CONCORD, N.H. – Beautiful weather, brilliant foliage and lower gas prices made for a spectacular Columbus Day weekend in northern New England, and leaf peepers gasped at views of a lifetime.
Warm days and cool nights added rich hues to the leaves; cloudless blue skies, some wispy morning fog and frost offered an artist’s background; and gas prices a dollar lower than in recent months helped send hundreds of thousands of leaf peepers to the region for the long holiday weekend.
They were not disappointed.
“I heard a lot of people describing [Saturday] as the nicest day they’d ever seen their life,” weather observer Neil Lareau, atop Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast.
Speaking Sunday from his perch – with about the best view in the region – Lareau looked across New Hampshire and Vermont to the Adirondacks of New York, 130 miles away.
Closer, he peered down into the valleys of New Hampshire, where the reds, oranges, yellows and greens of the slopes stood out against morning fog that shrouded the valley floor.
“It’s looking pretty nice,” he said.
Saturday and Sunday, a steady stream of cars headed to the summit on the Mount Washington Auto Road, drawn by the unlimited visibility, a rarity on a summit that is socked in two out of three days.
“There were people everywhere,” he said.
The state had estimated about 560,000 leaf peepers would visit New Hampshire during the three-day weekend.
They were on the roads, on mountain trails, on the summit and even higher.
“There were a lot of planes and gliders,” Lareau said. “Everyone was finding different ways to enjoy the view.”
The same was true in Maine and Vermont, where cars pulled over frequently and leaf peepers jumped out with cameras in hand.
In Maine, tourism-related businesses saw a surge.
The trees around the Covered Bridge Motel and Restaurant in Guilford were at peak color, and waitress Clarissa Taylor said things were hopping. There was far more business than usual Saturday, and customers Sunday were commenting on the beauty of the leaves.
“They like the scenery,” said Taylor.
Ditto in western Maine’s Rangeley area, where the Rangeley Inn reported heavy traffic from leaf peepers.
Road construction was suspended during the weekend on the Maine Turnpike in anticipation of heavy traffic.
The Maine Turnpike Authority says the long Columbus Day holiday weekend has surpassed Labor Day to become the toll highway’s second-busiest long holiday weekend of the year. The Fourth of July remains the busiest.
Traffic forecasters predict traffic at the York Toll Plaza at the turnpike’s southernmost end will increase by about 7 percent over last year, boosting Maine’s important tourism industry. Last year, more than 680,000 vehicles used the Maine Turnpike on the Friday-Monday Columbus Day weekend.