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New Hampshire Scenic Drive: White Mountain Trail

The beautiful, rugged White Mountain Trail offers dramatic scenery, resort towns, waterfalls, woodland trails -- all backed by an interesting history.

Take a drive through a landscape unspoiled by overdevelopment when you travel the White Mountain Trail of New Hampshire. Enjoy the uninterrupted mountain and river views, wetlands, and woodlands that captured the imagination of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and inspired landscape artist Thomas Cole. Despite the passage of time since the days of Hawthorne and Cole, this rural New England area remains beautiful.

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Take time to discover the history of the White Mountain Trail. Parts of it have been used for centuries, as attested by the charming 18th and 19th-century buildings you will see along the way.

The railroad also helped to shape this area and made possible the lumber industry, which spurred the development of many towns in the region, such as Bartlett, Conway and North Conway. Be sure not to miss the amazing Frankenstein Trestle, which supports railroad tracks below the cliff in Crawford Notch.

Toward the beginning of the 20th century, the creation of the national forests coincided with the dawning of the automobile age, assuring Americans an opportunity to vacation a world away from the citied world, yet within driving distance of the great Eastern cities. Since then, recreational pursuits enjoyed here have grown from hiking, fishing, and sightseeing to include downhill and cross-country skiing, camping, mountain biking, leaf-peeping, and antique hunting. You can also enjoy just about anything outdoorsy under these towering granite cliffs and

soaring mountains.

Mount Washington towers above White Mountain Trail.
Mount Washington towers above White Mountain Trail.

The White Mountain Trail winds around mountains and along rivers, offering views of some of the most beautiful scenery in the East. Mount Washington is on the north side of the byway. This is the tallest mountain in the Northeast and is home to some of the world's worst weather.

Notches are unique geographic features found only in New Hampshire and Maine (there are only six total notches). Both Crawford Notch and Franconia Notch are spectacular. Franconia Notch was once home to the Old Man of the Mountain, a profile of a man carved into the stone by glaciers high atop a mountain. This profile was a recognized wonder since the time of the Native Americans who imbued it with spiritual powers. Sadly, the formation succumbed to erosion in May 2003, and its rugged profile was irrevocably damaged.

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Rambling through the White Mountains National Forest and connecting at each end of the Kancamagus Scenic Highway, the White Mountain Trail has an abundance of things to see and do, a few of which are highlighted below.

lark's Trading Post: For more than 70 years, the Clark family has entertained visitors at Clark's Trading Post. At this site they have a museum, a fire station, a steam locomotive, and trained black bears.

Franconia Notch State Park: Franconia Notch State Park is home of Old Man of the Mountain Historic Site, Cannon Mountain, New England Ski Museum, and Flume Gorge. Also in the park are the Basin waterfall, the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram taking visitors to the 4,180-foot summit of the mountain, recreation trails, and Lafayette campground. Be sure to stop by the visitor center at Flume Gorge for a 15-minute film, maps, and interpretive exhibits.

The Rocks Estate: Located off Route 302, The Rocks Estate just outside Bethlehem is a historic working Christmas tree farm owned and operated by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Picnic areas, six miles of self-guided scenic and educational trails, and 55,000 Christmas trees make this a unique place to visit year-round.

Mount Washington Cog Railway: For a truly unforgettable way to ascend Mount Washington, try the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway. On especially clear days the vista from the summit allows for glimpses of four states, the Canadian province of Quebec, and the Atlantic Ocean. A round trip on the historic railway takes about three hours and allows for a 20-minute stop at the summit. Bring a jacket, as it can be considerably cooler at the summit than at the base of the mountain. The Mount Washington Cog Railway is located off Route 302 in Bretton Woods.

Mount Washington Observatory and Museum: Mount Washington Observatory and Museum, located at the summit of the mountain, is accessible by the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the Mount Washington Auto Road, or via several trails in the area. Definitely a must-see, the museum features displays about the brutal meteorological conditions on Mount Washington, exhibits on the geological history of the Presidential Range, and a unique presentation of alpine flowers that have been preserved in synthetic resin. New to the museum is the Weather Discovery Room, which helps observers explore the weather phenomena of Mount Washington.

Glen: The village of Glen has two attractions side-by-side geared to families with young children. Story Land, a vintage theme park, opened in 1954 with a fairy-tale theme. Those who visited as children in the early days of the park are now returning with their kids and grandkids and still finding the theme park as enchanting as they remembered. Heritage-New Hampshire opened in time for the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration in 1976 and takes visitors on a multimedia walk through time with 25 theatrical sets, special effects, live characters, and guides.

Conway Scenic Railroad: To view the beautiful White Mountains National Forest from another vantage point, try the Conway Scenic Railroad. Nostalgic trips in historic rail cars on the Valley Train allow guests to travel through the valley past fields and woodlands, rivers and glens, enjoying the ambiance of period wicker seating and rich mahogany woodwork. Or try their Notch Train and travel through Crawford Notch past sheer bluffs, abrupt ravines, babbling brooks and streams, panoramic mountain vistas, and across the Frankenstein Trestle and Willey Brook Bridge. On-board guides tell the history and folklore of the railroad and area, as well as points of interest.

White Mountain Trail offers many reasons to stop along the way -- and the distances between its many attractions are short, and along scenic roads worth the drive.

Find more useful information related to New Hampshire's White Mountain Trail:

  • New Hampshire Scenic Drives: White Mountain Trail is just one of the scenic byways in New Hampshire. Check out the others.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond New Hampshire? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

View Enlarged Image This map will help you navigate the White Mountain Trail in New Hampshire.

Archaeological Qualities of White Mountain Trail

There are many archaeologically significant sites along this byway. However, in order to preserve these sites, they are kept secret. If you have a serious interest in the locations and work being done at these sites, contact one of the local ranger stations.

Qualities of White Mountain Trail

The influx of tourism and the development of the lumber industry spurred the development of many towns throughout this region. The history of this growth is found in the historic structures that remain in towns such as Bartlett, Conway, and North Conway. Along the trail there are numerous sites that are already on the National Register of Historic Places or are eligible to be placed on this National Register. These sites represent a range of different cultures and time periods. Examples include the Mount Washington Hotel, the Abenaki Indian Shop and Camp, the Crawford House Artist's Studio, and the North Conway Depot and Railroad Yard.

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Qualities of White Mountain Trail

There are many historical events associated with the White Mountain Trail. Some of these events include the creation of towns, villages, national forests, resorts, hotels, and the railroad.

The White Mountains were originally home to the Abenakis and other Native Americans. At the beginning of the 19th century, the White Mountains were a place for artists and others. The White Mountain School of Art was a group of landscape painters that included Thomas Cole, Benjamin Champney, and Frank Shapleigh. Also during this era, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Reverend Thomas Starr King captured readers' imaginations with tales of the White Mountains.

By 1891, Crawford Railroad Station stood at the top of Crawford Notch. This railroad was a magnificent feat of engineering given the region's terrain, climate, and isolation. The Frankenstein Trestle, which supports railroad tracks below the cliff in Crawford Notch, still makes observers gasp.

As access to the White Mountains improved, a series of ever-grander inns, hotels, and resorts was constructed to meet the needs of an increasingly affluent clientele. The most elegant of these, the Mount Washington Hotel, was the setting of the historic Bretton Woods Monetary Conference in 1944. It was at this conference where the dollar was set as the standard of international currency, earning the hotel a place on the list of National Historic Landmarks. This event, combined with the hotel's spectacular setting, contributed to its success as a thriving resort and stunning landmark.

The 1923 demise of another grand hotel, the Profile House, and the subsequent sale of its land to the Society for the Protection of the New Hampshire Forests and the State of New Hampshire, resulted in the creation of Franconia Notch State Park. More than 15,000 people, including children, contributed funds to make this purchase possible.

Five sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eleven individual sites and three historic districts are also eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. These sites represent historic structures used for religion, commerce, transportation, and residential needs.

Logging towns, such as Carrigain in Crawford Notch, appeared and vanished as the harvest swept through the notches, surviving only as the names of mountains, hiking trails, and state historic markers. The movement to conserve tracts of forestland was, in part, a reaction to the large-scale lumber cutting that alarmed early conservationists.

The creation of the National Forest System occurred just as the automobile age commenced. This assured Americans an opportunity to vacation a world away from the citied world, yet still be within driving distance of the great eastern cities. The visible evidence of the preceding ages is now as much a part of the physical landscape as the towering granite cliffs and soaring mountains of the White Mountain Trail.

Natural Qualities of White Mountain Trail

­The White Mountain Trail is surrounded by glaciated mountains, swamps, and lakes. Elevations along the trail range from 500 to 4,000 feet, and a few isolated peaks are even higher than 5,000 feet. Summers along the route are warm, and precipitation is evenly distributed throughout the year. However, winter can be severely cold. The average length of the frost-free period is about 100 days, and the average annual snowfall is more than 100 inches.

This region is in the transition zone between the spruce-fir forest to the north and the deciduous forest to the south. Valley hardwood forests are composed of sugar maple, yellow birch, beech, and hemlock trees. Low mountain slopes support spruce, fir, maple, beech, and birch trees. Higher on the mountain, you can find pure stands of balsam fir and red spruce which devolve into Krummholz at higher elevations. Alpine meadow, a tundra-like growth, is found above the timberline on Mount Washington.

The wildlife in this area is the same as the wildlife that is found in both the mixed forest and boreal forest. However, some species are unique to the trail's alpine tundra, such as the long-tail shrew, boreal redback vole, gray-cheeked thrush, spruce grouse, and gray jay.

Qualities of White Mountain Trail

There are plenty of places to hike, fish, sightsee, downhill and cross-country ski, camp, and mountain bike along the White Mountain Trail. Hiking trailheads dominate the roadway on both sides. There are great hiking trails for families, day hikers, and backpackers. The Crawford Path is the oldest (1819) continually maintained footpath in the United States. Twenty 4,000-foot mountains are located along this byway as well.

Fly-fishers can find heaven if they hike a bit to mountain lakes and streams. This wilderness also offers some of the most breathtaking ski slopes in the East.

Find more useful information related to New Hampshire's White Mountain Trail:

  • New Hampshire Scenic Drives: White Mountain Trail is just one of the scenic byways in New Hampshire. Check out the others.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond New Hampshire? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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