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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Kancamagus Highway, NH - New England's Best Fall Foliage Drive

If there is a New England fall foliage drive to slay them all, this is it.  

New England is famous for its fall foliage and this drive is probably the most famous within the border of these 6 states.  It's often rated New England's Best Scenic Drive and has made its way onto the Travel Channel.  It's one of New Hampshire's National Scenic Byways, running east to west through the White Mountains, climbing to 3,000' at the summit of Mount Kancamagus.  It's 34.5 miles of "basic bitch", foliage obsessed, bean boots and crunchy leaves New England nostalgic heaven. 

Kancamagus Highway (Route 112), pronounced "kank-ah-MAU-gus" and lovingly referred to as "The Kanc" is the crème de la crème of foliage drives.  It is a way you can see stunning fall foliage in the Whites of New Hampshire without having to lace up your hiking boots.  

Route 112, Kancamagus Highway

Of course, there are a ton of hiking options along these 34.5 miles and you can claim a few of New Hampshire's 48ers right here from the Kanc (the famous Pemi-Loop, the Hancocks, Tripyramids, Osceola and Moats can all be accessed off the Kanc). Or, you can throw on your comfy shoes and drive along, stopping along various overlooks and parking areas to snap photos of New Hampshire's most impressive show: Autumn.  Whether you pack an overnight pack or a picnic, the answer to your fall foliage needs is Kancamagus Highway. 

The drive is popular in the summer for its swimming holes, campgrounds and picnic areas -  but it's the fall season that drives the droves to northern New Hampshire.   The leaves on the Kancamagus Highway typically start to change color around the middle of September, with the peak fall foliage lasting the first two weeks of October.  It is during this peak foliage season that more than 4,000 vehicles traverse at least a portion of this famous route. So yeah, you won't be alone. 

Foliage along the Kanc

We drove the Kanc on a rainy day, limiting some of our vistas (especially at the higher altitudes) that were clouded in.  But honestly, don't let the forecast deter you.  Although the clouds blocked some views, it just drizzled and we spent plenty of time outside.  Embrace that if your trip calles for rain, the Kanc will be a little less busy and understand that you will still see amazing foliage along the roads and at the overlooks.  You can enjoy walking along the Swift River, seeing covered bridges, stopping at picnic areas, and journey past historic homes.  The rain just blocked in a few vistas, everything else was just lovely in the drizzle.  Peak foliage in New Hampshire does not last long (two weeks?) so if the forecast says rain, pack your raincoat, lace up your bean boots and head to the Kanc.  

Kancamagus Highway Information Sign 

H i s t o r y - T h e  N a m e
Many of the Mountains in the Whites earned their names from some of New Hampshire's most legendary Indians.

Passaconaway (Child of the Bear) was a peace-loving chief who, in 1627, united over 17 Indian tribes of Central New England into the Penacook Confederacy and ruled until his death in 1669.  The former village in which the Kancamagus passes through was named in his honor, Passaconaway.  

Kancamagus (The Fearless One), grandson of Passaconaway, became third and final Sagamon of the Penacook Confederacy and tried to keep peace between the Indians and European pioneers.  He made the decision in 1691 to move north into upper New Hampshire (what is now Quebec, Canada).

The Village of Passaconaway, 12 miles from Conway, was first settled by Europeans around 1790. The Russell Colbath House (in former Passaconaway, along the Kancamagus Highway) was built in the early 1800's and is now used as a Forest Service Historic Site and Information Center.  The village survived by farming, taking in summer boarders, and logging, which was at its peak around 1900. 

The entrance to the Kanc in Conway

H i s t o r y - T h e  H i g h w a y 
A road to Passaconaway was completed in 1837 and 100 years later, extended west from Passaconaway and east from Lincoln.   Much of the work of complete the highway was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  The CCC was a voluntary public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men. Work continued on the road and was open to thru traffic in 1959.  

S e a s o n s
Open year-round pending weather.  It is popular in the summer for its camping, picnic areas, and swimming holes and in the fall for leaf-peeping.  Check out this link to see what the foliage status is before you go. 

Fee envelope for parking along the Kanc

F e e s  a n d  F a c i l i t i e s 
Driving the Kanc straight through without stops is free (why would you do that?) but if you park anywhere, a permit is required.  And let's be honest, $5 is fair for the upkeep and maintenance required for this beautiful road in this National Forest.  A $5 day pass fee is payable at parking areas and trailheads along the Kancamagus Highway.  If you frequent the Whites, a White Mountain National Forest annual pass is available for $30.  The image above is an example of the permit slip you can find at any of the parking areas.  Fill out the stub, insert cash, and hang the tag on your rearview mirror. 

There are bathrooms and potable water at most of the overlooks and parking areas along the highway.  There is no gas, restaurants, or anything like that along the drive.  Get gas and snacks in Lincoln or Conway.  

Link to the map I scanned available at the Welcome Center 

I n f o r m a t i o n  C e n t e r
You can pick up a map at the Saco Ranger Station (west of Conway).  The White Mountains Visitor Center is located on the west end just beyond Lincoln.  I also scanned a copy of the map I picked up at the end of our drive.  Having a map is very helpful for knowing when each stop is coming up.  Or, you can do as we did, forget to grab a map, drive past the site and try to find a place to turn around.   

Swift River 

W h e r e  t o  S t a r t
Many people drive the Kanc East to West, starting in Conway and ending in Lincoln.  However, we had plans to start in Lincoln, play a round of mini-golf (yep, we sure did), stop at a few touristy places in Lincoln and then head across the Kanc.  We had hiked Mount Tecumseh from Waterville Valley in the morning and didn't start our drive until about 2pm.  This way, we ended in Conway and continued south to have dinner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  

H i g h l i g h t s 
Highlights of the Kanc are well, the highway itself (winding through the mountains banked by changing leaves and vistas), scenic overlooks, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and historic sites.  The highlights we stopped at our in Bold and are featured heading from East to West, Lincoln to Conway.  

1.  Loon Mountain - well-known ski area in the winter.  Worth a stop to walk around and see the fall colors.  

Posing in front of the Pemigewasset River at Lincoln Woods 

2.  Lincoln Woods Welcome Center and Pemigewasset River - large parking area and trailhead to the famous Pemi Loop (or Semi-Pemi loop if you are me!).  There is a beautiful bridge crossing the river just beyond the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. 

3.  Otter Rocks Picnic Area - picnic area and swimming spot 

Hancock Overlook 

4.  Hancock Overlook and Pavilion - overlook of the mountains (on a clear day) and a pavilion with infographics. 

5.  Pemigewasset Overlook - overlook with views and a pavilion 

6.  C.L. Graham Wangan Overlook - overlook of the Swift River watershed 

Lily Pond

7.  Lily Pond - gravel turnoff and a small path to this little scenic pond along the Kanc.

8.  Sugar Hill Overlook - view of the Swift River valley and mountains 

Crossing the Swift River at the Sabbaday Falls Area 

9.  Sabbaday Falls / Swift River - Access to the Swift River and picnic area, trails to the famous/well-frequented Sabbaday Falls (0.7- miles round trip).  One of the most popular waterfalls in NH and busiest stops along the Kanc. 

10.  Russel-Colbath Historic Site (Rail and River Trail) - Timber frame barn and a 1/2 mile loop on the Rail and River Trail, walking through the woods and along the marsh.  The Russell-Colbath House (not pictured) was built in 1832 and is the only original structure left from the town of Passaconaway.

Swift River at Rocky Gorge Scenic Area 

11.  Rocky Gorge Scenic Area - Beautiful area where you can walk over the bridge, or better yet, down the river under the bridge.  Paved walkway along the river and great views. 

Overlook at Lower Falls Scenic Area 

12.  Lower Falls Scenic Area - Large parking area with boardwalks, swimming areas in the summer, and a little overlook.  Great for photos and to walk around. 

13.  Albany Covered Bridge - Famous covered bridge along the Kanc. 

14.  Dugway Picnic Area - Day use and picnic area 

Trails off the Kancamagus Highway

C a m p i n g  a l o n g  t h e  K a n c 
There are 6 White Mountain National Forest campgrounds that can be found right on the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. All the campgrounds offer bathrooms, drinking water, a fire pit/ fireplace, picnic tables and parking.  Campgrounds along with the Kanc range from $20-$24/night (includes one vehicle, $5.00 extra for another vehicle) with a 2 vehicle max.  You will need cash or a check to deposit into a self-pay station any one of the campgrounds.  Pets are allowed on leashes and Kancamagus campgrounds are open from mid-May through mid-October (weather permitting). Some campgrounds may be open for winter camping. Contact the Saco Ranger District (603-447-5448) for winter camping availability. * Campgrounds are all first come first served except for Covered Bridge Campground which allows reservations. ** Coin-operated showers are only offered at Jigger Johnson Campground. 

- Hancock Campground
- Big Rock Campground
- Passaconaway Campground
- Jigger Johnson Campground  **
- Blackberry Crossing Campground
- Covered Bridge Campground  *

Exit sign leaving the White Mountain National Forest

We were so happy to be in New Hampshire during peak foliage on a rainy day that felt like fall.  Bundled up in our Patagonias and winter hats, we drove along New Hampshire's famous highway, jumping out of the car for photos, following trails through the woods, and posing along the Swift.  It's a day and a trip that is going into the memory banks, to hold onto those days I am in the office staring at a computer wishing I was out in the woods.  Sometimes happiness is so simple.  We complicate it with material goods and things we don't need.  On this Sunday, all I needed was him, our dogs, these 34.5 miles and some cooperation from mother nature.   

The foliage won't last long here in New Hampshire, so I hope you put down whatever electronic device you are reading this from, head north, and enjoy the best season of the year.

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