Visiting New Hampshire without going for a hike would be like touring Maine without feasting on lobster. With 48 peaks above 4,000 feet to climb, the Appalachian Mountain Club's chain of high huts for White Mountains hikers, manageable summits like Mount Monadnock, and waterfall walks that captivate the senses, there is no better place in New England to spend time on your feet. Whatever your fitness and experience level, there's a hike for you in this guide to New Hampshire's best treks.
Choose from a variety of summit-bound trails, and join the estimated 125,000 hikers who climb New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock each year, making it the most popular ascent in North America. Rising 3,165 feet above the region that shares its name, the mountain that inspired artists like William Preston Phelps and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau has been a popular hiking destination since the 19th century. Located within Monadnock State Park in Jaffrey, this National Natural Landmark is considered a difficult but rewarding climb that takes most hikers somewhere between four and five hours up and back down. From the parking lot ($15 parking fee) at the state park headquarters, the 1.9-mile White Dot Trail is the most direct route to the top, but it is steep. You can also opt for the 2.1-mile White Cross Trail, which is a bit gentler but still steep in spots. Depending on your skill level and time available, there are seven other main trails that allow you to conquer Monadnock from different angles.
Dramatic views of Crawford Notch make the hike up Mount Willard a truly worthwhile investment of time and energy. You'll find the trailhead behind the old Crawford Notch Train Station on Route 302 in Carroll just south of the AMC Highland Center. Rated as moderate, the climb is 3.2 miles round-trip, and the gradual ascent makes this a doable adventure for most hikers. There are plenty of places along the way to pause for a breather and to photograph water features like Centennial Pool. From the summit, you'll be looking out at chiseled granite peaks and deep gorged valleys: the handiwork of ancient glaciers.
Mount Washington via Tuckerman Ravine
Reaching the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington—the highest point in New England—on your own two feet is a pinnacle experience reserved for hikers who are sturdy, fit, and determined. The Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the most popular option, is a 4.1-mile climb (one way), and this day-long endeavor requires some planning, as sudden weather changes on this tall peak can be a danger to hikers, and you'll face dramatically cooling temperatures even on perfect days. The trail begins behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Route 16 and beds can be booked at the AMC Joe Dodge Lodge. You may want to complete the hike over two days, overnighting at the AMC's Lakes of the Clouds Hut way up in the sky.
The Presidential Traverse
Only experienced hikers in excellent shape who have planned ahead should attempt New Hampshire's ultimate hiking conquest: the Presidential Traverse. The Appalachian Mountain Club is your best resource for guidance. In short, this 22-mile hike traces the summits of eight mountains in the Presidential Range, including five of the tallest peaks in all of New England. Typically hiked north to south beginning with Mount Madison, it is completed by some in a single, grueling day. Overnighting at AMC huts in the White Mountains is an alternative.
Every three months, the moderate hike to Arethusa Falls near Bartlett, New Hampshire, is a new adventure. Spring is the season when New Hampshire's tallest waterfall surges with its greatest intensity. By summer, trees shade the well-worn 1.4-mile Arethusa Falls Trail (find the trailhead just off Route 302 in Crawford Notch State Park). When leaves begin to turn fiery shades in the fall, the falls are a photographer's dream, just be sure to go early if you want shots without fellow leaf peepers. In deep winter, cold temps can transform the cascade into a towering icicle sculpture. Hikers who veer off briefly onto the Bemis Brook Trail add a bit more distance and challenge to their hike and are rewarded with views of two additional waterfalls.
The Loon Center and Markus Wildlife Sanctuary
Loons are fascinating waterbirds, and their deep-diving prowess and haunting cry are just a few of the things you'll learn about at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. Then, set out for a walk along the Loon Nest Trail at the adjacent Markus Wildlife Sanctuary: a 200-acre patch of undeveloped forest and marshland on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. It will take you about an hour to complete the easy, 1.7-mile, yellow-blazed hike, and you may get to spy on a pair of loons that typically nests in a protected bay here in June and July.
Combine swimming and hiking on a summer's day at Echo Lake State Park in North Conway. One of New England's most picturesque spots for a freshwater swim, the park is also the starting point for a number of hikes including an easy, one-mile walk around the lake's edge, which is a fun family outing. For more of a workout and pretty aerial views of Echo Lake, hike the 1.2-mile Bryce Path to the top of Cathedral Ledge. You can also reach this scenic lookout by driving mile-long Cathedral Ledge Road in your car and saving your legs.
In the quiet town of Stoddard, a 19th-century glassmaking center, wildflowers, and wild blueberry bushes line the half-mile-long hiking trail that leads to a fire tower atop 2,152-foot Pitcher Mountain. The state's ultimate easy hike, perfect for families with kids or leashed dogs, you'll find the summit an ideal picnic spot with incredible views of forests, fields, and mountain silhouettes. From mid-May to mid-June, be sure you're prepared to defend against black fly bites. And yes, come July, you can pick blueberries for dessert on your way down.
One of the most popular stops along New Hampshire's famed Kancamagus Highway is the Sabbaday Falls Trailhead. It's a brief, not-too-strenuous hike of less than a half-mile to see the series of photogenic waterfalls here, which tumble through an ancient gorge. This may not be Flume Gorge, but it's still a worthwhile diversion if you're driving the Kanc and want to stretch your legs. And the hike to Sabbaday Falls may spark your desire to see more of the waterfalls in the Mount Washington Valley.
For a sense of accomplishment and spectacular views—without killing yourself—climb 3,121-foot Cardigan Mountain in the western part of the state. Follow the mountain road in Cardigan Mountain State Park to the western slope, where the 1.5-mile West Ridge Trail is your easiest path to the summit. Your destination is a bald granite ledge with panoramic views of Mount Monadnock, the White Mountains, and even ridgelines in Vermont and Maine. In mid-summer, look for wild blueberries along the trail. If you've booked a stay at AMC's Cardigan Lodge, a hearty, family-style meal awaits your descent.
South Pack Monadnock
Choose from three main trails in Peterborough's Miller State Park—oldest of the New Hampshire state parks—all bound for the 2,290-foot summit of South Pack Monadnock. The yellow-blazed Wapack Trail is most utilized: From the parking area on Route 101, it's a moderately difficult, 1.4-mile uphill trek to the mountaintop fire tower, which provides 360-degree views of peaks in three states. Your sightline might even stretch to the tall buildings of Boston or the snow-frosted crown of Mount Washington. More enchanting is the chance, during migratory seasons, to spy hawks, ospreys, and falcons in flight. A Raptor Observatory at the summit is staffed daily in the fall by New Hampshire Audubon.
Castle in the Clouds
Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough, New Hampshire, is more than a quirky mansion you'll want to tour while visiting the Lakes Region. It's also a 5,500-acre estate with sweeping views of Lake Winnipesaukee and 28 miles of trails beautifully maintained by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. If nothing else, be sure to pause on your drive to the castle and hike the 0.1-mile trail to Falls of Song, a photogenic, 40-foot waterfall. Nearby, the 0.8-mile Brook Walk leads to four additional waterfalls. While there is a fee to visit the castle, the hiking trails within the Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area are open free to the public year-round.