A considerable part of northern New Hampshire is included in the White Mountain National Forest, which is not to be confused with a national park. The emphasis in national forests is on the preservation of natural beauty, and thus they have fewer and simpler facilities than national parks.
Hiking, camping, swimming, boating, fishing, picnicking and nature talks are the major activities. A maze of trails, some very easy, others not so easy, covers a lot of the forest's vast expanse. Signs by the roadside mark the trailheads but don't wander in just for a 30-minute walk if you're not familiar with the area and don't know the trail's level of difficulty.
Camping areas, some with simple facilities (flush toilets, sometimes coin-op showers), othersare located throughout the national forest, as are pretty picnic areas. Some accept reservations, but most are first-come, first-served. They are in great demand on weekends in the warm months, so arrive early to claim a spot (Friday morning, or even Thursday, is not too early in summer).
The White Mountain National Forest website is the place to start your planning, and you can stop at the Gateway Visitor Center, I-93, Exit 32, 200 Kancamagus Highway (NH Route 112), Lincoln NH( map) for National Forest information, lodging and dining tips, local maps, simple trail maps, camping guides, and the latest weather reports.
Another Visitor Center is on the Kancamagus Highway: Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, 5 mi/8 km east of Lincoln NH (map).; amd the White Mountain National Forest headquarters, 719 N Main Street, Laconia NH (map).
The best guidance for hiking in the national forest is the Appalachian Mountain Club, based in Boston, which publishes guidebooks, trail guides and maps both electronic and on paper. AMC also operates a system of comfortable overnight lodges and simple hikers' "huts" (basic dormitories and shelters) in the White Mountains.
Guided hikes are featured by AMC naturalists throughout the summer.
To stay at an AMC lodge, you must have a reservation (tel 603-466-2727, Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm), and you must pay in full at the time of reservation (credit cards accepted). Click here for rates, reservations and refund terms.
Children 12 and under receive a discount for the beds and meals, and as a convenience the kitchen will make up trail lunches.
If you'd like a room alone, you will have to pay for each unused bunk in the room, if others are turned away as a result.
In July and August rooms and beds can be in great demand, so reserve well in advance during those months, and at least check bed availability in other months.
The Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center - Joe Dodge Lodge, 9 miles (14.5 km) south of Gorham NH, 11 miles (18 km) north of Jackson on NH Route 16 (map), people of all ages can find inexpensive family-room and bunkroom (dormitory) accommodations (106 bunks in all, with shared shower rooms and toilets) and simple, hearty meals.
The AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch, on US Route 302, four miles southeast of Bretton Woods on the southwest slope of Mount Washington, offers quite comfortable accommodations for singles, couples, and families, dining facilities, and plenty of outdoor activities 3.4 miles (5.5 km) northwest of Crawford Notch State Park.
Besides lodges accessible by road, the AMC maintains a laudable system of mountain "huts" (simple hikers' dormitories, some with dining facilities) offroad, in the high country along hikers' trails, including the Appalachian Trail.
AMC Lonesome Lake Hut: dormitory to left, dining to right.
A Bit of History
In the old days (mid- to late-1900s) the huts were attended and trail meals prepared by "hutmen" and "hutwomen," a hearty breed of New England youth who prided themselves on being able to pack on their backs all the supplies needed in the huts—to a weight which would make a normal person stagger—and almost run up the mountains with the load several times a week.
These days, with many more visitors coming through and greater demands on the facilities, hut staff are still there, but supplies are brought to some huts by vehicle or helicopter.
Hotels, Motels & Inns
Besides the AMC lodges and huts, the towns and villages of the Mount Washington Valley have dozens of historic hotels, modern motels, and fine country inns. Use this Hotel Map with Prices to check on room rates, availability, and locations for your vacation:
Car and bus are the ways to reach the Mount Washington Valley. Concord Coach Lines's Northern New Hampshire route departs Boston and its Logan Airport, and stops at Littleton, Lincoln, Plymouth, Berlin, Gorham, Pinkham Notch, Jackson, North Conway, Conway, West Ossipee, Center Harbor, Meredith, Tilton, Concord, and North Londonderry.
Coming from Lake Winnipesaukee, NH 25 to 113 to 16; the more scenic approach is up the eastern shore of the lake from Alton on 28 to 109 to 25, then to 113 and 16.
The White Mountain Highway (US 302/ NH 16A) is the main north-south street through North Conway.
Distances from North Conway:
Boston MA: 142 miles (229 km) S
Concord NH: 73 miles (118 km) SW
Lincoln NH: 39 miles (63 km) W
Mount Washington Hotel, with the mountain behind.
Located at the intersection of three major storm tracks, the summit has an alpine climate that is renowned for its erratic, severe weather and high precipitation which claim the lives of numerous experienced hikers and climbers every year.
New Englanders delight in exchanging horror stories of the latest report: winds of 150 miles per hour (the record for wind recorded by humans, not part of a tropical cyclone, recorded here on the summit, is 231 mph/372 km/h!). Temperatures of -47°F/-99°C are not unheard of. The wind-chill factors don't seem earthly. (During the "bombogenesis" storm of January 2018, the wind chill was as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 Celsius).
Regional news media often carry the reports even though they don't really affect anyone but the eager climatologists at the Mount Washington Observatory who volunteer to sit through the storms on the mountaintop.
In 1965, I hiked up Mount Washington into a blizzard, in a temperature of 14°F (-10°C) and winds gusting to 100 mph (161 km/h) at the summit, on the last day of August!
You can check current weather conditions at the summit on the Mount
Washington Observatory website.
How to Reach the Summit
There are three ways to reach the summit:
Since 1849, more than 219 people have died climbing Mount Washington. The leading causes of death are falls, heart attacks, hypothermia, and avalanches. Mount Washington is a "small mountain" compared to the Rockies or the Alps, but it is just as dangerous! More than 100 days per year, the wind at the summit exceeds hurricane force.
Do these things to climb safely:
1. Study the weather forecast so you know what to expect.
2. Wear/bring proper clothing for the weather at the summit. On that day in August 1965, I started my climb in shorts and T-shirt, and changed to jeans, heavy sweater and sturdy windbreaker, barely enough to keep me warm in the summit's 14°F (-10°C) temperatures and 100-mph (161-km/h) winds. Luckily, there was still an inn at the summit for refuge and hot drinks for us crazy teenagers.
In winter, have a sleeping bag, shelter and food so you can survive overnight if you get lost.
3. Study your route and learn its hazards. Stay on the trail. Falls—the leading cause of death—usually occur off the trails.
4. Hike with a companion, and leave notice of your plans with friends so they can alert authorities if you do not keep to your schedule.
5. Don't hurry, don't push yourself hard, and "When in doubt, chicken out." You're doing this for enjoyment, not to tempt death.
If you need to be rescued—if you can be rescued—you will bear the cost, probably in the tens of thousands of dollars.
In warm weather you can drive your own car (no trucks or campers) up the Mount Washington Auto Road, a 7.6-mile (12.23-km) alpine toll road to the summit. that begins at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, 1 Mount Washington Auto Road, of NH Route 16 in Gorham NH.
The entrance to the Mount Washington Auto Road is on NH Route 16 in Pinkham Notch, opposite the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center (map).
If your vehicle is unsuitable for the climb, or you'd rather not drive, tour vans can take you up and back down again (1-1/2 hours) for a fee.
By the way, Great Glen Outfitters at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, opposite the entrance to the Auto Road, sells outdoor equipment, and rents bikes and helmets. Their system of trails is open to the public for free. They also organize river paddling trips.
Winter: Snow Coaches
But what about going up the mountain in winter? Hiking is dangerous and should be attempted only by experienced winter climbers with proper equipment. The Auto Road is closed to private vehicles, which have little chance of making it to the summit and lots of chances to slide off the road and tumble down the mountainside.
Snow coaches can climb half way to the summit in winter along the Mount Washington Auto Road.
The specially-modified Snow Coach vans have continuous tracks, like tanks and bulldozers, and special extra- low gear ratios that usually make it possible to go at least half way up—and, even more important, down—the mountain on the snow-and-ice-covered auto road.
The views are spectacular! This is how, in winter, you get up there where the air is clear to see New Hampshire—and beyond—from the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.
The experienced Snow Coach drivers, men and women, tell you all about the mountain as you rumble along: the weather, climate, wildlife, and the colorful history of the mountain and the auto road.
The driver stops several times for passengers to get out (if they wish), experience the howling, sub-zero winds, and take photographs.
Weather and snow conditions may prevent you from going all the way to the summit. It would be very expensive, and unnecessary, to clear the auto road of snow and ice at all times—even if it were possible.
There is always a turning-point, however, kept clear for the Snow Coach vans to maneuver for descent.
Coming down the mountain, Snow Coach drivers rarely apply the brakes. The extra-low gear range is just right for the van to cruise slowly and safely along using engine (compression) braking.
A Bit of History
The Mount Washington Auto Road is something of an engineering marvel. In 1854 a private business, the Mount Washington Road Company, began construction of a carriage road up the side of Mount Washington. In those pre-dynamite days they had only black powder (gunpowder) a "low" explosive poorly suited to blowing up rock. All detonation drilling holes had to be done by hand—in the face of Mount Washington's weather and temperature extremes.
Progress was made, but the company's money ran out in 1856, and the project languished. In 1859 a new company, the Mount Washington Summit Road Company, took over and resumed construction in 1859.
On August 8, 1861 the rough one-lane road, completed to the summit, was inaugurated and opened. Travelers rode to the summit, where several large resort hotels had been built, in horse-drawn omnibuses and carriages.
On the north side of Mount Washington near Bretton Woods is the base station of the renowned Mount Washington Cog Railway. The ingenious, historic train can chug you safely to the summit along a 37% grade. More...
North Conway NH
On the edge of the White Mountain National Forest and at the end of Mount Washington Valley, North Conway is the sports capital of the White Mountains.
North Conway's railroad station now serves as the base for the Conway Scenic Railroad excursion trains.
North Conway, along the eastern edge of New Hampshire's White Mountains (map), is the center of outdoor activities in this region, including hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, skiing and snowboarding.
The most prominent landmark in North Conway is the old railroad station on Norcross Circle, refurbished to host the Conway Scenic Railroad. You'll see it on the west side of the White Mountain Highway (NH Route 16/US 302; map), the town's main north-south street, just across Schouler Park.
You can walk to almost everything in the town center by parking somewhere near Schouler Park and the classic railroad station.
The Mount Cranmore ski area is on the northeastern outskirts of the town less than mile (1.5 km) from the railroad station. Other ski areas are nearby.
North Conway is legally just a locale in the larger incorporated town of Conway, near the eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway. The legal center of the municipality is Center Conway or Conway Village, 6.4 miles (10 km) southeast of North Conway along US Route 302/NH Route 16. Along this route are numerous hotels, motels, restaurants, shops and services that you may want. You'll need a car for these.
To the north of North Conway, Intervale is a pleasant suburb with several fine inns and good motels. Glen is a busy crossroads village. The village of Jackson is the most picturesque, and Bartlett more rural.
What to See & Do
North Conway is definitely a year-round destination.
In summer it's a mecca for hiking, camping, kayaking, canoeing, river-rafting, and other forest-and-river outdoor activities, with fit, tanned, bright-eyed women and men striding purposefully along its main street.
Not feeling so vigorous? Drive the Kancamagus Highway through the White Mountains National Forest, or board the Conway Scenic Railroad for a spectacular mountain-vista rail tour of the White Mountains.
For young children, there's Story Land, a delightful small fantasy-and-fun park with rides and amusements.
Besides hiking and camping in the state parks and national forests, the Mount Washington Valley offers many other activities.
Right in North Conway town center behind Schouler Park (map) is the romantic old station of the Conway Scenic Railroad (tel 603-356-5251), built in 1874 and restored to its present condition in 1974. You can buy a ticket for the scenic ride through the mountain country; choose your seat from among those in the enclosed cars or the open-air "cinder collectors."
A steam locomotive and decades-old diesel engines are on hand to provide the power, and if you go a little early you can visit the roundhouse to see where the locomotives are turned around. The trip takes about an hour.
In December, special Polar Express trips are run.
Another option is to rent a canoe, kayak, tube or stand-up paddle board for the day or the week from Saco Bound Inc, 2 miles east of North Conway on US 302. The Saco River has lots of smooth and easy areas. Day-trips, overnight trips and canoe pickup service are available, as well as daily canoe rental. The season runs from April through October.
Story Land for Kids
Story Land, a children's amusement park with rides, clowns, animals, and lots of other treats is at 850 NH Route 16 in Glen, NH, six miles (10 km) north of North Conway.
There's an admission fee, but it covers all of the park's rides. Children under 4 are admitted without charge. I've known lots of kids who loved it!
Story Land is open daily from mid-June through early September, and then weekends only until mid-October.
Ski Areas in Summer
Ski areas near North Conway at Attitash and Wildcat Mountain don't fully close down in summer. They've developed full warm-weather recreation programs to keep the visitors coming and the bills paid.
At Attitash, the lifts keep working to take you up to the top of the Alpine Slide, a long track which you schuss down on a little cart—an exhilarating ride intended for all ages.
At Wildcat Mountain the cafeteria stays open for those wanting a snack before boarding the gondolas for the 25-minute round-trip cable car ride up the mountainside, in operation daily from late June to early September. From mid-September to -mid-October 11, it's open on weekends.
In winter North Conway is a ski mecca, with five downhill ski areas in or near the town, and cross-country skiing in Jackson, just north of North Conway,one of New England's premier Nordic ski centers.
Altogether there are 94 downhill trails and 21 lifts, in this region, and the slopes range from those for the beginner to those that present a challenge even to some experienced skiers.
On US Route 302 in Bartlett NH, just west of Glen, Attitash (AT-uh-TASH) is small but interesting—even challenging—with convenient lodging and dining.
Very near North Conway on its northeastern outskirts, it's small, friendly and good for beginners and families.
Located right on the easter edge of North Conway, it's walking distance from the town center if you're not carrying much. Slopes are sunny and cheerful.
Off by itself in a pristine valley, the slopes loom above a beautiful lake. It's off the beaten path, which means no crowds, only devotees.
In the heart of White Mountain National Forest near Pinkham Notch, Wildcat is a skiers' mountain enjoying spectacular views of massive Mount Washington on the other side of the valley.
Many local inns offer special ski packages which include lift fees for all five areas.
Besides the five developed ski areas in the valley, it is possible to ski in the cirque at Tuckerman Ravine, where the shadows protect the snow long past the time when the cover on other slopes has begun to melt.
The special excitement at Tuckerman, besides the challenge of the au naturel slopes, comes from climbing the mountain you're going to ski down, for there are no lifts. Follow the line of black dots up the mountain to the top.
This is old-time skiing, with only a run or two a day, and only those with real stamina and strong legs should and will accept the challenge. But going back to the basics is exhilarating, everyone you meet here is your friend, and the fling down the mountain after the climb is a fitting way to end the season.
Park in the Wildcat Mountain lot, recuperate in its cafeteria or lounge.
Every alpine ski area in the valley has some cross-country trails, some of which are very easy, some of which are only for experts. The center of the ski touring activity in the valley is Jackson NH. (see below).
Other Winter Sports
Because of the state parks, national forest, and private reserves in the valley, lots of other winter sports are popular here. Winter camping is possible, using a tent or the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, a few of which are open all winter.
Snowmobiling is also pretty big in the valley, and places in North Conway will rent you a machine by the hour or the day.
Ice-skating rinks are maintained by the towns of North Conway, Conway, and Jackson.
Various ponds and lakes are not bad for ice fishing—the locals will be glad to give visitors tips on the most-visited ice-fishing spots.
Besides being right in the middle of the downhill ski areas, Jackson NH has its own ski touring organization, as well as a collection of delightful inns open winter and summer.
The center of the ski touring activity in the Mount Washington Valley is Jackson, where the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, maintains and grooms over 90 miles (150 km) of cross-country trails.
The foundation is a nonprofit village organization dedicated to encouraging ski touring in and around Jackson, and it has a small office in the center of the village. at 153 Main Street. Check here for passes, information, maps.
There is a nominal fee for the use of the trails; a season membership is available.
Ski clinics, tours, and equipment rentals can all be found both in Jackson and in North Conway at the several ski shops.
North of Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountains where the Androscoggin, Moose & Peabody rivers meet, stands Gorham NH, a historic road/rail junction (map).
Incorporated in 1836, Gorham NH 02581 (pop. 2700), at the conjunction of highways NH 16 and US 2 (map), is deep in a pretty mountain valley on the north side of Mount Washington.
Surrounded on three sides by the White Mountain National Forest, it has that bracing independent, self-reliant air of towns not overshadowed by bigger cities.
If you're hiking north toward Maine on the Appalachian Trail, Gorham is the last community with a full range of services before you reach the trail's end at Mt Katahdin, so stop here for a good night's rest, a long shower, and a fine dinner.
Crawford Notch NH
North and east on US Route 302 from North Conway and Glen NH takes you through Crawford Notch (map), a dramatic mountain pass on the southwestern slopes of Mount Washington, with excellent outdoor activity possibilities, but a sad history.
A Tragic History
In 1825, when the road was being cut through the notch (mountain pass), the Willey family built a small inn in Crawford Notch to provide for the teams and wagons that would pass through the valley.
The Willey House, a waystation for travelers in Crawford Notch.
In August 1826 one of the worst storms ever to hit the White Mountains wreaked havoc in the valley, with floods, landslides, wind, and rain which left the Willey House unharmed as the roaring cascade divided and passed around it, but resulted in the death or disappearance of every member of the household.
The Willey House remains, having been restored and converted to be the Visitor Center, snack bar and shop (featuring the products of New Hampshire artisans) for Crawford Notch State Park, a 5775-acre nature refuge with hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls, picnic areas, fishing, wildlife viewing, and spectacular mountain views.
The park's Dry River Campground has 36 wooded campsites, with flush toilets and showers.