New Hampshire Scenic Drives: Kancamagus Scenic Byway

Enjoy what many consider one of the top fall-foliage trips in the world when you drive the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. Undoubtedly one of the most scenic routes through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the "Kanc," as locals call it, climbs to nearly 3,000 feet on the flank of Mount Kancamagus. You can meander through beautiful forests, follow old logging roads, and cross American Indian hunting paths. In the fall, these woods yield a stunning array of colors that underscore the area's great natural beauty. Be sure to take the time to pull off the road and enjoy the hiking trails, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks this byway offers.

On the eastern section of the byway, you can visit the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area, and see where the Swift River has, over time, worn a narrow cleft through solid stone. Here you can appreciate nature's handiwork at its best while you wander through the woods and over the gorge to lovely Falls Pond.


The Kancamagus Scenic Byway was named for an early Indian Chief of the Penacook Confederacy. Called "The Fearless One," Chief Kancamagus tried to keep the peace between his people and the white settlers. However, repeated harassment by the English ended his efforts, bringing war and bloodshed. In the early 1690s, Kancamagus and his followers moved to northern New Hampshire and Canada.

Discover how the east-west shortcut through the White Mountains of New Hampshire leads travelers to hidden waterfalls, trails for adventure, and vacation-friendly campgrounds.

Cultural Qualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

The first thing someone might say when describing this area's culture is that it is simply New England. It can be generalized that the people of the area are peaceful, high-class, old-fashioned, friendly, and that they savor the simpler pleasures of life. Here are a few details, presented in a chance fashion, as one would discover them if they were actually traveling the byway: The area's people cherish their historic homes which are nestled in the quiet and stately White Mountains; they restore and keep well their whitewashed, clapboard churches and farmhouses; they enjoy their several local festivals and events; and they stroll unhurried on their tree-lined main streets, browsing leisurely among the specialty shops. And, perhaps, after a day of farming or logging (or maybe even after a hard day of skiing or backpacking, if they're on holiday), they might stop in to see a show at their town's old-fashioned movie theater, or have a superb meal at one of the old "grand hotels" of which they're so proud. And you really get the feeling while you're on this byway that you're welcomed just like any other returning guest at The Balsams (one of the area's famous and historic grand hotels): with a pint of maple syrup and welcome back note.

Historical Qualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

HistoricalQualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

The town of Passaconaway, settled in about 1790, is named after Passaconaway, who, in 1627, united more than 17 central New England nations into the Penacook Confederacy. The byway was named for his grandson, a great chief of this Confederacy, Kancamagus. Both Passaconaway and Kancamagus also have mountains named after them.

More recent history can be found at the Russell-Colbath House, the only remaining 19th-century homestead in the area. (It is now a U.S. Forest Service information center.) The name memorializes the house builders and Ruth Colbath who, on a fall day in 1891,was told by her husband Thomas that he would be going out for a little while -- which turned out to be 42 years. Every night during those years, Ruth placed a lamp in the window to welcome her husband. When he finally returned in 1933, Ruth had died, and the property had been sold. It is not known why her husband was gone so long.

Natural Qualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

NaturalQualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

One of the most exciting aspects of spending time in the White Mountains is the opportunity to see wildlife. The state's moose herd, for example, has made a dramatic recovery since the early days of the 20th century when unregulated hunting and loss of forest habitat to agriculture decimated the herd. Today, in spite of a limited annual hunt, moose are found throughout the state. They're often seen in swampy or wet areas near roads. The Kancamagus Scenic Byway and the northernmost sections of the White Mountains are well-known for viewing these animals. If you do happen to see some moose while driving the byway, keep a respectful distance. Moose are especially unpredictable in their movements, and when threatened may either stand their ground, charge, or run. Because they are more active at dusk and at night, they are difficult to see. Stay alert and brake for these large animals because it could save your life.

Black bears are also common along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, as are frogs, turtles, and snakes. The Loon Mountain Wildlife Theater in Lincoln is an excellent place to see native New Hampshire animals in a controlled setting.

There are approximately 56 species of mammals and 183 species of birds along the byway. These species of birds include 38 year-round species, 35 migrant or winter species, and 110 total species during the summer months. Of special interest along the byway is the peregrine falcon population, an endangered bird that is making a comeback in the area thanks to dedicated reintroduction efforts. Nearly 60 captive-bred falcons have been released from cliff sites in the area, some of which have returned to the cliffs to raise their young. There is even one pair of falcons that has nested along the Swift River since 1989. The state-listed endangered blue-gray gnatcatcher also resides in the area.

Spruce hardwoods, northern hardwoods, and paper birch trees forest the slopes of the White Mountains and the river valleys around the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. This combination of hardwoods and conifers creates a breathtaking tapestry of color during the fall season. Locals and tourists alike spend a great deal of time traveling the byway during the fall as they take in the vibrant scenery.

This map will help you navigate the Kancamagus Scenic Byway.

Recreational Qualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

RecreationalQualities of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

Hiking, snowshoeing, backpacking, and cross-country skiing are the most popular activities on this route. This forest's hundreds of miles of such trails range from easy family jaunts to some of the nation's most famous and challenging excursions. Some of these trails have great fishing.

An example of a very easy hike is the Rail 'n' River Trail, which is a flat, one mile round-trip along the river. It is wheelchair and stroller accessible, and you get to it from the Russell-Colbath House. For something a little more difficult, there's the Greeley Ponds Trail, which is about five miles long and features two ponds, the Upper Greeley Pond (dark aqua-green, and surrounded by old growth timber and towering cliffs) and the Lower Greeley Pond (shallow and more typical of a beaver pond). Both ponds offer trout fishing and an enjoyable place to have a picnic lunch. Find the Greeley Ponds trailhead nine miles east of exit 32 on I-93. A difficult hike is the four-mile trail to the summit of 2,660-foot Mount Potash. This trail hikes along somewhat dangerous cliffs, but it affords excellent, panoramic views of the Swift River Valley and the surrounding mountains (the trailhead is 13 miles west of the Saco Ranger Station).

Plan your getaway by learning about the best stops on the Kancamagus Scenic Byway and where they're located.

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Highlights of Kancamagus Scenic Byway

Fall foliage is lush along the Kankamagus Scenic Byway.
Fall foliage is lush along the Kankamagus Scenic Byway.

The Kancamagus Scenic Byway is blessed with some of the most breathtaking scenery in New Hampshire. Located in the White Mountains National Park, the byway is flanked by the White Mountains. Because the byway is surrounded by a mixed forest of coniferous and deciduous hardwoods, it comes alive with color every fall. Locals and tourists all come to the area to see the rare mix of brilliant fall color against the majestic green of evergreen stands. The Kancamagus Scenic Byway is well known for providing some of the most beautiful vistas in the country.

Aside from the incredible scenery of the White Mountains National Forest, this itinerary highlights things to see and do for the entire family along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway.


Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves: Beginning in the town of North Woodstock, the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves invites visitors to, indeed, find the Lost River, as it seems to play hide-and-seek, meandering in and out of the granite outcroppings of Kinsman Notch. Boardwalks give easy access into most areas, or slightly more strenuous trails are available to lead adventurers into caves, as well as along the gorge and into the Nature Garden at the end of the self-guided tour. An upper boardwalk is wheelchair accessible.

Clark's Trading Post: Clark's Trading Post at the western edge of the Kancamagus Scenic Byway near Lincoln isn't quite what the fur traders of frontier days would recognize, but it has got a history and tradition all its own and is certainly a must-see along the byway. Run by the Clark family as a roadside attraction since 1928, highlights of Clark's Trading Post include the trained black bear show, the Seiranian Family Circus, bumper boats, a climbing wall, several historical displays and museums, and the White Mountain Central Railroad.

Loon Mountain: Just east of Lincoln, Loon Mountain adventures await. Gondola rides to the summit give a bird's-eye view of the entire area and surrounding mountains. Once at the summit more adventures begin, including exploring glacial caves, hiking an interpreted nature trail, visiting with local artisans as they create their wares, and climbing a four-story observation tower to behold some of the most sublime scenery you will ever see.

Passaconaway Historic Site: The early days of the mountain lifestyle can be studied at the Russell-Colbath House just 12 miles west of Conway at the Passaconaway Historic Site. Built in the early 1800s, it is the area's only remaining 19th-century homestead. Furnished as it would have been in the early days, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The U.S. Forest Service also has an information center located here, and the Rail 'n' River Hike is an easy half-mile trail that begins at the historic home.

Rocky Gorge Scenic Area and Lovequist Loop Trail: Three miles east of the Passaconaway Historic Site is Rocky Gorge Scenic Area and Lovequist Loop Trail. The superb scenic quality of Rocky Gorge has been preserved ever since its designation as a National Scenic Area in 1937. An impressive waterfall, the narrow gorge, and an easy walking trail around Falls Pond make this the perfect place to relax and enjoy the natural serenity for a bit before continuing on.

Conway: The picturesque village of Conway is home of the Conway Historical Society, headquartered in the Eastman Lord House, the 1818 residence of a Conway mill owner and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Seventeen rooms are open to the public with furnishings ranging from 1818 through 1945. Also, you can pick up a map of the walking tour of the historic sites of Conway here, or drop by the Conway Public Library at 15 Main Street, which is one of the interesting stops on the tour.

Majestic Theater: At 36 Main Street in Conway is the 400-seat Majestic Theater built in 1936. The Art Deco design along with the original velvet stage curtain give a sense of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This combines with current state of the art technology such as Schneider lenses and the only eight-channel Sony digital sound system in northern New England. Though the theater is quite historic in ambiance, current Hollywood hits grace the giant screen and provide a fitting evening's end to a day on the Kancamagus Scenic Byway.

This Kancamagus Scenic Byway cuts through the rugged heart of the White Mountains National Forest to open up to soothing waterfalls, wild flowered hills, fishing holes and hiking hot spots. Explore all that New Hampshire nature has to offer on this scenic byway.

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