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.
5. Sabbaday Falls
With the Pemigewasset and Swift rivers as its companions, the road dips for several miles on its way to Sabbaday Falls, another nice place for a picnic, and Lily Pond. Spring transforms the pond into a floating garden. Just a short distance from the picnic grounds are the falls themselves, a three-level cascade that plunges to a pool where swimming, unfortunately, is not permitted. Named for the Sabbath, the falls remain a popular destination on any day of the week.
Several miles ahead lies the historic Russell-Colbath House, where a half-mile trail parallels an old railway grade that skirts neighboring woods and swamps. You can gain access to another nature walk at Bear Notch Road (just past the Jigger Johnson campground), which winds into ethereal evergreens and rock grottoes that on cloudy days are sometimes shrouded in mist.
6. Rocky Gorge Scenic Area
Sculpted by the erosive forces of the Swift River, this rocky medley of clefts, caves, and ledges can be explored by means of a footbridge that crosses the gorge. Nearby, another bridge—this one covered—leads back to Rte. 112, which continues east along the Swift River until it reaches Conway.
At Conway, where the mountains give way to rolling uplands, the drive makes a sharp turn north. Several miles ahead lies its sister town of North Conway. Both villages have a quintessential New England charm, complete with 19th-century covered bridges, swimming holes, waterfalls, and a host of inviting inns. The stretch of Rte. 16 between them, however, is another story. Dominated by fast-food chains and factory outlets, the road can be a motorist’s nightmare—especially on rainy days and weekends, when bargain hunters abound. North Conway offers two consolation prizes to those who brave the traffic: a grand view of Mt. Washington and a scenic railroad that tours through the surrounding valley.
8. Echo Lake State Park
From the north end of North Conway, River Road winds west to Echo Lake State Park, a 400-acre recreation area huddled beneath White Horse Ledge. A scenic road leads to another dramatic rock formation, 700-foot-high Cathedral Ledge. The drive returns to North Conway and heads north on Rte. 16/302, then branches northeast on Rte. 16A toward Intervale. The two-mile Intervale Resort Loop circles up and around the towns of Intervale and Lower Bartlett, affording more fine views of Mt. Washington. The drive continues north on Rte. 16A to Jackson.
With its skating pond, country inns, and covered bridge, Jackson is a Currier and Ives print come to life. Although its population is barely 650, each winter thousands of Nordic skiers come here to enjoy a 95-mile network of trails. In fact, some Jacksonites park their cars for the winter and ski to work.
10. Pinkham Notch
From Jackson the highway climbs to Pinkham Notch, a scenic pass offering a breathtaking view of Mt. Washington. Meandering through the woods, the Glen Ellis Falls Trail leads to a scenic overlook of the Ellis River as it crashes 80 feet to a churning pool.
11. Mt. Washington Auto Road
They call Mt. Washington “the most dangerous small mountain in the world,” and with good reason. Despite its relatively modest height, this central peak of the White Mountains has such fierce weather conditions—the highest gust of wind ever recorded on land was clocked here at 231 miles per hour—that Himalayan climbers use it for survival training.
Yet for all its hazards, Mt. Washington remains one of the most accessible summits of its size in the United States. Some of the thousands who visit it each year arrive by way of a well-maintained hiking trail, while others opt for a thrilling ride on the Cog Railway, which departs regularly from Bretton Woods on the western side of the mountain. But most come by way of the Mt. Washington Auto Road (open from May to October, weather permitting), which spirals eight miles up the eastern slope.
Hailed as a masterful feat of engineering when it was completed in 1861, the road was originally designed for stagecoaches from the Glen House Hotel, a stop once located at its base. Nowadays an assortment of vehicles—including unicycles, wheelchairs, and, of course, automobiles and trucks—tackle the same 12-degree grade during occasional scheduled races. If your car is not in tip-top shape, however, you would be well-advised to take one of the regularly scheduled chauffeured vans to the summit.
However you tour Mt. Washington, the trip will be worthwhile. “No other mountain,” claims one admirer, “can boast of having a carriage road, railway, four hotels, two weather observatories, a radio station, and a television station.” In addition to all that, there are the splendid views that can be enjoyed at the summit. From the peak of the mountain, you can see parts of Maine, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean.
12. Moose Brook State Park
After exiting the White Mountain National Forest, Rte. 16 passes through Gorham. A short side trip west on Rte. 2 leads to Moose Brook State Park, which is located in the heart of the Presidential Range. Despite its name (which comes from a brook), the 87-acre park is not inhabited by moose, but these massive antlered relatives of deer can be seen nearby on tours hosted by the Gorham Chamber of Commerce during the summer.
13. Milan Hill State Park
Continuing north, the drive passes through Berlin, where the scent of sulfur dioxide—rotten eggs—announces the presence of an enormous paper mill. But a breath of fresh air is just minutes away at Nansen State Park Wayside and, farther ahead, Milan Hill State Park, both ideal spots for hiking and picnicking.
Continuing north beside the Androscoggin River, Rte. 16 eventually enters the Thirteen-Mile Woods Scenic Area, where forested hills inhabited by moose, deer, and bear stretch for miles. Alternately lazy and wild, the river along this stretch of the byway lures fishermen as well as white-water canoeists.
14. Androscoggin State Park Wayside
Perched on a bluff overlooking a bend in the river, this pretty park—once the site of logging drives that floated logs downstream—abounds with picnic spots that offer bird’s-eye views of canoeists braving the rapids far below. Just ahead is Errol, a tiny town that is surrounded on all sides by wilderness.
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