Your Guide to a Kancamagus Highway Road Trip

One of the prettiest highway drives in all of New England, New Hampshire's Kancamagus Highway is ideal for road trips year-round and especially during fall foliage season.

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Thanks to its beauty and variety of local attractions, the 34.5-mile-long Kancamagus Highway is designated as an American Scenic Byway. The drive, which is part of Route 112, cuts through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. The Kancamagus Pass is the highway’s highest point and, to situate you, it’s about 83 miles west of Portland, Maine, 93 miles east of Montpelier, Vermont, and 143 miles north of Boston.

Kancamagus Highway map

Kancamagus Animated MapEmma Kumer/rd.com

The Kancamagus Highway is known by several names, including “The Kanc” for short, as well as the Kancamagus Scenic Byway and Route 112. It’s pronounced as “Kank-ah-MAU-gus” (some say it almost rhymes with “August”). The highway runs almost 35 miles east-west through the White Mountain National Forest between the New Hampshire cities of Conway to the east and Lincoln to the west.

To start from Conway, take Route 112 northwest off Main Street just west of town. From Lincoln, the starting point is where Route 112 meets with Interstate 93, which is also where you’ll find the White Mountains Visitor Center.

Under good conditions, it takes under an hour to drive the Kancamagus Highway straight through. But if you’d like to stop and see some of the sites and admire the views, plan for at least three hours. Regardless of the length of your planned journey, you’ll want to pack these road trip necessities.

Pick up a Kancamagus Highway map at the Saco Ranger Station, just outside the city of Conway, or at the White Mountains Gateway Visitors Center in Lincoln at exit 32.

Kancamagus Highway attractions

Leaf-peeping and admiring the fall foliage are amongst the most popular activities for New Hampshire scenic drives, especially along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. The entire region has some of the prettiest fall colors in the country: here are the best places to see New England’s fall foliage. Throughout all seasons, there are plenty of outdoor activities in the White Mountain National Forest to occupy you.

Whether you just want to pause to snap a photo or prefer getting out to explore, put these Kancamagus Highway outdoor attractions on your to-do list:

Sabbaday Falls

The hike to this small waterfall is one of the most popular stops along the Kancamagus Highway. The handmade wooden stairway and railings near the falls make for a great photo op. To get to the falls, it’s an easy half-mile walk from the highway. Dogs are welcomed, as long as they’re leashed. If you’re traveling with your pup, you’ll want to read this expert advice about taking your dog on a road trip.

Albany Covered Bridge spanning the Swift River in New Hampshire.Loop Images/Getty Images

Albany Covered Bridge

This covered bridge, originally built in 1858 and restored in 1970, crosses the Swift River. You can get to the bridge via the Covered Bridge Campground, which also has a popular three-mile-long hiking trail called the Boulder Loop.

Rocky Gorge

It’s an easy hike to another bridge over the Swift River at this scenic spot. Even during droughts, water moves dramatically through the ten-foot-high gorge which you can admire from the pedestrian bridge. Falls Pond, just past the bridge, has a nice viewing area but note that the path is not as well-maintained as the one from the parking area to the bridge.

Russell-Colbath Historic Site

This historic site is open for tours from July through September. The highlight is the house built by sawmill operator Thomas Russell circa 1832. It’s now a museum and the homestead is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside the house, you’ll find old photos and household items from the early- to mid-1800s as well as period-costumed staff who explain what life was like then. The site is on the western side of Jigger Johnson Campground.

Upper Lady’s Bath

Part of the Pemigewasset River, Upper Lady’s Bath is a popular swimming hole accessible via large, flat rocks (that can get a bit slippery). There’s limited parking available for the public in a signed lot near the tennis courts, but note that the parking at the Riverfront Condominiums is private property.

Majestic waterfall in the mountains with stunning autumn colours in backgroundAlbertPego/Getty Images

Lower Falls

If you want to swim, you’ll likely find Lower Falls easier to get to, as the parking area has room for about 80 cars. While called Lower Falls, this Swift River site is better known for its swimming than for its rather small waterfalls. There’s a large, fairly shallow pool here, surrounded by flat granite rocks. It’s one of the most popular swimming spots along the Kancamagus Highway.

Kancamagus Highway hiking trails

There’s plenty of hiking trails off the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, ranging from easy and flat walks to day-long hikes. For summit views, try the five-mile roundtrip hike up Mount Hedgehog. The trail begins at the UNH Downes Brook trailhead across from the Passaconway Campground, which is about 13 miles from the Saco Ranger Station. If you’re road tripping with kids, the Forest Discovery Trail is an easy hike. The loop takes about an hour and has educational signs explaining the forest ecology.

Driving the Kancamagus Highway

Aerial view of a road through White Mountain National forest, Lincoln, New Hampshire, USAmarcoisler/Getty Images

Making sure you’re fueled and stocked up is essential before beginning any road trip planning—and that’s particularly important for drives through the White Mountains and for the Kancamagus Highway. Though it’s under 35 miles long, there are no gas stations, restaurants, or hotels on the Kancamagus Highway itself. Especially if you’re planning to stop for a hike, be sure you have the food and water you’ll need for the day.

If you’re driving straight through under good conditions, it takes under an hour to drive the whole Kancamagus Highway. But note that traffic can get heavy on busy days and there are many spots that will tempt you to stop and admire the scenery.

No permits are required just to drive the Kancamagus Highway, but if you want to make any stops your vehicle will need a day pass ($5). An annual pass for the White Mountain National Forest ($30) also works. You can buy a day pass at many parking areas and trailheads, as well as online and at select stops. Permits are also available at the Saco Ranger District Visitor Center in Conway, which also sells Kancamagus Highway maps, books, and other items.

While there’s plenty to see and do throughout the year, the most popular time to visit the Kancamagus Scenic Byway is during the autumn to admire New Hampshire’s fall foliage. Also popular are summer visits for swimming in various swimming holes. Winter has several cross-country ski trails to choose from as well as two ski hills at either end of the highway. If your preference is for the lighter crowds of winter road trips, check out these eight incredible winter road trips to plan right now.

Where to stay

There’s camping within the park as well as a variety of accommodation choices at either end of the Kancamagus Highway, in and near Conway and Lincoln. Book well in advance during peak periods—such as for autumn leaf peeping—and note that some hotels require a minimum stay during autumn weekends.

Ski resorts

The Kancamagus Highway has two main ski areas, though there are several ski hills in the White Mountain National Forest. The Loon Mountain Ski Resort, near Lincoln, is accessible from the highway. It’s popular for skiing in winter, as well as for biking, hiking, ziplining, and more in summer. For where to stay, consider the Lodge at Lincoln Station, Kancamagus Lodge, Indian Head Resort, or the Nordic Inn. If you want to ski-in and ski-out, the best choice is the Mountain Club Resort & Spa.

New Hampshire SkiingBoston Globe/Getty Images

At the eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway in North Conway is the Cranmore Mountain Resort. It’s got plenty on offer including hiking, biking, and adrenaline activities like a mountain coaster, as well as winter skiing and tubing. Lodging that’s easily accessible to several outdoor pursuits includes Kearsarge Brook Condominiums and Attitash Mountain Village.

Kancamagus Highway camping

In addition to privately-owned campgrounds, there are several White Mountain National Forest campgrounds along the Kancamagus Highway such as the Jigger Johnson Campground and Passaconaway Campground. The Hancock Campground is open all year round.

Most need a reservation, generally a minimum of seven days in advance. You can make a reservation for the National Forest campgrounds via the National Recreation Reservation Service at Recreation.gov and (877) 444-6777. The cost is $25 per night.

Kancamagus Highway history

Kancamangus Highway in the New Hampshire White Mountains running alongside the Swift River during AutumnCappi Thompson/Getty Images

The history of the Kancamagus Highway itself is short, as the motorway was only completed in 1959 and paved in 1964. The history of the area is far longer.

The highway is named for Chief Kancamagus who was the last leader of a union of 17 Indigenous tribes. The alliance, called the Pennacook Confederacy, was first formed by Kancamagus’s grandfather, Passaconaway, in 1627. The name Kancamagus means “the fearless one” and Kancamagus lived up to his name as he faced challenges trying to keep the peace between the 17 Indigenous nations of the alliance and the English settlers who wanted to control the land.

For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.

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Johanna Read
Johanna Read, Canadian writer and photographer, writes about travel (including under COVID-19), wildlife, food, health and wellness, and responsible tourism. She aims to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Johanna also writes occasionally about public policy, leadership, and management. She draws on her management consulting work (where she specializes in organizational culture and employee wellness) and on her background as a Government of Canada policy executive. Her BAH (psychology and sociology) and MPA (health policy) are from Queen's University. Johanna's bylines include Reader's Digest, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, USA Today, and Canadian Traveller. See her portfolio; follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.