Road Trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

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.

Franconia Notch

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.

road trip in the White Mountains

The fall colors are spectacular as you approach the Franconia Notch. Photo by Stillman Rogers

Also in North Woodstock, Woodstock Inn Brewery offers patio dining next to Fadden’s General Store, a combination country store and maple museum.

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.

road trip in the White Mountains

During your road trip in the White Mountains, be sure to stop by The Flume Gorge. Avalanche Falls is at the head of the gorge. Photo by Vkoulampet via Wikimedia

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.

road trip in the White Mountains

The Omni Mount Washington Resort offers a beautiful historic stay in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Photo by skeeze via Pixabay

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.

road trip in the White Mountains

During your road trip in the White Mountains, stop for a ride on the Cog Railway up Mount Washington. Photo by Stillman Rogers

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.

road trip in the White Mountains

During your road trip in the White Mountains, you can expect breathtaking views from the summit of Mt. Willard. Photo by usmc0491 via Pixabay

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.

road trip in the White Mountains

You'll discover many covered bridges on your road trip in the White Mountains, including the Swift River Bridge. Photo by Steppinstars via Pixabay

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.


road trip in the White Mountains

Sabbaday Falls, along the Kancamagus Highway in White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire. Photo by Appalachian Views


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.Interstate 93 leads north from Boston, ideal for a road trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This beautiful region offers pristine forests, rock-capped mountains, hiking, and waterfalls. This is an ideal summer road trip or a great road trip to see the fall colors in New England.

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Written by Barbara Rogers

Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, along with her writer/photographer husband, is co-author of seven guidebooks to Italy, three to Spain and several others covering European cities, Atlantic Canada, and New England. She writes for Global Traveler Magazine, where she has also served as News Editor, and for several other magazines and websites. Her work reflects her love of finding the hidden corners and secret places that escape more traditional travel guides. Barbara travels in the firm belief that experiencing other cultures is the best way to change our perspective and develop respect for other traditions and ways of life. When she is not writing, she is likely to be found searching for prehistoric sites in Portugal or discovering new flavors for her blog, Worldbite.

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