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We Dare You to Visit These Hauntingly Beautiful Montana Ghost Towns

By Donnie Sexton
October 4, 2018
wood walkway and wood buildings of ghost town
Donnie Sexton
The miners are long gone, but the legends loom large in the stunning ghost towns of Montana.

Sure, you know Montana as the home of two of America's most famous national parks. But there's another side to Big Sky Country that's decidedly, well, haunting.

Montana's history is largely based on the gold and silver deposits that lured miners here in the 1860s, hoping to strike it rich. Boomtowns sprang up providing the services they needed--lodging, saloons, schools, general stores, livery stables, and churches. And, for the troublemakers who couldn’t behave by the code of the West, there was a jail or two. This history remains frozen in time at many of Montana’s ghost towns where, thanks to preservation efforts, you can wander through the settlements. Some of the towns are still occupied, while others are abandoned, and, according to locals, ghosts of the past can occasionally be seen and felt moving about.

Bannack

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When gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek in 1862, the town of Bannack got its start as miners arrived hoping to strike it rich. Today, with over 50 buildings still standing, it is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the US as well as a State Park. Town tours, living history weekends, ghost walks in October, and ice skating in winter make Bannack a year-round destination. Bannack Days, the third weekend in July, is a lively celebration of a bygone era, with demonstrations of pioneer life, reenactments, gold panning, music, wagon rides, and candle-making. Also, be on high alert: there's a likelihood of a stagecoach holdup by would-be robbers looking for the loot.

Elkhorn

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Peter Wyes, a Swiss immigrant, discovered a vein of silver back in 1870 at what is now Elkhorn Ghost Town State Park. In its heyday, the town of Elkhorn was home to 2,500 people, many of them immigrant families. While there are many ramshackle buildings scattered about, Gillian Hall and Fraternity Hall are the town's showpieces. These wooden structures were the heart of the community where the locals gathered for dances, prize fights, graduations, and theater productions. Various fraternal groups, such as the Masons and Oddfellows, used the second floor of Fraternity Hall for their meetings. A cemetery tucked into the mountains is the resting place of many children who died from the diphtheria epidemic that ravaged the town between 1884 and 1889.

Garnet

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Named for the semi-precious ruby stone found in the area, the town of Garnet sprung up in 1898, a year after gold was discovered in the Garnet Range by miner Sam Ritchey. The town haphazardly grew to 1,000 strong with four hotels, four general stores, two barber shops, a union hall, a school, a butcher shop, and 13 saloons, and numerous other businesses. Today, Garnet, which is located about 30 miles east of Missoula off Highway 200, is open year-round. Just keep in mind that winter access is only possible via snowmobiling or cross-country skiing.

Granite

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The skeletal remains of Granite Ghost Town, at one time home to over 3,000 miners and their families, and business owners, sit above the delightful town of Philipsburg. The town got its start in 1872 when a prospector named Holland discovered silver. In its heyday, the Granite yielded $40 million worth of silver, making it the richest silver mine on earth. Bi-Metallic, a second mine in the area, yielded about $12 million worth of silver. But the town had its challenges. The soil was decomposed granite, which made it impossible to dig wells, so water had to be transported in. The mining came to a halt in 1893 when the demand for silver plunged.

Nevada City

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With news of gold being found in Alder Gulch in 1863, the sister towns of Nevada City and Virginia City sprung up and would eventually swell to a population of 10,000 people. By the end of the first three seasons, about $30 million worth of gold was removed from the Gulch within the first three seasons. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, it is estimated that this area in Southwest Montana yielded $100 million worth of gold.

Today Nevada City is an outdoor museum with over 100 buildings, and thousands of artifacts which tell the story of Montana’s early mining days. Entrance into the Nevada City Museum takes visitors through the Nevada City Music Hall, a colorful antique collection of automated music machines, many of which are still in working order.

Virginia City

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Virginia City is both a ghost town and a lively summer destination, complete with historical accommodations, eateries, stagecoach tours, and theater productions. Every August, the Grand Victorian Ball is an occasion to dress up in period costume and parade across the boardwalks of Virginia City before heading to the dance hall to two step with the Virginia Reel, Spanish Waltz, and other period dances.

Boot Hill Cemetery, overlooking the town of Virginia City, is the final resting place of five road agents, who were hanged by the Vigilantes on January 14, 1864. The criminals' notorious leader, Sheriff Henry Plummer, was both lawman and outlaw famously responsible for orchestrating the robberies of stage coaches.

Pony

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Pony, set against the mountain backdrop of the Tobacco Root Mountains, is unique in that it's a ghost town as well as home to about 100 residents and the Pony Bar, the only place for miles to get a cold one. Like many of the ghost towns in southwest Montana, the discovery of gold led to its creation. From 1860 to 1870, it was home to over 5,000 people who settled in to strike it rich or provide the services to miners. The town’s name comes from one of these miners, Tecumseh Smith, who was nicknamed "Pony" because of his small stature. The most notable building in Pony is the twenty stamp mill constructed in stone.

Virgelle

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The homestead-era town of Virgelle is located a short distance from the Missouri River in Central Montana. Two buildings remain, the Virgelle Mercantile and the Bank Building, owned by the town’s two residents. The Mercantile was built in 1912 by Virgil and Ella Blankenbaker, who had moved to Montana and settled in the area. The Mercantile was originally a general store serving the needs of local settlers, with upstairs used as boarding rooms for those working the spur line railroad that followed along the river. Today, the restored Mercantile is an antiques store on the first floor, with guest rooms upstairs. Six homesteader cabins, all from within a 40-mile radius of Virgelle, have been brought in for additional cozy accommodations.

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Hotel We Love: Hotel Max, Seattle

Seattle was established as a city in 1851, yet chances are that when its history is written in 50 years, the most memorable chapter will be about when Howard Schultz opened his little coffee shop in Pike’s Place Market in 1971 and called it Starbucks. Or it will be about the 1990s when Seattle served as ground zero for the grunge music that defined Gen X. It’s the latter that takes center stage at Hotel Max, a creative downtown option that’s part boutique hotel and part shrine to the city’s indigenous sound and laidback vibe. THE STORY Hotel Max isn’t just in downtown Seattle, it is Seattle. At every turn there is something to remind you where you are, from the signed prototype of the Gibson bass guitar designed by Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic perched in the spacious lobby to local craft beer at the bar and served during happy hour to the 350-plus paintings and photos by area artists on display throughout the ten-floor hotel. Among that collection of photos are the images on the exterior of each room’s door. Each floor is dedicated to a single photographer’s work and perhaps the most notable of all is the collection of Charles Peterson’s shots on the fifth floor. Known for documenting legends, the photos here include dramatic concert shots of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and more. But that’s only the start of the fifth floor’s story. Seattle’s seminal music label Sub Pop Records celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013 and for the occasion, the hotel transformed the rooms on the floor as a tribute to them. Each room is now equipped with a record player and vinyl collection, a bathrobe styled as a grey hoodie, and cheeky references to the bands, like the do-not-disturb door tag that reads “Nevermind” and the hair dryer stored in a cloth bag labeled “Blow.” THE QUARTERS There are five different size options among the 163 spacious rooms, from minimalist option with a full-size bed to four increasingly bigger sizes, including one with a king-size bed and separate sitting space. They’re all designed in a neutral grey palate with pops of bright color throughout--the pillows, the throws, the bathroom walls--that evoke 1960s design. Local pride rings through in the exclusive Sub Pop television channel, which broadcasts the label’s current and vintage videos, and a mini fridge stocked with spirits made at the nearby Sun Liquor Distillery. Each room features a flat-screen TV, free Wi-Fi, and, like its sister property in Portland, Oregon, Hotel deLuxe, a clever “You Got It” button on the phone that connects you to the front desk for all requests—even whimsical ones, within reason. THE NEIGHBORHOOD The hotel sits smack in the middle of downtown Seattle, a notably walkable city. An array of local restaurants as well as familiar retailers—Nordstrom, Macy's, H&M—are located within blocks. It takes 15 minutes or less to walk to the famed Pike Place Market or the hip enclave of Belltown, and a little more than that to reach Capital Hill, a popular tourist destination for coffee-loving visitors, as it's home to the sweeping Starbucks Roastery, a veritable carnival of a coffee house with a food court–like setup and a huge roaster that attracts a picture-snapping crowd every few hours when it motors up. There's even a bar. Should you feel like venturing out to the beach or opt for public transportation to and from the airport, the hotel is a few blocks away from a Link light-rail station. THE FOOD A nine-foot-long custom-built, brass-accented grill anchors Miller’s Guild, the hotel’s restaurant that’s retrofitted into a space originally built in 1925 to house workers and craftspeople who worked at the Vance Lumber Company. Helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Wilson, the emphasis here is on local and nose-to-tail butchering of heritage breed livestock. The butcher block, in fact, is on full view. The menu features all kinds of wood-fired indulgences, like 75-day dry-aged beef, straight off the flames of the showcase grill. The drink list is just as engaging, with an extensive selection of local spirits and beer as well as cocktails aged in barrels perched behind the bar. A full breakfast menu is served here, too. There's also free locally roast coffee each morning in the lobby. ALL THE REST Two words: Happy hour. Each day between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., guests are treated to complimentary pints of local beer in the window-lined lobby, which is equipped with comfy furniture and board games. And dog-owners, take note: in accordance with classic Pacific Northwest lifestyle, the hotel is pet-friendly. Amenities for four-legged guests include everything from room service with eco-minded food choices, groomers, veterinarians, and a few more bourgeois services, like pet acupuncture and psychics. RATES & DEETS Starting at $125 Hotel Max 620 Stewart St. Seattle, WA 98101 (206) 728-6299 / hotelmaxseattle.com

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Salt Lake City, Utah

Brad Wheeler is many things: a DJ at KUAA 99.9FM, a Salt Lake City radio station owned by Utah Arts Alliance, the program director and music director at the station, a blues musician who plays a mean harmonica and lists Willie Nelson and jazz saxophone legend Joe McQueen among the artists he's performed with, and teacher, estimating he's taught about 20,000 kids to play harmonica over the past few decades. Most of all, though, he's a die-hard lover of Salt Lake City, his hometown for decades. We checked in with him to get his recommendations on where to eat, shop, and listen to music, as well as where to go when you just wanna get outta dodge. Eat your heart out If there’s one thing Brad wants everyone to know, it’s that Utah has the greatest Mexican restaurant in the world, and not just for the food. “Ohio may have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we have the Red Iguana. More famous musicians have come through the doors there than I can tell you,” he says. The late Ramon Cardenas, whose parents founded the restaurant, is the Red Iguana's patron saint—and maybe Salt Lake’s music industry’s patron saint, too. As legend has it, his parents came from Mexico and opened the restaurant in 1985. While they ran it, he’d go out to concerts and if he liked the band, he’d pile them into his hot rod after the show and drive them over to the restaurant to chow. He placed ads all over the punk magazines. A cult classic was born. (Being featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" only furthered the cause.) It’s so popular that when they opened a second one around the block in 2011, the lines were immediately just as long as the ones at the first. And its fans are so loyal, Brad says, that the day someone rammed his car into the restaurant, lines formed around the car. But that’s not the only spot Brad insists on taking out-of-town guests. Caputo’s Deli is high on the list, but the Italian deli foods here aren’t even half of the allure. The shop has what is said to be the largest collection of artisanal chocolate bars in the country—over 300 and counting. And if you’re planning to be in town for a while, sign up for one of the chocolate tasting classes. But wait—there’s more. It’s the only place in the country to have not one, but two cheese caves for aging. As proof of just how superior they are, Brad notes that Cristiano Creminelli—a superstar in Italy for his salami—pinpointed Salt Lake City as his homebase not simply because the pigs he found roaming in Spanish Fork, a nearby town, were perfect for his meat, but also because Caputo’s caves were an ideal aging facility. Paradise City for music lovers Let’s be very clear: the Heavy Metal Shop sells far more than just heavy metal vinyl and CDs. Brad proclaims owner Kevin Kirk one of rock and roll’s greatest fans, and he’s curated such an excellent selection that word’s out all over the world. In the early 1990s, Alice Cooper and members of the metal band Slayer were spotted wearing the store’s branded t-shirts on a television interview and magazine cover, respectively. Kurt was flooded with orders—via phone. (It was the early '90s, after all.) Now people around the world sport his t-shirts and hoodies and musicians like the Athens alt-country band Drive By Truckers swing through when they’re in town to shop and even perform quick acoustic sets. There’s also Randy’s Record Shop, one of the top four oldest record stores west of the Mississippi and another one of Brad’s go-to’s for excellent vinyl--both familiar and obscure. Keep an eye out for the monthly $1 sale. “It’s unreal,” Brad, who's known to his listeners as "Bad Brad," assures. That’s hardly the only reason Salt Lake City is a destination for music lovers. There are a number of options for anyone looking for live shows. Garage on Beck is a funky venue located in the middle of an oil refinery, just bear in mind: the concerts—which range from rock to jazz—tend to sell out and the parking lot is a very narrow stretch of land, so if you get there late, prepare to trek up to more than a mile from your car. When you arrive, though, you’ll be richly rewarded with the funeral potatoes, a deep-fried potato ordeal that involves jalapenos, cheddar cheese, bacon, scallions, and a corn flake crust. It’s a Mormon tradition gone off the deep end. For something a bit more low-key, but not much, there are three downtown clubs all within three blocks of one another, and Brad endorses them each for their own individual reasons. Metro Music Hall is a mid-size venue that hosts local and national acts, the Depot is a retrofitted old Union Pacific depot that now hosts mostly DJs and rock shows, and the Complex is, not surprisingly, a complex of several venues hosting marquee name musicians as well as sports events. Daytripping Music is so deeply woven into Brad’s sense of being that he measures drive times by CD lengths. Salt Lake City is two and a half CDs from the canyons and rock formations that distinguish Capital Reef National Park. The mighty Moab is three or four CDs, depending on how fast you drive, and Zion National Park is five or six. And they’re both must-sees while in Utah. “They’re places that change the way you look at the world—they change you from the outside in,” he says, still in wonder of the landscapes despite visiting them for decades. Chalk it up to the incredibly varied landscape. “One minute you’re in an Alpine forest, like something in Switzerland, then the next minute it’s like a scene out of Dr. Seuss. Or Mars." A bit closer to town is Snowbasin, a resort known for its 3,000 acres land, much of which is skiable. It’s actually, however, a year-round destination with swimming, concerts, tram rides, and alpine slides in the warmer months. Regardless of the weather, Brad recommends stopping off at the Shooting Star Saloon on your drive to the resort. It's the oldest bar west of the Mississippi and it proudly stays true to its vintage roots. You’ll find burgers cooked on electric griddles, a jukebox with vinyl records, and more. Those interested in older history should head about 30 minutes east for a day in Park City and explore its mining legacy. And if you’re if even older history is more your speed, the scene is pretty much primordial at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Tens of thousands of years ago it was a tremendous saline lake and today, with the water gone, it’s one of the flattest places on the planet, a fantasy playground for bicyclists, kiteboarders and hot rod drivers. (“On a clear day, you can see the curvature of the earth,” says Brad.) Not too far is Danger Cave, an archaeological site that Brad, who studied archeology, loves to recommend. Some of the oldest weavings in the world were found there. It all just adds to the mysterious glory of the place. “It just feels like you’re in a Fleetwood Mac video—you're just out there where there’s nothing,” he says. “It’s big and flat and all out there.” Pick up some sandwiches from Caputo’s and make a day of it.

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Take a Civil Rights Tour of Montgomery, AL

Montgomery, Alabama, has been a flashpoint of Civil Rights activity since the movement’s beginnings in the 1950s. Montgomery is the city where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, where a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead the subsequent long (and ultimately successful) bus boycott, and where allies known as Freedom Riders arrived via buses from across the U.S. to march with protesters. When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery in April, we decided to drive the four hours south from our home in Nashville to see it and some of the other important Civil Rights sites there. NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE & THE LEGACY MUSEUM Sometimes called the “Lynching Memorial,” the National Memorial for Peace and Justice pays tribute to the thousands of African Americans who were murdered by white supremacists over the decades. A spiraling walkway leads us past hundreds of huge metal obelisks hanging from the ceiling; each one bears the name of a county, and the names of those who were murdered there. A few counties have just a handful of victims’ names; many have dozens. The path gradually descends as it proceeds, until we’re looking up at the hanging objects and they become an all-too-evident representation of the horrifying murders that they memorialize. This is a somber and powerful place to reflect on some of the darkest moments of American history. The Legacy Museum is set in a downtown building that was once a literal warehouse for slaves. It outlines the grim path that U.S. policies have laid out, showing a direct connection from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration. (museumandmemorial.eji.org) REMEMBERING THE BUS BOYCOTT Nearby, the Rosa Parks Museum remembers the famous defiance that prompted the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached for six years, was the site of many meetings in planning the boycott, as was the Dexter Parsonage, where the King family lived. This house has been restored to its 1950s condition, including furniture and many personal items used by the family. Also preserved is the damage done when a bomb exploded on the front porch. Downtown’s Civil Rights Memorial pays tribute to the people who lost their lives in the struggle for equality and bears one of Dr. King’s favorite quotes, “... until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” FREEDOM RIDES MUSEUM In the former Greyhound bus station downtown, the Freedom Rides Museum memorializes the bravery and sacrifices of the young men and women who faced violent, racist mobs hell-bent on maintaining segregation in the south. At this and at all the sites we visited, we found the docents to be welcoming and engaging, eager to answer questions and impart their considerable knowledge to curious visitors. A TASTE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CUISINE When it came to eating in Montgomery, we decided to spend our money in black-owned businesses in town. A few blocks west of the Freedom Rides Museum, Margaret Boyd’s Mrs. B’s Home Cooking is a classic southern meat-and-three restaurant, whose sides (like cabbage or collard greens) are cooked with smoked turkey drippings rather than lard. It’s also another “museum”: The walls are plastered with family, military, and celebrity photos, as well as framed press articles of momentous local events. A few blocks southeast of town, Monique Williams’ Cheesecake Empori-yum offers delicious desserts and also, unusually, eggrolls in inventive flavors like “Soulfood” and “Cajun seafood”. Just around the corner from the Rosa Parks Museum is the Savanna Tropical Rotisserie Cafe, where a wood-smoke grill sits out on the sidewalk, enticing customers to partake of authentic Caribbean/African cuisine like savory goat curry or delicious Jamaican jerk chicken. HISTORIC LODGING There is more to see in Montgomery than can be covered in a single day. We spent the night at a fantastic Airbnb rental, The Treehouse at Cottage Hill, a full upstairs apartment in an elegant, historic 1892 home in a quiet neighborhood, just three blocks away from the Peace and Justice Memorial.

Inspiration

5 Secrets to Perfect Leaf Peeping

Blink and you’ll miss it: That short stretch of time when you can catch the autumn leaves at their peak color. We talked to some outdoorsy experts for pro tips on how to get the most out of this season's splendid display of reds, golds, and yellows.  1. Be an early riser  (Daveallenphoto/Dreamstime)Jim Salge has a background in meteorology and environmental science and spends time observing the weather from up on New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. He’s also a widely published nature photographer. If Salge has one piece of advice for leaf-peepers, it’s this: get up early. “So much of the magic happens at dawn in the fall in New England,” he says. “There’s morning mist, amazing sunbeam patterns, dew on the ground, and fog over lakes and settling over valleys. You miss so much of what fall is if you get out at nine or ten in the morning and the sun is already bright.” That means superior photographs and envy-worthy Instagram posts for early birds. And tranquility. Salge is out before dawn every day between mid-September and November, so he’s well familiar with the serenity to be found when there’s just a few others around to share the majestic landscape. 2. Know the science (Brian Lasenby/Dreamstime)It tends to take people by surprise when you put it in these terms, but foliage is essentially death. When a tree shuts down for the winter, photosynthesis--the respiration process that produces the chlorophyll that gives leaves their green hue--stops. To hear Chris Martin, director and state forester at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, explain it, that allows the leaves’ other pigments, many of which are always present, just not visible under the predominant green, to pop through as they take a longer time to die off. Fun fact: those other pigments play familiar roles elsewhere in nature, like carotenoids, the stuff that makes carrots orange and buttercups and bananas yellow. Each leaf is like a snowflake: unique in its own way. Salge suggests looking at leaves backlit by the sun to see the singular vein structure.  3. Follow the map Considering there are apps for identifying stars in the night sky, it’s almost a wonder that foliage trackers didn’t have many digital guide options until recently. A few popular regions have their own up-to-the-moment live maps to follow. The Adirondacks, for one, has reintroduced its Foliage Meter this year (adirondacksusa.com/fall), which indicates, by region, what percentage of the trees are at peak. At the time of writing this in late September, they were only at an average of 10% around the Adirondacks. The site also provides itineraries for day trips and guidance on where to eat and stay. Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website offers predictions and advisories as well as suggestions for prime viewing locations and day trips. Newengland.com shows where the wave of peak is occurring—or where it’s expected, at least, notes Salge with a wink. But perhaps most impressive of all is the effort from SmokyMountains.com, an extensive tourism website. Their predictive map involves an algorithm that analyzes a few million data points, like historical temperatures and precipitations as well as forecast temps and precipitations, all of which are based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s figures. The algorithm is designed to forecast the precise moment when peak foliage will happen. And this year there are even more features to enhance the experience. "After having dozens of conversations with our fall foliage map users, I realized the data-driven predictive process seems magical to the average layperson,” Wes Melton, the map's creator and co-founder and chief technology officer of SmokyMountains.com, said in a statement. “This year, I decided to make a secondary interactive graphic with regional and state data related to temperature variations. The temperature data supplied by the NOAA is one of the most important factors and now leaf map users can easily visualize the impact of regional precipitation on peak fall dates." Fall prediction map for October 1, 2018. (Courtesy smokymountains.com) 4. Park your car When you’re looking at the foliage at 65 miles per hour, it’s one giant blur of color, making it easy to think every tree looks like all the rest. Not so fast. Most people like scenic vistas, Martin notes, so find a precipice and park your car for a long view of the scenery. With their hills and varied terrain, the northeast and northwest corners of Connecticut provide excellent observation points. And for a deeper understanding of foliage’s glorious diversity, get out of your car and take a hike. 5. Make a plan As you now know from the interactive map of the Smoky Mountains, the moment’s foliage is not simply dependent on the week’s weather. Year-round conditions contribute to the ultimate color show. This year there have been drought issues in northern New York and northern Vermont, which could mute the colors, so if this season’s spectacle doesn’t quite compare to that of last year, that’s why. In Connecticut, however, there was lots of rain in August and the damp forestry lends itself to some vivid color across the area’s diverse trees. Anyone south-bound will be happy to know that the recent hurricane did not have an impact on the foliage in the Blue Ridge. Asheville experienced only 1.5 inches of rainfall from the storm, so they're expecting as jaw-dropping of a show as always in the area, including along the Blue Ridge Parkway. As far as planning, there are some general things to keep in mind. Peak color takes about six weeks to move across New England. It starts at high elevations and moves downhill then south and towards the ocean over that time. But let’s be honest: even the most avid nature buff can only tree-gaze for so long. Salge reminds that for many people, foliage is about more than just trees. Most plan their travels as a bonus to traditional fall events, like going to a farm, a fall festival, or apple orchards. “I’ve been doing this for ten years, and it’s amazing to go out and enjoy looking at leaves, but natural sites are second to traditions.” he says. And everyone knows that leaves look even better with cider and a donut in hand.

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