If there is one quintessential fall road trip, it’s a leaf-peeping drive in (or through) New England. There are several excellent options: Vermont’s Green Mountains, the Mohawk Trail and Massachusetts’ Berkshires, and the Connecticut River Valley all made our short list. In the end, we chose to follow advice received from our favorite travel gal, Samantha Brown: New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (We suspect there was a bit of home state bias, but we’re okay with that.)
New Hampshire is blessed with more than a thousand square miles of natural beauty in the White Mountains National Forest. The forest itself is blessed with two of America’s Byways: the White Mountains Trail and The Kancamagus Scenic Byway. During the fall, these mountains are ablaze in color, and the roads and trails that traverse them offer front row seats for Mother Nature’s arboreal fireworks – making this one of America’s premiere leaf-peeping destinations. Along the way, you also see quaint mountain towns, beautiful streams and waterfalls, iconic covered bridges, and maybe even a moose! (No such luck for us. We saw many Moose Crossing signs, but apparently nobody told the moose where to cross.)
Where to Go
Most maps and web sites highlight the White Mountains Trail, a scenic 100-mile loop that concentrates on the foliage and attractions of Franconia Notch, Crawford Notch, the Mount Washington Valley, and the Kancamagus Highway (locally referred to as The Kanc). Don’t let the distance fool you into thinking this is an easy afternoon’s drive though! While the driving is easy, there is much to see and do. It’s very easy to spend a whole day and only cover half the loop.
Our plan was a little more ambitious. We expanded the loop to include Pinkham Notch to the east, and the small towns on the western slope just outside of the National Forest. We broke it into two sections to cover in two days: A 105-mile eastern loop, and a 144-mile western itinerary (not exactly a loop). Even at that pace, we wouldn’t have time for the tempting attractions, such as the Mount Washington Cog Railroad or the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. This was by design, knowing we’d want to come back for more! There are several amusement parks and family attractions also, which were also off the table for this trip. In this case, our destination really was the journey and the roadside scenery along the way. In two posts, we’ll explore our White Mountains Road Trip:
- The Notch Loop: Pinkham Notch and Crawford Notch, featuring the stunning Silver Cascade, Saco Lake, Mount Washington, and the Appalachian Trail.
- The Western Whites: Franconia Notch & The Kanc, including the famous Kancamagus Highway, Franconia Notch State Park, and the oldest general store in America.
Where to Stay
We made the village of North Conway our base camp for the long weekend. Although the decision was driven mostly by availability (we chose a crowded holiday weekend), it turned out to be a good one. The two American Byways meet in Conway, in the southeastern corner of the forest. It’s part of the Mount Washington Valley, which has plenty of charming shops, restaurants, and lodging options. The towns of Lincoln and North Woodstock are about an hour west, right on Interstate 93, near many of the area’s larger attractions. Quaint Littleton is further north, outside of the forest but also convenient to the major roads through the mountains. If you plan on following our expanded route, Conway is the area you’ll want to stay in.
There are few national chain hotels or restaurants here, so it’s a great opportunity to enjoy local establishments. There are many small hotels and Bed & Breakfasts, along with some larger, independent resort hotels. Views from the aptly named Red Jacket Mountain View Resort are spectacular, while the boutique Stonehurst Manor offers Travel & Leisure-recommended luxury, and the historic 1785 Inn boasts one of the world’s best views, according to Yankee Magazine’s Best of New England. During the fall and winter, book far ahead as they can fill up fast; often the best rooms are gone a year in advance!
There is a wide range of dining options as well, from fast food to fine dining. Starbucks fans might be disappointed, as there is only one location, but Dunkin’ Donuts devotees will be delighted – they are almost literally everywhere. Of the restaurants we visited in North Conway, our favorites are the Stairway Café (serving breakfast and lunch) and mostly-New England chain Sea Dog Brewing Company. Of particular note at the Stairway Café were the wild game sausages and awesome service, but beware: the restaurant is upstairs (hence the name) and extremely small. Sea Dog’s clam chowder was the best of our entire trip, and their wheat Sea Dog Pumpkin Ale was delightful. (It’s fall – Pumpkin Beer is required!)
White Mountains Attractions and Visit New Hampshire put out a very useful Travel Guide and Travel Map, available at merchants and visitors centers all around the area. Be sure to also check the Foliage Tracker at visitnh.gov.
When to Go
Leaf-peeping is all about Mother Nature working her magic to make green leaves turn delicious shades of yellow, orange, and red. The catalyst is just the right combination of cooler temperatures, light, and water supply. Then Bang! The fireworks ignite and White Mountains look more like the Rainbow Mountains. This magic doesn’t follow a set schedule, but you can generally count on some stunning scenery across the northern states starting in late September and peaking around mid-October, with higher elevations peaking earlier than warmer, lower regions.
Most guides and locals will tell you that peak color is around the second weekend in October, so expect it to be busy. Then, double your expectation, because that’s often Columbus Day Weekend. While it may be a sleepy, overlooked holiday in some parts of the country, New Englanders capitalize on the last hurrah of warmer weather. They like getting out for county fairs, craft shows, picnics, one last hike before winter, and maybe even a drive through the mountains looking at foliage. It’s crowded, is what I’m saying.
How to Get There
If you need (or want) to fly in for this road trip, you have a few airport options. The closest large airport is in Portland, Maine, but there are others in Manchester (most carriers) and Portsmouth (Allegiant Airlines), NH. We chose to fly into Boston Logan Airport which is about three hours away but can be much less expensive. Unfortunately, we arrived just in time for rush hour, so it took almost as long to get out of Boston as it took to get to the White Mountains. We drove inland along Interstate 93, as far as New Hampton, then east to picturesque Meredith on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. State roads took us the rest of the way to Conway. On the way back to Boston, we left Conway on Route 16, which gradually grew larger and larger, until it eventually merged with Interstate 95 outside of Portsmouth. In all, we spent $3.95 on tolls leaving Boston, and about $3 in tolls in New Hampshire on the way back.
Next: The most breathtaking vistas of our road trip on The Notch Loop
Skip to: Taking it farther on the famous Kancamagus Highway in The Western Whites
See more Fall Foliage in Best New England Leaf-Peeping Fall Road Trip Gallery!
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