COVID-19 brings changes to leaf-peeping season

by Griselda Chavez and Sydney Wuu | 10/9/20 2:10am

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by Julia Levine / The Dartmouth

Peak fall foliage usually attracts hordes of tourists to the Upper Valley, each hoping for a glimpse of the area’s famous multicolored leaves. But despite the return of fall colors, business owners say COVID-19 seems to have discouraged tourists from visiting this year.

According to Visit New Hampshire’s foliage reports, peak foliage in the Dartmouth/Lake Sunapee region could fall as early as this weekend. As of the Oct. 6 report, the most recent published on the site, 85% of leaves in the region had changed color.

Eric Isaacs, a manager at Molly’s Restaurant and Bar, said that although business has improved this fall, the pandemic has made it difficult to tell whether the main driver is fall tourism or students’ recent return to Hanover.

“The students being back has definitely made us busier, but as far as leaf-peepers, we’re not seeing the bus tours that we used to see rolling up in the back parking lot,” Isaacs said. “It’s hard to say if we’re even getting any business at all from leaf-peepers.”

Jennifer Zorko, general manager of clothing store J. McLaughlin, also said that she is uncertain about exactly how much of the shop’s business this fall has come from leaf-peepers. Zorko said that she has so far seen more tourists in the shop than she had originally expected, adding that she believes tourists’ motivation to travel this fall had been “partly peeping leaves but also partly getting away from their everyday lives.” 

Nevertheless, out-of-state business at J. McLaughlin has been “slower and quieter” than in previous fall seasons, Zorko said.

According to an email statement from Kris Neilsen, communications manager for the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development, there are no ongoing efforts to forecast visitation or visitor spending for this year’s fall season. In a normal year, the division would calculate the number of tourists estimated to visit the region and the dollar amount those tourists would be expected to spend. This year, however, the uncertainty posed by COVID-19 has made it difficult to project what leaf-peeper visitation might look like for the rest of the fall, Neilsen wrote.

Although tourists may be lower in number this fall, Dartmouth students are still making the most of the beautiful scenery.

The Dartmouth Outing Club has organized socially distanced electronic bike rides out to Gile Mountain, a popular fall hiking destination. These trips have been popular with ’24s eager to see the area before temperatures drop in the coming weeks. 

California native Justin Chong ’24, who participated in a recent DOC Gile hike, said that he enjoyed seeing the “lush forests” of New Hampshire and Vermont, a sharp contrast to the landscape back home, which he described as “shrubby, desert-like, dry and gravelly.”

“Going up the tower — [it] was nice to get some fresh air because we’ve been in quarantine for such a long time,” Chong said. “You could see everything for miles, and it was a sea of vibrant red, yellow and orange trees spanning seemingly forever.” 

Although Dartmouth students do not need to travel far to see the region’s leaves, DOC leader Elliot Ng ’21 noted that the DOC trips, like general tourism, have been impacted by COVID-19. Students are not able to ride in vans together or share food on the trip. Participants must wear face masks, remain socially distant and use hand sanitizer before and after the hike up the Gile fire tower. 

Despite attempts to continue DOC trips in an altered form during the pandemic, “the sense of closeness that you get might not be on the same level as before,” Ng said.

While students living on campus and near Hanover can embrace all of the beauty New Hampshire provides, Dartmouth community members living elsewhere do not have the same opportunity. 

Caterina Hyneman ’21, who lives in California and has not been on campus since last fall, noted that she had been waiting for this year to cross Gile hikes and other fall activities off her pre-graduation bucket list. 

Hyneman urged freshmen to take advantage of fall foliage as much as possible, describing it as “something magical about Dartmouth that is still the same even if COVID is happening.”