Fall foliage on the Kancamagus Highway is one of the best experiences in autumn, and a top attraction for those visiting the state. It’s one of the top places to visit for travelers seeking to soak in the atmosphere of a New England autumn.
New England is one of the top destinations for fall foliage and leaf peepers. Travelers from all over the world are drawn by the region’s reputation for having some of the most vibrant and diverse fall foliage displays in the world. These are due, in part, to the unique combination of tree varieties in New England, such as maple, birch and oak trees which create a stunningly colorful tapestry. Combined with the incredibly dense forests and the Appalachian mountains the scenes can be stunning while driving through the northern New England states.
Within New England the most popular states to visit for fall foliage are the northern ones – Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. These have the most stunning natural beauty and mix of forests and mountains that really breathe life into the fall foliage.
New Hampshire is the most popular of the states for this type of tourism, with some of the most scenic and accessible drives in the region. Fall Foliage in New Hampshire is unparalleled with its beautiful White Mountains National Forest being a top destination. With a varied terrain ranging from the mountains, to thick forest, to peaceful lakes, there are no ends to the stunning backdrops to explore for the colorful leaves.
One of the best ways to immerse yourself into autumn in New England is to drive along and experience fall foliage on the Kancamagus Highway. This stunning drive connects Lincoln and North Conway via the state route NH-112.
I’ve had the pleasure to make this drive over 5 times during the fall foliage season, and a few times in summer months as well. It’s one of my favorite ways to experience the beautiful autumnal colors and scenery of New Hampshire.
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When to Visit
Fall foliage is hugely reliant on mother nature and her temperaments throughout the year. It’s important to understand that when booking any trips around fall foliage season. Everyone will be aiming for peak season, but it’s important to keep in mind that even if you miss peak the lead up and follow on from it can be incredibly beautiful and far less trafficked.
Peak season is typically the first two weeks of October; but it can start as early as late September or as late as mid October depending on the season. Columbus Day weekend is usually a good time to visit for fall foliage, but it will be busy.
Peak on the Kancamagus Highway can come a little earlier than in surrounding areas in New Hampshire. The main reason for this is the elevation and the weather plays a huge impact as well.
Weekends are packed on the Kancamagus, so I recommend getting an early start. By mid-afternoon most of the parking lots will be full. If there is a particular hike or site you want to visit I recommend getting to that location before 9am to ensure you’ll find parking.
Most visitors travel west to east, so another trick to escape some of the volume could be traveling east to west (starting in North Conway).
Logistics of Visiting
The Kancamagus Highway cuts through the White Mountains National Forest, connecting the towns of Lincoln and North Conway.
This map is available at many tourist locations throughout New Hampshire and is a great memento from the trip. It’s also available to be printed to bring with you so you can highlight the key stops you want to make along the way.
Here is some key logistical information to be aware of for your visit:
- Parking Pass: A recreation parking pass is required for anyone accessing the sites, trailheads and parking areas along the Kancamagus Highway. Historically these were paper passes on an honors system, with cash left in a lock box. On our last trip they had installed a point of sale system for the pass, which was a fantastic upgrade. This can be purchased at several of the stops on the route:
- Lincoln Woods
- Sabbaday Falls
- Rocky Gorge Scenice Area
- Length: Kancamagus Highway is 34 miles long.
- How long to Visit: Just the drive would be an hour, but we recommend planning at least 4 hours to include the ability to stop at various trailheads along the way. For hikers, plan a few extra hours to give yourself time to explore the trails.
- There are no gas stations on the Kancamagus Highway, so please ensure you have a full tank before you start the journey.
- Weather: The conditions can change and are typically cooler here with the forested trees. The experience can be enjoyed even if the weather isn’t ideal. We’ve visited when it was raining and enjoy the quiet and peace.
- Cell Service: It is patchy at best, but do not expect to get many or any bars throughout the highway.
- Leave no trace, as with any of our National Parks and National Forests, please ensure that you follow the Leave No Trace principles and take out everything you’ve brought in.
- Campgrounds: There are six campgrounds on the Kancamagus Highway for those who want to immerse themselves further into this fantastic experience.
The Kancamagus is best enjoyed by parking up and visiting the many stops along the route. But for visitors with less time or limited mobility the drive alone is worth the journey.
During the busiest weekends the driving will often be below the speed limit and quiet placid. It’s a winding and beautiful drive that reaches an elevation of 1,200 feet with views of multiple mountains and dense forests.
Best Stops on the Kancamagus Highway
There are a number of fantastic stops to make along the Kancamagus Highway. One of the best pieces of advice I could give is to not get tripped up over making a specific stop if the parking lot is full, there are some alternatives on the route. I’ll call these out for some of the smaller parker lots that fill up quickly on a busy weekend.
The order of these stops is based on starting in Lincoln and heading east towards North Conway, but can easily be reversed.
- 🅿️ = Large parking lot with plenty of options
- 🚾 = Water Closet (either running water, hole in the ground or porter potties)
- 📷 = Viewpoint, scenic and photograph worthy
- 🏞️ = Ranger Station at this location
- 🥾 = Hiking trailheads located at this stop
- 🌟 = One of the best spots to visit
- ➡️ = Alternative viewpoint available if parking lot is full
Lincoln Woods is the first stop on the Kancamagus coming from Lincoln. It has a large parking lot and various amenities. It also has a pay station for the recreation pass that cars need to display when using the Kancamagus Highway.
This stop contains both short hikes, viewpoints and longer trails.
The suspension bridge at the start of the trailhead provides a beautiful vista to overlook the nearby Pemigewasset River and the colorful nearby mountains.
For a quick visit – cross the suspension bridge, turn left and follow the trail until you reach the main road, where you can cross the road bridge and return to the parking lot. This should take less than 10 minutes and can give you a chance to see all the viewpoints.
Lincoln Woods has access to the Pemigewasset WIlderness and its network of hiking trails, including the namesake Lincoln Woods Trail.
Otter Rocks is a leisure stop along the Hancock Branch of the Pemigewasset River. It’s kitted out with picnic benches that overlook the babbling river branch. The more adventurous can climb down, in dry season, to explore the rocks along the river’s edge.
Parking here is limited, only about 6-8 spots.
This stop along the Kancamagus Highway is absolutely beautiful, peaceful and utterly serene. It’s a great stop for a picnic, and an exploration.
📷 🥾 🌟➡️
Hancock Overlook offers gorgeous views of the Osceola Range, with great views from a higher perspective as the Kancamagus Highway climbs to higher elevations. It follows a tight hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway.
Although the parking lot is larger than most, with 20 spots, it fills up at all times of the day. The cars waiting to get in can often back up the Kancamagus Highway as well. If you’re patient you should be able to hold out for a spot at the overlook, or you could carry on to one of the alternative stops.
- Further along the road, an unnamed overlook offers similarly beautiful views.
- The next stop along the Kancamagus Highway, Pemigewasset Overlook, is another alternative.
This is also the location for the Hancock Notch Trailhead, which is one of the easiest routes to Mount Hancock.
🅿️ 🚾 📷 🌟
Pemigewasset Overlook provides guests with an incredible view of the Osceola Mountains. There is a pavilion as well at this stop with signage that helps to describe the view and what can be seen in the vista.
This is a favorite stop of our’s because it has plentiful parking (over 30 spots), an in-ground toilet, and truly spectacular panoramic views. It’s a great alternative to Hancock Overlook as it’s much easier to get a parking spot, and to cycle through the parking lot (which is a one way system).
This overlook is located the closest to the highest elevation of the Kancamagus pass.
C.L. Graham Wangan Overlook
The CL Graham Wangan Overlook is a short distance further up the Kancamagus Highway from the Pemigewasset Overlook, but provides a different point of view.
It’s on the opposite side of the highway and overlooks several mountains to the north and east, as well as the Swift River Watershed.
A small pavilion provides several signs that help to highlight what mountains and scenes are in view from this overlook.
The parking lot is large, but sometimes can be full if a bus has pulled into it. The alternative to this overlook is the Sugar Hill Overlook, as an option.
Sugar Hill Overlook
🅿️ 📷 ➡️
The Sugar Hill Overlook offers another fantastic view of the Swift River Valley, and is a good alternative to the C.L. Graham Wangan Overlook.
The signs at the pavilion in this overlook highlight the vista, as well as provide information on forest management.
🚾 📷 🥾 🌟
The parking lot is very small, and patience will be required to find a spot here.
There is a 15 minute hike from the parking lot to reach the falls through a beautiful woodland. The falls cascade into a beautiful flume, and though it is not as famous as the actual Flume, it provides a really gorgeous landscape for visitors.
Stairs lead the visitors to the top of the falls and provide spectacular viewpoints.
There are several facilities also at this popular stop including picnic tables, and an in-ground toilet.
Russel-Colbath House Site
🅿️ 🚾 📷
The Russel-Colbath House is the only surviving structure from the town of Passaconaway and was built in 1832, though the barn was added in 2003. It now stands as a museum open between May and September.
The parking lot to access this site is just beyond the site on the left (ir arriving via Lincoln, or just before the site on the right if arriving via North Conway).
In summer months the facilities available here include toilets and picnic tables.
Rocky Gorge Scenic Area
🅿️ 🚾 📷 🥾 🌟
The Rocky Gorge Scenic Area has some absolutely stunning vistas of the Swift River, as it passes through a gorge and beneath a viewing bridge. The bridge has the best view of the gorge, and with the background of fall foliage this is a great viewpoint.
The parking lot is huge, though it can be full, but if you’re patient a spot will become available.
There are also in-ground toilets and many descriptive signs throughout the short hike to the gorge that describe the area in detail.
Visitors can keep their hike short and visit the footpath and bridge, or can continue on for a longer hike via the Lovequist Loop around the Falls Pond. This hike is about a mile long and leads to a popular fishing area.
In winter there is the nearby Nanamocomuck Ski Trail.
🅿️ 🚾 📷
Lower Falls is just a bit further downstream from Rocky Gorge. This is another of the most popular stops along the Kancamagus Highway for its scenic beauty.
The large parking lot provides easy access to the Lower Falls via a short walk, where visitors can watch the cascade of the Swift River as it creates several waterfalls that settle into a large pool.
In the summer months this is a popular spot for visitors seeking an opportunity to swim.
Facilitates include picnic tables and in-ground toilets.
Albany Covered Bridge
🅿️ 🚾 📷 🥾 🌟
The Albany Covered Bridge is a working covered bridge along the Kancamagus Highway; visitors can either park up and cross the bridge on foot or opt to drive over the bridge and back again for a truly unique experience.
The bridge was constructed initially in 1858, and has undergone various restorations.
The parking lot is large, but if it’s full you can cross the bridge and there’s a secondary lot on the other side. I prefer to park in the secondary lot and visit the bridge from that direction so I can get the experience of crossing it and getting out to see it on foot.
The facilities here include in-ground toilets, in both parking lots, as well as informational panels. There is a height limit for crossing the bridge, and should be respected.
There is access to the Boulder Loop hiking trail from the parking lot on the far side of the bridge, as well as the Nanamocomuck Ski Trail in winter.
There are dozens of hiking trails along the Kancamagus Highway, some of which I’ve highlighted to the specific stops where the trailhead exists. For those more adventurous visitors who want to dive deeper into the fall foliage on these wonderful hikes, these are some of the most popular hiking trails on the route.
- East Pond Trail, a 7.5 mile trail with elevation to a hidden pond.
- The Sawyer River Trail, a 3 mile hike to a beautiful pond.
- The Boulder Loop Trail, a 3 mile scenic hike.
- The Discovery Trail, a 1.5 mile trail near Lincoln.
- Greeley Ponds Trail, a 7 mile hike leading to ponds and great fly fishing.
- The Livemore Trail, a 4 mile hike through Livemore pass, great for snow shoeing.
- The Champney Brook Trail, a 9 mile trail that is fantastic for cross country skiing.
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