Driving the Kancamagus: New England’s Best Fall Foliage Drive

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Before the plane that brought us to Connecticut this June had even landed, we were already looking forward to Fall in New England.

For those that know us, it’s no secret that Fall is our favorite time of year anyway.  Fall means football, sweatshirt weather, crisp temperatures, and the most beautiful scenery of the year.  We’ve been fortunate enough to experience fall in many places around the world, but we all know that Fall in New England is special.  We had never seen it.

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We love road trips, and we knew that scenic drives were the generally accepted best way to experience the foliage.  Some simple research led us to four great drives:

  • Vermont’s Rt. 100 (The Skier’s Highway)

  • New Hampshire’s Rt. 112 (The Kancamagus Highway)

  • Massachusetts’s Rt. 2 (The Mohawk Trail)

  • Connecticut’s Rt. 7

We aimed to hit all of them at their peak, and for the most part, the weather cooperated and we were able to do that.  Upon reflection at the end of the season, the Kancamagus came out as a fairly definitive favorite. 

I’m sure that each of the other routes have their advocates, and there are countless other scenic drives out there to support.  Even if we’re not right in our assertion, if you hit "the Kanc” at the right time, you won’t be disappointed with this magical stretch of road in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

How To Get To the Kancamagus

This covered bridge spans the Swift River in Conway, NH, the Eastern terminus for the Kancamagus Highway

This covered bridge spans the Swift River in Conway, NH, the Eastern terminus for the Kancamagus Highway

The Kancamagus Highway runs for 34.5 miles from Conway in the East to Lincoln in the West.  You can run the road in either direction, but we chose to go East to West starting in Conway.

Lincoln’s location next to I-93 makes it a bit more accessible from Boston and other population centers to the South, but there’s not a meaningful difference.  One advantage to running it East to West is there’s a chance to explore nearby Franconia Notch (with worthwhile diversions Flume Gorge, Artist’s Bluff, and The Basin among others) if you have time upon completion of the drive.

While I-93 makes getting to Lincoln pretty straightforward, you can reach Conway from the south on Rt. 16 from Portsmouth, NH.  Combined with I-95, it will take a little more than 2 hours from Boston.  From the East, you can take either Rt. 115 or Rt. 302 in from Portland, ME although we’d recommend the slightly longer Rt. 302 due to the path through the lakes of Southwest Maine.

The Kancamagus from East to West

Along the Swift River

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While the opening stretch of road after leaving Conway might not feature the wild elevation changes or long views that you’ll encounter later in the trip, there’s no shortage of spots to pull over and enjoy the scenery.

The Swift River runs parallel to the road, and if you’re not in a hurry, I’d recommend pulling over and walking down to the boulder-filled river to take in the lovely foliage that you’re bound to see along the banks.  There are rocks and boulders along this whole stretch that allow you to get out in the middle of the river for a unique perspective. 

In addition to the consistent beauty you’ll see out your window, there are some designated “sights” on this portion of the road such as the Lower Falls and the Rocky Gorge that are definitely worth a visit.  You really can’t go wrong with any stop along the way.

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If you’re looking for a campground or a longer hike, there are several options on this part of the drive, but we decided not to stop or stray too far from the road.  I’m sure a stop could be a rewarding experience, but we weren’t disappointed with our choice.

Up and Over

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The middle portion of the road takes you up to a height of almost 3,000 feet as Route 112 crests Kancamagus Pass and then takes you back down the other side.

The views are long, and the scenery is great (or at least it would have been if we had been here one or two weeks earlier).  Unsurprisingly, the foliage at higher elevations turns earlier that it does in the valleys, and while we hit the lower elevations at just the right time, the leaves were already very sparse on top of the pass.  If you live close, you can probably hit it twice.  If you don't, you may need to make a choice.

There’s fewer official points of interest up here, but the views are great from the road or the numerous scenic overlooks that dot the road.  There are small parking areas on both sides of the pass to look out to both the East and the West.  I’d certainly recommend stopping on both sides, but we found the views to the West just past the top of the pass to be the most impressive.

Fall Foliage on Kancamagus Highway.JPG

Enjoy this part of the trip as you won’t get these types of views again (at least not on this road).  If you feel like you’d like to stop and check out the view, do it.  Parking was pretty tight at this time of the year, but between the official spaces and the generous space by the side of the road, we never had a major problem stopping anywhere.

Lincoln Woods and the Home Stretch

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The star attraction of this stretch of the Kancamagus is a stop at Lincoln Woods.  At this point, the East Branch of the Pemigewasset crosses under the highway, and there are a number of popular trails that run for miles along the river.  The trails provide a good vantage point to take in the surrounding hills, and the river provides a beautiful contrast to the vibrant colors popping up and down the banks.

At the main parking area there’s a suspension bridge for hikers that allows access to both sides of the river as well as the woods on either side.  It’s possible to get a good feel for the area (and some beautiful pictures) in a pretty short time, and it’s definitely a worthwhile stop.

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The journey from here to Lincoln is not quite as picturesque as the rest of the journey, but there is the Loon Mountain Ski Resort to add a bit of interest to this stretch of road.  Once in Lincoln, you can get back to the modern conveniences (like gas stations and restaurants) that you’ve given up on your scenic drive. 

Heading South on I-93 at this point will get most people back to where they came from, but Franconia Notch lying just to the North will beckon for the more ambitious travelers.

Reflections on the Kancamagus

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I’m sure that the Kancamagus is a pleasant drive for most of the year, but the fall is when it really shines.  Yes, it’s busy, and you might encounter a tour bus or two, but you shouldn’t let that scare you off.  There’s a reason it’s so popular, and the fact that you're not alone should be inspiration enough to get up here next fall. 

If you’re in the neighborhood (and I’d define neighborhood pretty broadly), you owe it to yourself to make a visit.  While you can certainly stay longer, you can experience the Kancamagus in half a day (or even less if you’d like).  It can either be the focus of your trip, or just one of many fall delights on your New England itinerary.  Either way, go.  Next year.