Autumn has to be my favorite season of the year. The air is cool and refreshing, and the abundant colorful fall foliage is bright and vivid, making it hard to resist hitting the road to take a scenic tour or two around the region. Over the past several years, I’ve found a few scenic routes for my foliage excursions that I like to return to again and again, and some of them are, quite frankly, a bit off the beaten path.
Although it’s often been said that fall foliage peaks in the Lakes and Mountains regions around Columbus Day weekend, I have found that the best time for viewing the color at its vibrant prime is usually from mid-September to the first week of October, as Mother Nature seems to like to play a joke on us by bringing one or two major rain and wind storms to the region in early October, which of course knock most of the leaves down before their peak.
The changing foliage seemed to sneak up on me this year, and as September drew to a close and I finally noticed that many of the green leaves of summer had already been replaced with the bright reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, I knew it was high time to get out and enjoy nature’s foliage show before I let it go by. Most of my foliage tours involve areas with ponds, bogs, rivers, and lakes, as colors seem to change more quickly and be more vibrant near water, and I also like to avoid crowds, so last week I decided to take a scenic drive down Tripoli Road.
Tripoli Road is a ten-mile stretch of road that runs between Waterville Valley and Thornton, and the majority of it (8 miles) is fairly narrow and unpaved. It is open to vehicular traffic between May and November 1st, giving visitors to Waterville Valley an alternative route in and out of the valley for six months out of the year in place of Route 49 from Campton. During the winter months when the road is gated off, the section of Tripoli Road nearest to Waterville Valley becomes part of the resort’s cross country ski network.
I decided to start my tour by heading up Route 3 from Ashland to North Woodstock, which closely follows along the western side of the scenic Pemigewasset River. It is a very pretty stretch, going through the college town of Plymouth, past Livermore Falls, which is a popular (and often hazardous) swimming area in the summer months, through Campton, Thornton, Woodstock, North Woodstock, and further north to its headwaters in Franconia Notch. Glimpses of the river are visible for most of the way, and there are several easily accessible covered bridges located along this stretch. The surrounding hillsides were very colorful, making me thankful that I hadn’t waited too much longer in the season!
Just before arriving in North Woodstock, I took a right onto Route 175, a scenic rural highway which runs from North Woodstock down to Holderness along the eastern side of the Pemigewasset River. From North Woodstock to Woodstock, I passed a few pull-off areas next to the river where you can stop and take a picture, enjoy the view, or have a picnic.
I turned on to Tripoli Road at the juncture of Route 175 and I-93 Exit 31. Tripoli Road is located in the White Mountain National Forest, and a National Forest Recreational permit pass is required to park at the trailheads and recreation areas along the way. The road is paved up to the access road to the Russell Pond Campground and Recreation area, and I took the left on to the access road to Russell Pond.
After a slow, 2-mile ascent up the access road, I arrived at the Russell Pond Campground. The campground is one of the most popular camping areas in the White Mountains, with 86 sites for campers, travel trailers, and tent campers. It is open from May through mid-October, and most of the sites are generally filled. Day visitors can park in a lot near the pond, which is a fresh, clean, 40-acre mountain pond popular with swimmers (in the summer), picnickers, fishermen and recreational boaters (no motors are allowed). It is a quiet, pretty, remote, and peaceful spot.
On the 2-mile descent from the campground, I stopped at a pull-off area to take some pictures of the surrounding mountain peaks and beautiful foliage, before rejoining Tripoli Road and heading towards Waterville Valley.
At this point, the road becomes gravel and narrows even more as it heads through the forest towards Waterville Valley. I hadn’t been on Tripoli Road in a few years and wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of its condition, but a large road grader coming in the opposite direction reassured me that the Forest Service is constantly working to keep the popular road maintained for travel. It was a tight fit by the grader, but manageable.
There are several off-road camping and picnic areas along this stretch (all of which need a permit), as well as numerous trailheads for hiking enthusiasts. The road follows a small, meandering brook which eventually empties into the Mad River in Waterville Valley.
Waterville Valley is a beautiful resort area that is popular with visitors at least three seasons out of four (I don’t think anyone would argue that mud season is not a pretty time!). There are a number of inns and restaurants to choose from, shopping, year-round recreational activities including tennis, golf, skiing, mountain biking, and hiking, and first class scenery.
I headed out of the valley towards Campton along Route 49, which is the main access road to the resort town. Route 49 also has magnificent foliage, and a large number of hiking areas and picnic spots as it follows the scenic Mad River to Campton. In Campton, Route 49 intersects with Route 175 before you reach I-93, and I opted to finish my foliage tour by heading south down Route 175 towards Holderness. It was a beautiful fall day spent touring around a beautiful area in the region, and I thoroughly enjoyed my two-and-a-half hour excursion.