Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 125 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round, but best from mid-September to mid-October, when fall foliage is at its most spectacular.
Words to the wise: Since weather conditions here are extremely variable, call the Appalachian Mountain Club at 603-466-2725 for updated forecasts. Be on the lookout for moose while driving—especially after dusk, when they often cross the road.
Nearby attraction: Robert Frost Place, featuring a nature trail and memorabilia of the celebrated poet, near Franconia.
Further information: White Mountain National Forest, 719 Main St., Laconia, NH 03246; tel. 603-528-8721, www.fs.fed.us/r9/white.
Though the northern tier of New Hampshire is home to fewer than one-tenth of the state’s million or so residents, it boasts a majority of its tall peaks. The region is renowned for its 48 summits that rise above 4,000 feet—including Mt. Washington, the loftiest in the Northeast. All of them are embraced by the White Mountain National Forest, where 23 campgrounds, 50 lakes and ponds, 1,200 miles of trails, and 750 miles of fishing streams make this 770,000-acre tract of wildlands a paradise for lovers of the outdoors.
1. Franconia Notch State Park
Heading southeast from Franconia, Rte. 18 leads travelers to the Franconia Notch Parkway, a dramatic eight-mile stretch of Rte. 93 that climbs past craggy peaks, mountain lakes, mile-long slides, and gutted ravines on the way to Lincoln. Just west of the highway sprawls 6,500-acre Franconia Notch State Park, built around a spectacular mountain pass. Take Exit 34B to the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, the first of its kind in North America. A five-minute ride whisks visitors 2,000 vertical feet to the mountain’s 4,180-foot summit, where an observation tower commands views that extend into four states and Canada.
From the tramway you can spot Echo Lake, sparkling far below like a turquoise jewel. A haven for fishing and boating, the looking-glass lake is fed by springs and surging streams that crash through a hushed forest of birch, beech, and spruce trees. Gangling moose stare from the woods, and graceful deer step lightly through the underbrush like four-legged ballerinas, pausing to nibble on buds.
Also along Exit 34B a pullout offers a view of the former site of the Old Man of the Mountain—a series of stacked granite ledges that resembled a human profile and was the state’s emblem, but which fell in May 2003. As taciturn-looking as a New England farmer, the 40-foot-high rock formation was the inspiration for one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and dubbed the Great Stone Face. What really made the image famous, though, was its appearance on New Hampshire license plates. It stood for years beyond its natural life with the surgical assistance of locals, who each spring rewired its stony countenance and patched its unsightly cracks. Back on the parkway, Basin Exit leads to a shimmering pool, located at the foot of a waterfall that swirls and foams with bubbles like a giant Jacuzzi.
2. Flume Gorge
Return once again to the parkway and take Exit 34A to the visitor center at Flume Gorge, where a shuttle bus takes visitors to within 500 feet of the entrance to the gorge. There a cascading brook burbles through an 800-foot-long chasm hemmed in by towering granite walls. The gorge is especially lovely in springtime, when painted trilliums, trout lilies, wild cherry blossoms, and many other blooms upholster its banks.
Beyond the flume, hiking trails wander through the woods and across two covered bridges. On bright spring days sunlight filters through the dense canopy of trees, creating puddles of light on the forest floor. Farther ahead on Rte. 93, the drive briefly overlaps Rte. 3 and hugs the Pemigewasset River on the way to Lincoln. There the drive veers eastward on Rte. 112—the Kancamagus Highway (pronounced Kan-ka-MAW-gus).
3. Kancamagus Highway
Named for a Penacook chief, “the Kanc,” as locals call it, rises to an elevation of 2,900 feet, making it one of the highest roadways in the Northeast. In autumn it’s also one of the prettiest, corkscrewing as it does past birches, beeches, and maples that blaze against an emerald backdrop of spruces and hemlocks. This 34-mile byway passes near dozens of waterfalls but not a single restaurant or fuel station, so you may wish to stop at Lincoln before getting on Rte. 112. The White Mountain Visitors Center, just off Exit 32 on Rte. 93, is a good place to get acquainted with the scenery and sites that lie ahead.
From Lincoln the drive climbs 1,000 feet in just 10 miles, spiraling past jagged peaks and glacier-carved cirques. Strewn about the rugged landscape are countless boulders, many of which—poised on tiny toes of rock and leaning at unlikely angles—seem ready to roll with the next gust of wind.
4. Kancamagus Pass
At an elevation of almost 2,900 feet, Kancamagus Pass is the highest point on Rte. 112, making this stretch of road especially scenic. On the way up you’ll see the trailheads of the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area, 45,000 acres of untamed territory bordered by the Appalachian Trail (one of many to be enjoyed here). Once you reach the pass, the dazzling scenery may tempt you to keep turning your head—but keep your eyes focused on the road. Before long you will encounter two hairpin curves, made all the more hazardous by their lack of guardrails to stop vehicles from plunging down the hillside and into the valley.
Atop the pass, views open up to the Presidential Range, a jumble of 11 lofty peaks, six of them named for American presidents. Several of these summits top off at more than a mile above sea level, and the tallest of them—at 6,288 feet—is Mt. Washington, whose rocky crest is sometimes visible from as far as 70 miles away. Some of the best views of the Presidentials are available at the nearby C. L. Graham Wangan Ground, a former Indian meeting place that is now a lovely picnic spot.