When it comes to leaf peeping, not many places rate higher than New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway, running across the southern side of the White Mountains National Forest.
When the mountains are draped in their fall finery, the scenery is truly stunning! And “The Kanc,” as locals call it, carries you up and over the Kancamagus Pass, showing you brilliant colors, waterfalls, covered bridges, historic homes, and towering granite walls along the way. It truly is one of the most beautiful drives in America.
Most guides to the White Mountains follow The Kanc from Interstate 93 in Lincoln to Conway, 36 miles to the east. But the highway doesn’t end (or start) in Lincoln, and neither does the fall festival of color. So we took the road west, then north, then south…well, we went all over the place on what we call the Western Whites Loop. Only…technically, not a loop. More like a sideways P. And we started in the east. (You can see our map here.)
Go West, Young Man
As mentioned in the introduction to The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip, our base camp was in North Conway, where our mountain leaf-peeping highways converge. That put us a few miles north of the Kanc, but also gave us our first iconic sight of the day: The Swift River Covered Bridge over the Saco River. Every app we used said to follow US 302, but we took the East Side Road in Conway to see this beauty, built in 1870 and still much prettier than the steel and concrete bridge down the road. Soon after, we turned onto Route 112, THE road, the Kancamagus Highway. We had literally travelled 2,000 miles just to be here.
Armed with a list of sights not to miss, and much better weather than we experienced the day before, we sallied forth. It didn’t take long to realize that not everything on our list had a sign along the road, and not everything along the road was on our list. Just a few miles in, and our list went out the window. (Figuratively; littering is bad, mmmmkay?) Though older and, in some spots, narrower than the roads along our Notch Loop drive, there were ample opportunities to get out and gawk at the nature all around. There are many spots not far from Conway where the Swift River runs close to the road, fringed by fall foliage and just begging you to take its picture. Though hard, it pays to remember that this is a marathon with much to see up ahead.
Covered Bridges, Rivers & Falls
Our first scheduled stop was another covered bridge. The Albany Covered Bridge recalls a time when this area was agricultural and remote. It took homesteaders all day to reach Conway, but the covered bridge built in 1850 made it possible for the stage coach to reach the farms and families around Albany. It also made it possible for those families to go elsewhere; today the bridge remains but historic Albany does not.
The next stop – also scheduled – is the first in a series of water features, and it’s a doozy. Lower Falls is the most accessible of the major waterfalls on The Kank, being right off of the road with a large parking area, picnic areas, and facilities. But mostly, it has water. Lots of water and huge rocks. Boulders, really, strewn throughout the riverbed and covered with people taking pictures of the beautiful falls, the stunning fall leaves, and the other people. If you’re not up to scrambling over rocks for the perfect selfie, there’s a boardwalk that affords fantastic views of the falls.
Further on, Rocky Gorge Scenic Area also has a parking area with a beautiful river scene, but a little hiking pays off with a river gorge that will make you WOW!-out-load. Hike a bit further, across the footbridge over the Swift, and you’ll find the serene Falls Pond.
Thomas Colbath’s Famous Last Words: I’ll be right back…
Actually, those weren’t his final words, but they were the last words his wife Ruth heard from him. One day in 1891, Thomas said he’d be back “in a little while,” and left their tiny house in equally tiny Passaconaway. Ruth waited for him to return right up to her death in 1930, but never saw him again. We learned about the Russell and Colbath families, heard Thomas’ story, toured their preserved home, and learned about homesteading at the Russell Colbath Historic Site. It’s the last pioneer homestead in New Hampshire, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. If needed, the facilities here include running water; not too common at Forest Service facilities.
There’s another short hike to beautiful Sabbaday Falls, the third in a string of gorgeous, easily accessible falls along this section of The Kank. The 40-foot cascade is flanked by stairs and a footbridge less than a half-mile from the parking area. Before we get to the final water feature, the Sugar Hill Scenic View beckons from across the highway. This pull off was one of the most crowded of our trip, and it’s easy to see why: Very nearly at the top of the pass, the viewpoint looks out over mountains ablaze in fall colors. Two smaller overlooks just ahead offer mountain vistas from either side of the 2,855-foot Kancamagus Pass. We’ve covered 27 miles and climbed almost 2,400 feet. (Knowing this, we were amazed to see many people bicycling over this pass. Clearly, they were crazy people.)
One reason we recommend starting on the Kancamagus Highway in Conway is this string of Don’t Miss sights in a relatively short distance. Hitting them early helps avoid some of the crowds and won’t have you rushing to squeeze them in at the end of the day.
Go West(er) Young Man!
When you get to the town of Lincoln, most guides suggest you head north on Interstate 93 or neighboring US 3 to Franconia Notch State Park, which is the traditional White Mountains Loop. Instead, we kept heading west on Route 112. The scenery continued to be just as breathtaking as the first part of the road with granite cliffs, purple mountains, and fall finery to keep you Wowing out loud, before descending out of the National Forest.
In the interest of time, we skipped Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves, but did pull over for beautiful Beaver Pond, a small man-made lake just off the road. The magic of still water and fiery foliage never fails to impress! Once back in the car, we followed the winding Kancamagus Highway to the junction with Route 116. Here you have a decision to make. Nothing major, just whether you want to see one adorable New England town with its own one-of-a-kind attraction or the other.
North lies Sugar Hill and the famous Sugar Hill Sampler. Housed in a 200 year old barn, the museum and gift shop draws crowds with its mix of Americana, local history, and local crafts and foods for sale. Nearby is Harman’s Cheese & Country Store, with free samples of their aged cheddar, plus the one souvenir you must take home: New Hampshire Maple Syrup.
West on Route 112 eventually leads to the village of Bath. We chose this route to see the oldest continuously running general store in America, the Brick Store. We got so much more, though! Next door is At the Hop, every rock and roller’s dream den-slash-ice cream counter, connected to a fine art gallery with the artist in residence. (Quirky? Yes, and we loved it!) You can pick up Pure Maple Syrup at the Brick Store, but you’ll also want to indulge in something from the fudge case. Trust us, this is THE BEST fudge ever. EVER! Maple Walnut, Apple Pie, Pumpkin Pie… it was all Capital D-licious.
Just outside is the Bath Covered Bridge, built in 1832 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Mists create a beautiful scene as they rise towards the bridge from the falls below. The true fan of covered bridges would drive a few miles back down US 302 to the Bath-Haverhill Covered Bridge, the oldest in New Hampshire (built in 1829). Going the other way (north) gives you another shot at Sugar Hill (so you can have the best of both worlds), or takes you to Littleton, where you’ll find what Fodor’s Travel and Travel + Leisure have called one of America’s Best Main Streets.
A Word of Warning
In most places, fall is considered shoulder season. Not in New Hampshire! The few weeks of Leaf Peeping Season is a high water mark in the White Mountains as tourists float like flotsam into the larger towns and attractions. Littleton is one of those towns, as are Lincoln and Conway. Add fall fairs and a holiday weekend like Columbus Day and you’ve got a traffic jam. On a two lane road. Just the fun, relaxing getaway you were hoping for. (Fudge from the Brick Store makes things MUCH more enjoyable.)
That said, Littleton hits the Quaint Button hard, with a covered footbridge on Main Street, a statue of Polyanna at the library (author Eleanor Porter lived here), historical neoclassical buildings, and the world’s longest candy counter at Chutters. As we consider a return to the White Mountains, Littleton is definitely in the running for where we’d like to stay. On this trip, though, we were hunting for fall colors; we decided to work our way through traffic and keep motoring on.
We rejoined the traditional White Mountains Loop on Interstate 93 in Littleton, which took us past Franconia (home of the Robert Frost Place). The stunning scenery as the Interstate enters Franconia Notch State Park and squeezes through the pass is the most dramatic since leaving The Kanc. There are two attractions in the park that may be worth your time for maximum fall foliage facetime. The first is the Cannon Mountain ski area overlooking Echo Lake, where the 80-passenger Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway whisks you over the treeline to the summit for beautiful walking trails and a view over four states plus Canada (weather permitting)!
South to The End
Further south is the Flume Gorge (which was beyond packed during our visit), possibly the most dramatic waterfalls in the entire forest. There is an entrance fee and a short hike (or a shuttle if you prefer) which takes you to the 800-foot natural gorge cut into steep Conway granite walls by Flume Brook . TIP: Plan your visit in the early afternoon. It takes at least an hour to see the falls and hike back, and it starts getting dark early in the fall, so they stop selling tickets by 5pm. Not knowing this, we arrived too late for the hike, but we did enjoy the gift shop and cafeteria at the visitors’ center.
For the most part, our tour ends at Flume Gorge. If you still have time for adventure, take the Daniel Webster Highway (Route 3) to visit theme parks, water parks, and ski areas on your way back to Lincoln. If this is the end of your White Mountains visit, Interstate 93 is conveniently close. In our case, the Kancamagus Highway took us back to Conway.
It wasn’t quite a loop, but the 144 mile route took us over the mountains and through the woods, into the heart of leaf peeping territory. We made this drive on the second day of The Best New England Leaf Peeping Fall Road Trip. It made for a long but wonderful weekend, and we can’t wait to do it again! If you take – or have taken – these roads, tell us about your experience with a comment.
Hey, look! It’s our first video using a new app called VivaVideo. We are no pros, to be sure, so we’d love to hear what you think about it, and if you have other video apps to recommend. Thanks!
Back to Where to Go, When to Go, and Where to Stay: The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip
Back to the most breathtaking vistas of our road trip on The Notch Loop
See more Fall Foliage in The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip Gallery!
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