A Fall Foliage Tour of Covered Bridges in Southwestern New Hampshire

View through Cresson Covered Bridge in Swanzey, NH (Stillman Rogers Photo)

Suspended in a cloud of red, orange and yellow foliage, a covered bridge — the most cherished of New England icons – becomes a metaphor for everything autumn.  A covered bridge tour ranks right up there with apple picking and pumpkin carving as a seasonal rite.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Nothing says New England quite like a covered bridge surrounded by fall foliage.
  • New Hampshire’s Monadnock region is often called “The Currier & Ives Corner” for its idyllic villages and rolling landscapes.
  • Good for travelers with only a few hours to spare, as the entire route is less than 50 miles long.

Covered bridges are part of my everyday life. I cross through one on my way to the grocery store and pass another en route to the Saturday morning Farmers Market. A third is on my way to a friend’s house, so you’d think they would just blend into the scenery for me after all these years, but they have not. Perhaps it’s because they require my attention as a driver. Most are narrow and fragile, so traffic is one-way and only one vehicle should cross at a time. But more likely it’s because each one frames a perfect view as I drive through, views I never tire of and cannot help pausing a moment to admire.

Cresson Covered Bridge, Swanzey, NH (Stillman Rogers Photo)

Never are those views lovelier than in the fall, when the bridges are suspended in a cloud of red, orange and yellow foliage so vivid it makes even the red walls of the bridges seem dull by comparison. This tour follows winding country roads that form an almost continuous tunnel of color in the fall. All six covered bridges cross the Ashuelot River, which flows only through this southwestern corner of New Hampshire, but once powered mills – including several major mill complexes, in towns that sprung up all along its banks.

Begin this Covered Bridge Tour in Keene

Leave Keene on Winchester Street (Route 10) and turn left onto Matthews Road. At its end is Cresson Bridge, with a place to park beside the river to the left. The best view is from the other end of the bridge, so walk through to look back at the red barn and perfectly shaped maple tree framed by the bridge. (Kayakers take note: this is where we launch ours for a foliage tour from the river).

Whitcomb Hall in West Swanzey, NH (Stillman Rogers Photo)

Drive through the bridge and turn left at the end of the road to head south on Route 32. Go left on Carleton Road to cross Carleton Bridge, dating from the 1790s and one of the state’s oldest, although  it was reconstructed from original timbers in 1997.

Return to Route 32 and continue south (left), taking Swanzey Lake Road to the right, through a tunnel of maple trees and past farms with weathered barns. When it ends, turn right into West Swanzey, going left on Main Street and through Thompson Bridge. Unusual because of the covered sidewalk along one side, it was built in 1832 in a style called Town Lattice. At the other side, turn right, then left when the street ends at Route 10. Two covered bridges are just off this road, the first on Westport Village Road, which forks to the left.  Arsonists destroyed the original 1862 Slate Bridge in 1993, but local residents raised funds to rebuild it on the original abutments.

Go through the bridge and continue until the road rejoins Route 10. Turn left and look for Coombs Bridge Road, which (not surprisingly) leads to Coombs Bridge. Built in 1837 the bridge stands on a dry stone foundation.

Ashuelot Covered Bridge (Stillman Rogers Photo)

To find one more, return to Route 10 and continue south into Winchester. A right on Route 119 leads along the river into the village of Ashuelot. Crossing the now wider Ashuelot you’ll find the most elaborate and largest of the bridges, Village Bridge, built in the Town Lattice Truss style in 1864.

More Autumn Scenery and a Gorge

Although there are no more covered bridges in the neighborhood, if you continue on Route 119, you can choose a scenic route back into Keene. In Hinsdale, opposite the imposing brick town hall (next to which stands the oldest continuously operating post office in the nation), turn right onto Route 63. This meandering road rises along a ridge with views to the green Mountains of Vermont. Atop the ridge is Chesterfield, with an attractive cluster of brick, stone and clapboard buildings.

A right in the center of the village on Old Chesterfield Road leads to Route 9, and a right turn onto it passes Chesterfield Gorge, a deep crack in the bedrock that has been worn wider and deeper by little Wilde Brook, finally forming the gorge. A trail circles through the woods for views from both sides. Route 9 returns to Keene.

As you drive through each bridge, consider horse-and-buggy days, when young men signaled their horses to walk very slowly through the dimly lit interiors if the right girl was sitting beside them. You may still hear old-timers call them “kissing bridges.”

Practicalities

A tree-arched bicycle path follows the former railway route from downtown Keene as far as Thompson Bridge in West Swanzey, passing Cresson Bridge on the way.

Before leaving Keene, a good lunch stop is at Ocean Harvest (433 Winchester Street, 357-3553). for crispy-tender fried clams.

Be sure to reserve early for lodgings from mid-September through mid-October, when foliage is at its peak.

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