Kancamagus Highway: New England's Most Superb Scenic Drive

Plan a Memorable White Mountains Drive with This Complete Guide

Kancamagus Highway in Northern New Hampshire
DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

New Hampshire's National Scenic Byway with the tongue-twister name—the Kancamagus Highway—is New England's most superb scenic drive particularly during the region’s storied fall foliage season. 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 famous route. Allow plenty of time for your outing, not only because traffic can build up but because there are so many attractions to see and Instagram-worthy photo-op stops along the Kanc, particularly if you’re up for a bit of hiking.

Kancamagus Highway Map, Directions and Parking Fees

In addition to being New England’s prettiest drive, the Kancamagus Highway is also one of the easiest driving tours to navigate. Simply follow Route 112 west from Conway to Lincoln or vice versa. The 34-mile Kancamagus Highway (the correct pronunciation is "kank-ah-MAU-gus," like the month of August) cuts an east-west channel through New Hampshire’s 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. Motorcyclists especially relish the twists and turns as the highway climbs to nearly 3,000 feet at the peak of Mount Kancamagus.

You will want to refer to this old-school map as you drive… really! It’s a helpful tool for monitoring your progress and ensuring you don’t miss attractions along the way including waterfalls and a covered bridge.

You can also stop at the Saco Ranger Station, just west of Conway, to pick up a map and begin to plot your stops at well-designated scenic overlooks, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and historic sites along the Kanc. 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. Keep in mind that a $5 day pass fee is payable at parking areas and trailheads along the Kancamagus Highway unless you have a White Mountain National Forest annual pass, which costs $30.

Driving the Kanc straight through without stops is free.

Kancamagus Highway Attractions

Highlights along the Kancamagus Highway include:

  • Albany Covered Bridge: Stop at Covered Bridge Campground, and you can walk across the wooden Albany Covered Bridge, built above the boulder-studded Swift River in 1858 and restored in 1970. It's one of the coolest covered bridges in New Hampshire. While you’re there, you may want to hike the campground's 3-mile Boulder Loop Trail, which offers views of the river and of 3,475-foot Mount Chocorua to the south.
  • Lower Falls Scenic Area: In the summer months, you can splash in the shallow pools or sunbathe on the rocks at this scenic spot. Sturdy water shoes are a smart idea here.
  • Rocky Gorge Scenic Area: There’s no swimming allowed here, but a footbridge offers pretty views of the Swift River, and the Lovequist Loop Trail around Falls Pond is an easy and enjoyable walk in the woods.
  • Russell-Colbath Historic Site: Built by sawmill operator Thomas Russell in 1832, the small house here, which you can tour July through September, was inherited in 1887 by Russell’s 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 next 39 years—anticipating his return, but she never saw him again. Can you guess who showed up three years after her death? Thomas Colbath's claims to the house were denied, however, and he resumed his rambling ways.
  • Sabbaday Falls: A brief, not-too-strenuous hike of less than a half-mile is required to view the series of picturesque waterfalls that make this one of the Kanc's most popular stops. (Don't miss these other White Mountains waterfalls while you're in the region.)
  • Upper Lady's Bath: Big Rock Campground is home to another old-fashioned swimming hole that beckons on steamy summer days.

Kancamagus Highway History

The Kancamagus Highway may be legendary, but it is a relatively new road as New England scenic byways go. Some old logging 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.

Where to Stay Near the Kancamagus Highway

This is ski country, and there are plentiful lodging options on either end of the Kancamagus Highway. Keep in mind, though, that popular hotels and inns sell out far in advance for peak weekends during the fall foliage season, and some require minimum stays of two or more nights.

On the Conway side of the Kanc, look to North Conway for the densest assortment of lodging properties including family favorites like the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort and Hampton Inn & Suites North Conway: Both have indoor waterparks. Prefer a smaller B&B? The 1785 Inn is one of North Conway’s best values, and it has an unbeatable view. Darby Field Inn is lovely and even closer to Conway, where most travelers begin their Kancamagus Highway drive.

On the western end of the Kanc in Lincoln, consider staying at The Mountain Club on Loon. Also check Airbnb for cabins and condos available at affordable rates during the non-ski season.

Camping Along the Kancamagus Highway

If you want to stay right in the midst of the Kanc and its glorious scenery, consider a camping vacation. There are six White Mountain National Forest campgrounds on the Kancamagus Highway. From east to west, they are: Covered Bridge Campground, Blackberry Crossing Campground, Jigger Johnson Campground, Passaconaway Campground, Big Rock Campground and Hancock Campground. Only Hancock remains open through the winter months.