Last Updated on 7 November 2020.
I grew up in New England, well renowned for its colourful fall foliage. Even after all those years of enjoying a stunning array of colours every fall I never grew tired of it. When I moved to the UK I came to the sudden and disappointing realization that not everywhere has the same amazing foliage; in fact, it couldn’t even come close.
Therefore when I had a work trip to NYC this October I made the easy decision to head back to New England for a weekend with family and foliage. When I told my Mom I was coming home she insisted that I travel to my step-father’s lake house in New Hampshire instead of my childhood home in Massachusetts. Initially, I objected since the distance was so great – at least an extra 6 hours round trip to make it to Lake Winnepesaukee rather than Worcester, but Mom pointed out it would be the height of foliage season. And where better in the world was there to experience it?
Even after spending 12 hours travelling (only to get to New Hampshire, never mind getting back), the foliage really was worth it.
Mom and I enjoyed being leaf-peeping tourists in her back yard and it was brilliant. There were many others who had clocked onto the fact that was the height of the foliage season and were taking advantage of a beautiful sunny Saturday with us as we traversed north on I-93 through Franconia Notch, and then across the Kancamagus Highway.
This wasn’t my first trip to enjoy fall foliage in the White Mountains. In previous years when given the chance, I also would take drives up to enjoy the beautiful foliage in the White Mountains region of New Hampshire.
Fabulous Foliage on I-93 in Franconia Notch
The drive through Franconia Notch is one of the prettiest no matter the season. It was once home to the Old Man in the Mountain, a New Hampshire icon that adorns their license plates, route signs and hearts. Even without the rock formation, this particular two-lane highway is utterly gorgeous.
As you enter Franconia Notch you pass along the side of a hill and get a great view of the White Mountains that lie beyond. The highway narrows some as you enter the notch, which is the valley between Cannon Mountain and Mount Lafayette. The area is known as the Franconia Notch Parkway. And also provides you with great access to The Flume, the Basin and Profile Lake.
The foliage looked like a bright patchwork quilt as it covered every inch of the side of the road and the mountains in our view. It was autumn at its most beautiful and it dazzled us with every shade of red, orange and yellow imaginable. The photos we took barely did it justice and it seemed that every bend in the road we made as we wound our way up I-93 and through Franconia Notch was more beautiful than the last.
We drove on a lot of roads that day but by far the foliage as most magnificent on this stretch of road.
In previous years I have driven further north from Franconia Notch, and had some incredible scenic views. It is one of the most beautiful drives – so much so that I often repeat it when given the opportunity to head north during fall foliage peak season.
Kancamagus Scenic Highway
We chose to drive north past the exit for the Kancamagus Highway and have breakfast in Sugar Hill at Polly’s Pancake Parlor before starting the drive across the Kancamagus. On our way up were astonished to find that the exit for the Kancamagus was backed up to the highway, but after giving it some further thought this made sense. It was the height of the foliage season and the Kancamagus has a reputation for being one of the best places to leaf peep in New Hampshire, connecting the ski resort of Lincoln to the hip town of North Conway.
The line of cars ended up being for a local craft fair, but we did find plenty of cars driving along the Kancamagus with us as we took in the fall foliage close up. There were a few points, at some of the best viewpoints, where cars were backed up for a few hundred feet while cars fought for spaces.
The winding road through the White Mountains gives some great stop-off points for lovely woodland walks and other hikes. The Kancamagus Highway has a lot of great stops along the way for a variety of outdoor activity and is more than just a road to get you from Point A to Point B.
Definitely make sure you’ve filled up your gas tank before hitting the road as there are no stops along the way for gas. And during the leaf-peeping season, I’d recommend a lot of patience!
Several years ago I also had the opportunity to take a late October visit to The Flume; a famous gorge in Franconia Notch National Park with a stunning boardwalk running through the middle of the gorge and several waterfalls.
It’s one of my favourite places to visit during any season. And on the day I visited it was a tad more winter than autumn, with a light snowfall drifting from the sky and coating the slippery path by the waterfalls.
The Flume offers a great few hours escape during autumn but pack an extra layer since the wind through the gorge can be further chilled by the cold water from the waterfalls. With its dense forest and woodland paths, it’s the perfect place to visit to experience fall foliage at it’s finest.
There’s even a gorgeous covered bridge to cross on the way up to the woodland walk. There are multiple paths to make it to the gorge. And for those who prefer to avoid the hike, there is a shuttle bus to take visitors the majority of the way to the site.
Meredith on Lake Winnepesaukee
Meredith is a beautiful town on the western edge of Lake Winnepesaukee and with good access to I-93. It’s a great stop-off point along any journey north on I-93 up to the White Mountains.
With plenty of restaurants, a charming shopping district in the old mill, and a beautiful art walk installation. The view from the docks includes a glance at Gunstock Mountain and the lake at large. The lake is stunning at all times of the year and provides an amazing stopover on any trip through New Hampshire.
A lot of the great recommendations I made for Lake Winnepesaukee in the summer carry through to autumn as well. You can read it about it in my article for What to See in Lake Winnepseaukee.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
Mount Washington is the highest peak on the eastern coast of the USA and within the Appalachian Mountain range. At the very peak are a visitor centre and a weather observation station. Throughout the late spring, summer and early autumn visitors make their way to the top in a variety of manners – by car, on foot, or by cog railway.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was the first mountain-climbing railway to be built – using a clever mechanism of cogs to insure a steady ascent and descent along the mountainside. It’s an incredible feat of engineering to witness and provides some unparallel views of the White Mountains and Mount Washington during the journey.
The Cog Railway runs to this day and is a major tourist attraction in the northeast. In autumn it usually runs all the way to the top but on some days, such as when I last visited, snow can block the tracks from going past the halfway point. We were able to take the railway to the refilling station, with a well frozen over water tank, before returning back to the base of the mountain. Even so, it’s such a stunningly beautiful experience that I would recommend it to any travellers enjoying fall foliage in New Hampshire. Be warned, however, that the cost of a ticket is quite steep but the journey is well worth the price of admission.
The resort of Bretton Woods is a famous institution in the White Mountains, with an incredible hotel full of history and even stories of hauntings. This is a fantastical place to stay in the White Mountains or if you prefer a quainter place you could stay nearby at the Bretton Arms Inn, all within the same resort. The steakhouse in the basement of Bretton Woods is fantastic for food as well.
It’s a great place to set up as the hub of fall foliage season. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel you should take a drive past and appreciate the tremendously beautiful artchitecutre and it’s place within the valley of the White Mountains and in the shadows of some fabulous peaks.
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