Autumn’s Pathway: Finding Fall Colors

October 2, 2002
Filed under Camping Destinations, Midwest Camping, Northeast Camping

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Even though Lindy and I travel more than 12,000 miles and visit some 50 different campgrounds each year, we have one favorite highway U.S. Highway 2. Born in the late 1920s, U.S. 2 begins near Seattle and extends more than 3000 miles to northern Maine with only a few of its miles absorbed by the Interstate System. If U.S. 2 didnt disappear into Lake Huron (to resurface later at Lake Champlain) it could well be our nations longest highway. On or near U.S. 2 is some of the nations most beautiful scenery. Most notable are national parks Olympic, North Cascades, Rainier, Glacier, Theodore Roosevelt, Voyageurs, Isle Royale and Acadia. But, because of its age and small size, the highway also takes you through places with laid-back folks of many different accents, delicious local cuisine, and our favorite thing some fabulous state parks. What you wont find on U.S. 2 are big cities and crowds.

Most spectacular of its qualities, U.S. 2 is a fall-color story. Frankly, you could park your tent or RV in mid-September in any of hundreds of campgrounds in the upper Midwest or New England and just sit there for a month watching the world go by while the colors turn around you. Our favorite section of U.S. 2 begins at an unlikely spot: Grand Forks, North Dakota, the point where the central prairies end and the eastern woodlands begin. Grand Forks is a gateway to upper Minnesota, a charming place to be and a great jumping-off point for adventures. Some folks in town believe the states name hurts tourism and a new name might bring more tourists dollars into town. What kind of name? Something without the North in it. We think a tropical name is in order Rio Dakota.

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan

Minnesota has 67 state parks and weve camped in one-third of them, all gems. Our favorites near U.S. 2 are Bemidji State Park and Lake Itasca State Park. At Itasca, you can step over the Mississippi River in its infancy. Minnesota also offers two national parks. Voyageurs National Park, in upper Minnesota is a beautiful water park fishing, canoeing, boating, swimming, bird watching and wilderness camping. Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior is a spectacular offshore option, with a quirk of geography and state boundaries placing it in Michigan, just off the Minnesota shore. Ferry access to the park from Grand Portage, Minnesota, runs into October, later in the year than the Michigan ferries.

These two national parks are not far from each other, but are well away from U.S. 2. You cant do them justice in under a week. Be sure to visit Duluths wonderful new lakefront district and maritime museum. Theres a memorial to the infamous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Great Lakes Aquarium, as well as Duluths signature skyline, the unique and massive Aerial Lift Bridge is there, too. For a pleasant detour, take a picnic/day trip on North Scenic Drive (U.S. 61) its name says it all. Wisconsin is a state that offers multiple choices for pleasant overnights.

Our favorites include Big Bay State Park and the campground near Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Bayfield), American Falls State Park (Wentworth) and Bad River Indian Resort and Casino (Odanah). So what about Bad River Indian Resort and Casino? There are now 29 states with casino gambling and 435 casinos outside Nevada, and at least half are Indian casinos. Were not big gamblers, but some of these casinos offer inexpensive rooms when you need a campground break, cheap buffets and, best of all, entertainers you thought were dead.

When we hit Michigan, its all about the UP the Upper Peninsula. Its a beautiful region, with wonderful campgrounds and 64 varieties (that we could find) of bratwurst. Our top UP state parks: Indian Lake State Park, near Manistique; J.W. Wells State Park, near Cedar River; and Straits State Park, St. Ignace.

A must do is a side trip to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac (pronounced Makinaw) Island, on Lake Huron. Built in 1887, the all-wood Grand features what is reported to be the worlds longest front porch at 660 feet. Mackinac Island (no cars) is a glorious adventure itself. Take a ferry over from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City, then rent a bike or use your feet. Plan on spending a full day there.

Canada, New York and New England

You can get to Niagara Falls from Mackinaw City in one 500-mile day via Port Huron, Michigan, and London, Ontario. But thats way too many miles for Lindy and me. We take two days and spend a night in either Tawas Point State Park (East Tawas) or Bay City State Recreation Area. Lakeport State Park north of Port Huron is a third option.

Everyone who has been there will tell you to play on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls were no exception. For views and boat trips, hotels and restaurants, Canada is definitely our favorite side. The two-mile walkway along the edge of the Niagara River Gorge to the brink of the falls is, for us, the most spectacular, dramatic and romantic experience in North America. It even beats the rim of the Grand Canyon. However, the American side, at Niagara Falls, New York, does offer Goat Island.

A pleasant place, the island has some great walks where the Niagara River laps at your toes. The better camping is on the New York side, too. Our favorite place is Four Mile Creek State Park, about 10 miles down-river on Lake Ontario. Upstate New York is everything youve heard rolling hills, small villages, friendly folks and brilliant fall colors. Once there, we head for our old friend U.S. 2, which pops up near Lake Champlain at Rouses Point, on the Vermont/New York/Quebec border. Thats two or three days away, but getting there means seeing the other New York.

We have two favorite ways to get from Niagara Falls to Lake Champlain (about 380 miles the short way). Favorite No. 1 is the water route along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Favorite No. 2 is the inland route, via the N.Y. State Thruway (I-90) to Utica, then on through the Adirondacks to lakes Placid and Saranac; or north at Syracuse to Watertown on I-81. Both take you through calming pastoral scenery. One must-have we cant overemphasize when traveling in New York is to possess a current state park and campground directory, especially during fall.

The water route features 21 state parks with camping, but theyre not all open late in the year. The inland route offers about half that number of state facilities, but also has 17 other public campgrounds (state forest, city and county) to choose from. We normally avoid big cities at all costs. Boston, however, is an exception (as are Washington, D.C., Tucson, and Las Vegas).

Boston is an American colonial history lesson and we think the downtown Freedom Walk is the best historic hike in America. It includes the old North Church (one if by land, two if by sea), Fanueil Hall, the U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) and one immaculately preserved Colonial building after another. Not far from Boston, are Lexington and Concord: see them both. Alas, nary a campsite to be found in Boston except Muggers Hill (not recommended), so stay with friends, as we do, or hotel it.

High on our Massachusetts fall list is Cape Cod (Nickerson State Park) near Brewster, and Marthas Vineyard (a motel night). Vermont is the epicenter of fall foliage and everywhere you go in Vermont youll see bed and breakfasts full and very expensive that time of year. We camp because its more fun and less expensive, and theres a wonderful collection of six state parks and campgrounds just off U.S. 2, via VT 232 near Marshfield. Theres great fishing and boat touring on nearby Lake Champlain too, with good camping at North Hero or Grand Isle state parks. Not far away on U.S. 2 (here its I-89), is the Ben and Jerrys Ice Cream Factory.

We have two other favorite places in the area. One is Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site; a classic example of how well our National Park Service can do things. Augustus Saint-Gaudens was a great American sculptor and the man who engraved many classic American coins. On the grounds are his home, studio and gardens. The site is near Windsor, Vermont. Our second favorite Vermont place is the little-known birthplace of an even lesser-known 21st president, Chester A. Arthur. It stands nicely restored near East Fairfield. For reasons no one understands (especially Lindy) Ive been fascinated with Arthur since I got an A on a sixth-grade report about him. Turns out he was the first president to visit Yellowstone while in office in 1883.

New Hampshire is highlighted by the White Mountain National Forest. Its centerpiece is Mount Washington (6288 feet), where in 1929 the highest wind speed ever was recorded at 231 mph. First choice up the mountain is the historic steam-driven cog railroad. Its expensive, but youll never forget the experience. (Wear shorts at the base and coats at the top.) From the east side of the mountain, off N.H. 16, you can also drive to the top. Near the cog, on the west side, is the historic Mount Washington hotel and resort at Bretton Woods, site of a monetary conference in 1944 that established the World Bank. At least stop and have coffee there. Nearby and very nice campgrounds include Crawford Notch State Park (Willey House) or Moose Brook State Park (Gorham). If youre into touristy, visit North Conway. By the way, New Hampshire has 18 miles of oceanfront and Hampton State Beach and campground (RV only) is a great place to oceanize Maine is the nations most forested (89 percent) state, half the state is wilderness, and the coast of

Maine is a national treasure. Between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and New Brunswick Province, Canada, runs 350 miles of very curvy and slow driving along U.S. 1. Its often crowded with all those darn tourists. But who cares? At least drive and enjoy the stretch from Portland to Bar Harbor (pronounced locally, Baa-Ha-Baa) and Acadia National Park, the crown jewel of the Northeast. We have a rule of thumb when it comes to national parks: the best national parks are the early national parks, before politics got involved.

Acadia became a national park in 1916, the first east of the Mississippi and the first whose land was donated entirely by private citizens. This is a special place and the previous owners knew it. There are more than 120 miles of hiking trails, 50 miles of carriage roads and more than 500 campsites in the park. There are lots of lighthouses, too.

We always conclude our fall trip the same way: Newport (Rhode Island), Mystic Seaport (Connecticut), and the Foxwoods Resort and Casino, reportedly Connecticuts largest tax base and the largest Indian casino in the world. Near Newport, stay at Fort Getty State Park and see all those wonderful old money mansions near your humble tent. Mystic Seaport, a restored whaling village, is touristy and, as the name implies, a whale of a good time. Foxwoods, owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, is only about 20 miles north of Mystic. Burlingame State Park, Charleston Breachway State Park (both in Rhode Island) and Rocky Neck State Park near South Lyme, Connecticut, are close by and provide good camping. Well, there you have it: The Berrys Famous Fall-Color Camping Tour. Unless youre retired or have seasonal work schedules like ours this tour would be next to impossible to do in one trip. But dont get too stressed out. Think of it this way: You can make it a multi-year game plan. Or do what we did, make it an early-retirement incentive.

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