BETHEL, Maine — You know you’ve found a worthy fall color spot when you plan to go far in a day but don’t go far at all.
On my first day in the mountains of western Maine last October, I planned to hit three stops, three places to soak in the tall reds, yellows and oranges, while passing nearly 100 miles in my rental car. I made one of those stops and crossed about 20 miles.
The one place was Caribou Mountain, just east of the New Hampshire border on a little driving loop southwest of Bethel, a lovely western Maine town of 2,400. I figured I would spend an hour there before moving on to the next bit of fall beauty. But when I learned there was a 6.5-mile loop to the top of Caribou Mountain, with the chance to walk through the color, then look down at it, I had to do it.
I quickly knew I had picked the right spot, not just because the colors were lovely. It was because the locals I met there had brought their pet llamas.
Clipper and Peppersass (like the old railway engine) had thick coats, wide, alert eyes and hefty bottom teeth behind their fuzzy little whiskers. They didn’t seem to mind their backpacks a bit, but still, walking your pet llamas?
“This is what they were built for,” said Don Ware, 69, a doctor from Norway, Maine, who was with wife Hilary.
The llamas proved pokey, and soon I was beyond them, embarking on a steady climb to 3,000 feet, accompanied by a gently rushing river. The trees still were mostly green and yellow, with the reds spread out on the ground in a luminous carpet. I pushed on and at the top found the reward: a bald mountain with patches of scrubby pine while fall color rolled out for miles in every direction.
A hurried fall-colors trip would have meant five minutes up there before descending into my next adventure, but there was no way; yellow-orange hills and peaks stretched to infinity, and they had to be savored.
Midsavor, Tommy and Barbara O’Brien arrived in matching hiking boots and L.L. Bean backpacks. They’re from Natchez, Miss., and visit Maine most summers. This was the first time they had come in the fall, they said.
“It’s like God took his paint buckets and spilled all his colors here,” said Barbara, 57.
After I worked my way back down the mountain, I took a leisurely drive back to my hotel in Bethel, and that was it. My ambitions for the day were thwarted by beauty.
Western Maine’s most popular tourist seasons are winter (skiing) and summer (gentle and warm), which leaves autumn criminally underrated. On my six-hour hike, I saw almost as many llamas (two) as people (five).
Fall’s rewards can be found throughout the region, a tan- gle of small roads to drive aimlessly. Those roads boast signs such as “PUMPKINS + SQUASH,” “Pony Rides” and “Farm Stand Ahead.” In those stands, they sell eggs, honey, tomatoes, apples, pumpkins and maple syrup. Many roads are narrow and winding.
The leaves put color around every bend: orange, red, yellow, purple and the colors in between, lush and vibrant, especially in the morning sun. And Bethel is a perfect hub: good food, drink, hospitable locals and a main street with colorful trees and clouds that kiss distant mountaintops.
If you go
Fall color season can be difficult to predict, but it usually peaks in western Maine during the first 10 days of October.
GETTING THERE: One of Bethel’s charms is remoteness, which means getting there can take some work. It is about 90 minutes from Portland International Airport, three hours from New Hampshire Airport in Manchester and 31/2 hours from Boston Logan International Airport. Portland is closest, but Manchester is served by more airlines and seems to be a less expensive destination.
STAY: Though small, Bethel boasts plenty of places to stay, many of which are quaint and affordable bed-and-breakfasts, such as Crocker Pond (917 North Road, 207-836-2027, crocker pond.com). For something cheaper and in the heart of town, consider the Sudbury Inn (151 Main St., 207-824-2174, thesudburyinn.com).
EAT: There is a wide range of options, from expansive Italian at 22 Broad Street (22 Broad St., 207-824-3496, 22broadstreet.com) to decent bar food at the Sudbury Inn (the blackened salmon was surprisingly fresh; close to 30 beers on draft) and pitch-perfect sandwiches (and a quality wine and beer selection) at Good Food Store (212 Mayville Road, 207-824-3754, goodfoodbethel.com), as well as Smokin’ Good BBQ in a trailer in Good Food Store’s parking lot.
MORE INFORMATION: bethelmaine.com