August 23, 2022
A Weekend Getaway: White Mountain National Forest
At the time of this writing, a good portion of the United States has been mired in an epic heat wave, and I can’t help but begin planning this fall’s road trips. Although New England is truly fabulous at all times of the year, it truly does shine in the autumn – if you’ve never experienced it, it’s a bucket-list item, I promise.
While the Northeast United States has many awesome loops and trips frequented by visitors in all seasons, one of my family’s favorite New England destinations is a leaf-peeping trip through the White Mountain National Forest, which is a large federally owned parcel spanning 800,000 acres in New Hampshire and Western Maine.
Reachable from Escape’s New York depot in only about six hours, and with both dispersed (free) campsite options as well as reservable campgrounds, plus glorious waterfalls, mountain views, and family-friendly hikes, the White Mountain National Forest is a perfect weekend mini-road trip to take in a campervan.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE
The Kancamagus Scenic Byway is virtually mandatory for any trip through the White Mountains. “The Kanc,” as the locals call it, is a 34.5-mile-long section of New Hampshire’s Route 112, traveling up and through the Kancamagus Pass between the towns of Conway, NH, and Lincoln, NH. Along this route, you won’t find any grocery stores, gas stations, or even residences – just miles of forested mountain views, hiking trails, and scenic overlooks.
Connect from the Kancamagus to the White Mountain Trail Byway to make a full loop of the region. Totaling around 135 miles, you could technically do the full loop in a day, but it’s best to break it up to allow time for checking out the multiple covered bridges, historic sites, and roadside hikes.
Additionally, please note that the area can be very busy, especially in peak foliage season. These are rural, two-lane roads without the opportunity to pass – travel can be slow, but the experience is worth it.
FIND A PLACE TO CAMP
Dispersed Campsites: As with most federally owned lands, there are a number of dispersed, or primitive, free campsites located along Forest Service roads within the boundaries of the National Forest. Remember, these may have a fire ring but will otherwise have no amenities like tables, toilets or trash service. Use a tool like www.freecampsites.net to check out some of the options:
Kilkenny Loop Road, Milan, NH. A 15-mile hard packed dirt road with many sites along the route.
Haystack Mountain Road, Twin Mountain, NH. 11 marked sites along an out-and-back dirt road.
Gale River Loop Road. A dirt loop only about 2 miles from Haystack Mountain Road and a great option should you find those sites full.
National Forest and State Park Campgrounds: The White Mountain National Forest has at least 15 reservable campgrounds managed by the Forest Service, which you can book at www.recreation.gov. There are six Forest Service campgrounds located along the Kancamagus Highway alone, which are a great central option. My family has stayed at the Covered Bridge Campground which, in addition to having to drivethrough a covered bridge to access the campground, is also located very handily to both the Lower Falls and Rocky Gorge Scenic Areas.
Additionally, the State of New Hampshire has two State Parks located within the bounds of the National Forest: Franconia Notch State Park and Crawford Notch State Park. Campgrounds are located in both of these State Parks and are reservable at www.reserveramerica.com.
Note: Although these are paid sites and will include a fire ring, picnic tables, and toilets, not all campgrounds offer showers or electric hookups.
WHAT TO DO
Road Tour: Simply driving your campervan along the route outlined above will have you
enjoying much of the splendor of the White Mountains from the comfort of your van. Plan to simply poke along and pull over at any scenic overlook, village, or stream that looks interesting. For some highlights definitely worth stopping for, read on…
Waterfalls: There are some truly impressive falls in this region, many very easily accessible even to the kids you may have in your party. Along the Kancamagus highway, some of the best include:
Sabbaday Falls: One of the most popular stops along the Kancamagus, the falls have a 45-foot drop. A series of gravel paths and wooden staircases make the walk quite easy.
Rocky Gorge: a short walk from the parking area will lead you to a footbridge spanning the gorge for an excellent (and easy) photo op.
Lower Falls: this picnic and recreation area is popular in the summer months for people who may want to take a dip in the river (swimming is not allowed at some of the falls).
Hiking: Hikes in this region will range from easy, packed gravel paths to some challenging treks, including 48 “four-thousand-footers” – or those peaks whose summits are greater than 4,000 feet in elevation.
Mount Washington: Speaking of tall mountains – Mount Washington is the tallest peak in the White Mountains (and, in fact, in the Northeast US). While you can reach the summit via an Auto Road, vehicle size and weight restrictions will likely prohibit Escape’s larger vehicles from the trip. Another option is the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Founded in 1869 to deliver guests to two hotels on the summit (no longer there), this rail trip is one of the steepest cog railways in the world. The trip offers some unparalleled views (and potentially some frayed nerves, depending on your feelings about heights).
Kids’ Activities: Storyland is a fairy-tale-themed amusement park that is a family favorite throughout the Northeast. All your favorite rides and attractions are nestled in a wooded setting. The highlight for my kids was definitely meeting Cinderella! Clark’s Bears is another kid-friendly option offering bear shows, a railroad, and other rides.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:
If you’re looking for a sit-down breakfast, Water Wheel Breakfast and Gift House in Jefferson, NH will fuel you up with humongous 10” pancakes – bonus points for the on-site gift shop where you can pick up your souvenirs. Just need a coffee stop? Try the Moon Café and Bakery in Lincoln, NH.
Keep some picnic supplies and cold drinks in your van’s fridge because you will inevitably find The Perfect Spot for an al fresco lunch next to the river. Another option (don’t laugh): the McDonald’s in North Conway, NH. An uncommonly whimsical McDonald’s featuring down-hill ski-themed décor, you can eat your lunch inside a gondola while the kids burn off some steam in the play place. We’ve used this option more than once when we need a restroom, some coffee, and to grab some wi-fi to plan our next spot.
Our favorite spot at the end of the day for après-hike drinks and food is the Schilling Beer Co. in Littleton, NH. This European-inspired craft lager brewery is located right on the Ammonoosuc River, in the shadow of a picturesque, covered bridge. The campus also includes Resilience Brewing, their sister brewery focusing more on American-style ales, and a wood-fired kitchen that serves up some really killer pizzas.
THINGS TO NOTE:
Some specific recreation sites in the National Forest require a fee. A daily pass is only $5 and can be purchased from self-serve stations located at the site. The pass is displayed on your dash and is good for any fee site you may visit that day.
New Hampshire is a sales-tax-free state! You’ll pass through many adorable New England villages – take advantage of the tax-free shopping.
Burn it where you buy it: New Hampshire generally prohibits the entry of out-of-state firewood to help stop the spread of invasive insects that endanger the local forests.
This is a mountainous area and some roads are only open seasonally. If you are traveling in winter, early spring, or late fall, do your research to make sure there are no unexpected closures.