With apologies to Christian Wisecarver, Billy Donohoe, and the rest of the gang at the Super Secret Project, autumn has always been my preferred time to cruise the Kancamagus Highway as it stretches across the White Mountains from Interstate 93 in Lincoln and past Loon Mountain before T-boning Route 16 in Conway. And I have legions of leaf-peepers who will agree with me.
The sheer expanse of forests, full of explosive hardwoods that ignite every September, is simply breathtaking. Literally, breathtaking. The Skittles kaleidoscope of colors, once seen in person, is all but impossible to forget. It almost seems a shame to take in these views through a window. That’s why my preferred method of taking in this spectacular natural fireworks display, unfiltered, is from the seat of my bicycle.
Pedaling this 32-mile stretch of asphalt — officially known as Route 112, which extends west to the town of Bath — during fall foliage is a rare and special treat, in either direction. And the true beauty is that, if you’re feeling strong and decide to pedal out and back for a marathon, 64-mile jaunt, the byway feels completely different when heading in the opposite direction.
You also can drive the route, since the byway has a number of scenic overlooks to the east of the summit of Mount Kancamagus (3,763 feet), allowing visitors to pull over and admire this stunning landscape. Driving also allows you quick access to an exceptional labyrinth of hiking trails that criss-cross the White Mountain National Forest. Want to really immerse yourself? Choose from one of six campgrounds along the byway (Hancock, Big Rock, Passaconaway, Jigger Johnson, Blackberry Crossing and Covered Bridge) and spend a night or two.
Regardless of your method of travel — by foot, bicycle or auto — what is unmistakable is the very real sense of traveling back through time that the Kancamagus engenders, a true wilderness experience. Despite the bustling bookends of Lincoln and Conway, you won’t see any gas stations or convenience stores, no restaurants, no hotels, no tourist-trap shops chock full of trinkets. Except for the thin ribbon of two-lane asphalt, and the other vehicles, all you’ll encounter is the sweeping tracts of hardwoods (maple, beech and birch) and evergreens of the Pemigiwasset Wilderness to the north and the Sandwich Range Wilderness to the south, stunning waterfalls, granite boulders deposited by long-gone glaciers, the gurgling and sometimes hard-charging Swift River, expansive skies, and an occasional member of the local wildlife community (including moose, hawks, falcons, eagles, deer, bear, raccoons, and porcupines). It is as special a place as you can hope to find in the Northeast.
First, though, here’s a quick history lesson in order to recognize the timelessness of this place. This, traditionally, is Native American land. Kancamagus, “The Fearless One,” was the grandson of Passaconaway (whom the town of Conway is named after, and the namesake of Mount Passaconaway). In 1627, Passaconaway (“Child of the Bear”) negotiated a peace treaty with other tribes, uniting more than 17 Indian tribes throughout central New England. This unification created the Penacook Confederacy, which Passaconaway led until his death in 1669. The reins of the Confederacy then passed to his son, Wonalancet.
Wonalancet ruled the roost until 1684, when Kancamagus became the third and final sagamore of the Penacook Confederacy. Kancamagus tried to uphold his grandfather’s dreams of peace for the tribes of the Confederacy, but by the late 1600s, English settlers brought turbulence to the region, arresting a number of Penacook tribe members. Kancamagus departed, heading north to the region near the Canadian border. But the legacy of these tribes, and their leaders, remain. Their names can be seen throughout the state, such as Mount Chocurua (the chief of the Ossipee Tribe, who died on the mountaintop, according to legend), the town of Ossipee (named after the tribe), Mount Paugus (named after “The Oak,” the chief of the Pequawket Tribe), and the town of Penacook (named after the Penacook Indians).
The Kancamagus Byway has its origins in two smaller, dead-end roads (one in Lincoln and one in Passaconaway) in the early 1800s. A century later, in 1937, the two roads were expanded, and eventually connected. Two decades later, in 1959, the highway opened to through traffic. The route was an immediate hit, despite still being a gravel road. Due to its popularity, the Kancamagus was eventually paved in 1964, and opened for winter travel for the first time in 1968. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. Shortly after those festivities, in August, 2011, Hurricane Irene swept through the region, leaving the highway heavily damaged. By 2012, though, “The Kanc” was repaired and completely reopened.
Today, the byway is wildly popular, and never more so than during fall foliage, which typically encompasses September and October, with its peak in early October. So, reader beware. If you plan to visit during leaf-peeping season, plan to be on the highway by sunrise, or plan on encountering heavy congestion (this is especially true on weekends, and Columbus Day weekend in particular). Stop-and-go traffic is commonplace. I promise you, the early wake-up call is well worth it, as I’ve witnessed some soul-altering sunrises from this two-laner.
Getting to the byway early is also recommended if you’re hiking one of the myriad trails that connect to the road, as parking can be limited. When our girls were younger, my wife, Lauri, and I used to love bringing them to a number of the easier routes right off the eastern end of the highway, including Lower Falls, Rocky Gorge, Falls Pond and the picturesque Sabbaday Falls. The Rail and River Trail is a delightful half-mile interpretive walking trail located behind the Russell-Colbath House historic site (and is handicap accessible). The Oliverian Brook Trail and the four-mile Pine Bend Brook Trail (which connects to the Scaur Ridge Trail and the Mount Tripyramid Trail) also are fun for all ages.
Once our girls got older, with sturdier legs, we ventured to the three-mile Boulder Loop hiking (with more than 900 feet of elevation gain), the 7.5-mile Champney Brook Trail with an elevation gain of 2,250 feet (this route connects to Middle Sister Trail to Three Sisters and Blue Mountain, or the Piper Trail to the base of Mount Chocorua), the Sawyer Pond trail near the Passaconaway Historic Site and Passaconaway Campground, and the seven-mile Greeley Ponds Trail (this route is a favorite for snowshoers and fishing enthusiasts alike).
Some of the more strenuous-but-enjoyable hikes include the nine-mile Moat Mountain trail, boasting an elevation gain of 2,665 feet, connecting to the Red Ridge Trail and Attitash Trail as well. On the western side of the highway, the Lincoln Woods Trailhead is the largest trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway, with a Ranger Station and visitor center on site as well as bathrooms and postings for weather, trail conditions and historical information. The trails that start at the Pemigewasset River suspension footbridge include the Lincoln Woods Trail, Pine Island Trail, East Side Trail, Osseo Trail, River View Loop, Pemigewasset Wilderness, Flume Slide Trail, Black Pond Trail, Franconia Brook Trail, the Wilderness Trail, Cedar Brook Trail, Lincoln Brook Trail and Bondcliff Trail. The Franconia Brook Campsite is located on the East Side Trail, and Big Coolidge Mountain, Mount Flume, Mount Liberty and the Flume are all within a few miles of the Lincoln Woods Trailhead.
Another worthwhile attraction, especially for families, is the Discovery Trail as it meanders through 85 acres of “working forest,” which is carefully managed to produce wood, water, clean air, wildlife, recreation and scenic views. For a full educational tour, download the Discovery Trail Guide and map (available at KancamagusHighway.com).
I still like to hike, but I love cycling. When I’m on my bike, I typically have one of three options regarding the Kancamagus. The first is pedaling point-to-point, in one direction, either east from Lincoln or west from Conway. That often requires a shuttle, which usually works out if you have a traveling companion who doesn’t share your passion for pedaling. As mentioned earlier, the highway honestly feels like two different roads, depending on the direction you’re riding. Heading west to east, the Kancamagus climbs steeply out of Lincoln town Mount Kancamagus. There are a few switchbacks to relieve the degree of the pitch, but it can be quite a shock to the system if you’re just starting out.
Once you’ve crested the byway’s high point, however, you can relish in a long, gleeful coast toward Conway. The biggest temptation is to get caught up in the scenery, and it’s wise to remember that this narrow road requires your attention to stay safe. The same is true if you decide to pedal west, toward Lincoln. The gradual climb isn’t too taxing, and there are magnificent views to the north. Keep in mind, however, that drivers also get distracted, and make every effort to keep to the edge of the road (I also use a blinking taillight, even during the daytime, to ensure that I get noticed).
The next option is an out-and-back along the byway, which is one of my favorites (and allows my wife and I to do the ride together). My preference is to start in Lincoln, and get the tough climb out of the way first (though my wife, Lauri, isn’t always on board with this plan of attack). Then it’s a long, smooth descent into Conway, a turnaround after a quick bite (we both love Cafe Noche in Conway), and then a slow climb back west, finishing with a hair-raising, lightning-quick drop back into Lincoln. Given the white-knuckle incline and the hairpin turns on this final leg, I highly recommend making sure your bike, and particularly your bike’s brakes, are in good working order.
Finally, if you’re up for a truly epic spin, you can create a huge counter-clockwise loop that incorporates the Kancamagus, Route 16 and/or West Side Road in Conway, North Conway, and Intervale, Route 302 from Glen through Bartlett to Bretton Woods, and old Route 3 from Twin Mountains back down south to Woodstock and Lincoln. This, to be completely honest, is an all-day effort, and you need to make sure that you and any cycling companions are prepared.
That effort will reward riders with a number of special attractions, including ancient railroad trestles, the dramatic Crawford Notch State Park (here, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center is a great place to stop, rest, and recharge), and the Omni Mount Washington Hotel & Resort. For a slightly shorter loop, and to avoid the occasional mayhem of North Conway, consider taking the Bear Notch Road shortcut, which brings you from the Kancamagus north to Bartlett (and Route 302). Note, however, that if you’re driving this route rather than pedaling, Bear Notch Road is not maintained in the winter.
The beauty of the Kancamagus and these big efforts is that you can set up a “home base” on either end of the highway, ensuring a great meal and a good night’s rest at the end of the day. In Lincoln, my wife and I are partial to RiverWalk Resort at Loon, in part because of its luxurious furnishings, outdoor pools, and hot tubs, but also because it offers a great restaurant — La Vista Italian Cuisine — and the Seven Birches Winery, plus the fabulous Solstice North Day Spa right on the premises.
There are many other options to quench your thirst and get a superb meal in Lincoln and nearby Woodstock, including Woodstock Station (no better place for craft brews, in my humble opinion), the Common Man Restaurant, The Gypsy Café, Gordi’s Fish & Steakhouse, One Love Brewery, the White Mountain Tavern, and the Black Mountain Burger Company. There also are many popular lodging options, such as InnSeason Resorts Pollard Brook, the Mount Coolidge Motel, Profile Motel & Cottages, Woodwards White Mountain Resort, and Indian Head Resort.
Likewise, there’s an abundance of top-flight accommodations at the east end of the Kancamagus, in Conway and North Conway. Favorites of mine include the New England Inn & Lodge in Intervale (home of Tuckerman’s Restaurant and Tavern), the Cranmore Inn (great location to downtown North Conway), the Eastman Inn, the Stonehurst Manor, the White Mountain Hotel & Resort (see the “Check In, Check Out” feature in this issue), the Eastern Slope Inn (home to a wonderful community theater), and the Red Elephant Inn Bed & Breakfast.
The restaurant choices in this area are too numerous to list, but I’ll give special mention to Chef’s Bistro, Abenaki Trail Restaurant & Pub, May Kelly’s Cottage Restaurant and Pub, Delaney’s Hole in the Wall, Muddy Moose Restaurant & Pub, Barley and Salt, The Stairway Café, and Vito Marcello’s Italian Bistro. Thirsty? Don’t pass up the Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery.