Top Hikes for Fall Foliage in the White Mountain National Forest

sockedinhikes Member, Moderator Posts: 22

The nights are getting colder and the leaves are starting to take on that light yellow hew that can only mean one thing: fall is here. The Kangamangus Highway, North Conway, and Lincoln, NH will be bumper to bumper in the coming weeks, but if you’re looking for breathtaking color and less crowds, I’ve got the inside scoop. As someone who has spent every fall in New England all over the White Mountain National Forest for the last seven years straight, I’ve decided to share some of the best places to find foliage (both well known and less known).  

Top 5 Places To See Fall Foliage That Are Off The Beaten Path

Basin Trail, Evan’s Notch (Peak first/second week of October)

The entire Evan’s Notch is stunning in fall and while peakbaggers will be flocking to the summits of North and South Baldface, I have always preferred to see summer turn to fall among the trees. Basin Trail not only has stunning foliage, it runs along a series of cascades that offer breathtaking waterfalls as well. In summer, this trail would be one of my go-to back country swimming spots, but in fall it is equally as worthy of a visit. 

Miles - 1.8 one way

Elevation - 700’ one way  

Caribou Mountain, Evan’s Notch/Gilead, ME (Peak first/second week of October)

The Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness is one of my new favorite places to visit. Caribou Mountain has stunning views from the summit and is a really nice climb that won’t make you feel like you are going to need to take a day off from work to recover. I recommend taking either branch of Caribou Trail to the summit, but if you are comfortable with a little more rugged terrain, you can make a nice loop out of the west branch of Caribou Trail and Mud Brook Trail.  

Miles/Elevation - Vary depending on route (see White Mountain Map or Gaia GPS for miles/elevation)

North Percy Peak, Nash Stream Forest, Near Northumberland, NH (Peak last week of September & first week of October)  

Nash Stream Forest is one of the most stunning regions of northern NH. There are tons of places to stop and go fishing along the stream that parallels the road, and several trail systems tucked away from the typical White Mountain tourists. The 162 mile Cohos Trail runs through Nash Stream Forest as well. North Percy Peak has 360 degree views of northern New Hampshire and alpine vegetation. Reaching the summit will require some climbing (read: you will gain over 2100’ of elevation in under 2 miles) but for those up for the challenge this is a must visit in fall.  

Miles - 1.9 (Percy Peaks Trail)

Elevation - 2100’ 

Dixville Notch, Dixville Township, NH (Peak last week of September) 

While this area of NH is not entirely off the beaten path, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend visiting this area in fall. Table Rock can be ascended from two trails, one being steep and quick, the other much longer and more meandering. I prefer the longer trail because you will pass two large waterfalls and travel through stunning hardwood forests. Table Rock juts out into the notch and from there you can see in all directions. 

While the west side of the notch is commonly visited, the east side has equally as stunning views but the trail is a bit more of a nail biter. The northern end of Sanguinary Ledge Trail enters the woods at an obscure and hard to locate spot on the east side of Dixville Notch next to Lake Gloriette. It runs along a scree field that has zero protection from the elements before entering the trees for the final steep climb up to the ridge. Then, it heads south through the forest and meanders down to Baby Flume and the parking lot. This section of Dixville Notch is stunning and I highly recommend it, even if you only complete the 1 mile stretch of trail from Baby Flume to the junction where Sanguinary Ledge Trail descends to the scree field. 

Miles/Elevation - Vary based on trail (see White Mountain Map or Gaia GPS for miles/elevation)

Rainbow Trail, Carter Notch, NH (Peak first/second week of October)

Rainbow Trail runs down the back side of Carter Dome in Pinkham Notch. While most people ascend this peak from 19 Mile Brook or Carter Dome Trail, I discovered and quickly fell in love with Rainbow Trail in 2020. Rainbow Trail takes you down into the Wild River Wilderness and you will need to take care to follow some of the adjoining trails that lead to this remote beauty (Bog Brook Trail can be a bit more cumbersome to follow) but if you are looking for a way to test your navigation skills and see stunning birch glades this is the trail for you. I recommend taking Wildcat River Trail to Carter Notch Hut and ascending Carter-Moriah Trail to the summit of Carter Dome. Then take Rainbow Trail down from the summit and Wild River Trail back onto Wildcat River Trail to avoid Bog Brook Trail, which can be wet at times.

Miles/Elevation - Vary based on route (see White Mountain Map or Gaia GPS for miles/elevation) 

Top 5 Places To See Fall Foliage (Crowds Included) 

Franconia Ridge, Franconia, NH (Peak second week of October) 

Franconia Ridge is one of the most stunning places in the northeast which is probably why it is visited by thousands of people every year. While this hike is not easy (averaging about 4000’ of elevation gain in roughly 9 miles) it is definitely one of the best places to see peak foliage in New England. I have always completed the loop going up Falling Waters Trail and down Old Bridle Path, but it can be ascended from either direction (except in winter it is recommended to ascend via the falls because they can be icy and not recommended for descent). 

Miles - 8.4 miles (according to the map) 

Elevation - 4000’ (roughly) 

Baldface Circle Trail, Evans Notch (Peak first/second week of October) 

The Baldfaces are stunning. They offer 360 views, alpine vegetation, and perhaps not quite as many leaf peepers as you’d find on the 48 4000’ers. There are two ways to hike these peaks, and I personally prefer the longer, more gradual ascent up Slippery Brook Trail from Slippery Brook Road. But, if you’re more into steeper climbs, you will want to take the more common Baldface Circle Trail to one or both of the summits. (These peaks can be hiked as a loop if you ascend via the Baldface Circle Trail or Bicknell Ridge Trail)

Miles/Elevation - Vary based on route (see White Mountain Map or Gaia GPS for miles/elevation)

Mount Chocorua, Champney Falls Trail (Peak second week of October)

If crowds don’t bother you, and you also want to check out foliage along the Kangamangus Highway, I recommend hiking Mount Chocorua from Champney Falls. This trail is much less steep (in my opinion) than Piper Trail, and has a beautiful waterfall within the first two miles that can be reached via a side trail. The views from the summit cone (or even just from the ledges leading towards the summit) are stunning in all directions. 

*Side note, the foliage on Chocorua will reach peak about a week after the foliage along the Kang. 

Miles - 7

Elevation - 2200’ 

Mount Pierce, Crawford Notch, NH (Peak first/second week of October)

The presidential range in NH is breathtaking regardless of time of year. Mount Pierce is one of the easiest of the peaks on this 20+ mile ridge and on a clear day you will have views from the summit cone as far as the eye can see. Part of the beauty of this hike is that it is along the oldest continuously maintained and used path in the Northeast, the Crawford Path. The Crawford Path was built in 1819 as a bridal path and is still in use today. With a consistent grade and wide path, this trail might not have switchbacks but it has some pretty nice footing as far as New England hiking trails are concerned. 

Miles - 5

Elevation - 2300’ 

Welch-Dickey Loop, Thornton, NH (Peak foliage second week of October) 

For a two-for that is a bit further south, I recommend the very popular Welch-Dickey Loop in Thornton, NH. Although this loop isn’t necessarily easy, (don’t let the size of these peaks fool you into thinking it’s an easy hike) if you are looking for views a bit later in the season, these two peaks are just right. I recommend ascending via the Welch side of the loop as there are some steep pitches before the summit on this peak and if you are not interested in reaching the top there is a beautiful outlook on some open ledges before the final ascent that you can visit. 

Miles - 4

Elevation - 1700’   

Final Thoughts 

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of everywhere that you could go to see amazing foliage in the White Mountain National Forest, it is some of my top places to visit. And just because I can’t help myself, here are some additional places that you can go to see foliage. (trails vary in length and difficulty so be sure to check the guidebook before heading out). 

Eagle Link, Wild River Wilderness

Church Pond Trail, off the Kangamangus Highway

Blueberry Mountain, Evans Notch

Shelburne-Moriah, Gorham, NH

Mountain Pond Loop, Bartlett, NH 

Blueberry Mountain, Glencliff, NH 

South Moat Mountain, Hart’s Location, NH 

Miles Notch Trail, Stoneham, ME