There doesn’t have to be a single destination to the journey. Visiting the New Hampshire White Mountains, we always spend some time driving along the Kancamagus Highway, stopping to explore and simply enjoy the truly beautiful mountain scenery.
The Beauty of the Mountains
We are fortunate to live within an hour of some of the most beautiful scenery in New Hampshire, so we try to take advantage of it as much as possible. Usually, this means a weekend spent camping, roasting marshmallows, and sleeping in tents, but sometimes it’s only a day trip. It’s beautiful no matter the season, but during the fall, New Hampshire truly shines.
All those quaint pictures you see with church steeples sticking out from the tops of colorful trees are real and they’re everywhere you look in New Hampshire. Take the road less traveled on your drive into the mountains and you’ll find plenty of postcard-perfect towns.
Once you get out of those towns, the feel of things changes, especially in the White Mountains. You can barrel through on the interstate, stopping only to snap a quick photo or two, but our favorite road is the Kancamagus Highway. This two-lane road twists east to west across the White Mountains with views that will take your breath away.
The stretch of road is one of the most famous in the area. During peak foliage season it becomes crowded with “leaf peepers” out to see the famous, colorful leaves. We might live in the state, but that doesn’t stop us from joining the tourists and gawking at the show.
The 34-mile road runs along Swift River and has plenty of opportunities to get out of the car and explore. There are scenic overlooks well-marked along the way, each with its own amazing view. It starts at Route 16 in Conway, New Hampshire and ends up in Lincoln, New Hampshire where it meets Interstate 93.
Just Call it The Kanc
It was opened way back in 1959 and the tricky name, which means “Fearless One” is in honor of the grandson of Passacaonaway. There’s a strong Native American history in the mountains, which means you’ll likely be mispronouncing a lot of names. Most people simply call the highway “The Kanc” because that’s a heck of a lot easier. I live here and I sill mispronounce names all the time.
There are no gas stations, convenience stores, or cell service to be found along The Kanc, so it’s best to stock up on nibbles or pack a picnic lunch. There are picnic tables aplenty at many of the rest areas so you can easily eat your lunch and gaze out of the mountains.
You can also hike along one of many marked trails until you’re ready for a break. Find a spot of grass, sit down, and relax. There are even six National Forest Campgrounds along the route so you can actually stay in the heart of the mountains overnight.
Some of the most popular spots to stop are near the water, like Swift River Lower Falls, and our favorite spot, Rocky Gorge and Falls Pond Trail. The water here cascades down a narrow waterfall that you can hear from the road. It can be viewed from the surrounding rocky banks or a footbridge that spans the river. Keep walking when you get to the other side of the bridge and there’s a pond with trails to explore further.
Worth the Drive
The Kanc can get crowded in the fall, but it is worth the trip, especially if you’ve never experienced a New England fall. The pace of life is slower in the north country, so ease up on the gas and take it all in rather than worrying about getting to the end. The sound of the water and the wind blowing through the leaves make it the perfect way to relax and force your mind to take a break from its worries.
There are bathrooms at the parking areas, but do remember these aren’t five-star hotels. They’re essentially latrines and they often smell accordingly, especially in the summer months. The parking areas also require a fee of $3 per day which is good at all the stops along the road. You can purchase permits at the ranger station in Conway or at any of the individual parking areas. It’s the honor system, so it’s up to you to pay the fee and support the parks.
Wondrous in Any Season
It’s beautiful in the fall, but there’s really no bad season to explore the highway. We have even made the trip during the winter. The trails aren’t open and the scenic views are sometimes blocked by piles of snow, but it’s impressive. The depth of the snow and the desolation of the winter landscape is worth the trip. And there are plenty of spots at either end of the highway where you can stop for warm food and some hot chocolate for the kids.
No matter the season, a drive along the Kancamagus Highway is a wonderful way to enjoy and explore the New Hampshire White Mountains.