The Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) in New Hampshire is a classic fall foliage route.
Photo Credit : Jim Salge
As soon as the calendar flips to September, New Englanders start thinking about their favorite fall activities, with “leaf-peeping” chief among them (assisted, as always, by our official annual fall foliage forecast). This term is kind of a catch-all for visiting fall fairs, farms, and festivals in small villages and rural areas while admiring the brilliant colors of the season.
While you don’t have to go far for a leaf-peeping fix, if you feel like taking a drive there are some legendary routes in every state. These roads are far less likely to be referred to by their state-assigned number than by a name befitting the experience you have traveling them. Smugglers’ Notch, Mohawk Trail, Acadia Loop, and Golden Road are classics. But perhaps none is more well known (or mispronounced) than the Kancamagus Highway, aka the Kanc, in New Hampshire.
Driving the Kancamagus Highway (aka “The Kanc”) in Fall
The Kanc has just about everything you could want in a classic fall foliage drive. The route links two great New England ski towns through 30 winding miles of unbroken White Mountain forest. It follows boulder-strewn rivers and runs past mountain ponds, over a high pass, and alongside endless vistas. You can enjoy all of this without leaving your car, or stop and set off on any of the hundreds of miles of trails accessible from the road. And if one day isn’t enough, there are half a dozen campgrounds along the way.
Traveling from east to west, from Conway to Lincoln, you should first stop in the Saco Ranger Station just a few hundred yards from the turn off Route 16. There you can purchase a parking pass, which must be displayed at all forest service parking areas along the route. The rangers always have great information about foliage conditions and favorite sites and hikes, too.
Continuing west, you follow the Swift River for a few miles before reaching three popular parking areas at great sites along the river: the Albany Covered Bridge, Lower Falls, and Rocky Gorge and Falls Pond. The lots at these locations are often nearly full, especially on weekends, but that should not deter anyone from stopping. There is a certain camaraderie and courtesy among leaf peepers and there are plenty of opportunities to walk along the trails at each site to find your solitude — not to mention a unique shot of the fall colors!
Traversing a few more miles of lowlands along the river will bring you past some perfect moose habitat and a few chances to hike to waterfalls before beginning to climb the pass. The highway climbs nearly 2,500 feet in elevation before topping out at a pair of breathtaking overlooks, one facing east and one facing west. Catching an autumn sunset from the Pemigewasset Overlook during peak foliage is one experience not to be missed.
One of the best things about the Kancamagus Highway in autumn is that because of its changes in elevation, the window to see color along the byway is pretty long. Peak reaches this upper pass in late September, and is often bare, or even dusted with snow by the time the lower river valleys are ablaze up to two weeks later.
During the 2,000-foot descent between the pass and the town of Lincoln, you’ll need to be cognizant of cyclists “cranking the Kanc” and descending at speeds that rival your car’s. The road here is steep and winding, with a classic hairpin turn halfway down. And all the while, perfect panoramic views surround you.
Before reaching Lincoln, you should make one last stop, at Lincoln Woods, to photograph the views up into the wilderness from the suspension bridge, or walk along the 100-year-old railbeds of the old logging railroads. A lot of history has shaped the forests of New England, but we sure like how they are today!
The Kancamagus Highway is one of many classic New England fall foliage routes, all of which offer unique experiences of autumn.
This post was first published in 2017 and has been updated.