage.

5. Virginia Creeper Trail, Virginia

Farther south begins the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, a dirt and asphalt journey from Abingdon through Damascus and Whitetop, just above the North Carolina border. The trail’s dense forests, sleepy hills, long trestles, pockets of pastureland, grazing cattle and inviting communities will make for a memorable and photogenic ride. You can expect a corridor well-outfitted with amenities, making it convenient for destination travel and rentals. You can also arrange for a shuttle from Abingdon to Whitetop to take advantage of a mostly downhill ride.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with more than 100,000 members and donors, advocates for healthier lifestyles by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines and connecting corridors. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s national office is located in Washington, D.C. To visit the Web site click here.


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