Each fall, two powerful urges draw me to drive along the broad fertile valley where the Connecticut River separates my native New Hampshire from neighboring Vermont. The first is to satisfy my soul with valley views brilliantly painted in fall colors. The second is more practical, but equally soul-satisfying: to follow my primitive instincts and gather in the harvest before winter.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The upper Connecticut Valley is one of America’s most scenic riverways.
- Fall foliage colors make it even more beautiful, and farmstands are filled with harvest bounty to take home.
- Good for anyone who loves crisp autumn air, fall scenery and locally grown and produced foods.
We start in Keene, in New Hampshire’s southwestern corner. Later in October, after the best of the foliage has fallen, Keene hosts its annual Pumpkin Festival, when thousands of lighted pumpkins grin beside Main Street, ringing the bandstand on the common and from platforms a dozen layers tall towering above. But we time this trip earlier, while leaves are bright and farmstands their fullest.
Leaving Keene to head west on Route 9, we detour onto Chesterfield Road to Stonewall Farm Farm to begin our collection with cheddar cheese made of the milk from this demonstration farm’s organic dairy herd. In Chesterfield, we turn right onto River Road, winding through hardwood forests beside the Connecticut River, dipping into deep ravines, and opening to views of the river and its foliage-draped banks.
Driving along the Connecicut River
Where River Road joins Route 63, a detour to the right leads into Park Hill, a cluster of fine 18th-century homes below a 1762 meeting house with a Paul Revere bell in its steeple. A group of homes so elegant dating from the 1700s is rarely seen this far from the coast in northern New England. Turning back on Route 63, we get our first high views across the valley and come to Stuart & John’s Sugar House, where we add maple syrup to our collection and tuck into a second breakfast of pancakes smothered in mapley sweetness.
Left onto Route 12, we continue north alongside the river. River Road soon wanders off to Boggy Meadow Farm, where we look into the dairy, sample cheeses and buy a delicately smoked Swiss from the cooler in the honor-system shop (honor system is a way of life along the river).
Picking Apples at Alyson’s Orchard
Back on Route 12 and almost across the road, Alyson’s Orchard is easy to spot by the metal sculpture of an apple tree. As we climb the steep lane through orchards heavy with fruit, the views over the Connecticut River valley to the hills of Vermont are so spectacular (OK, I finally broke down and used that word) that we spend as much time clicking pictures as picking apples. After gathering enough for munching and Thanksgiving pies, we sip fresh sweet cider and buy a gallon, along with bottles of their peach and apple wines. Glad we thought to bring a box along with the cooler.
Chocolate and a Scenic Winery
Walpole is another pretty town with white clapboard houses around a town common. We stop at Burdick’s Chocolate for a little pick-me up and study the foliage tour map we’d printed from the Walpole Historical Society’s website. This 20-mile route of views across rolling hill-country farms to the distant Green Mountains takes us up to Walpole Mountain View Winery. It’s certainly New England’s most scenic vineyard, on a hillside overlooking the valley. We like what we taste, and add more bottles to the collection we’d begun at Alyson’s.
Route 12 seems to be a steady succession of farm stands, some with farm names and some just a table set by the mailbox. After buying winter squash and pumpkins at one, we stop at Walpole Creamery for big scoops of pumpkin ice cream, made from local cream and pumpkins.
Route 12 rarely lets the river out of sight as it heads to Charlestown, becoming its main street, lined by sedate rows of 19th-century homes under flame-red maple trees. Overlooking the river is The Fort at No. 4, a reconstructed pre-Revolutionary War village. Costumed interpreters are busy with harvest tasks that show what life was like when the stockade enclosed the colonies’ northernmost outpost.
Strolling an Artist’s Garden
After topping a scenic ridge in North Charlestown (another farmstand at its crest) we fork left onto Route 12-A to follow the river into Cornish, where the country’s longest historic covered bridge crosses into Vermont. The town was home to a noted art colony, and the home and studio of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a National Historic Site. We wander in his gardens, still beautiful with autumn blooms, and kick through crunchy fallen leaves as we follow woodland trails where the artist and his friends walked.
Farther north in Plainfield, we divert onto River Road to visit McNamara Dairy (and love their phone number: 603-298-MOOO – who says New Englanders lack a sense of humor?) We could have continued north to Hanover, and on up the valley through miles of farmland (and more farmstands) and through the postcard-worthy towns of Orford and North Haverhill around their maple-tree lined commons.
But the trunk and cooler are getting full, and we’ve filled two cards on the camera with enough orange and red to crash PhotoShop. So we return to our lodgings, Inn at Valley Farms, high on the same hill as Alyson’s Orchard.
Gathering Our Own Breakfast Eggs
The next morning we gather our own breakfast eggs from their pastured chickens, raised on the 105-acre organic farm, before we tuck into home-baked muffins, organic bread from a local baker and of course the eggs. We tour the farm, with its huge red barn, rare-breed heritage pigs and cashmere goats, then follow a trail through the woods to the sugar-maple grove.
Before heading home, we set off into the hills of neighboring Alstead to search out Orchard Hill Breadworks and the baker who makes that organic bread. It will go well with all that cheese … and the blackberry jam we found on a card table beside a mailbox.
- Inn at Valley Farms – 877-327-2855.
- Alyson’s Orchard – 603-756-9800.
- Walpole Historical Society – 603-756-3449. They offer a printable foliage tour map.
- Walpole Mountain View Winery Vineyard – 603-756-3948.
- Walpole Creamery – 603-445-5700.
- Boggy Meadow Farm – 603-756-3300.
- Stuart & John’s Sugar House – 603-399-4486.
- The Fort at No. 4 – 603-826-5700.
- Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site — 603-675-2175.