New Hampshire’s National Scenic Byway with the tongue-twister name—the Kancamagus Highway—is New England’s most superb scenic drive, particularly during the region’s storied fall foliage season, when prime scenic routes beckon. You can call it “the Kanc” for short, as locals do, and you can revel in the pure pleasure of motoring through this thickly treed mountain gap, as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each year.
On a peak day, more than 4,000 vehicles traverse at least a portion of this famous route. Allow plenty of time for your outing, not only because traffic can build up but because there are so many attractions to see and Instagram-worthy photo-op stops along the Kanc, particularly if you’re up for a bit of hiking.
Kancamagus Highway History
The Kancamagus Highway may be legendary, but it is a relatively new road as New England scenic byways go. Some old logging and town roads edged into the rugged White Mountain National Forest, which the federal government set aside for conservation in 1911. Still, a connection between Conway and Lincoln was not completed until 1959. The road was paved in 1964, and, in 1968, it was plowed for the first time, allowing for year-round traffic.
New Hampshire State Route 112 is named for Chief Kancamagus, “The Fearless One.” Kancamagus was the last leader of the Pennacook Confederacy, a union of more than seventeen central New England Native American tribes, first forged by Kancamagus’ grandfather, Passaconaway, in 1627. Kancamagus tried to maintain peace between his people and encroaching English settlers, but war and bloodshed forced the tribes to scatter, with most retreating to northern New Hampshire and Canada.
Kancamagus Highway Attractions
The Kancamagus Highway has all quintessential New England scenery to provide a perfect scenic road trip, especially if you do it in the fall. From bright red and orange autumn colors to covered wooden bridges, there’s plenty to enjoy on this breathtaking route.
- Albany Covered Bridge: Stop at Covered Bridge Campground, and you can walk across the wooden Albany Covered Bridge, built above the boulder-studded Swift River in 1858 and restored in 1970. It’s one of the coolest covered bridges in New Hampshire. While you’re there, you may want to hike the campground’s 3-mile Boulder Loop Trail, which offers views of the river and 3,475-foot Mount Chocorua to the south.
- Lower Falls Scenic Area: In the summer months, you can splash in the shallow pools or sunbathe on the rocks at this scenic spot. Sturdy water shoes are a smart idea here.
- Rocky Gorge Scenic Area: There’s no swimming allowed here, but a footbridge offers pretty views of the Swift River, and the Lovequist Loop Trail around Falls Pond is an easy and enjoyable walk in the woods.
- Russell-Colbath Historic Site: Built by sawmill operator Thomas Russell in 1832, this tiny house, which you can tour July through September, was inherited in 1887 by Russell’s granddaughter, Ruth Priscilla, and her husband, Thomas Alden Colbath. In 1891, Thomas left the house one day, telling Ruth he would return “in a little while.” She hung a lantern in the window every evening—for the next 39 years—anticipating his return, but she never saw him again. Can you guess who showed up three years after her death? Bingo! However, Thomas Colbath’s claims to the house were denied, and he resumed his rambling ways.
- Sabbaday Falls: A brief, not-too-strenuous hike of less than a half-mile is required to view the picturesque waterfalls that make this one of the Kanc’s most popular stops (and don’t miss the other White Mountains waterfalls while you’re in the region).
- Upper Lady’s Bath: Big Rock Campground is home to another old-fashioned swimming hole that beckons on warm September days.
Kancamagus Highway Map, Directions, and Parking
In addition to being New England’s prettiest drive, the Kancamagus Highway is also one of the easiest driving tours to navigate. Follow Route 112 west from Conway to Lincoln (or vice versa). The 34-mile Kancamagus Highway (the correct pronunciation is “kank-ah-MAU-gus,” similar to the month of “August”) cuts an east-west channel through New Hampshire’s 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest.
Even if you have a smartphone or GPS, don’t discount printing out a paper map to monitor your progress and ensure that you don’t miss any must-see attractions, including waterfalls and covered bridges.
You can also stop at the Saco Ranger Station, just west of Conway, to pick up a map and begin to plot your stops at well-designated scenic overlooks, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and historical sites along the Kanc. A visitor information center is also located on the western end of the Kanc in Lincoln, should you decide to drive the route in reverse.
Remember that a $5 day pass fee per vehicle is payable at parking areas and trailheads along the Kancamagus Highway unless you have a White Mountain National Forest annual pass, which costs $30. Passes are available for purchase online or from a selection of local vendors. Driving the Kanc straight through without stops is free, although the stops are well worth the fee.
Where to Stay Near the Kancamagus Highway
This is New Hampshire’s ski country, and there are plentiful lodging options on either end of the Kancamagus Highway. Keep in mind, though, that popular hotels and inns sell out far in advance for peak weekends during the fall foliage season, and some require minimum stays of two or more nights.
On the Conway side of the Kanc, look to North Conway for the densest assortment of lodging properties, including family favorites like the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort and Hampton Inn & Suites North Conway (both have indoor waterparks to keep kids entertained). If you prefer a smaller B&B, The 1785 Inn is one of North Conway’s best values and has an unbeatable view. Darby Field Inn & Restaurant is lovely and even closer to Conway, where most travelers begin their Kancamagus Highway drive.
On the western end of the Kanc in Lincoln, consider staying at The Mountain Club on Loon. Don’t forget to check Airbnb for cabins and condos available at affordable rates during the non-ski season.
Camping Along the Kancamagus Highway
If you want to stay right amid the Kanc and its glorious scenery—and save money—consider a camping vacation. There are six White Mountain National Forest campgrounds on the Kancamagus Highway, where you can stay for just $25 per night. From east to west, they are Covered Bridge Campground, Blackberry Crossing Campground, Jigger Johnson Campground, Passaconaway Campground, Big Rock Campground, and Hancock Campground. Only Hancock remains open through the winter months.
Is the Kancamagus Highway worth it?
Most visitors will say “definitely!” While it’s almost certainly one of the top activities in New Hampshire, the Kancamagus Highway is also one of the best places to see fall foliage in New England.
How long does it take to drive the Kancamagus Highway?
While the highway is only 35 miles long, it will take between two and three hours to fully experience the drive. There are no businesses or gas stations along the road, so be prepared.
Where does Kancamagus Highway start and end?
The Kancamagus Highway starts at Route 16 in Conway, New Hampshire and goes through the White Mountain National Forest before ending in Lincoln, New Hampshire.