One of the most common questions of our guests is where to go and what to see when they visit the White Mountains. Here’s a suggested full-day itinerary for visiting some of the top spots in the state. (Note: the map is best viewed on a full-size screen.
This is written for visitors starting out in Lincoln, but you can start from anywhere, and go in either direction.
Head west from Lincoln on Route 112, also known as the Kancamagus Highway. Drive under route 93 and into the town of North Woodstock. Turn right at the light and head north on Route 3 for about two miles. Note Wayne’s Market on the left. They have an amazing selection of local beers and the best sandwiches anywhere. If you’re passing by during the lunch hour, consider picking up your picnic lunch here. On the right, a mile or so north, will be a small old-fashioned authentic diner, The Sunny Day Diner. Stop here for breakfast. (Try the hash if you’re hungry and plan to hike a little today!)
After breakfast, there are a few choices you can make as you continue north on Route 3. I’ll try to give some average times to each activity.
Continue driving north. You will be heading toward Franconia Notch with Cannon Mountain on your left and the Franconia Ridge, comprised of Mounts Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack and Flume on your right. On your right, you will see the entrance for The Flume. The Flume is a spectacular gorge cut into the mountains. If you are interested, you can Google plenty of great photos and consider a visit. I would budget 90 minutes and $16 per adult. Here’s their website. You should consider the Flume if you have people with limited mobility or who have concerns about tramping off into the woods. You should not consider it if you want to instead visit Sabbady Falls, which is as spectacular and is free aside from a $5 parking charge. See more below. And, just in case you decide to hike Mt. Pemigewasset, note the location of The Flume, the trailhead to this lovely hike is in the northernmost corner of The Flume’s parking lot. (Don’t hike Pemigewasset today if you intend to drive the whole circle tour.)
Visit the Basin. (Free, about 30 minutes). This is a gorgeous series of pools carved over the millennia. It is an easy walk from the parking area. You’ll see signs to guide you. Walk a but farther up the trail from the Basin for a quieter experience with fewer visitors. I recommend early day visits here. I took this photo at sunrise one day when I had the whole place to myself.
Onward north on Route 3 through the Notch. An exit on your right will lead you to Cannon Mountain. You should get to the top of a mountain while you are visiting. There are four choices: Walk (read my post on hiking the Whites), Ride the Cog Railroad or drive to the summit of Mt. Washington, or take a ski lift to a summit. You will drive by all the choices, but you only really have time to do one of them as part of this big circular tour, and that’s the tram to the summit of Cannon. About 90 minutes and $17 per person, and this is the best tram if you want to take one. (Your other choices are at Wildcat Mountain and Loon.) The views will be spectacular, but be very mindful of the weather. It is always much colder and almost always quite windy on the summits. You will be safe, since there is shelter at the summit, but to enjoy the great outdoors comfortably, bring a jacket or sweater, and a hat — even in the summer! It can snow in August when it’s a beach day down below.
Continuing north, I will note two spots before you bear east toward Mt. Washington. Echo Lake is just north of Cannon Mountain, and it’s a great place for a dip in a perfect mountain lake on a warm day. And you could make this the end of your journey for the day, eat those sandwiches from Wayne’s and have a day at the beach. You could also hike up Artist’s Bluff. Artist’s Bluff is a 469 foot climb, so about equal to fifty flights of stairs that opens to a ledge looking south through Franconia Notch. It is the biggest payoff for the least effort in the White Mountains. And it’s totally free! Plan 90 minutes to two hours. Bring a water bottle, lunch sunscreen and bug repellent. (And please bring home all your trash.) Read here about LNT hiking!
It’s time for the car, and you will be following Route 3 toward Twin Mountain. It is really, really, hard to spot a moose, but I’ve seen a few on this stretch of road. It’s really easy to spot a moose if one is nearby. There will be a bunch of cars with people hanging out their windows with cameras. Keep an eye on the road, other folks will find the moose for you! (Moose generally like marshy land, and are most often spotted in the very early and late hours of the day. If you are driving this section of road at night, please use extra caution.)
As you drive east, you will see a rather large mountain, part of a range that will dominate the horizon. These are the Presidential Mountains and that big one in the middle is Mount Washington. On a clear day, you will be able to make out structures on the summit, and will likely see smoke from the Cog Railroad somewhere on the mountainside as the train puffs it’s way to the summit. You will pass through Twin Mountain and arrive at the intersection of Routes 3 and 302. Important! If you are not deviating from the map, make sure you have at least half a tank of gas. This is one of your last gas station before returning to Lincoln. (North Conway and Conway will have fuel.) The Kancamagus Highway runs through the White Mountain National Forest and has no gas stations, commerce, and in spots, no cell phone service. Turn right (south) on 302 toward Mount Washington. This will be some of the prettiest part of your drive. If you have decided to take the Cog Railroad to the summit of Washington, the entrance will be on your left. Note that this is very expensive, takes a few hours, but may well be the highlight of your visit. The Cog is an engineering marvel and a historical icon of the region. If you have this on your schedule, be extra certain to have warm clothing. At 6288 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the Northeast and is home to the most severe weather in the United States. Unless you are visiting off-season, if you want to ride the Cog, you should make advance reservations.
You will next pass the Mount Washington Hotel… or maybe you’ll pull in and have a look around. This hotel is one of only a few surviving hotels from an era of opulence. It was built in the early 1900s and was the location of the formation of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and establishment of the Gold Standard. It’s a spectacular place, and a great spot to visit, have lunch or tea and soak in the elegance of a bygone era.
Onward! Continue south on 302 and soon you’ll be going through Crawford Notch with fantastic views to the south and quick peeks at Cascade and Silver Falls visible from the car on your left as you pass through the notch.
And it is now decision time. My map shows two options — you may drive to Bartlett and turn right (south) on Bear Notch Road, which cuts through to the Kancamagus Highway. From here, you need about 90 minutes to complete the tour, longer if you make stops on the “Kanc” on your way. You could also continue straight on to North Conway, the “big city” in the White Mountains, and do a bit of shopping dining and general sightseeing. North Conway is a very busy town during tourist season and especially during fall foliage. If you do choose to visit North Conway, plan on some traffic delays.
The Kancamagus Highway, Route 112, is 32 miles of twisty road through the White Mountains. As noted above, there are no services once you start. You’ll see lots of places where cars are pulled off the road at hiking trailheads, and other large lots where you may park, hop out and take a photo.
As you begin your climb up the Kanc, you’ll see Sabbady Falls on your left. This is one of the prettiest and easiest walks to a waterfall in the state. It takes about 45 minutes to see the whole Falls on a leisurely walk. The parking lot fee is $5 at a self-service, cash only station.
Continuing west, you will find what I think is the best parking lot view just after the high point on the highway, it’s called the Pemigewasset Outlook. It will be on your left and is a great place to watch or photograph a prize-winning sunset, or come late in the evening to see the Milky Way and perhaps a shooting star or two. (Sidebar — a lot of people have never seen the Milky Way. If you are one of them, please come back on a moonless night to see the heavens. Trust me on this. Dress warmly.)
Heading down to Lincoln, watch your speed and be mindful of not riding your brakes all they way down. The road is not that steep, and it is very well maintained, so you’ll be fine. One final note as you head back to your starting point… in the winter, the Kanc can be closed and winter drivers should always take extra care. A four-wheel drive vehicle is a good idea on wintry days.