Road Trip: New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway

Follow our Boston editor on a road trip that feels like fall as she explores New England towns and mountains near the Kancamagus Highway

One of the joys of living in New England is that you don’t have to go very far to experience vastly different environments (mountains, check; forests, check; beaches, check), and that means it is the perfect place for… day trips! In my family, we love them.

Since Labor Day officially marked the unofficial first day of fall, and the air felt crisp at 68 degrees, my husband and I strapped our 14-month-old daughter, Violet, into her car seat at naptime and headed north up Route 93 from Boston to New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway (about a three-hour trip, one-way). Why not get a jump on leaf-peeping season, go for a hike and take a swim in a river while we’re at it, we thought? The Kancamagus is well known for its meandering route through the heart of White Mountain National Forest.

We drove west to east, and if you’re doing the same take Exit 32 for Route 112. As you enter the small town of Lincoln, grab lunch to go at White Mountain Bagel Company because as the businesses taper off and you pass Loon Mountain, the unspoiled, 34.5-mile Kancamagus Highway begins.

About five miles in, we pulled over to the right at a designated area for a picnic in the woods. The White Mountains have many fast-moving rivers and rocky riverbeds, and a branch of the Swift River runs past this spot. We put Violet in her swimsuit, and despite the frosty mountain water temperature, she had a blast splashing around in the small pools that collect along the river edge.

Rocky Gorge Scenic Area

After Violet’s feet turned blue, we got back in the car. Next stop for us: Rocky Gorge.

I should note that before hitting the Gorge, you could also stop at Sabbaday Falls, a popular waterfall at the halfway point of the Kancamagus. A short and easy hike on a gravel pathway (yes, handicapped- and stroller-accessible) will get you a breathtaking view of the 45-foot flume.

Along the entire scenic byway, there are overlooks for resting and also enjoying beautiful vistas of New Hampshire’s vast valleys, peaks and foliage.

Recreational and serious hikers rendezvous at Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. The place is full of great photo ops, featuring a little bit of everything: waterfalls, trails, thick forest cover and even a tucked-away pond. We spent about an hour at the Gorge, primarily trying to keep Violet from running off a rocky ledge into the river, but it was a great place for her to expend some energy after all that time in the car. The only thing you can’t do here is swim, but that’s OK because our next stop is Lower Falls.

Lower Falls along the Swift River is a favorite stop of ours, especially when the mercury is on the rise. This is one spot where swimming is encouraged. A number of factors make or break this experience for visitors: air temperature, water temperature, season and water level. Fall means perfect conditions for a family with a toddler: low water, warm air and lots of pools to play in. We even found a plastic shovel for Violet to dig in the gravel. Older kids and adults (like my husband) can venture into the depths of the river, or a little farther downstream to the falls where flumes rush over smooth rock to create a natural water park. Even in low water, swimming on this section of the Swift is not for the feint of heart, but for those who can muster the courage, it is incredibly fun.

About six miles later, you emerge from the Kancamagus in Conway. After dinner at Almost There Sports Tavern (but there are many more places heading south along Route 16 or in nearby North Conway), it’s bedtime for Violet, and that means it’s time for us to head back to Boston.

Falls Pond at the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area