Kancamagus Highway: The Fearless One

New England's Most Superb Scenic Drive, from "Backroads of New England"

Kancamagus Highway
••• New Hampshire's Kancamagus Highway is unparalleled for scenic driving, particularly during fall foliage season. Denis Jr. Tangney / Getty Images

New Hampshire's National Scenic Byway with the tongue-twister name—the Kancamagus Highway—is New England's most superb scenic drive. You can call it "the Kanc" for short, as locals do, and you can revel in the pure pleasure of motoring through this thickly treed mountain gap, as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each year. On a peak day, more than 4,000 vehicles traverse at least a portion of this route.

 

Kancamagus Highway Driving Directions

Follow Route 112, the Kancamagus Highway, west from Conway to Lincoln.

Staying Over? Compare rates and reviews for Conway or Lincoln hotels with TripAdvisor.

The 34-mile Kancamagus Highway (the correct pronunciation is "kank-ah-MAU-gus," like the month of August) cuts an east-west channel through the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. When the dense stands of leafy deciduous trees exchange their summer greens for the dazzling shades of autumn, they are illuminated against the immutable evergreen of their coniferous counterparts, making this a most dramatic and beloved leaf-peeping route. Motorcyclists relish the twists and turns as the highway climbs to nearly 3,000 feet at the peak of Mount Kancamagus. Easily accessible trailheads summon hikers, and rocky swimming holes, carved by erosion, lure families craving relief from summer's swelter.

Though it maintains a legendary reputation among scenery seekers, the Kancamagus Highway is a relatively new route, as New England scenic byways go.

Some old logging roads and town roads edged into the rugged National Forest, which was set aside for conservation by the federal government in 1911, but a connection between Conway and Lincoln was not completed until 1959. The road was paved in 1964, and in 1968 it was plowed for the first time, allowing for year-round traffic.

New Hampshire State Route 112 is named for Chief Kancamagus, "The Fearless One." Kancamagus was the last leader of the Penacook Confederacy, a union of more than seventeen central New England Indian tribes, first forged by Kancamagus' grandfather, Passaconaway, in 1627. Kancamagus tried to maintain peace between his people and encroaching English settlers, but war and bloodshed forced the tribes to scatter, with most retreating to northern New Hampshire and Canada.

At the Saco Ranger Station just west of Conway, you can pick up a map and begin to plot your stops at the various well-designated scenic overlooks, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and historic sites along the Kanc. Unless you plan to drive straight through without stopping, you'll also need to purchase a parking pass. A visitor information center is also located on the western end of the Kanc in Lincoln, should you decide to drive the route in reverse.

As you enter the White Mountain National Forest, you'll notice that the highway follows the path of the Swift River, which is studded with large boulders that create an obstacle course for the water. The river surges as mountain snows melt in the spring, but the flow slows come summertime.

The first popular stop on the route is Covered Bridge Campground, where you can walk across the wooden Albany Covered Bridge, built over the Swift River in 1858 and restored in 1970. The campground's 3.1-mile Boulder Loop Trail offers hikers views of the river and of 3,475-foot Mount Chocorua to the south. The Lower Falls Scenic Area is a popular steamy-weather hangout for those who want to sunbathe on the rocks or splash in the shallow pools. It's a great place to watch for whitewater boaters when the river is raging with runoff in the spring.

The cascading Upper Falls at the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area provide a soothing natural soundtrack for sunbathers. Swimming in this steep-walled gorge is not permitted. The Lovequist Loop Trail around Falls Pond is an easy and enjoyable walk in the woods.

Continue the drive west to the Russell-Colbath Historic Site, where a tour of the Russell Colbath House may leave you shaking your head. Built by sawmill operator Thomas Russell in 1832, the small home was inherited in 1887 by his granddaughter, Ruth Priscilla, and her husband, Thomas Alden Colbath. In 1891, Thomas left the house one day, telling Ruth he would return "in a little while." She hung a lantern in the window every evening-for the ensuing thirty-nine years-as she awaited his return, but she never saw him again. Three years after her death, you'll never guess who showed up. Thomas Colbath's claims to the house were denied, however, and he resumed his rambling ways.

A brief, not-too-strenuous hike of less than half a mile is required to view the narrow flume and series of picturesque waterfalls that make up Sabbaday Falls, one of the Kanc's most popular stops. (Don't miss these other White Mountains waterfalls while you're in the region.)

Back on the highway, your ears may start to pop as you begin the ascent of Mount Kancamagus. Watch for the Sugar Hill, Pemigewasset, and Hancock Overlooks, which all provide a place to park and to appreciate the ruggedly handsome terrain. At first glance, the mountaintops seem to be sporting buzz cuts, but further observation will reveal the articulated pine line of individual evergreens standing proudly atop granite summits. Big Rock Campground is home to another old-fashioned swimming hole, known as Upper Lady's Bath.

The Kancamagus Highway descends into Lincoln, home of the Loon Mountain Ski Area and several family attractions. Most notable is Clark's Trading Post and its beloved trained bears. In fact, these bears are so well trained, and well fed, that even if they somehow managed to wander off for "a little while," you can bet it wouldn't be forty-two years before they returned.

Excerpted from Backroads of New England, a guide book featuring directions, narrative, maps, and photography for 30 scenic drives in New England. Text © 2012 by Kim Knox Beckius. Published by Voyageur Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.