Driving the Kancamangus Highway – White Mountains, New Hampshire
The biggest and more popular fall activity in the White Mountains is driving on the Kancamangus Highway / Kancamangus Scenic Byway / “The Kanc”. This highway is the spot for fall foliage viewing and often named one of the best in the country. It is 34.5 miles of beautiful views including overlooks, trails, and stops of all sorts that benefits from the almost 3,000 ft elevation. Driving this is definitely a highlight of fall foliage seekers in this destination.
While driving from one end in Lincoln to the other end in Conway takes under an hour, driving The Kanc can take an entire day or more. There are well over a dozen must-do stops along the way and far more if you count all the possibilities. We only had one day to complete the drive and while we did not do every stop, we did the entire drive while fitting in 14 stops.
Know Before You Go
- It does not matter which direction you start. Since we were staying in Lincoln, we started the drive there and headed east. You can just as easily start in Conway and go west. The Lincoln side is more heavy on viewpoints and overlooks which the Conway side is more hiking. So if you have a preference on when to conquer those activities, that can help.
- Start early, especially if you are traveling during those two peak foliage weekends. As soon as daylight starts to break free, it is game on to start your drive and beat the crowd. Whichever end you start at will be less crowded and gain as the day goes on. We started the drive around 630AM and had no issues parking and having viewpoints and overlooks to ourselves. As the day went on, parking became an issue but we were always able to figure something out at the destinations towards the eastern side of The Kanc.
- While there is hiking as an option, you do not have to do those to enjoy all the views. This is what makes this drive so wonderful that anyone can do it and have a great time. This is also what makes this drive so crowded so keep that in mind.
- There is no gas stations along the road so while it is not a long road at 34.5 miles, it is best to go in with full gas or a full charge in case of an emergency.
- There is a state park fee for many of the trailheads or stops. While they have the envelop system, I highly suggest booking your park pass online. Otherwise, make sure you have a $5 bill on you to pay for the parking. Note that we did not have service along most of The Kanc so take care of purchasing online before the start of the drive.
Stops along the Kanacamangus Highway
Lincoln Woods Trail
This is the first stop from the Lincoln side of The Kanc. Since it was early and we had a bunch of hiking planned for later in the day, we did not have the time for this trail. If we had more time of the trip, we would have gone back to complete this as it is a well reviewed trail. Lincoln Woods Trail is a 9.4 mile out and back moderate trail that includes Franconia Falls. Some travel just to the falls which ends up being a 6.8 mile out and back easy trail. I will note that the parking lot was already bopping when we drove by so this is definitely a popular stop.
The first official overlook. Since the sun had not quite gotten above the mountains yet, the colors were still dark but it was easy to make out how many trees were out there. We were really excited to get to the other view points so this was a fairly quick stop for us.
This overlook blew us away! I am surprised this is unmarked. We could not get out of the car fast enough. The view here is spectacular. Since it was still early, we had no issues parking. Our only complaint was the sun was not high enough to illuminate all the colors in the mountains so we made a note that if we had time we would come back here to see it. We wanted to spend more time here but we had to keep moving.
This lookout has a lovely gazebo which I am sure makes for a wonderful picnic spot later in the day. I felt like we had better views ahead so this was another quick stop.
CL Graham Wangan Overlook
Just when we thought the view could not get better, this spot really shined. The sun was coming up over the mountains creating a red fire color under the clouds. The trees were all various colors that were coming to life as the sun light made its way to the leafs. Do not miss this stop while driving The Kanc.
While I had it marked on my list, we flew past it unexpectedly. The spot came up fast and vanished just as fast. This lake spot probably makes for a great photo with the trees reflect in the water.
Sugar Hill Scenic Vista
With the sun making its way higher in the sky, this stop was gorgeous. The colors were really starting to shine and the sun light with the clouds was creating a beautiful sky. These views were so incredible!
Our first walk of the day! This is an easy 1 mile loop to see the Sabbaday Falls. This was also the first parking lot we noticed the State Park sign indicating the $5 a day fee. The trail here is wide, well maintained, and very easy to follow. It was not crowded at our 730AM arrival and we enjoyed the chance to stretch our legs. The falls themselves are small but there is a nice boardwalk area that takes visitors right next to the falls so this area was nice. Definitely a great spot to see falls and trees if longer trails are not enticing or doable.
Russell Colbath House
The Russell Colbath House was built in 1832 and features the timber house, cemetery and an interpretive walking path. No one was here when we parked so we stayed for a few minutes reading the signs about the house before moving onto the next destination
Champney Falls / Mt Chocorua
Our first proper hike of the trip! There are two options visitors can explore here. Champney Falls is easy to moderate 3.1 mile there and back trail to Champney Falls. I say moderate cause the best part of this trail is going to the top of the falls which requires a short uphill over 600 ft and rocky section. Mt Chocorua is beyond Champney Falls and this trail is a moderate 7.4 mile out and back with over 2200 ft elevation gain. Since we did not have time for a 7 plus mile hike, our plan was to go to Champney Falls and continue our journey along The Kanc. Though I will say, I wish we did have time to complete the journey to summit Mt Chocorua as this was a great trail.
The parking lot here was different that all the others we had seen up to this point – it was full! Luckily there is parking along the road that we were able to use. Many people had intense hiking gear on so I assumed they were all going up to Mt Chocorua. If we had more time or another day on this trip, I would have loved to have gone to the top, especially after how much we enjoyed this hike.
Read the full details of our hike to Champney Falls, including a secret spot the ranger told us about, here!
This is a very popular spot and there were people everywhere! Another full lot, we once again parked along the road. The Rocky Gorge offers many opportunities for photos, including a bridge, river, and many trees. It is a beautiful area but be prepared for the crowds. We found a less crowded spot farther away and were able to get some nice photos. There are also trails around this area, including the easy 1 mile Lovequist Trail that loops around, but since we still had a few things on our list, we skipped the trail and continued on. Also, I absolutely love this flannel shirt I picked up for this trip!
Ok, not a real official stop on The Kanc but lunch is always welcomed. After the beautiful hike to Champney Falls, were starving and the crowds were starting to really build. Since we were close to Conway, we called an audible and went straight to lunch around 11AM. We hoped by doing this 1) the lunch line would be shorter since it was still early 2) the remains stops would calm down as others got hungry for lunch. Right before the town of Conway is Cheese Louise serving artisan grilled cheese sandwiches. As soon as we queued up, the line behind us got longer and longer so we were happy with our decision. The menu here is fantastic and we were super excited to dig in. I ordered “The Gobble Gobbler” – roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy on cranberry sourdough, and Kevin ordered the daily special “The Canadian” – cheddar, munster, bacon, green apple slices, maple syrup all on sourdough. We also added a tomato soup as it was the perfect fall day for it.
These sandwiches were fantastic! I adored everything about mine – the addition of using cranberry sourdough was such a great idea and I need to find it. Unfortunately the tomato soup was spicy – I have never had spicy tomato soup before and the menu did not indicate such so Kevin got to enjoy the soup. This spot is a must do on The Kanc and the way we did it worked really well – go for an early lunch then go return to the stops skipped after. The line only got longer as we ate and when we drove by it later in the day, the line remained very long.
Albany Covered Bridge
I will reiterate, this is a safety hazard area. The number of people in the area is silly. There is a parking lot by the bridge that was overflowing with cars. To access the Boulder Loop Trail, we had to cross the one-lane Albany Covered Bridge road and the closest thing I can compare it to was driving through a zombie apocalypse. The people were just standing there, not moving, for cars. So many adults, kids, strollers, dogs – you name it – pile into the bridge to take photos. While we waited for an oncoming car to cross, someone walked backwards right into the car – the folks here have no concept of their surroundings so be careful. That all being said, the best spot to get a photo is to cross over the Albany Covered Bridge, park at the Boulder Loop Trailhead, and get the photo of the bridge from the river.
Boulder Loop Trail
I read so many great things about this trail so I was so looking forward to it. The trailhead is actually off The Kanc Highway and over the Albany Covered Bridge which is a bit of a safety hazard since so many people climb into the bridge for photos and block traffic. Anyway, reinvigorated from the power of grilled cheese, we were ready for another climb to the top. The Boulder Loop Trail is moderate 2.8 mile loop trail that takes hikers through the forest, up the mountain over 900 ft, and on top of boulders to give an incredible view of the valley.
Read the full details of our hike on the Boulder Loop Trail here!
This spot was crowded the first time we passed it and it did not improve later in the day. We could see police lights in the distance by the parking lot so we parked along the road and simply walked the rest of the way to the Lower Falls. Like the other afternoon stops, it was packed with people
And that was the last stop on our journey driving the Kancamangus Highway! We were lucky to have such a gorgeous day to enjoy all the sights and the fall foliage. I highly recommend using at least one of the days of your trip to complete this drive!