The Kancamagus Scenic Byway located in the heart of The White Mountain National Forest is one of the best ways to experience fall foliage in northern New Hampshire. Leaf peepers from both New England and beyond come to experience the natural beauty and rich history of this beautiful place. And with colors so intense and surrounding, it’s no surprise the Kancamagus Highway Fall Foliage Scenic Drive is one of the best things to do in New Hampshire in the fall.
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History & Origin of the Name
The Kancamagus Highway pronounced as “Kank-ah-mah-gus” and commonly referred to as the “Kanc”, was the first dedicated National Scenic Byway of the Northeast.
The land in this area was named after New Hampshire’s Native American tribes. And the highway was named after the grandson of Passaconaway, Kancamagus, meaning “the Fearless One.”
Originally the highway started as two small roads and was later connected in 1959. It was plowed for the first time in 1968, and has been open year round from that point forward.
The Kancamagas Highway runs through the heart of the White Mountains from the town of Conway to Lincoln and offers scenic views, fall hikes and is the perfect place to enjoy peak foliage season.
Best Time to Drive Kancamagus Highway
You can drive through the White Mountains on Kancamagus Highway any time of year. And during the summer months it is very beautiful. However, nothing beats experiencing the fall and peak foliage season on the Kancamagus. Fall foliage starts as early as mid to late September and continues into most of October.
Peak fall foliage season usually falls between the week before and after Columbus Day/ Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Therefore the first 2 weeks of October are the busiest due to peak season, the holiday weekend and the large annual Fryeburg Fair. So pack a little patience if you plan to visit during this time.
With that being said, the Kancamagus Highway Fall Foliage is something you don’t want to miss. So for everything you need to know about the Kancamagus Highway Fall Foliage Scenic Drive, including driving tips, favorite stops and nearby places to visit, then continue reading.
Things to Know Before you Go
1. Check your gas levels
The Kancamagus Highway is a 34.5 mile stretch across the White Mountains between the towns of Conway and Lincoln, New Hampshire. There are no gas stations along the highway. So make sure you have ample amount of gas or fill up on either side of the mountain before you start the drive.
2. Bring supplies needed for your trip
Make sure to pack plenty of water, food and supplies such as bug spray and sunscreen needed for your trip. Because there are no stores or restaurants along the way.
There are however, restrooms at almost every stop.
3. There is NO cell coverage
There is ZERO cell service. So don’t expect to be able to make a call or even use your phone navigation or google maps. So pick up a paper map at the ranger station or download a map beforehand.
4. Pets are permitted
The trails are dog friendly. Just make sure to keep your dog on a leash and pick up after your pet. I would also advise a tick check afterwards to be safe.
Ways to Drive the Kancamagus
You can spend anywhere from a 2 hour drive to a full day on the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. It depends on how much you want to see and do. And also how many times you stop along the way and how many hikes you take. There are also a few ways to drive the Kancamagus Highway Fall Foliage Scenic Drive. Here are the options:
- Starting from either Conway or Lincoln and go out and back on the Kancamagus Highway
- Short Loop: Drive the Kancamagus Highway and include the small loop, via Bear Notch Road for the scenic drive on HWY 302.
- Long Loop: Drive the entire scenic loop, including Kancamagus Highway and HWY 302 through Bretton Woods, Mount Washington and Crawford Notch State Park
We choose to do an out and back from Conway. With just this, it was a full day and we stopped at all the stops listed below. So if you plan to include HWY 302, make sure to give yourself enough time or add a second day.
And If you start from Lincoln, then just reverse the order of stops.
Want to know more about the Kancamagus Highway? Then check out this self-guided audio driving tour.
Kancamagus Highway Fall Foliage Scenic Stops
1. Saco Ranger Station
If you start your road trip in Conway, then make a stop a the Saco Ranger Visitor Center. Or if you start in Lincoln, stop at the Lincoln Woods Log Cabin Ranger Station. Here you can pick up a map of the highway with a mile maker for the most popular points of interest.
You can also purchase a $5 parking pass, which will allow you to park in all the designated parking areas along the highway. However, if you hold an America the Beautiful or other National Park Pass, your parking is free, just make sure to display the pass.
All the marked stops have parking areas. We went on the busiest weekend of the year and managed to park in the lots, all but once. You are permitted to park along the road as long as all 4 wheels are off the pavement.
As you leave the Saco Ranger Station you will follow the Swift River along highway to the first destination.
2. Albany Covered Bridge
Covered wooden bridges are a thing in New Hampshire! So make sure to see at least one on your visit. The Albany Covered Bridge was first constructed in 1858 with an original cost of $1,300.
Today you can still walk or drive down this one lane bridge. Just make sure your vehicle clearance is less than 7’9” if you want to drive on it. Otherwise parking is nearby to walk over the bridge.
Try to view the bridge from both sides, because the wood is either lighter or darker depending on the side. Unless you plan to hike, it’s an easy quick stop. And with plenty of parking.
If you plan to hike in the area, the trailhead for Nanamocomuck Ski Trails or Boulder Loop Trail are at this stop.
3. Lower Falls Recreation Area
This riverside recreation area is the most popular stop on the Kancamagus Highway and for good reason. It has great views of the Swift River.
In the summer months it is a great place to picnic, sunbathe and swim. But in the fall it offers a scenic view of beautiful fall colors just a short walk from the parking area.
The Swift River flows over granite rocks, where you can walk along the river. Just be cautious as the rocks can get slippery when wet.
In my opinion, this might be the best scenic spot along the highway. So, try to include this in your itinerary.
4. Rocky Gorge Scenic Area
Another busy stop is the Rocky Gorge. It’s the one place we had to park on the road. So if cars are on the side of the road when you arrive, try to park in a spot before the parking lot if available.
The Rocky Gorge is a short walk from the parking area. Wading and swimming are not allowed at this stop.
You can view the gorge from all sides by accessing the footbridge that crosses the Swift River. At all angles there are picturesque views of the Swift River cascading into the gorge. With the best views, in my opinion, seen from the footbridge.
Once over the bridge, you will find a 1 mile loop around Falls Pond. At the start of the loop, if you stay to the left, you will see a small viewing platform. There you can enjoy the view of the pond without walking the loop. The pond is a popular fishing spot, but it was also a nice spot to just enjoy nature.
5. Russell Colbath House
The next stop includes historic sites and structures. You can find parking spots along the highway in front of the barn or a small lot to the side.
The Russell Colbath House is the only surviving early homestead on the Swift River Valley. You can tour the home on weekends during the season. At this stop you will find the historic home, where you can tour and walk the grounds, view the timber frame barn, walk through the town of Albany cemetery and hike the Rail and River Trail.
We visited on a Friday, so the home was not open to tour. But we did walk around the property. And hiked the Rail and River Trail, which in my opinion was just okay. Because there is so much to do on this drive, I would say, skip the trail and spend your time on something else.
6. Sabbaday Falls
Sabbaday Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in New Hampshire and therefore also one of the most popular stops along the Kancamagus highway.
This easy out and back trail is less than a mile to complete and should definintly make the list of stops on your Kangamagus Highway Fall Foiage Scenic Drive.
The walk is a little uphill with some stairs, however it’s still fairly easy. On your walk you will see interpretive signs where you can read about the history of Sabbaday Falls.
We walked all the way up the path to the top and then down the stairs. However it is probably better to walk up the stairs and then down the path. I think that way offers better views overall.
7. Kancamagus Pass Highest Point
Reaching the summit of Kancamagus is a picture worthy experience in my opinion. And surprisingly not that many people stop at the sign. At least not while we were there. There are scenic overlooks both before and after, so maybe that’s why.
There isn’t any parking near the sign, so you have to pull off to the side of the road to park. It’s a quick stop to snap a photo or two and then head back down the mountain.
8. Scenic Overlooks
There are a few scenic overlooks along the drive. Depending on the weather, you may have fantastic views of the White Mountains or no views at all. We had an overcast day, so our views were not the best.
Sugar Hill, Pemigewasset Overlook and Hancock Overlook are three scenic stops near or at the top. All have ample parking, so depending on the weather will determine if you stop at one or all of them.
My favorite scenic overlook was just after the hairpin turn going down the mountain towards Lincoln. I do not even know the name. There are very few parking spots, but I thought it had the best view.
9. Lincoln Woods Trailhead
Lincoln Woods Trailhead is the last stop on the journey. Here you can hike for miles or just take a short walk over the Pemigewasset River Suspension Bridge.
This stop has plenty of parking, restrooms, potable water and interpretive panels.
The Lincoln Woods Trail runs 2.6 miles along the Pemigewasset River. However, it connects with numerous other trails such as Black Pong Trail and Franconia Brook Trail.
It was late in the day when we arrived at the Lincoln Woods stop. So we walked the trail for about an hour and then tuned around, so we could get back before dark. It was an easy flat trail with views of the river and a beautiful canopy of trees covering the trail.
After the Kancamagus Highway Fall Scenic Drive
After your Kancamagus Highway Fall Foliage Scenic Drive, if you have time, there are a few things on each side of the pass to check out either before or after your drive.
It’s even better if you have a few more days to explore the area. Then you should check out this detailed list of Best Places To Visit In New Hampshire In The Fall
Things to do in town of Conway
- North Conway Village
- Conway Scenic Railroad
- Hike Diana Baths
- Mount Washington
- Echo Lake
Things to do in town of Lincoln
- Flume Gorge
- Loon Mountain Ski Resort
- Franconia Notch State Park
- Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram
Hotels nearby or Campgrounds along the Kancamagus Highway
There are many sites and trails to explore along the highway such as Champney Falls and others. The list above does not include them all. So if you want to spend more time exploring the sites of the the Kancamagus Highway, consider staying at one of these campsites or hotels. Just check for details on each such as seasonal dates, reservations and restrictions.
- Covered Bridge Campground
- Blackberry Crossing Campground
- Jigger Johnson Campground
- Big Rock Campground
- Hannock Campground
Visiting the White Mountains and the driving Kancamagus Highway in peak foliage season is the ultimate fall experience! We had a wonderful time and I think you will too!
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