The Kancamagus Highway is one of New England’s most scenic drives, especially when the forest is bursting with fall colors. This 34.5-mile (55.5-kilometer) long route travels through the White Mountain National Forest between Conway and Lincoln, New Hampshire, and offers plenty of scenic views and hiking opportunities. The “Kanc” as it’s affectionately known to locals, winds its way up to an elevation of 2,855 feet (870 meters) offering visitors fantastic views of the White Mountains.
White you don’t need to leave the comfort of your vehicle to enjoy the views along the Kancamagus Highway, visitors who venture beyond the paved road will find plenty of scenic sights to explore including waterfalls, gorges, swimming holes, covered bridges and more.
The Kancamagus Highway has starting points in both Lincoln and Conway, New Hampshire, and the route can be driven in either direction. There are several ways to get to the Kancamagus Highway, and having your own car is the best way to experience the route.
Portland International Jetport (PWM) in Maine is the closest major airport to the Kancamagus Highway. From Portland, it’s a 55-mile (89-kilometer) drive to the Kancamagus Highway starting point in Conway, New Hampshire, which typically takes a little over an hour. Alternatively, many visitors opt to fly into Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) in Massachusetts, which is a 130-mile (209-kilometer) drive from Conway, New Hampshire.
Most visitors arrive at the Kancamagus Highway by car, and once you’re here it’s also the best way to get around.
There is no public transportation along the Kancamagus Highway, but several bus tour companies offer scenic tours along the route. Many of these tours are only offered during fall foliage season and may also visit other sights in New Hampshire and across New England. It’s highly recommended to self drive along this incredibly scenic road, so that you can be in control of all the places that you’d like to stop at along the way.
The Kancamagus Highway is free to drive but if you want to park anywhere in the White Mountain National Forest, you’ll need a White Mountain National Forest Recreation Pass. You can purchase a pass online prior to your visit, at self-serve pay stations along the route, at the ranger stations in Lincoln or Conway, and at select local vendors in town. Both day passes and annual passes are available.
There are no hotels along the Kancamagus Highway, so visitors often stay overnight in Lincoln or Conway on either end of the route. Some visitors opt to camp at one of the six national forest campgrounds located along the scenic drive.
Many consider Conway and North Conway to be the most charming towns in the entire White Mountains. These two towns provide easy access to the outdoors and are not only a great basecamp for exploring the Kancamagus Highway, but also the Mount Washington Auto Road. You’ll find every type of accommodation option in Conway from amenity-filled resorts and quaint bed-and-breakfasts, to standard hotel rooms and vacation rentals.
Located at the eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway, Lincoln offers a wide variety of lodging options. Staying in Lincoln also provides easy access to Franconia Notch State Park and other popular sights like the Flume Gorge and Cannon Mountain. In downtown Lincoln you’ll mostly find locally-owned inns and vacation rentals. Just outside Lincoln, you’ll find several hotel chain options. If you want to stay close to the mountains, check out the accommodations at Loon Mountain.
There are six campgrounds located along the Kancamagus Highway and all are operated by the White Mountain National Forest. All campsites along the scenic byway offer drinking water, restrooms, fire pits, and picnic tables. Coin-operated showers are only found at the Jigger Johnson Campground. Most campsites are only available on a first-come, first-served basis but reservations can be made in advance online for the Covered Bridge Campground.
The Kancamagus Highway is open year-round, but summer and fall are the most popular times to visit. Typically the best fall colors are in early October, but peak foliage varies from year to year with some color changes beginning as early as mid-September. September and October is definitely the most popular time to visit, and with that comes more crowds and higher accommodation prices. Despite the crowds, we still recommend driving the Kancamagus Highway during peak foliage – it truly is a beautiful time to visit and you can plan your trip in a way to avoid some of the crowds.
Winter is also a surprisingly beautiful time to visit, especially if you’re into winter sports. In winter, the Albany Covered Bridge is closed to vehicles but remains open to foot and cross-country ski traffic. Trailheads along the highway provide access to hundreds of miles of snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, and the waterfalls are especially beautiful when draped with ice.
Driving the Kancamagus Highway from end to end only takes about 45 minutes, but you should plan on spending at least half of a day to take in the main sights. If you’d like to take a hike or two and spend some time swimming in Lower Falls, plan on a full day or more.
If you’re driving the Kancamagus Highway during peak fall colors – or really anytime during the summer season, you’ll want to start your drive early in the day, before sunrise is best. Many of the popular area parking lots begin to fill up by 10am, especially on weekends so visiting on a weekday is even better.
Albany Covered Bridge spans the Swift River just six miles (10 kilometers) west of Conway. It was first constructed in 1858 and repairs over the years have kept the bridge in working condition. Vehicles are welcome to drive over the bridge as long as they don’t exceed a height of 7’9’’. There is also a parking area near the bridge and interpretative panels that discuss the importance of early bridges and wagon trails for early farming communities in the White Mountains.
Lincoln Woods provides access to several trails that head deep into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, 45,000 acres of strictly protected woodland and one of 6 wilderness zones wiithin the White Mountains Forest. Hikers will find many quality trails to explore here including old logging roads that follow the rocky river.
Water cascades through a narrow gorge to create a gorgeous waterfall at Rocky Gorge. The falls are just a short walk from the parking area, and a pedestrian footbridge crosses the gorge offering a fantastic spot to both view and photograph the falls.
A popular swimming spot on hot summer days, Lower Falls is a beautiful spot to visit anytime of year. Here, the Swift River churns over smooth granite rocks creating welcoming swimming holes and natural waterslides and it’s one of the few places you can safely swim along the Kancamagus Highway. The recreation area also features small sandy beaches and has plenty of massive granite rocks perfect for sunbathing on.
Sabbaday Falls is the most popular hikes along the Kancamagus Highway. This multi-tiered waterfall spills through a narrow gorge into emerald-colored pools. It’s a very picturesque spot, and well worth the 15-minute hike to the falls.
There are four major scenic overlooks along the Kancamagus Highway and the views from the Pemigewasset Overlook are some of the best in all of New Hampshire. A viewing pavilion provides interpretive signage describing the surrounding peaks.
The Discovery Trail which is a great little hike with the opportunity to learn more about forest ecology, as this 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) loop trail tells the story of a forest being reborn. Follow along the self-guided tour past interpretive signs that explains how pioneer species move into an area first and make room for others, the layers that make up a woodland from understory through the canopy. This trail is a nice walk for anyone.
This easy 0.7-mile (1.1-kilometer) round-trip hike leads to a picturesque multi-tiered waterfall crashing through a narrow gorge. Hikers can climb a steep stone staircase to a viewing platform at the top of the falls.
Just beyond the pedestrian bridge at Rocky Gorge, a one-mile (1.6-kilometer) loop trail encircles the peaceful Falls Pond. This is a popular fishing area and in winter this trail connects with the Nanamocomuck Ski Trail system.
Located just four miles east of Lincoln, New Hampshire, the Lincoln Woods Trail follows an abandoned railroad grade and runs for 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers) along the Pemigewasset River. A vast network of trails branch off the Lincoln Woods Trail and lead deeper into the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
Layers: Weather on the Kancamagus Highway can change in an instant. Always be prepared for all types of weather by bringing extra layers with you and if you’re visiting in late fall or winter then you’ll want a warm winter jacket too.
Footwear: A pair of comfortable walking shoes will work well for short hikes, but you’ll want to have hiking boots for longer hikes. And if you plan to do any swimming at Lower Falls or wading along the Swift River, you’ll want to bring a pair of water shoes with good grip.
Daypack: Even if you only plan on doing a few short hikes, a comfortable daypack can make a world of difference. A daypack is useful for keeping extra layers, snacks, water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray, and more close at hand.
Bug Repellant: If you’re visiting in late spring or early summer, you’ll definitely want to bring along some bug spray – just in case.
Plenty of Drinks and Snacks: Except for the towns of Conway and Lincoln on either side of the Kancamagus Highway, you won’t find any restaurants or grocery stores along the scenic drive. Be sure to bring along a picnic lunch and plenty of snacks and drinks to fuel all the hiking you plan to do.
Water: Drinking water is available at ranger stations, campgrounds and several other locations in the park. Be sure to bring refillable water bottles with you.
Hand Sanitizer and Toilet Paper: Restrooms are available at most recreation areas and trailheads along the Kancamagus Highway. It’s a good idea to bring along some hand sanitizer and toilet paper just in case the restroom runs out.
Cash for Parking or Campground Fees: If you haven’t picked up a White Mountain National Forest Recreation Pass or reserved your camp spot in advance, you’ll want to have some cash handy to pay any required fees at the self-service pay stations along the route.
Phone Charger: If you’re taking pictures with your phone, running out of batteries may result in missed opportunities. A DC car charger is best, so that you can charge your phone while driving.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful
for everyone who visits.
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