Leaf-peeping in New England is serious business. Each autumn, as the days and nights shift from warm to cool and memories of days spent lazing on the beach in light summer outfits become as fuzzy as sweaters pulled out of storage, people from across the country and around the world make the pilgrimage to this cozy little northeastern corner of the United States to view the fiery transformation of verdant hillsides.
Catching the leaves at their peak can be a tricky endeavor, however, since the factors affecting foliage are Mother Nature's alone to control. Popular belief is that warm days and cool nights make for the most brilliant reds, yellows and oranges, but elevation changes bring with them their own climates; so a great day in the low-lying Lakes Region may be more breathtaking than a ride in the mountains. Conversely, even if the colors are blooming in the high altitudes, the lowland leaves may have barely begun to turn.
This year, the almost non-stop hurricane season in the Gulf region produced drenching, powerful rains along the entire east coast, and this incessant precipitation did its best to denude the trees of their colorful garb. Furthermore, it dictated the days Robert and I could take this trip through New Hampshire's White Mountains and Lakes Region, which were indeed few and far between. But with Halloween creeping ever closer, I packed my gear, loaded up my bike, and with a bit of uncertainty and trepidation occupying some space in my saddlebags, we set off to see what grandiose scenery the Granite State still offered.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a sleepy, quaint coastal town that is the largest city on the 20-mile oceanfront wedge of New Hampshire which separates Maine and Massachusetts. Across the Piscataqua River, Kittery, Maine, is clearly visible. Bustling from one mom-and-pop-run establishment to the next, crowds mill about Portsmouth's streets, where the absence of chain stores is apparent and welcome.
Once a busy seaport, Portsmouth still reflects its maritime past, but its streets and businesses have evolved with the times, except for the historic Strawberry Banke district where restored homes and character actors present visitors with a representation of life as it was in the area, circa 1600 to 1950.
There's a lot of driving ahead of us today, so after exploring on foot and wandering along the waterfront, we start our circuitous trip to the White Mountains, heading west for the New Hampshire/Vermont border on Route 4, where the great preponderance of roadside signs and stores make it obvious that if I ever need an antique something-or-other, this is where I'm bound to find it.
Due to a navigational error, instead of circumventing the business district of Concord, we take Route 9 right through the state capital, which has the familiar feel of the nearby cities of Lowell and Manchester and other once-industrious mill towns that have since reinvented themselves as riverfront attractions.
Breaking free of the strip malls that radiate from the downtown nexus, we pick up Route 114 at the Henniker rotary and begin our hunt for some of the 55 remaining covered bridges in the state. In New Hampshire's glory days, there were more than 400, but modernization has taken its toll on these iconic New England structures.
At the intersection of Routes 114 and 103 in Warner, we pull over and consult the map to locate our first target/objective/prey, the Dalton Bridge - one of the oldest covered bridges still in use today - when a local informs us that it's right up the street.
Past Warner, industry fades and the two-lane highway is flanked by farmland and forest as we head north on Route 103 toward the Sunapee Lake region and Claremont, where another cluster of covered bridges awaits.
From Claremont, we continue along Route 103 to Route 12 - one of New Hampshire's Scenic Highways and Byways - which runs along the Connecticut River, the natural border of New Hampshire and Vermont. In Vermont, Route 5 runs parallel to the path we've chosen, and there is a crossover opportunity in Cornish at the Cornish-Windsor Bridge, the longest covered bridge in the U.S., but we decide against taking it and remain in the Granite State.