Interstate 93 leads north from Boston through the center of New Hampshire, delivering you into the heart of the White Mountains. It makes a handy start for a road trip through this beautiful region of pristine forests, rock-capped mountains, hiking trails, waterfalls, and fresh mountain air.
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Each summer, breathtaking mountain vistas draw vacationers. Fall brings visitors in for some of the country's most astounding colors. While winter welcomes skiers and those who want to get out and explore in the winter wonderland. Here are our tips for a road trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
The Lure of the White Mountains
The White Mountains have lured vacationers and outdoor enthusiasts since the early 1800s when tourism began in a landslide—literally. The dry summer of 1826 ended in torrential rains that triggered an avalanche in Crawford Notch, killing the entire Willey family, whose home sat at the foot of the steep mountainside. The disaster caused a national sensation; newspaper accounts of the landslide and artists’ depictions of the mountains and their scenic splendor brought curiosity seekers to see the avalanche site.
Almost overnight the White Mountains became a popular tourist destination, which led to the golden era of the White Mountain grand hotels, where entire families came to escape un-airconditioned cities. You will still see a few of these grand hotels in your travels there.
As you drive north on I-93, your first view of the mountains is the panorama of Franconia Notch opening up before you. I-93 continues into Franconia Notch, but exit at North Woodstock to stop at the White Mountains Visitors Center on Route 112. Here you’ll find a relief map of the mountains and current information on attractions.
Stay on Route 3, heading north. Before Route 3 merges back into I-93, you enter Franconia Notch State Park and come to one of the region’s top natural attractions, The Flume Gorge. A woodland trail leads past giant glacial boulders to an 800-foot-long chasm, which you can climb through on a wooden walkway. Hike farther to a miniature covered bridge above Liberty Falls.
After rejoining I-93 on the nation’s only stretch of two-lane interstate—a special exception to protect the natural environment of this mountain pass—stop at The Basin. This giant pot-hole in the granite ledge was carved by a waterfall of melting glacier. Signboards explain about the glaciers that once covered the White Mountains. A short trail leads to a long cascade, whose gentle ledges are a perfect picnic spot.
North of the Notches
Leave 1-93 at Exit 43C, stopping for a swim at Echo Lake or continuing into the town of Franconia to find The Frost Place, summer home of the poet Robert Frost. Route 142 takes you over a steep hill to Bethlehem. Stretching along a high ridge, this pollen-free town was a popular resort for those with hay fever. Take along some Robert Frost poetry to help complete the mood.
The grand hotels that once lined its main street are gone—only the Maplewood’s stone casino remains—but travelers can get a sense of that golden era at Adair Country Inn, formerly a private summer estate and now a gracious inn surrounded by landscaped gardens. Those concerned about indoor dining can reserve a table on the terrace overlooking the flower beds.
In the center of Bethlehem, you can find art and high-quality handmade jewelry, pottery, fabric arts, and woodenware in the Gallery at WREN, a women’s craft cooperative.
Exploring Mount Washington
Continue east on Route 302, for your first views of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northern Appalachians. As you approach it you’ll see one of the last of the grand hotels, the majestic Omni Mount Washington Resort, built to look like an ocean liner, encircled by wide porches where guests could promenade.
You’ll also see the tracks for the Mt. Washington Cog Railway ascending its steep slopes. A reservation is required to ride to the top, but it’s well worth a detour on a clear day when you can indeed see forever.
For more than a century this train has carried passengers to Mt Washington’s summit. At one point it crosses a 25-foot-high trestle at a 37-degree gradient that leaves the front of the car 14 feet higher than the back.
Explore Crawford Notch on Your Road Trip in the White Mountains
As Route 302 approaches Crawford Notch, opposite placid Saco Lake, is a Victorian railway station. It is the terminus for the Conway Scenic Railroad, whose other station you’ll see later. Looking down on these is the granite Elephant’s Head. You can climb Elephant's Head on a trail from the lake. For even better views into Crawford Notch, climb Mt. Willard, opposite, on an old bridle path.
But the drive has more than views. Not long after leaving Conway, you’ll pass the Swift River Covered Bridge on the right, spanning the river that you follow for the next several miles.
At Lower Falls, a popular swimming hole, it slides over water-smoothed ledges, and upstream becomes even swifter at Upper Falls, known as Rocky Gorge as it squeezes between 20-foot rock walls.
Beyond, on your left, is the trailhead for a half-mile stroll to Sabbaday Falls. Sabbady is a three-stage waterfall that makes a right-angle turn before landing in a dark pool.
The Russell-Colbath House, on the right, is a fully restored 19th-century farmhouse. This house is all that’s left of the logging town of Passaconaway. Today, it is a museum of early rural life.
More logging history is revealed at the picnic pavilion. The pavilion sits at the viewpoint just before reaching the pass’s 2,890-foot summit. As the road begins to drop—more precipitously on this side—another viewpoint reveals an entirely different set of mountains to the west. A series of hairpin curves lead down into the valley, where the Loon Mountain ski area has year-round activities.
One of these is the gondola. It climbs to another set of views and one of the White Mountains’ least-known geologic wonders. Walkways carry visitors through the passageways and caves formed by a tumble of house-sized boulders that were dropped here by retreating glaciers.
Completing the Circle
Back at the base, a short drive through the town of Lincoln leads to I-93. This completes what my parents always called “driving the circle”. You're sure to find that your road trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is just what you need to get out and experience pristine forests, rock-capped mountains, hiking trails, waterfalls, and fresh mountain air. Be sure to find more great road trips across the USA on Wander.