Our scenic New Hampshire fall foliage road trip will focus on stops in the majestic White Mountains. The northern tier of New Hampshire is renowned for its 48 summits towering above 4,000 feet. You will see some spectacular leaves as they change colors.
The length of this road trip is approximately 138 miles, plus extra milage for some side excursions. While this is a beautiful drive year-round, the fall is magical with the scarlet, crimson, bright orange, and golden yellow foliage dazzling along the roadway.
This itinerary is for a week-long trip. We will spend two nights in Franconia, one night in Lincoln, two nights in North Conway, and two nights near Mount Washington.
Assuming you arrive late in the day after a long drive, you might want to relax and enjoy your hotel’s amenities and rest up for an exciting day tomorrow. If you arrive earlier and want to head out for some sightseeing, go north to Littleton to visit the covered bridge.
Franconia will be your home base for two nights. The Mittersill Alpine Resort is my favorite place to stay. It is close to Franconia Notch State Park and within a half-mile of White Mountain National Forest.
2. Bretton Woods
Our leaf-peeping adventure will take you on a 25-minute drive on Route 3 to Bretton Woods. This drive takes you through the spectacular White Mountain National Forest. While watching for the fall foliage, keep a lookout for moose.
You can ride The Mount Washington Cog Railway to the summit, which is the highest point in the northeast. The Cog is considered to be the first mountain-climbing railway in the world. Your ride to the top takes approximately 45 minutes, and once there, conditions may be very different than they were below, so be sure you have a jacket.
The train stays for an hour to give you time to explore the visitor center and the rooftop observation deck. There is also a cafeteria, which is nice if you are hungry, plus two gift shops and a museum. Plan three to four hours for this visit.
If you didn’t grab lunch at the summit, once you descend Mount Washington, you can enjoy pizza at Catalano’s At The Cog or a meal at Latitude 44 Restaurant.
3. Crawford Notch State Park
Next, we will head for Crawford Notch State Park, where you will see more fall foliage. If you want some exercise, there are easy and difficult level trails for hiking.
4. Franconia Notch State Park
We will get an early start and head southeast on Route 18 from Franconia to the Franconia Notch Parkway, an impressive eight miles of breathtaking beauty on Route 93.
You will climb past mountain lakes, ravines, and peaks. West of the highway is Franconia Notch State Park.
Be sure to visit The Basin at Franconia Notch State Park, a massive 20-foot-wide hole in the granite that’s been shaped by the area’s beautiful natural water features. It is a short walk from the highway on flat ground.
A great way to see the area’s beauty is to take the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway to the mountain’s 4,180-foot peak. It is a short five-minute ride. At the top, you will find an observation tower with a panoramic view of four states and Canada.
5. Flume Gorge
Back on Route 93, go south for about 12 minutes, then take Exit 34 A to the Flume Gorge visitor center. From there, a shuttle carries visitors to the entrance of the gorge.
There is a brook running through the 8,000-foot gorge, between the granite walls. There are hiking trails and two covered bridges, meaning abundant opportunities for leaf-peeping and photographing the natural beauty.
We will head back on Route 93 South for the 12-minute drive to Lincoln to spend the night.
In Lincoln, enjoy dinner at Seven Birches Winery. If time permits, you might want to visit Clark’s Trading Post and the White Mountain Central Railroad. Or splurge on a two- to three-hour Pemi Valley Moose Tour. Spend the night at Loon Mountain Resort.
7. Kancamagus Highway And Pass
Before heading out for the day, I highly recommend you pack a picnic lunch or snack to take with you and eat breakfast before leaving. This stretch of road is gas station- and restaurant-free.
Head out on Route 112 East for 34 miles on the stretch known as the Kanc (officially the Kancamagus Highway, but referred to as the Kanc by locals), one of the highest roadways in the Northeast and one of the prettiest during autumn. As you leave Lincoln, you quickly climb over 1,000 feet in less than 10 miles. As you corkscrew past birches, beeches, and maples to an elevation of 2,900 feet, the brilliant leaves blaze against the green pine trees.
You will pass some beautiful waterfalls, and when you reach the highest point on Route 112, you will be at Kancamagus Pass. From the pass, you have the most dazzling view. There, you can see 11 mountain peaks named after American presidents.
8. Sabbaday Falls
Continuing on Route 112/the Kancamagus Highway, our next stop is just a few miles down the road. Sabbaday Falls — three levels of water cascades — is an excellent place for your picnic lunch. They have short beginner trails for would-be hikers to enjoy the marvels of nature as they walk through the woods.
9. Rocky Gorge Scenic Area
The Swift River’s erosive power has sculpted the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. To say it is beautiful is an understatement. Stop for pictures. The trail to the falls is a paved walkway. There is a footbridge that crosses the gorge. There is also a covered bridge you will pass through to go back to Route. 112, which runs beside the Swift River all the way to Conway.
10. Conway/North Conway
Conway and North Conway are both quaint villages that are full of New England charm. Think covered bridges, waterfalls, small shops, and inviting inns.
The road, Route 16, between the two villages is laden with shopping opportunities and fast food chains. When you get to North Conway, you will have a fantastic view of Mount Washington.
A highlight here is an old-fashioned scenic railroad and the Crawford Notch Train, which tours through the valley. What a great way to view the leaf masterpiece without worrying about driving. Choose between the Valley Train or the Notch Train. (I recommend the Notch Train through Crawford Notch.) Dogs are welcome to travel with you on the train.
A few other things to do include an easy hike in the forest to a beautiful waterfall known as Diana’s Baths. The Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center provides guided tours and exhibits that are worth your time, too.
11. Echo Lake State Park
When you leave North Conway, follow the River Road west to the 400-acre recreation area known as Echo Lake State Park. This sparkling turquoise lake is fed by surging streams and springs. The crimson and bright orange foliage reflects in the lake, and it is beautiful.
A colorful drive leads to the 700-foot-high rock formation known as Cathedral Ledge.
There are plenty of easy walking trails and waterfalls to view here.
Heading north on Route 302 then 16A to Jackson is a scenic drive with excellent views of Mount Washington. The village of Jackson looks like a Christmas card. It has a skating pond, dozens of country inns, and a covered bridge. You might want to make a quick stop and visit a quaint shop, or just continue to Pinkham Notch.
13. Pinkham Notch
En route to Pinkham Notch, the highway climbs to the scenic area that gives you spectacular views of Mount Washington and breathtaking fall colors.
If you enjoy an easy hike, you can meander through the forest following the 0.4-mile out-and-back Glen Ellis Falls Trail, which leads to an 80-foot waterfall crashing into the Ellis River.
14. Mount Washington Auto Road
Hopefully, you enjoyed a ride to the top of Mount Washington on the Cog Railway when you visited Bretton Woods.
For a different perspective, the Mt. Washington Auto Road makes the mountain accessible by car. The road is open from May to October, weather permitting. It spirals eight miles up the mountain’s eastern slope. You can drive or take a chauffeured van to the top. The view from the peak is fantastic, and you can see parts of the Atlantic Ocean, Canada, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. Be aware there are sometimes fierce wind gusts.
Spend the final two nights of your road trip at the Mt. Washington Bed and Breakfast. You’ll be treated to a beautiful view overlooking the Androscoggin River and Reflection Pond. Things to do nearby include canoeing and kayaking, hiking, golfing at a half dozen golf courses, and fishing.
- Weather: It can be one temperature when you start up a mountain and different weather conditions at the top. Early winter storms can hit as well, so dress in layers and be sure you have enough clothes to stay warm.
- Shoes: It is essential you have quality walking/hiking shoes for most of the areas. Skip the sandals.
- Driving: When driving in the mountains, be on the lookout for wild animals. A moose or other animal could be crossing the road. There are no guard rails on many narrow roads, so drive a bit slower than usual and stay alert.
- Snacks: Keep some snacks in the car in case you are running a bit late for your next meal. Some of the roads do not have gas stations or restaurants.