If you visit the Kancamagus Highway during the fall, you’ll fall in love with the vibrance of New England leaves set on fire. The Kancamagus Scenic Byway (Route 112) is affectionately known by the locals as “the Kank.” Regardless of how you travel this unique byway, you’ll almost certainly be in awe of its beauty. This byway is 26-miles long and runs through the White Mountains: connecting North Woodstock on the west end and Conway on the east end. Even though it’s essentially just a road, there are numerous places to stop–many of which we point out in this post.
if you’re planning to visit during the fall, make sure you track on leaf turning using the NH Leaf Turning website. Also, as a bonus, we offer some information about the hidden waterslide in Franconia Falls below–don’t miss that stop!
This is the heart of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, so if you are arriving by car or plane, you’ll have about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston to North Conway, NH. If driving, you’ll most likely use I-93 or I91 coming from the south and the north, and Route 302 if coming from eastern points in Maine. Be careful to check the weather forecast if you’re traveling in the winter. If you’re up for a real adventure, you might want to check out our post about touring the area in a camper van rental; or, you can just check out some camper van or RV rentals. You can also peruse a statewide directory for Camper and RV rentals if you’re thinking of a cross country trip.
Cell phone service is extremely poor once you drive a few miles on the highway. Consequently, you may want to review Google maps and make any calls before you depart for your trip. Also, there are no gas stations or convenience stores, so make sure your vehicle is fueled and you bring snacks and water. A White Mountain recreation parking pass is needed (currently $5.00 per day or $40 per year) to park in designated parking areas along the road. All hiking trailheads along the Kancamagus scenic byway require this pass. Passes can be purchased at the ranger station, online or via mail–see link above. Weekly passes can also be purchased. Daily passes cover entrance to any of the parking areas as well as the Colbath House.
Camping or campfires are not allowed within ¼ mile from the roadside. Drones and fireworks are also prohibited in this national forest. Because of the amount of traffic that can occur in the summer and fall seasons, sometimes the roadway can become congested and can slow down considerably. As you navigate the highway, you’ll find many places to pull over and explore the river. This is especially the case for the first 7 miles of the road from Conway to Lincoln. We recommend parking your vehicle off the shoulder of the road.
A few spots along the road can get narrow. It is not unusual to spot deer or moose along the side of the road or in the marshy areas. When wildlife pop up, be extra careful to obey the traffic laws and keep your vehicle moving as needed. As you walk along the river and stream banks, be extra careful since water levels can rise and many sections of the river are surrounded by slippery rocks. Because the water in the pools is so clean, pools are often deeper than they appear–so take great care when walking near them.
Where to Stay
You’ll have a number of options if you’re planning on driving the Kancamangus Highway. Below are some of our recommendations:
Campgrounds in the Area
Things to Do
There is no lack of things to do along the Kancamagus Highway or in the area. We’ve provided some ideas below that focus primarily on the outdoors, but there are a number of indoor attractions as well.
Conway Scenic Railroad
Take the easy route and enjoy the beauty of the areas via vintage passenger train. Conway Scenic Railroad trains depart from a Victorian-era station in North Conway village. Round-trip excursions to Conway or Barlett on the Valley Train are one to five hours long and are worth the cost. If you’re looking for a memorable experience, try the first-class dining car. Special trains operate spring through fall, including the very popular fall foliage trips (book well ahead to secure a spot). There are some special Santa Claus trips during the Christmas season.
Hike the White Mountains
The White Mountains National Forest maintains several fine hiking trails off the Kancamagus Highway. The location of trailheads is described as a distance along the Kank from the Saco Ranger Station. The ranger station is the first building on the right as you leave Conway and enter the Kancamagus Highway. Two great hikes are the Rail N’ River Trail and the Sabbaday Falls hike. Use of trails requires a pass, available at the trailheads. The video below offers some helpful information about the Kancamagus Highway at about 11:20 minutes in.
Sabbaday Falls is probably the most popular attraction on the Kancamagus Highway. Sabbaday Falls is a 0.7 mile heavily trafficked out and back trail located near Bartlett, New Hampshire that features a waterfall and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking and running and is best used from June until November. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on a leash. Located just 1/2 mile from the Kancamagus Highway, this is a nice spot to stop for an easy and refreshing hike. There is a mini loop above the falls with wooden rails. The trail is only open in the summer and fall due to the hazards of accidentally sliding near the river in icy conditions. Use extreme caution if you visit it in the early spring or winter, and be aware that the trail may be gated off at especially icy times. There is a $200 fine for hiking here when the trail is closed. Visit AllTrails for additional information about this hike.
Fishing the Kancamagus Highway
Simply driving the length of the Kancamagus Scenic Highway from Conway to Lincoln (or the reverse) could be the best part of your visit. This nationally honored scenic byway meanders through a mountain pass and beautiful forests. The scenery is amazing all year and if you bring your fishing pole, you’ll want to try your luck fishing at some of the nicer holes.
Play Hide-and-Seek at Lost River Gorge
Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves in North Woodstock is home to steep granite cliffs, several spectacular waterfalls, caves, and a river that winds its way through the rocks. You can walk along a three-quarter-mile long wooden boardwalk, or venture out a bit to explore the caves. How would you not be drawn to explore with cave names like the Lemon Squeezer, and the Judgment Hall of Pluto. This is typically a top attraction for kids and youthful adults. This area is open May through October, but check the official website to verify hours.
Alpine Adventures Off-Road Trips
Alpine Adventures on Main Street in Lincoln offers off-road trips along different mountain roads and passes. Get ready and don’t forget to bring some water and snacks as you’ll tackle some fun overland adventure in their modified Swiss Army vehicles.
Hidden Waterslide in Franconia Falls, Lincoln
This is a must-see if you’re visiting in the summer and have your swimsuit at the ready. Where else will you find a smoothed, hidden waterslide surrounded by the beauty of the White Mountains?
Whale’s Tale Water Park
Both kids and adults love a sunny day of fun at the Whale’s Tale Water Park on Route 3 in Lincoln. Adults can relax in the sun or join youngsters splashing in the wave pool, flume slide, tube rides, and more.
Just five miles north of North Woodstock off of Route 3, the Flume Gorge offers a spectacular walk through a naturally occurring chasm, over bridges and past waterfalls and mountain pools. The Flume is a natural gorge that is well known to visitors. It extends 800 feet at the base of Mount Liberty. The walls of Conway granite rise to a height of 70 to 90 feet. The Flume Trail is a 2-mile loop starting at the check-in booths located in front of the Flume Building. The entire loop takes approximately 1.5 hours to complete and wraps up at the Flume Building. The walk includes a good amount of uphill. The wooden boardwalk sits along the river and allows you to look closely at the growth of flowers, ferns and mosses. Start and end your walk at the Flume Visitors Center and don’t forget to check opening hours before you make your way to this adventure.
Galleries of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen
The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen is one of the oldest craft organizations in the entire country, and one of its seven retail galleries is thankfully in North Conway. Shop for artwork, enjoy demonstrations and exhibits. Shoppers can also enjoy the 100 factory outlet stores in Conway, most of them at Settlers’ Green Outlet Village and Settlers’ Crossing, on Route 16.
Flapjack’s Pancake House, 149 Main Street, Lincoln. You can tell by the name that this place is confident in its breakfast menu, which includes the Hooterville, 2 pancakes with sausage & fried potatoes inside.
Flatbread Company, 2760 White Mountain Hwy, No. Conway. This restaurant chain has earned a solid reputation for flatbread pizzas from a brick oven, organic ingredients, local beers & friendly atmosphere.
Red Fox Bar & Grille, 49 Route 16, Jackson NH. Excellent pizzas, drinks and Italian food.
The Common Man at 10 Pollard Road in Lincoln is always a winner (it’s part of a NH-based chain run by people with high standards and pride in their work). Voted the tops by readers of New Hampshire magazine for its prime rib, home made baked macaroni and cheese, and crab cakes.
1785 Inn & Restaurant at 3582 White Mountain Hwy., No. Conway is just the thing for a special dinner: romantic fireplaces; mountain views, flambé desserts made at the table, flaming drinks.
Abenaki Trail Restuarant & Pub at 2284 White Mountain Highway in North Conway. Excellent food options for lunch and dinner.
Café Lafayette Dinner Train from North Woodstock offers a fine-quality dinner during a 2-hour train ride on an route of the Boston & Maine railroad designed to serve the Grand Hotels of the 19th century. Restful and elegant surroundings. Ride in the elevated planetarium car, a coach car, or in the sunken lounge.
How Did the Kancamagus Highway Get Its Name?
The Kancamagus Highway (also referred to as the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, or simply “The Kanc”) was named after a chief of the Pennacooks, who dominated a confederation of Indian tribes living in New Hampshire in the 17th century. But by 1685, when Kancamagus became sagamore, the Pennacooks were only a shadow of what they had been. Kancamagus and his predecessors tried to live in peace with the English settlers, but they were betrayed and humiliated.
Major Richard Waldron of Dover invited the Pennacooks to a feast, then seized a number of the guests and sent them to Boston in chains. The Pennacooks had no choice but to flee from their homeland in the upper Merrimack Valley and move north to Quebec to seek protection from the French. Four years later Kancamagus returned at the head of a raiding party that fell upon Dover and chopped the treacherous Waldron to pieces on his own table.
When the highway was officially named in 1957, some New Hampshire legislators objected on the grounds that the Pennacook sagamore had murdered Major Waldron. Representative Robert Monahan of Hanover defended Kancamagus as a faithful man who was provoked to war. “I’ll admit that the name may be a bit difficult,” he added, “but it’s easier to spell than Winnipesaukee and easier to pronounce than Chocorua.”
How Do You Pronounce Kancamagus?
Pronounce it Kan-kuh-MOG-us — an appropriate name for a road that opened up one of the last unconquered wilderness areas in New Hampshire, a region that the 1850 state Gazetteer called “unfit for human habitation.” The two-lane highway links the valleys of the Merrimack and the Saco rivers, vaulting over Kancamagus Pass at 2,855 feet and winding through some of the most difficult and gorgeous terrain in the state. A panel of travel editors pronounced it one of America’s five most scenic highways, and it is a prize attraction during foliage season.
When Was the Kancamagus Highway Built?
Staked out in the ’30s and built partly by CCC workers during the Depression, it took 25 years to carve a road through fir-shaded glens and over boulder-choked rivers. A supervisor sent from Washington once reported back thus: “Quality of work: Excellent. Morale of workers: High. Progress of construction: Negligible.”
Federal Forest Highway No. 8, as it was then known, was finally turned over to the state of New Hampshire in 1957. It lies entirely within the White Mountain National Forest, but is maintained by state highway crews. Bob Henderson has plowed it ever since the road was opened to winter traffic in 1966. “Up there in a storm there’s no describing it,” he said. “There’s a mile or so just east of Kancamagus Pass that we call Breezy Lane; the winds gust up to 60 miles per hour, and you just hope the wing plow holds you close to the bank.”
When Should You Drive the Kancamagus Highway?
The Kancamagus Highway makes for a popular scenic drive in summer and fall. Travel the Kancamagus in September and October and you’ll find yourself bumper to bumper with fellow leaf-peepers. Winter comes early and stays late in those mountains. Homer Emery, a U.S. Forest Service employee since 1948, has a photograph of himself and his wife at Lilly Pond, near the top of the highway, taken on Easter Sunday, 1969. His wife is holding a spray of yellow chrysanthemums and is standing in front of a snowbank eight feet high.
In spite of the weather, March sees a lot of traffic on the highway. When N.H. Highway Commissioner John Morton wrote to federal officials in 1957, urging them to approve funds for completion of the highway, he listed the reasons in order of priority — first the concerns of local lumber and paper companies who wanted access to logging areas; then fire protection; then the value of an east-west shortcut for commercial truckers; and finally, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned recreation.
Ten years later former governor Sherman Adams opened Loon Mountain at the western end of the highway, and skiers fell upon it like Kancamagus on Dover. Now condos creep up to the very gates of the National Forest, and nearly 800,000 vehicles a year crest the pass named for the last sagamore of the Pennacooks.