"Daddy, daddy, I want another leaf shower!" Our 3-year-old giggled and plopped down in the middle of the trail again. Hadley was stopping every 100 yards so Heather and I could rain armfuls of crinkly yellow leaves on her. We'd groan and grumble, but we loved the game, too, because it gave us a chance to enjoy some of the best autumn color we'd found in 10 years of Northeast leaf peeping.
During that decade of leafy research, we'd learned that Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks are the places to be in fall. With some 225 miles of family-friendly trails (including stretches of the Appalachian Trail and Long Path), it's easy to lose the frontcountry windshield tourists. In the backcountry, there's rarely competition for a tent site near the parks' numerous shelters. Come Labor Day, just as the maple leaves start bleeding red around the edges, the overnight troops thin considerably.
That's when our family heads for gems like Bald Rocks, Big Rocks, and the Lemon Squeezer, or one of the area's many quiet lakes. We'll pitch a tent and just wander, enjoying the oranges, reds, and yellows splashed across the hardwood forests.
Light undergrowth and open, airy stands of oak, elm, birch, and maple afford long, unobstructed views of the Hudson River Valley, while the occasional batch of mountain laurel carpets the ridges in burgundy. Have your camera ready near dusk, when sunlight warms the landscape with intense color. And don't forget to enjoy a leaf shower or two.
The best leaf peeping is accessed from the southernmost trailheads of Harriman State Park, 35 miles north of Manhattan off NY 17 or the Palisades Parkway.
Mid-September to late October.
Harriman Trails: A Guide and History, by William J. Myles (New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, 212-685-9699; www.nynjtc.org; $14.95).
Palisades Interstate Park Commission, (914) 786-2701.