Double the visual kick of fall foliage by viewing it twice, first right-side-up and again as it reflects in the waters of New Hampshire’s lakes, ponds, rivers and bays.
Of course, you can do this by standing on the shore, but for the full effect, wrap yourself in color from all directions by moving onto the water itself. New Hampshire offers a number of ways to do this.
Whether you paddle or command your own small boat or take a scheduled cruise, there is water everywhere in the state, and autumn is a grand time to get aboard for foliage viewing times two.
Foliage by Paddle
To experience the sounds, the stillnesses and the smells of fall in the air while your eyes feast on the color, paddle your kayak or canoe into one of the myriad ponds and lakes that the glaciers kindly provided the state. For the best experience choose one with a minimum of motorized traffic, one surrounded by a mix of hardwoods and conifers, and one with a mountain as a backdrop.
Chocorua Lake comes to mind, where from any point its waters are backed by that postcard view. The lake and mountainside are ablaze with a mix of maples, birch, fir and red pine, and the evergreens provide contrast that makes the reds and yellows seem brighter.
For the peace and quiet that only comes on waters where motorboats are forbidden, paddle onto Willard Pond in Antrim, surrounded by 2,000 acres of protected wilderness. In this near-pristine setting, loons swim undisturbed and blue herons wait in the trees for dinner. Herons add to the experience of paddling Lake Warren, too, as does the view of the white-spired church and village of East Alstead emerging through the colored leaves above the shore.
Elsewhere in the Monadnock region are paddling waters with views of Mt. Monadnock, at Howe reservoir, off Rte. 101 in Dublin. Harrisville Pond includes lovely vignettes of the brick mill village with the library rising directly out of the water. Powdermill Pond, in Greenfield, adds a covered bridge to the scenery and gives access to a flat stretch of the Contoocook River that is especially pretty in the fall.
Another covered bridge crosses the Ashuelot River in Swanzey, midway between Keene and the West Swanzey dam, a satisfying paddle along a river that stretches ahead in a highway of reflected color.
The ultimate fall paddling experience is to paddle Lake Umbagog in Errol, to one of the remote paddle-in campsites, and pitch a tent on the shore. Wake up to the morning light shimmering across the lake as wiffles of steam rise from its surface and turn the foliage a misty peach color.
Foliage by Cruise
Leaf-peepers who don’t paddle, or who don’t care to, have plenty of choices, too. Cruises on everything from pontoon boats to ocean-going vessels take passengers where the color is.
The most intimate of these experiences will likely include loon spotting, and maybe eagles as well, as a pontoon boat makes its way slowly around idyllic Squam Lake. Leaving from the dock in downtown Holderness, boats manned by naturalists from the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center take 90-minute Explore Squam cruises three times each day until October 16. The lake is particularly scenic because the summer homes that surround it are well spaced and set back into the trees, leaving a natural shoreline draped in colorful foliage.
The only place in the state where you can see a lighthouse with a close backdrop of colorful foliage is on Lake Sunapee, and its three lighthouses are held to be the only ones on any New England lake. All three of these wooden lighthouses were originally built in the 1890s by the Woodsum Brothers, who operated the steamboats that carried passengers around the lake. A replica of one of those Victorian steamboats takes today’s passengers for dinner cruises, just as the setting sun turns the sky to shades of orange that match the lakeside foliage. M/V Kearsarge leaves Sunapee Harbor at 6:30 on Saturday and Sunday evenings in the fall for two-hour narrated trips that include a roast beef buffet.
For the same views in daytime, backed by the orange-clad slopes of Mt. Sunapee itself, board the M/V Mt. Sunapee II. The cruise boat leaves Sunapee Harbor on weekends at 2 p.m. and guests are treated to a live — and lively -— narration by the captain, who describes the lake’s history and legend with humor and intelligence that passengers find as enjoyable as the scenery. The 90-minute cruise covers the lake’s 10-mile length, with views of some of the fine Victorian cottages that can only be seen from the water.
It’s only fitting that the biggest cruise boat should be on the biggest lake. The M/S Mount Washington has a long history on Lake Winnipesaukee, beginning with a previous paddle steamer of the same name that was launched in 1872. The present ship was launched in 1940, and two years later her engines were loaned to the U.S. Navy for use in World War II. The ship was extended in the 1980s to its present 230-foot length.
Winnipesaukee’s 282 miles of shoreline has plenty of room for a ship, and the M/S Mount Washington has several different routes to choose from for various length cruises among the hundreds of islands. The lake is surrounded by the Ossipee, Belknap and Sandwich mountain ranges, and despite the development around the lake, most of the shore is wooded, so foliage colors surround it at lake level as well as on the mountainsides.
On clear days Mount Washington’s summit can be seen from several points on the lake, with some of the best views likely on the route around the western end of the lake from Weirs Beach to Center Harbor, as the ship passes through the northern end of The Broads, a stretch of deep open water with the most far-reaching views. That cruise goes along both sides of Governor’s Island and passes several others, including Steamboat and Three Mile Island, which is owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
A second itinerary leaves Weirs Beach and follows the western shore south to Alton Bay, a five-mile arm on the southern end of the lake. A third, the most frequent one, crosses to the eastern shore, past Rattlesnake Island and through The Broads to Wolfeboro. The approach to the town from the water is beautiful, with wooded hillsides rising behind and beside it.
Unfortunately, the two smaller vessels in the same fleet, the mail boat M/V Sophie C. and the M/V Doris E, end their daily cruises in early September, before fall foliage begins.
Mix the tang of salt air with foliage viewing on cruises through Portsmouth Harbor and Great Bay. Portsmouth Harbor Cruises’ tour boat heads inland in the fall, past the historic shipbuilding yards to Dover Point, where New Hampshire’s first permanent settlement began in 1623. From here the tides determine the route. At high tide the boat travels up the Cochecho River to Dover, along a wooded shore that has remained surprisingly undeveloped despite 400 years of habitation. If tides don’t allow a trip up the Cochecho, the boat tours the expanse of Great Bay. Into this huge bay flow several tidal rivers, making it a haven for birdlife.
Cruises are narrated so visitors get a sense both of the role of Portsmouth and the Great Bay in American history and of the ecology of the bay, its tidal marshes and its river system. The Inland River Fall Foliage cruise is about 2 1/2hours and leaves the Ceres Street Dock (next to the tugboats) in Portsmouth at noon daily until October 28. The 1 1/2-hour cruise of Portsmouth Harbor leaves at 3 p.m. daily and also at 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
The M/V Thomas Laighton, a Victorian-style vessel named for a well-known lighthouse keeper on the Isles of Shoals whose Appledore House began the Seacoast’s resort era, cruises similar routes. The 90-foot craft, which also cruises almost daily to the Isles of Shoals, reflects this early resort era in its design, with a grand staircase and brass-railed gallery.
Isles of Shoals Steamship Company fall foliage Great Bay Wilderness Area cruises on board the M/V Thomas Laighton depart from the dock next to the salt pile (opposite the Sheraton) on Sunday, with occasional Friday and Saturday departures, through October. Times vary with the tide schedule. Portsmouth Harbor cruises, which offer some nice views of Portsmouth’s waterfront area swathed in fall colors, are scheduled occasionally and last 90 minutes. NH
If You Go
Advance reservations are essential in the fall, since capacity of these cruises is limited.
Umbagog State Park
(to reserve campsites)
(603) 271-3628, www.nhstateparks.org
Squam Lakes Natural Science Center
(603) 968-7194, www.nhnature.org
M/V Kearsarge Dinner Cruise
(603) 938-6465, www.mvkearsarge.com
M/V Mt. Sunapee II
M/S Mount Washington
(603) 366-5531, www.cruisenh.com
Portsmouth Harbor Cruises
Isles of Shoals Steamship Company
(603) 431-5500, www.islesofshoals.com
Outdoor Escapes New Hampshire
(guided tours of Lake Umbagog)