This amazing drive through the White Mountains of New Hampshire has a gorgeous vista at every turn, oodles and oodles of family vacation fun, and a visit to the home of the world wind speed record. Just keep reading to discover a remarkable trip on your White Mountains vacation.
The White Mountain National Forest is about a 4-hour drive north of Boston, Massachusetts. Deep in New Hampshire, the mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain system that covers the Eastern United States. Within the forest park is the White Mountains Trail, and it’s a drive that’s arguably the most scenic 100 miles in New England. And so you’re in for a real treat. Let’s get started…
White Mountain National Forest Visitor Center…
Most people begin the drive from the White Mountains Visitor Center in North Woodstock on route 112 and head out on route 3N to the Franconia Notch area.
If you’re traveling with kids then you’ll want to pencil dates back in this area at the Clark’s Trading Post, and The Whale’s Tale attractions - both in Lincoln on route 3N. At Clark’s you can see Bears, ride a steam train, climb towers, and generally keep the young ones happy. The Whale’s Tale is a water park with a wave pool, picnic areas, changing areas, and live entertainment.
Back on the road head north towards Franconia Notch. This is a good stretch of road to have your camera at the ready. I can’t list all the stops you can make, but I’ll mention just two of my favorites in this area of the White Mountains.
The Flume Gorge was formed over 200 million years ago when the White Mountains were molten rock. It just so happens in this area when it cooled quickly, softer material was forced into the fractures that formed. These fractures wore down with natural erosion much quicker that the surrounding granite rock - leaving the gorge. And so now you get to enjoy a geological wonder at the base of beautiful Mount Liberty.
The Gorge has a visitor center where your tour starts and ends. And don’t forget to check out the covered bridge which crosses the Pemigewasset River - it’s one of the oldest on the White Mountains Trail.
The famous attraction you can’t see anymore…
You’re probably thinking why would I mention something you can’t see anymore? Well, the truth is. . . you can see some of it… but you’ll have to imagine the rest.
The Old Man of the Mountain was a jagged rock profile formed over 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.
On May 3, 2003, admirers of the White Mountains region around the world were devastated, when this world famous monument to nature crumbled and crashed to the bottom of Cannon Mountain. How could this be everybody asked? Aren’t rocks and mountains. . . forever? Well, this incident proves they aren’t. Despite years of gargantuan efforts by many people to preserve it, centuries of the harsh winter climate found in the White Mountains, finally took its toll. It’s worth a stop as you journey on the White Mountains Trail to look and wonder at what once was. To me it’s a reminder that nature doesn’t play favorites.
Continue to head north on Route 3 until it joins Route 302 and follow 302 towards Bretton Woods. Here the mountains get taller and taller until eventually you see the grand daddy of them all - Mount Washington at 6,288 feet.
The Roof of the White Mountain National Forest…
Depending on time available, you’ve got four options for experiencing this gift in the White Mountain National Forest. Just stare - hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Take the Cog Railway train ride to the top. Drive the auto road to the summit - the quickest way. And of course you can hike if you’re well prepared. But just promise me you won't hike to the top unless you are in great condition and with somebody. This mountain claims lives every year as conditions in this area can deteriorate dramatically within minutes.
Is it worth getting to the summit?
All I’ll say here is… the view is stunning. Visit the museum at the top and learn about the day in 1934 when the highest wind speed ever recorded on earth was taken - 231 MPH. You’ll learn why its unique geographic position provides the mountain with the worst weather on earth.
Now get back onto Route 302 and head south to the town of North Conway.
The North Conway Scenic Area…
Schedule enough time to take the scenic train, which you board in North Conway. The station is an authentic Victorian style - it's hard to miss and smack in the town center.
The train rides are ambles and chugs along the scenic valleys and notches in the surrounding area. And as you wind through the rolling Mount Washington valley and squeeze through the notches under the gentle clatter of steel against steel, consider this was once the main form of transportation to the area, from Boston. Most of the trains they run are diesel locomotives now, but on special weekends and during fall they use their popular steam locomotive.
The valley train is a 55-minute roundtrip, and the Notch train is 5 hours. Both have a first-class car if you want to have a different experience. The notch train has a dome car as well, where you get magnificent views of the steep ravines and sheer bluffs. I’m not sure my kids have the patience for a 5-hour train ride so we’ve always taken the shorter excursion. But as I love trains - especially steam trains - one day…
The trains usually run from mid-June until mid-October. These scenic trains are very popular throughout the season and they accept advanced reservations for the Notch train and dinning cars on both trains.
This area of the White Mountains is full of shopping outlets, and also has plenty for the kids to do. Story Land and Heritage-New Hampshire, are right next to each other on route 16 in Glen. You and the kids will enjoy themed rides, live shows, play areas, and meeting storyboard characters.
The Kancamagus Highway…
Let’s finish up our White Mountains Trail tour by joining back up with route 112 at Conway and driving back to the White Mountain National Forest Visitor Center.
This part of the trail is known as the Kancamagus highway. There are just numerous photo shoot opportunities along this highway. In fact, your challenge is having enough daylight left in this trip so you can take pictures.
But you can always come back tomorrow, right? No prizes for doing and seeing everything in one day. You are booking your White Mountains vacation for at least a week. . . aren’t you?
Cliff Calderwood is the owner and contributing writer of the New England vacations guide . You can read more about White Mountain vacations and get a free travel report at his New England vacation site.