The White Mountains cover about a quarter of the entire area of New Hampshire. As the most rugged and wild mountains in New England, they are a paradise for people looking for outdoor activities. The White Mountains are part of the northern Appalachian Mountains and consist of a National Forest, several state parks, dozens of lakes and rivers, more than twenty campgrounds and no less than 1,200 miles (1,900km) of hiking trails.
The White Mountain National Forest is without a doubt the greatest wilderness area in New Hampshire. Here you can bird-watch, ski, fish, hike, kayak, rock climb and much, much more. Even from a car the mountains are spectacular; there are more than forty mountain peaks reaching higher than 4,000 ft (1,200 m).
The 100-mile- (160-km-) long White Mountains Trail, a designated National Scenic Byway, loops through the White Mountains and runs past breathtaking scenery, covered bridges, waterfalls, lakes, small towns, historic sites and through three major mountain passes. We drove it in one day, but it is entirely possible to spend a week doing it and taking your time to explore and relax.
The White Mountains Trail begins in North Woodstock and runs north along Route 3 and I-93 towards Twin Mountain. From Twin Mountain it follows a southeasterly direction along Route 302 and Route 16 to Conway. In Conway the National Scenic Byway turns west onto Route 112 or the Kancamagus Highway until it reaches Lincoln and finally North Woodstock to complete the round trip.
We drove in from Vermont – in the west – and started our trip in North Woodstock, as described above. What follows next is an overview of the places that really shouldn’t be missed when visiting the White Mountains.
Woodstock is one of the gateways to the White Mountain National Forest. However, the main attraction here is Clark’s Trading Post. This small amusement park has steam train rides, antiques and trained bears. We didn’t go there though, and probably never will, but it is definitely an option if you’re a family with small kids. Woodstock is also an ideal place to stock up if you’re going camping or hiking. There are several stores – New Hampshire has tax-free shopping! – and an excellent selection of accommodations.
Franconia Notch State Park
After a short stretch on Route 3 the White Mountains Trail joins I-93 or Franconia Notch Parkway. Franconia Notch State Park lies between the tall peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia ranges. Here you can see some of the most spectacular natural attractions in the entire state.
The Flume Gorge is an absolute highlight. A fantastic boardwalk leads you through this narrow chasm of granite and waterfalls, cut out by ice and the Flume Brook.
Other highlights are the Aerial Tramway up to the summit of Cannon Mountain, Echo Lake, The Basin and several scenic views and numerous hiking trails. The Old Man of the Mountain, a rocky outcrop on a cliff that looking like a man’s profile, used to be a major tourist attraction, but unfortunately the forehead and nose broke off in 2003. However, you can still visit the Old Man of the Mountain Museum.
Bretton Woods is actually a tiny village in a valley near the Presidential Range – named after the mountain peaks bearing the names of former presidents – but has been the site of a major event in world history. This is where, in 1944, the United Nations held the Monetary and Financial Conference and established the International Monetary Fund and set the US dollar as the standard for financial transactions worldwide. This all happened in the massive Mount Washington Hotel and Resort, which is still very much there. You can visit this stunning hotel, walk around inside and have drink or meal in one of several restaurants and bars. Make sure to check out the views from the porch at the back.
From that porch you can see the majestic Mount Washington – if it’s not covered in clouds –, at 6,288 ft (1,917 m) the highest peak in the northeast of the United States. The mountain is infamous for having the absolute worst weather of any mountain in the world. The weather can change within minutes and the summit hold the record for the highest wind speed ever recorded on the planet, 230 mph (370 km/h). It is, however, possible to hike up to the summit and back down, but definitely make sure that you bring extra clothes and food. You can also drive to the top, but the recommended way of getting there is on the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
This railroad is one of the steepest tracks in the world and one of the oldest tourist attractions in the US. If it’s a clear day, this is something that really shouldn’t be skipped. The views from the top are absolutely spectacular.
Crawford Notch State Park
From Bretton Woods the drive continues south on Route 302 through Crawford Notch, a narrow pass flanked by the rocky walls of Willey and Webster Mountains. This area is well-known for its stunning views, lookout points, waterfalls and hiking.
You can also visit a historic site known as Willey Slide. In 1826, severe rainstorms caused a landslide in the mountains. Samuel Willey and his family heard the noise and ran out of their house. All seven were killed by rocks and debris that came crashing down. What makes this story so horrific is that the avalanche bypassed the house and left it standing. The Willey family’s house is still there and serves as a visitor center.
Crawford Notch State Park is a great spot for white-water rafting, fishing – there are several ponds and streams – and hiking. The Arethusa Falls are a short hike from the parking lot and are New Hampshire’s tallest waterfalls.
Once you are through Crawford Notch the road turns east to the town of Bartlett and then, still along Route 302, south towards Conway.
The Kancamagus Highway is a National Scenic Byway. The eastern part of Route 112, it runs in a westerly direction for about 34 miles (55 km) from Conway to Lincoln. Conway is a recommended place to stock up if you are planning on doing some hiking, camping or other outdoor activities. There are no facilities, except for campgrounds, for the entire length of ‘The Kanc’, but there is a plethora of shops, restaurants, recreation options and accommodation in Conway. A major attraction in North Conway is the Conway Scenic Railroad, which offers incredibly scenic rides to Conway, Bartlett or all the way through Crawford Notch.
The Kancamagus Highway (pronounced as kank-ah-MAW-gus) is definitely one of the most scenic routes in the White Mountains. It crosses the White Mountain National Forest and takes drivers, as well as cyclists, past breathtaking views, picturesque picnic spots, waterfalls, rivers, several hiking trails and a covered bridge. It ends in Lincoln, from where it is only a short drive to Woodstock to complete the White Mountains Trail loop.