You won’t find cell reception, restaurants, gas stations, or other amenities along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Zero. The Kancamagus Highway runs between the small train towns of Lincoln and Conway and in the fall puts on the best show of golden yellow and fiery red foliage in the whole country. Flocks of us descend every year for the fabled autumnal display. But you know what comes with a reputation like that? Crowds. And if crowds aren’t on your “favorites” list, this region has something else to offer. . . so visit this summer.
While leaf peepers are trudging through the snow snapping selfies and balancing lattes behind a backdrop of yellow oaks, you’re going to be cooling off in waterfalls, camping in a national forest, and feeling the warm wind on your face from the seat of your bike until you find exactly the right spot and pull over for an impromptu picnic beneath a shady tree.
Carving through the 700,000 acres of protected, pristine trees of the White Mountains, ” the Kanc” has led free-spirited travelers to trails, waterfalls, and overlooks since 1959. This year it’s your turn to be one of them. Find yourself with this 34.5 mile stretch of road under your toes and you’ll have no choice but to surrender to nature, but you’ll be a better person for it. This highway has a lesson to teach, and it’s a class you don’t want to miss. We recommend you show up and bring an apple. (It will be an excellent snack later.)Grab your gear, a buddy, and unplug. Time for a respite from the headlines and maybe even a meal you can enjoy without first posting it on Instagram! Here’s a chance to reconnect with the nature along one of the great American Two Lane roads. Pick up a map at the Ranger Station and let’s go!
NOTE: No matter if you begin in Lincoln or Conway, expect to lose those last few reception bars after the first two miles. Just nature’s way of removing distraction making it easier to focus on the mighty peaks of the White Mountains on your right and the rushing crystal waters of the Swift River on your left.
You’re going to want to take your time on this highway. Plenty to see, so you are encouraged to pull off and explore when whenever the spirit moves you. Start off by researching some trails along the way that are appropriate for your skill level. You’ve got 16 trails to choose from and they all snake through the White Mountain National Forest, offering incredible views of mountains, waterfalls, and more mountains. Don’t miss the Albany Covered Bridge and Boulder Loop Trail. Walk across the wood planks of this 1858 bridge and take your fishing pole. . . the Swift River below is full of mature trout and it’s a moderate/easy 2.8-mile round trip hike to get to them and back. Mount Chocorua Piper Trail is another great hike. The UNH Trail sends you up a 2,500-foot mountainside with incredible views, passing stands of specimen hardwoods all the way up. Oh, and poison ivy . . . lots of it . . . so don’t forget: “Leaves of three, leave them be! “
Need a post-hike refresher? When was the last time you took a swim in a clear mountain pool? We can suggest a few . . .
If you’re traveling from Conway towards Lincoln, there are many spots within the first 10 miles to pull off and wade into the cool waters of the Lower Falls. Sabbaday Falls, less than a half-mile from the highway, is a great stop, with warm, flat granite rocks perfect for a post-dip sunbath. For a bigger challenge before reaching the prize of a great swim, try hiking up to the 70-foot cascade of Champney Falls. Just give yourself time – it’s good three hours there and back. The Rock Gorge is out there too, but please don’t try to swim in it.
Toward the end of the day, how about heading for higher ground and watching a mountain sunset?
Should you want to enjoy some food and a view, unpack a picnic at one of the scenic overlooks like Pemigewasset or Hancock and sit among the panoramas of Mount Osceola and the Scar Ridge. And try not to miss the views at the Kancamguas Pass. At 2,860 feet, it’s the highest point of the highway. Raise a glass to the untouched wonder around you. It’s a beautiful thing.
If you aren’t ready to head back to civilization just yet, even with nightfall approaching, pull off the highway and pitch a tent at one of the campgrounds inside the White Mountain National Forest. Make a fire, roast some marshmallows, and enjoy the silence. With the closest light source more than 30 miles away, you better believe the stars will be on full display. So this year don’t wait for the fall colors or fight the like-minded hordes . . . travel the Kanc this summer and revive your soul in peace!