Whether the road is a highway or a dirt track, driving tours are one of the most popular ways to experience our incredible National Forests. Thanks to support from Ford’s Bronco Wild Fund, the NFF is helping ensure our National Forests stay beautiful and healthy for all users of our public lands. Through this blog series, we’re highlighting just a few of the incredible routes Bronco owners and all drivers can take to connect with their National Forests. Remember to know before you go by checking with local managing agencies for updates and restrictions. When going off-highway, keep to designated OHV routes to limit impacts on water resources and wildlife habitat. And consider planting trees with the NFF to help offset the carbon footprint of your trip: planting two trees can mitigate 1 ton of CO2 over the trees’ lifetime!
About the Route
Route Distance: ~34.5 miles with an optional 7.5 mile add-on
Suggested Duration: 2-3 hours; add another 3-4 hours to include Mount Washington Auto Road
Nearest Cities: Portland, Maine
Starting Point: Conway, New Hampshire
Ending Point: Lincoln, New Hampshire
The Kancamagus Highway (pronounced “Kank-ah-mah-gus,”) is one of the best drives in the country to view the autumn symphony as its colors splash across the hillsides of the northern Appalachian Mountains. Also known as the “The Kanc,” it’s a National Scenic Byway along northern New Hampshire’s 112, meandering through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest and bisecting the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Several marked parking lots along the way offer up prime views of the White Mountains, Swift River, waterfall features, and the Rocky Gorge.
The highway is named for the Native American leader Kancamagus, grandson of the great Penacook leader Passaconaway who united more than a dozen regional tribes into the Penacook Confederacy in the early to mid-1600s. He led his people through some of the first interactions with English settlers, advocating for peace under the premonition that the whites would become too numerous to resist. Kancamagus attempted to maintain his grandfather’s dream for peace, but soon led the Confederacy in the constant violence sweeping the frontier with white expansion, and eventually led his people north to what’s now the Canadian border.
The Kanc opened in 1959, connecting once-remote mountain towns. The road parallels the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River for about four miles, then follows the Hancock Branch for another eight miles. The road tightly switchbacks uphill before plateauing on Kancamagus Pass, an elevation of 2,855 feet. After the pass, the Scenic Byway follows the Swift River for the next 21 miles, playing host to a wide variety of wildlife that can be viewed along the drive, including black bears, deer, falcons, hawks, moose, porcupines, and raccoons. While there are six campgrounds to choose from with plenty of hiking along this scenic byway, there are no developed amenities like gas stations, restaurants, hotels or other business; this is a drive back in time.
Rocky Gorge Scenic Area
Eight miles west of Conway along the Kancamagus Highway is the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. A parking pass is required to park in the lot with a self-pay station. A paved walkway leads to an overlook of the Swift River as it drops into a 15-foot waterfall and several rapids before narrowing into the Gorge. A footbridge leads over the Gorge for a better view of the falls. This is a great picnic area and one of the most popular places along The Kanc.
There is absolutely no swimming in the Gorge, but swimming is available above or below it. Just beyond the pedestrian bridge is a short loop trail that navigates around Falls Pond. This short hike leads through a mixed deciduous forest with exceptional views of the pond.
Past the Rocky Gorge is Sabbaday Falls, one of New Hampshire’s most popular waterfalls—for good reason, with its 45-foot drop into a deep green pool. A paved path of less than a mile round-trip takes viewers to handmade wooden rails and stairways around the falls.
Sugar Hill Scenic Overlook
Sugar Hill Scenic Overlook is seventeen miles west of Conway. This overlook has panoramic views of the Swift River Valley and the surrounding peaks of the White Mountains like Sugar Hill, Mt Tremont, Bear Mountain, and Owl Cliff; this last is a great destination for leaf peepers aiming to witness autumn’s brilliant display.
C.L. Graham Wangan Overlook
The C.L Graham Wangan Overlook is just beyond Kancamagus Pass. It was known as The Wagan Ground (“meeting place”) to many Native Americans who hunted and lived in this area for time immemorial. In the early history of the Forest Service, this area was also used as a lumbering camp to store supplies.
Optional Add-On: Mount Washington Auto Road
Just 25 miles north of Conway—one of the bookend towns of the Kancamagus Highway—the Mount Washington Auto Road is one of America’s oldest scenic roads. Begin your journey with the Auto Road for an add-on, and then drive 33 miles south to Conway and the start of the Kancamagus.
The Auto Road first opened in 1861 as a carriage road that took guests on a four-hour journey to the summit of Mount Washington, which is a state park that actually sits within the borders of the White Mountain National Forest. Today, the 7.6-mile road starts on Route 16 at Glen House in Pinkham Notch, which provides panoramic views into the Great Gulf Wilderness and the Presidential Mountain Range. Visitors can drive themselves or take a guided tour to the summit at 6,288 ft. At the top, an observatory offers visitors a window into the area’s wild weather phenomena; the highest recorded wind speeds in the world have been recorded here at 231 mph. Trails all along the road also offer adventures for serious hikers who are prepared for weather changes at a moment’s notice.