Here in New England, we take our fall foliage seriously: so much so that the government even tells you how best to view it. Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) publishes not just a foliage map but a list of seven foliage drives, each in a different region of the state. Though I’ve inadvertently driven parts of all of them over the years, I’ve never set out to intentionally follow these routes. Until now. I started with the three drives in the northern part of the state, where fall foliage peaks first, to see which one is the best and what each route has to offer.
For the original routes, you can follow DEEP’s directions linked above. In this post, I’ve provided my own directions, which I think are clearer, and, in two cases, I’ve altered the routes a bit to cut out unnecessary highway driving and optimize the thing we’re all here for: those colorful autumn leaves.
Litchfield Hills Loop
This approximately 100-mile drive, which DEEP calls “Traditional New England,” is by far the best of the three. Gorgeous from start to finish, it winds through hilly territory and towns so small you could miss them – if they weren’t so intensely picturesque, that is. It runs beside sparkling rivers and rolling farmland, past Connecticut gems like Lake Waramaug and the West Cornwall Covered Bridge. This is the Connecticut that inspired Gilmore Girls, what many would call Connecticut at its most charming, and what I think of as Connecticut at its most tempting: the route passes by, but not through, numerous intriguing small villages and state parks. It invites you to turn aside for a while to explore nature walks and small shops. And of course, there are the trees, displaying their colors on either side of the road and high above on the distant mountains. This is the route to take if you want to spend a day, or even a full weekend, taking in the sights of New England in the fall.
The Route: Start in Torrington and take Route 8 North to Winsted. Turn right on Route 44 West to Canaan. Turn left on Route 7 South to Kent. Turn left on Route 341 East to Warren. Turn right on Route 45 South to New Preston. Turn left on Route 202 East. Turn right on Route 47 South to Washington Depot. Turn left on Route 109 East to East Morris. Turn left on Route 63 North to Litchfield. Turn right on Route 118 East To Route 8. Take Route 8 North back to Torrington to complete the loop.)
Quiet Corner Loop
DEEP calls this one Yankee Roots, and I found it the second-best of the three. However, to get the most out of it, I shortened it (to about 70 miles, down from 100) to cut out the long stretches of not-particularly-scenic highway on either end. This route travels through one of my favorite areas of the state, a region of peaceful countryside and sleepy historic towns, where farm stands and adorably ramshackle shops pop up by the roadside and momentarily distract you, pulling you from one photo opportunity to the next. The leaves here are slightly less spectacular than in the previous drive, but they are beautiful in a more subtle way. Their colors blend softly until a streak of red or single flaming orange tree catches your eye. Like the previous route, this drive tempts you to stop and wander in state forests and nature preserves, or to pause and admire historic homes and country churches that look as if they haven’t changed since Colonial days. If you have half a day, or even a few hours, to spend exploring an underrated swath of Connecticut’s countryside, this route is lovely.
The Route: Start at the UConn campus in Storrs. Drive south on Route 195 to Route 6. Turn left on Route 6 East to Brooklyn. Turn left on Route 169 North to North Woodstock. Turn Left on Route 197 West, then continue on Routes 171 and 190 to Stafford Springs. Turn left on Route 32 South to Mansfield, then left on Route 275 East to get back to UConn.
Hartford Area Loop
This drive, which DEEP calls Hartford West, came in last, which is not to say there isn’t plenty of pretty foliage to be found north of Connecticut’s capital. The difference is that here, the changing leaves seem to be a delightful afterthought rather than the main attraction. Because the original route includes a lot of congested suburban driving, I decided to cut out a segment, shortening the drive from around 90 miles to 40 (or 75 if you choose to make it into a loop again) to include only its most scenic parts. I recommend it if you’re near Hartford or the airport and want to see the fall colors without traveling too far or devoting a whole day to a foliage trip. Though it sticks close to the city, the route travels beside rocky streams through rural towns of surprising beauty. It offers plenty of places to stop, and just like the other two drives, it passes multiple forests, parks, and trails if you choose to stop and explore further.
The Route: Start at Bradley International Airport, and take Route 20 West through Granby and Hartland to Riverton. Turn left on West River Road through American Legion and Peoples State Forests to Pleasant Valley. Continue on 181 South. Turn left on Route 44 East to New Hartford. (To complete the loop, follow Route 44 straight into Hartford – along the way, the towns of Canton, Avon, and West Hartford offer suburban amenities and cultural attractions – and then take I-91 North to the airport.)