Driving the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire’s Fall Foliage Season

Glacial Lake below Loon Mountain Summit (Stillman Rogers photo)

New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway is scarcely a highway, but it’s not a secret back road, either. This 42-mile route over the spine of the White Mountains is open year round, but it is at its best when the maples alongside it have turned red and orange, and the birches are bright yellow against the deep green pine and fir trees.

In Your Bucket Because:

  • Fall foliage just doesn’t get any brighter than in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
  • You can make this drive into a circle either by returning through the lakes region to the south or through Crawford and Franconia Notches to the north.
  • Good for families and anyone who loves driving through wilderness where moose are a common sight.

The road runs through the White Mountain National Forest. A fair number of attractions make interesting stopping points between North Woodstock (at its western end) and Conway on the eastern side.

Driving the “Kanc”: Attractions and Sidetrips

For our family “driving the Kanc” is a fall ritual, and it begins with a stop at the White Mountains Attractions Association Visitors Center, on Rte. 112 at I-93 Exit 32, for maps and updates on anything new since last year. We have annual passes, but for one-time visitors, there is a fee fee for a federal pass ($3/day, $5/week) that lets you park anywhere along the Kancamagus. It’s a kind of federal tax on tourism.

Exploring Loon Mountain’s Ice Caves(Stillman Rogers photo)

Heading east on Route 112 into Lincoln, we stop at Udderly Delicious Ice Cream for big cones of pumpkin pie ice cream, then head to Loon Mountain Resort to get a preview of the foliage from the summit. The Loon Mountain Gondola, used by skiers in the winter, has more than fall-painted mountain scenery at the top. As the glaciers receded, they scraped huge chunks of granite from the summit and left a jumble of house-sized boulders that form caves and passageways. The kids aren’t the only ones who enjoy wriggling between them and exploring their dark corners.

From Loon Mountain, Route 112 begins serious climbing as it follows the tumbling East Branch River and Hancock Branch past two National Forest camping areas. Just after the tight hairpin turn (about 10 miles), we stop at a parking pullout on the right to see a sweeping view to the west. From this perch high on a ridge we can identify West Peak, Mount Osceola, East Peak (each over 4,000 feet tall), Loon Mountain and Scar Ridge to the south (left) and Mount Hitchcock and Mount Huntington to the north.

Gondola to Summit of Loon Mountain (Stillman Rogers photo)

It’s only a few miles further up to the summit of the Kancamagus Pass, at an elevation of 2,890 feet. Just below, at C.L. Graham Wangan Ground, a picnic pavilion overlooks a new set of views, these of the eastern White Mountains. We picnic here, in the spot where early loggers made their camp.

The drop into the valley of the Swift River is more gentle, without the hairpin curves. After the road levels out, on the right is the half-mile level trail to Sabbaday Falls. This three-tier waterfall splashes into pools and off rock faces and makes a right-angle turn before landing in a dark pool at the bottom. We follow the trail to the top of the falls for changing views.

Russell-Colbath House (open daily summer, weekends Labor Day to Columbus Day), on the right (about 3 miles) is a fully restored 19th-century farmhouse illustrating the lives of early settlers, farmers and loggers. Behind it, we follow the Rail ‘n River Forest Trail, a half-mile level walk through the woods that tells more about early life here.

Beyond, at Rocky Gorge, the Swift River lives up to its name as it races over a series of water-worn pools in the granite. It’s a popular swimming place, but the water is icy cold from the crisp fall nights Another picnic area is at Lower Falls, about 2 miles farther on.

Opposite Blackberry Crossing campground the 120-foot Albany Covered Bridge, on the left, crosses the river. From this point, although it’s close to the road, the river is mostly hidden by brilliant foliage. It’s about 6 miles to the end of Route 112, at its intersection with Route 16 in Conway.

Practicalities

When planning a “leaf-peeping” trip to the White Mountains, consult http://foliage.visitnh.gov for a map of the state keyed to a calendar bar with the latest prognostication of where the color will be best at any date. Loon Mountain Club, right at the base of the Gondola, is a full-service resort with spacious rooms an excellent restaurant and a spa; reserve lodging early for the most options. For more information on the region, visit the White Mountains Attractions website, or call 800-346-3687. For information on Loon Mountain, visit www.loonmtn.com.