By Doug Ireland
---- — It may be cloudy today, but plenty of sun, warm weather and brilliant foliage are expected to draw thousands of visitors to New Hampshire this holiday weekend.
To be exact, an estimated 625,000 visitors are expected — a record number who will spend roughly $91 million, according to the state Division of Travel and Tourism Development. It’s a 2 percent increase in visitors over last year.
But Columbus Day weekend travelers may want to get an early start if possible since a record number of drivers are expected to hit the roads.
State police and transportation officials in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have been gearing up for major traffic, planning extra patrols along highways.
The opening today of a new southbound on-ramp at Exit 2 off Interstate 93 in Salem could cause some confusion and minor delays for drivers, but no major problems, according to Jay Levine of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation warned travelers to plan for one of the busiest days of the year at state tolls. Many of those drivers will be heading north to New Hampshire to enjoy its foliage, mountains and other attractions.
The fact that gas prices have dropped several cents in the last week and will continue to do so is also good news for travelers, according to petroleum analyst Gregg Laskoski of GasBuddy.com.
But tourists who plan to camp in the White Mountain National Forest may want to think again. There are 21 campgrounds and hundreds of campsites in the forest that remain closed because of the federal government shutdown.
Otherwise, state tourism officials say it’s a great time to visit, especially with foliage at its peak in much of New Hampshire.
Not even a government shutdown can prevent leaf peepers from enjoying the bright red, orange and gold leaves prevalent across the state, according to Tai Freligh, spokesman for the Division of Travel and Tourism Development.
“This is going to be the weekend to go,” he said. “A lot of the regions are at peak color or close to peak, so there is color everywhere.”
Much of the White Mountains is in full color, including North Conway and Jackson, while Gorham and Shelburne are between 80 and 100 percent, according to Freligh’s office. It’s also at 100 percent peak in parts of the Lakes Region, including Madison and Ossipee.
That compares to only 80 percent for Southern New Hampshire communities such as Derry. Other towns near the Bay State border, such as Goffstown and New Boston, are only at 50 percent.
A perfect combination of warm days and cool nights this fall has produced spectacular foliage, according to forester Karen Bennett of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.
The fact there has been only one major rainfall this autumn has also been a factor, she said.
“The most beautiful foliage can disappear overnight if we get one of those real blustery fall storms,” Bennett said.
She wasn’t willing to go out onto a limb to compare this season with others in recent years, which UNH botany professor Barrett Rock has said were largely affected by climate change, resulting in poor, muted foliage
Two years ago was one of the worst ever, he said at the time. Above-average rain, heat and humidity — along with a fungus outbreak — ravaged the foliage.
There are no storms in sight this weekend, according to the National Weather Service. Today will be mostly cloudy, but it’s expected to be mostly sunny tomorrow through Monday. Temperatures will be in the 60s.
But while enjoying the sunny weather and foliage in the White Mountain National Forest, don’t expect to just pull into the closest parking lot and get out.
Gates to some of the parking areas may be locked because of the shutdown, but the woods and hiking trails remain accessible, Freligh said.
There’s no reason to turn back, but finding an open restroom may be an issue, he said.
“The forest is open — you can still come and you can still enjoy it,” Freligh said. “There just won’t be any ranger stations and bathrooms available.”
While campgrounds in the national forest may be closed, there are still plenty of state parks and private campgrounds that remain open, according to Freligh and Gregg Pittman of the New Hampshire Campgrounds Association.
Appalachian Mount Club huts and facilities are among those that remain open, including the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Highland Center and Cardigan Lodge, Pittman said.
For the state’s regular foliage reports, go to visitnh.gov. For a list of open state parks, visit nhstateparks.org. A list of privately owned campgrounds can be found at nhlovescampers.com.