10 Fabulous New Hampshire Fall Hikes
Start planning your foliage itinerary
Mother Nature’s incredible annual display of kaleidoscopic color invites exploration. Though many find warmth and delight in the smell of woodstoves and the taste of sweet apple crisp, fall’s indoor delights are no match for its outdoor treasures, when we can breathe deep the invigorating air while wandering the woods. Head outdoors and hike into a world of color bursting with bright reds, yellows and oranges before the muted hues and browns take over for twig season.
Fall in New Hampshire is also ripe with arbitrary “best” stories. Certainly there are hikes that are better than others but, during autumn’s splendor, virtually any trek yields rewards — from far-ranging vistas that can include high mountaintops freshly dusted with snow to the deep-probing thoughts that come with solitude.
New Hampshire is fortunate to have so many mountains to choose from. During fall, find a new one or return to one you have hiked in another season or on another trail.
Fall is a time when hikers must plan for what’s ahead of them. Fine temperatures and light winds at the trailhead could translate to wintry, windswept conditions at a peak’s summit, especially on one that’s exposed. Layers are a must, as are essentials such as a hat and gloves. Sunsets come earlier, so flashlights and timing are key.
The Sugarloaf mountains — 2,539-foot Middle Sugarloaf and North Sugarloaf at 2,310 feet — by Twin Mountain are perky peaks with ledgy tops featuring sweeping Presidential Range views. The 3-plus-mile T-shaped hike is loaded with features, from a flat walk along the Zealand River to the towering trailside glacial erratics. Wooden steps lead to the summit of Middle, while North is home to a long-abandoned quarry where smoky quartz was once extracted.
Another double-fun hike is the 4.4-mile circuit over the tops of Welch Mountain and Dickey Mountain. This trek near Waterville Valley is high on the popularity list of hikes in the White Mountains. Quite simply, the views are superb, and it offers an alpine feeling well below tree line. Welch is the smaller of the two mountains at 2,605 feet, but it’s the winner on views with its eagle-eye look down to the Mad River Valley. Dickey’s no slouch at 2,734 feet, and it offers open ledges and rock slabs.
Gorham’s 2,555-foot Mount Hayes is a great platform for a lovely view of the Androscoggin River Valley and northern White Mountains. A moderate 7-mile round-trip hike largely on the Mahoosuc Trail, this journey’s initial steps are on an old steel Boston and Maine Railroad trestle. A side trip to Mascot Pond on the way back is worthwhile. The area was the site of the Mascot lead mine operation in the late 1800s, and the gated mine above the pond is a bit of a winter bat hotel.
An excellent White Mountains base camp, North Conway has a couple of uplifting near-town hikes. The popular trek up 2,369-foot Black Cap Mountain, a relatively easy excursion, leads to a glorious landscape of ledges yielding sumptuous looks at the Whites. About a 2.4-mile round-trip jaunt through the spruce on the Black Cap Trail, this hike in the Nature Conservancy’s Green Hills is fit for all abilities.
Kearsarge North is a more moderate and longer effort. Take the Mt. Kearsarge North Trail to the 3,268-foot summit and find a sharp-looking fire tower and even a somewhat hidden al fresco privy. Don’t dismiss this as a banal 3,000-footer as the elevation gain may challenge some. Both North Conway hikes are off Hurricane Mountain Road.
Of course, the Granite State has more than one Kearsarge for hikers. Mount Kearsarge in Wilmot’s Winslow State Park is a dominant central New Hampshire peak at 2,930 feet. A pleasing 2.7-mile loop can be made by tackling the mountain from the north using the Wilmot and Barlow trails. Like its northern brother, there’s a fire tower on top of the bare summit, offering views to the White and Green Mountains and beyond.
Another popular centrally located mountain is 3,155-foot Cardigan in Orange, also called “Old Baldy” because of its ledgy crown above the rolling Shem Valley. Enjoy a 360-degree panorama into New Hampshire and Vermont with peaks like Ascutney and Sunapee. The 3-mile round-trip approach on the West Side Trail is popular, while the east contains an Appalachian Mountain Club lodge and a hearty 5.6-mile circuit via Holt, Cathedral Forest, Clark, Mowgli’s and Manning trails.
Mount Monadnock is a four-season favorite. Rising some 2,000 feet above southwest New Hampshire in Monadnock State Park, any trail yields glorious results on the often-windswept 3,165-foot mountain. Hikers tend to like the 4-mile round-trip White Dot Trail on the southeast side, while the Marlboro and Dublin Trails provide a noteworthy 4.4-mile round-trip alternative from the west.
The Upper Valley’s Smarts Mountain is an idiosyncratic place. Its summit is graced by a 40-foot-high fire tower with commanding views, a spartan former warden’s cabin, privy, a spring and a small tent site favored by Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. The strenuous 7.2-mile trek on the Ranger Trail/Lambert Ridge Trail yields some vestiges of ranger and fire tower life, such as an old garage.
Red Hill in Moultonborough is a little mountain with a big heart. Only 2,030 feet, the peak is a tiny stage for some wonderful looks at the area’s lakes and mountains. From its top, with tower and picnic table, gaze upon the many dot-like islands surrounded by shimmering water. A rope tow ski area once graced one side. The Red Hill Trail provides a 3.4-mile up-and-back passageway to a view that takes in the Belknap Range and beyond, certainly breathtaking in the cool of an autumn day.