Visitors were lamenting the loss of the Old Man in the Mountain.

FRANCONIA, N.H. (AP) – Jack and Janet Meyer of Danville celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this weekend, but decided to let Mother Nature share their spotlight – piling dozens of friends and relatives on a rented school bus for a leaf peeping tour of northern New Hampshire.

And they weren’t alone.

The state figures 500,000 people from across the country and across the ocean visited this weekend, gazing at the red, orange and yellow leaves and dropping plenty of green in hotels, restaurants, gift stores and gas stations.

Thousands drove through Franconia Notch, admiring the leaves and lamenting the loss of the Old Man of the Mountain granite profile, an icon that presided over perhaps 10,000 autumns before collapsing last spring.

“I hate to say it, but it looks like an ordinary mountain now,” said Fred Gallagher of North Babylon, N.Y., who was on the Meyers’ anniversary tour. “It’s still a beautiful landscape, but it’s lost its trademark.”

The profile fell off the mountain last May, after being worn out by thousands of years of freezing and thawing cycles, rain and general deterioration.

Nevertheless, Gallagher said the colorful mountainsides were unbelievable.

“We see some changes (in color) on Long Island, but not to this degree. It’s beautiful, just gorgeous.”

The Meyers and their busload of guests from New York, New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire stopped at the Old Man Viewing area off Interstate 93 in Franconia Notch before heading north for more peeping, and back to Woodstock for lunch at a restaurant.

A moment earlier, George Fabian of Mt. Sinai, N.Y., stopped with his wife and two kids.

“It’s blowing us away,” he said. “The kaleidoscope of colors is absolutely tremendous.”

Fabian figured two nights at a hotel, meals and stopping at area attractions would cost $600-$750, “no doubt about it.”

But he said the sights of their first leaf-peeping visit to the state made it worthwhile.

“We’ll be back up here again, definitely,” he said.

Bob and Jan Parry of Llantwit Major, Wales, stopped during the New Hampshire portion of a three-week stay in New England.

“I’d always wanted to see New England in the fall,” said Mrs. Parry. “It’s one of those wonders of the world.”

Their conclusion? “Spectacular,” she said. “Stunning, absolutely stunning,” he said.

They couldn’t have picked a better day. Early Sunday, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the colors seemed almost fluorescent. By midday, as clouds approached, the colors seemed even more dramatic, as the sun highlighted some areas against a shady backdrop.

Restaurant and gift shop parking lots were full, trailhead lots overflowed and parked cars lined the highway through the notch and nearby Lincoln and Woodstock as visitors took in the leaves by bus, car, bike, foot and tourist trains.

Peter Spanos, owner and manager of the Indian Head resort in Lincoln, was pleased.

“This weekend and last weekend we could have used a lot more rooms,” he said.

Despite the busy holiday weekend, he worries about the future, minus the Old Man.

“That’s really going to hurt us,” he said. “It was such an important attraction.”

Back at the viewing site, Kathy and Dile Holton of Shrewsbury, Mass., were showing visitors from California and New York the foliage.

“The first time I saw the leaves, I thought ‘This is what heaven must be like,”‘ said Mrs. Holton.

She and her husband have been bringing family and friends to the mountains for six or eight years, they said. They said they expected their group of five probably would spend $600-$750 for their one-night stay.

One of their guests this weekend, Diane Brown of San Mateo, Calif., was almost speechless.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she said. “(Kathy) tried to describe it to me, but you can’t describe it.”

Dile Holton said the colors were more vibrant than he has ever seen.

“It’s one of those places in the world I never get tired of coming back to,” he said.

AP-ES-10-12-03 1645EDT

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