As mentioned in our last post, The Best White Mountains Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip, we decided to DIY things and turn the traditional leaf-peeping scenic loop into a two-part trip. We named this first part The Notch Loop, because it passes through two passes: Pinkham Notch and Crawford Notch, climbing (and then dropping) about 1500 feet through dense forest, granite mountains, and cascading waterfalls. Some of the most dramatic scenery of our road trip would come on this venture up the eastern side of the forest, and back down the White Mountains Highway.
Know Before You Go
This is a super scenic drive, and you will want to pull over and pull out the camera roughly every 20 feet. (We jest. Slightly.) One reason this is The Best road trip is the road itself: it’s made with shutterbugs – and safety – in mind. There are extra-wide shoulders and many places to pull over. Drivers are asked take advantage of this and pull out of traffic instead of stopping on the road. Trail heads, picnic areas, and campgrounds have parking as well.
If you do park in the National Forest, you will need a Recreation Pass: A day pass is $3, and a $5 pass is good for up to a week. Passes are available at Forest Service information centers, the White Mountains Visitors Center, the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch, and some area businesses. Also, you can buy a day pass on the honor system at some Forest Service facilities. (Parking is free if you display your National Park Service America the Beautiful Pass, AccessPass, or Senior Pass.)
Starting Out with a Wow!
Our starting point is the Intervale Scenic Overlook on US 302/Route 16, which runs right through North Conway. There is an outpost of the White Mountains Visitor Center here, but the main attraction is an iconic view of Mount Washington and the Saco River valley in their stunning fall foliage. Unfortunately, both were shrouded in clouds and mist on our visit, but the scene was still beautiful. From here, we ventured north, up the Mount Washington Valley.
Just past the Story Land amusement park, Route 16 veers away from US 302 and goes north to Jackson, a quaint mountain village with great dining and lodging options. If you’re looking for a romantic or upscale mountain getaway, Jackson is worth considering. And if you’re not looking carefully, you may miss Route 16A taking off on the right. Make that turn to see the Jackson Honeymoon Covered Bridge, built over the Ellis River in 1876. The folks at Flossie’s General Store (just after the bridge) explained that the bridge was built by a local dairy farmer so his son could visit his bride to be. Hence the name or, at very least, a good story.
The Journey through Pinkham Notch
About 10 miles past Jackson, you hit the crest of Pinkham Notch with astounding views and an extra wide section of road to pull off and snap some pictures. On the east is the Carter Dome and Maine, with Mounts Washington and Adams to the west. The view is phenomenal, even in the rain. A little further on, the Glen Ellis Falls is a short (less than half-mile) hike from the marked parking area and, in better weather, we’d suggest that for great foliage and waterfall views.
Instead, our next stop was the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. This is where the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail crosses Route 16, with breathtaking views in every direction. To the west is 6288-foot Mount Washington and the Presidential Mountain Range. Eastward, the Appalachian Trail climbs up Wildcat Mountain. The visitor’s center is run by friendly and knowledgeable AMC volunteers, and has a cafeteria, restrooms, and a camp store with maps, books, gear, souvenirs, and plenty of information.
Back on the road – briefly – the Wildcat Mountain ski area is just ahead, where the first ski gondola in the U.S. opened in 1958. It’s open year round for a great fly-over of the fall foliage and a sensational view of Mount Washington. If you’d prefer the view from the highest peak in New England, the Mount Washington Auto Road is just north of Wildcat Mountain. (The Auto Road is a private road with an admission charge. Guided tours are available.)
Dolly Copp, Bethlehem, and Eight Presidents
Another area for great leaf-peeping photos is the Dolly Copp picnic and camp grounds where the Peabody River babbles alongside a meadow surrounded by the colors of autumn. This was one of the best stops on our road trip, both for fall color and easy access (despite the rain). Shortly after, Route 16 deposits you in Gorham, with its beautiful and Town Hall, train station and library being exactly what you’d expect from a New England village. All are clustered near Gorham Common, the city park where we turned onto US 2, which skirts the northern edge of the forest. If you’re navigating along with us, we followed the forest boundary onto Route 115, until it rejoined US 302.
A quick detour took us to Bethlehem. The tiny town was a vacation resort playground in the 19th century, but today is most notable as (according to signs in the city) the Most Poetic and the Highest Town in New Hampshire. While the former can’t be confirmed, and we know it’s no longer the highest, it is where poet Robert Frost first lived in New Hampshire in 1907.
After backtracking a bit, we ventured southward on the White Mountain Highway (US 302), and were rewarded with some of the most beautiful views of the day. En route is the Mount Washington Cog Railway, another route to the summit of Mount Washington, and the only cog railroad east of the Rocky Mountains. You’ll also pass Fabyan Station; while cute, it’s little more than a restaurant at the northern end of the Conway Scenic Railroad.
As the highway wound beneath the Presidential Range, we were treated to stunning fall color and beautiful mountain views. A pull-off opposite the impressive Omni Mt. Washington Resort offers a fantastic view of the mountains and resort, and conveniently points out where each president’s peak is: Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and both Adams. As if that view was not impressive enough, the next five miles would stand out among the most breathtaking of the whole road trip.
Crawford Notch Steals the Show
Just past the AMC Highland Center is one of the most iconic autumn scenes: A still lake with a colorful fringe of forest coming to the water’s edge, a mountain ridge providing the perfect background. This is Saco Lake, headwater of the Saco River, which flows 136 miles to the Atlantic Ocean at Saco Bay. Interestingly, Saco comes from an Indian word meaning, “land where the river comes out.” There is an easy, mile-long hiking trail around the small lake.
Entering Crawford Notch State Park, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road! These views are the reason we suggest driving this section southward. Squeezing through the narrow pass – along with the river and railroad, between rugged granite walls – will leave you speechless…in a good way. Once through, you will want to pull into the parking area at Silver Cascade, where a sliver of water tumbles down a few hundred feet of cascading falls and crosses under the highway. This waterfall is one of the most accessible and stunning in the area, garnering a 5 out of 5 rating by NewEnglandWaterfalls.com.
Completing the Notch Loop
From here, the highway follows the Saco River down the mountain towards Bartlett and the Attitash ski area. Though pretty, this final stretch is largely unremarkable and you will soon be back in North Conway to complete the loop. If time allows, though, you could consider:
- Bear Mountain Road, between US 302 and the Kancamagus Highway, goes over Bear Mountain and offers tremendous views. The Kanc will take you back to North Conway.
- West Side Road between Bartlett and North Conway passes close to Diana’s Bath waterfalls, and Cathedral Ledge. A bit of easy hiking is involved to get to the waterfalls.
A little more than 100 miles of oohs and aahs made for a full day, especially in the rain. Better weather would have gotten us out of the car and onto the trail more, making the day even longer, so we recommend at least six to eight hours to really enjoy this part of The Best White Mountains Leaf-Peeping Road Trip.
Next: Beautiful rivers, colorful trees, and fantastic fudge in The Western Whites
Back: Where to Go, When to Go, and Where to Stay in The Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip
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