The Best USA Road Trip Routes

White Mountains & Waterfalls Road Trip

White Mountains & Waterfalls Road Trip
By Amy Balfour

The sharp-edged beauty of the White Mountains juts in from all sides as you twist between jagged peaks and wild waterfalls on this double-loop drive.

Just south in the Lakes Region, the beauty turns tranquil, eliciting easy oohs and ahhs as you drive along the shores of Squam Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee.

White Mountains waterfalls road trip

Approx. distance: 425 miles

Duration: Five days

Suggested route: Boston, Lincoln & North Woodstock, Franconia Notch State Park, Bretton Woods, Crawford Notch, North Conway, Kancamagus Hwy, Holderness & Squam Lake, Meredith, Lake Winnipesaukee, Boston

Mount Washington Auto Road in the White Mountains of New Hampshire USA

Mount Washington Auto Road, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

The route

From Boston, the two-hour drive north begins with urban sprawl and heavy traffic. These distractions ease as you continue on I-93 north and approach Lincoln, New Hampshire. Lincoln and neighbour North Woodstock sit at the junction of I-93 and the popular Kancamagus Highway, not far from Franconia Notch State Park. A half a dozen or so campgrounds, many of them RV friendly, are scattered across the two towns. Motels, inns, restaurants, and outdoor shops line Hwy 112, the main drag (which becomes the Kancamagus Hwy as you head east).

The next morning, hop onto I-93 north for the four-mile drive to Franconia Notch State Park. Road trippers can easily access two developed park campgrounds from the highway. From the park, it’s a pretty 25-minute drive through White Mountain National Forest to Bretton Woods, home of the historic Omni Mount Washington Hotel. Bretton Woods and nearby Crawford Notch have a good range of lodging options, with everything from hiker dorms, mountain huts and campgrounds to ski lodge rooms and posh resort suites. Most dining options are connected with the hotel and the Highland Center Lodge, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). The mighty Presidential Range dominates the landscape.

On the 30-minute trip to North Conway, you’ll drive through the mountain pass at Crawford Notch before turning right to follow US 302 into town. US 302 is lined with hotels, motels and restaurants. Several family friendly campgrounds – catering to tent campers and RVs – are tucked between the highway and the Saco River. Many spots overlook the water. The next morning, drive 15 minutes south to the scenic Kancamagus Highway, which climbs and drops through the White Mountain National Forest for 34.5 miles, eventually ending its run in Lincoln.

From Lincoln, it’s about 30 miles to Holderness, a low-key village on the banks of Squam Lake. It’s an eight-mile drive south to Meredith, which borders Meredith Bay on the expansive Lake Winnipesaukee. Inns, small motels and campgrounds can be found in Meredith and along much of the lake. Spend a day or two exploring attractions along the shoreline. Boston is 100 miles south.

What to see

Franconia Notch State Park

This skinny state park is ready-made for road trippers. Trailheads, a small lake and several photogenic natural attractions are a short hop off I-93 – all of them within a few miles of each other along a narrow mountain pass. Pull off at Exit 34A to hike to Flume Gorge, a waterfall powering through a sheer-walled granite gorge. Exit 34B drops drivers at the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, which lifts passengers to the 4200ft summit of Cannon Mountain. You can sunbathe, swim or kayak at pretty Echo Lake off exit 34C.

Bretton Woods

Anchored by the Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods is a four-season adventure destination. Hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and ziplining are highlights in warmer months while downhill and cross-country skiing are popular in winter. The family friendly Mount Washington Cog Railway has climbed to the summit of Mt Washington since 1869. The red-roofed resort, which is backdropped dramatically by its namesake mountain, has been a holiday destination for more than a century. It gained worldwide fame in 1944 when it played host to a global economic conference near the end of World War II..

Crawford Notch

Surrounded by the mighty Presidential Range, the Highland Center Lodge in Crawford Notch is a true hikers’ basecamp. Rocky trails shoot from the grounds up to windswept summits, powerful waterfalls and the Appalachian Trail (AT). Eight rustic huts border the AT here. Part of the AMC hut-to-hut network, they have provided bunks and meals for hikers for more than 125 years. Stop by the Highland Center for weather updates, trail information, gear, a warm meal, nature talks and good conversation. There are more trails and campgrounds down the road at Crawford Notch State Park and along the narrow Crawford Notch pass.

Kancamagus Highway

Buckle up for the best stretch of pavement on this trip, with nearly 35 miles of leafy two-lane bliss. Sights along “the Kanc” include thick forests, a wild river, high-elevation views and trails rolling into the woods. Stop by the Saco Ranger District Station at the east entrance for a map, trail summaries and a recreation day-use pass ($5), which is required for several trails along the highway. Roadside highlights include a covered bridge, the powerful cascades at Rocky Gorge, the easy hike to Sabbaday Falls and the overlooks at Kancamagus Pass. There are six national forest campgrounds along the highway. All have bathrooms and drinking water but there are no hook-ups. The drive is particularly pleasant in fall when the leaves change colour.

Squam Lake

Squam Lake is the low-key sidekick to commercialised Lake Winnipesaukee down the road. In the lakeside town of Holderness, trails meander past wild animal enclosures at the Squam Lakes Nature Center. The family friendly West Rattlesnake Trail climbs to a rocky overlook with expansive views of the lake and its islands/. Guided boat tours motor past some of the lake’s 28 islands and stop by locations seen in the Academy-Award-winning movie On Golden Pond.

Lake Winnipesaukee

Lake Winn and its 200 miles or so of shoreline have a Frankenstein charm, offering a mishmash of blingy attractions interspersed with pristine beaches. At bustling Weirs Beach you’ll find an arcade, convivial waterfront bars, a drive-in movie theatre and the M/S Mount Washington, which departs several times daily for scenic cruises around the lake. For low-key thrills, drive to Elacoya State Park, where you can swim and fish, or Castle in the Clouds, a historic arts and crafts-style mansion with trails and gorgeous lake-and-mountain views. It’s an easy 65-mile or so drive around the lake, and trails climb from the roadside trailheads into the forested mountains.

Detour: Pinkham Notch & Mt Washington State Park

From North Conway it’s a 17-mile drive along the base of the Presidential Range to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and Joe Dodge Lodge, both run by the AMC. The Tuckerman Ravine Trail, one of the most popular – if dangerous – trails to the summit of Mt Washington, begins here. The entrance to the Mt Washington Auto Road is three miles further north. Hold tight for the twisty and slightly terrifying 7.6-mile climb to the 6,288ft summit, where you’ll find an observation deck and a small museum.

White Mountains & Waterfalls Road Trip

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

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