YOU DON’T HAVE to be a hiker to enjoy New Hampshire’s majestic White Mountains, where roads lead into the heart of New England’s most renowned peaks. Make this drive and along the way you can visit inns and eateries with broad views of Mount Washington (New England’s highest peak at 6,288 feet) and the Presidential Range. After a few hours you may come to expect mountain views at every turn, but it’s unlikely you’ll tire of them. The mountains change — cloaked with fog in early morning, often razor sharp by midday; their forms take shape around the winding roads like a well-turned tale.
Begin this tour in North Conway, take in some of the area’s best attractions, enjoy knock-your-socks-off mountain views, and sleep in New Hampshire’s prettiest towns. Most of the trip is on scenic 302, the route that will take you into Vermont for the next driving trip in Yankee Magazine‘s foliage tour.
Route 302 joins Route 16 North in North Conway, where at almost any hour of the day you’ll find traffic comparable to rush hour. The name of the game here is shopping. Take your pick of outlets; most are located in Settlers’ Green Outlet Village (more than 50 stores, including Nike Factory Store, Tommy Hilfiger, Orvis Factory Store) or spread out along Route 16 (Polo/Ralph Lauren, L.L. Bean Factory Store, Socks Galore, the Paper Factory, and many, many more).
If you tire of name brands and long to see something handmade, stop at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Then there is also Zeb’s. A little removed from the outlets, this store stocks only goods made in New England. Named after a Martha’s Vineyard sea captain, Zeb’s is a “new” general store full of toys, food, baskets, and — yes — bag balm.
Though we don’t recommend it, there are enough stores in the area to spend the entire foliage season shopping. If you find you’ve shopped till you’re about to drop, please scroll down for our suggestions for lodging in North Conway.
But when we’ve come just for shopping, our favorite excursion ends not in North Conway but a little south, away from the commotion. Eaton Center, with its idyllic setting on Crystal Lake, is just 15 minutes south on Route 153.
We reserve a room at the Inn at Crystal Lake, an 11-bedroom 1884 Victorian that is the centerpiece of the village. Relax in the evening with a walk along the lake. Just a bit to the east, in Snowville, another wonderful choice is the Snowvillage Inn. Built as a summer home in 1916, the inn has sweeping views of the Presidential Range, including Mount Washington, and a restaurant that’s recognized for its elegant country dining. (Nothing like a four-course candlelit dinner to revive you after a day of shopping.)
For those hearty travelers and nonshoppers who want some action, the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway offers round-trip train rides through some of the finest scenery in the Northeast. Choose between two Valley Excursions or the longer Notch Trip. Families will also enjoy Story Land in Glen, operated by the Morrell Family.
Though the area along Routes 16 and 302 is packed with inns, B&Bs, resorts, and motels, you’ll want to reserve ahead at this time of year. Here is a handful of good choices.
In Glen, the Bernerhof, a turreted Victorian inn, has long been known for its wonderful Swiss cuisine. But you’d never guess what luxury awaits in some of the guest rooms: hot tubs a deux under skylights or stained glass.
In Jackson: Carter Notch Inn is an elegant, late-1800s country cottage with a wraparound porch where wicker abounds and views of the Wildcat River Valley dominate. The Inn at Ellis River is an 1893 Colonial with a recent addition (20 rooms total), outside heated pool, some suites, a sauna, spectacular mountain views, and river frontage. A Victorian designed in 1902 by Stanford White for the Baldwin family (of piano fame) houses the Inn at Jackson. Here you’ll find an outdoor Jacuzzi, large rooms (many with fireplaces), and good views of the village and mountains.
On today’s itinerary you’ll be deep in the mountains, not just looking out at them. Since the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) can be overcrowded at this time of year, we suggest that you take a less-traveled scenic loop through Jackson (if you didn’t already do this last night to find your sleeping quarters). Follow Route 16 north to Route 16B and drive across a covered bridge into Jackson, a pocket-sized town. Stay right on 16B up a steep hill. This rural six-mile circuit takes you past some beautiful old hillside farmhouses and offers mountain vistas. On the right looms the Eagle Mountain House, a majestic old hotel that has been completely updated without losing its grand flavor.
As you come back into Jackson village, turn left at the community church. Don’t miss this rewarding short walk: Park your car downtown and follow the sidewalk alongside Route 16B, which winds along Jackson Falls. This stretch of the Wildcat River begs to be admired. In the low water of fall, you can pick your way among the boulders and imagine how threatening this is during spring runoff. At the Jackson Falls sign you can walk out on the wooden footbridge.
As you head south out of town, turn left after the Wildcat Inn & Tavern; this four-mile back-road loop will take you to Route 16A, which passes all the little inns in Intervale.
Then follow Route 302 northwest. Soon the mountains will close in and you’ll follow the Saco River into the White Mountain National Forest and Crawford Notch State Park. Historic Willey House, a gift shop, is on the left, and across the street there is a good spot to stretch your legs with a stroll over the river via footbridge. We stopped here, bought a handful of fish food from the dispenser, and enjoyed tossing it to the lively fish below.
Back on the road, seven miles later you’ll come to the Mount Washington Hotel, a stately white edifice with a red roof. For nearly 100 years this grand hotel has fringed the foot of Mount Washington like a bride’s petticoat. A columned veranda, an octagonal dining room, and newly renovated rooms spell luxury. A good stop for lunch is the hotel’s downstairs cafe. Stroll around the building on the immense open porches to appreciate the incredible scale of this complex built by a wealthy railroad magnate in 1902. Presidents, royalty, and scores of celebrities have stayed here, and as many as 57 trains arrived daily during the resort’s heyday.
Just past the hotel you’ll see the turnoff for the Mount Washington Cog Railway — the means for a journey to the summit of Mount Washington on the second-steepest railway track in the world. This was the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway; it opened in 1869, and it still ascends the highest peak in the Northeast under steam locomotion. No matter what the temperature, bring a sweater. Mount Washington is notorious for changeable conditions.
After you’ve seen the sights from on high, take Route 3 south to the Franconia Parkway (Route 93 South). Few drives in New England are more dramatic than this sinuous squeeze past craggy cliffs, including the Basin and Flume Gorge.
While you’re here, take a five-minute ride on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway to the 4,200-foot summit. In 1938 the first passenger aerial tramway operated from this site, and you can stand inside it at the New England Ski Museum next door. Five miles south lies one of the region’s most awesome natural wonders — the Flume Gorge.
You’ll sleep well tonight in the quiet of Sugar Hill, a hilltop town named for its abundance of sugar maples. Drive north on I-93; turn onto Route 18 north, then left onto Route 117. A handful of inns dot the landscape.
The Hilltop Inn offers spectacular mountain views, handmade quilts, an outdoor hot tub, and a delicious buffet breakfast prepared by caterers/innkeepers Mike and Meri Hern.
At the Sugar Hill Inn, Bette Davis always stayed in the room overlooking mountains and fields of lupine (Sugar Hill is home to an annual lupine festival each June). You can dine in on weekends and choose from entrees such as rack of lamb or cranberry-glazed duck. The Homestead Inn was founded by Moses and Sarah Aldrich, Sugar Hill’s first permanent settlers on the original King’s Grant, and has been handed down through seven generations. Next door, visit the converted 90-foot-long barn called Sugar Hill Sampler, which houses a museum with family artifacts, heirlooms, photos, tools, and crafts and a gift shop featuring miniatures, pottery, jams, candy, quilts, and antiques.
Views don’t get any better than those from Sunset Hill Road. At the end, you’ll find Sunset Hill House; with 28 rooms, it is the largest lodging establishment in town. From their ridgetop location, you can see the Green Mountains to the west and the Whites to the east.
Start the day with breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor on Route 117 in Sugar Hill, a must for its no-sugar pancakes topped with pure maple syrup. They grind their own grains for six different pancake mixes, and all the baking is done on the premises. Also, they have been charting peak foliage for more than 30 years.
As you head west into the center of Sugar Hill, be sure to stop at Harman’s Cheese & Country Store for a sampling of the “World’s Greatest Cheddar Cheese.” It’s hard to beat the taste of this two-year-aged cheddar that is shipped nationwide. You’ll also find maple products, crackers, homemade pickles, and an array of unique and hard-to-find products. After your snack of cheese and cheese spread samplings, follow signs from Main Street to Routes 302 and 10 South to Lisbon.
Stop in Bath and walk through the covered bridge, built in 1832 — the longest in New Hampshire and one of the oldest in America. The Brick Store claims to be America’s oldest general store. Don’t worry if this is true, just enjoy the extensive inventory, slowly strolling wide floorboards that creak from hundreds of years of use. The walls are decorated with records, movie bills, and concert posters, including some rare and valuable Beatles memorabilia.
The Connecticut River divides New Hampshire and Vermont, winding through what are known as the Upper Valley towns, the last of which is Woodsville. The tour continues on Route 302 into Vermont.
Lodging in North Conway
White Mountain Hotel and Resort, 800-533-6301, 603-356-7100. West Side Rd. at Hale’s Location, North Conway. The dramatic stone face of White Horse Ledge rises behind this good-sized hotel. Amenities include a fitness center and a year-round outdoor pool. The best place to view the foliage is through the windows of the Ledges dining room, where guests can gaze out on Mount Cranmore during any meal. Open year-round. 80 rooms. whitemountainhotel.com
Cranmore Inn, 800-526-5502, 603-356-5502. 80 Kearsarge St., North Conway. The oldest continuously operating inn in the valley, just one block from North Conway’s main drag. Open year-round. 21 rooms, including three mini-suites. cranmoreinn.com
Stonehurst Manor, 800-525-9100, 603-356-3113. Rtes. 16 and 302, North Conway. Dinner is a real treat here: Staff serve up continental extravagances (wood-fired prime rib, veal Oscar) or wood-fired, stone-oven pizzas. You’ll feel like royalty in this three-story English-style manor punctuated with fine wood and stonework and rooms that are accented with antiques. Open year-round. 25 rooms. stonehurstmanor.com
The 1785 Inn and Restaurant, 800-421-1785, 603-356-9025. 3582 White Mountain Hwy. (Rtes. 16 and 302), North Conway. Come for the mountain views but savor the history: this Revolutionary-era home has original hand-hewn beams and 220-year-old original fireplaces. Study the wine list (over 200 labels) while sitting by the fire before a gourmet dinner. Open year-round. 17 rooms. the1785inn.com
Nereledge Inn, 888-356-2831, 603-356-2831. 94 River Rd., North Conway. Just a short walk from the village. You might not make it beyond the porch rockers of this 1787 Colonial farmhouse boasting views of Cathedral Ledge and the Moat Mountains. The fireplaced sitting room is an evening draw, with games and darts. Open year-round. 11 rooms. nereledgeinn.com
Oxen Yoke, 800-862-1600, 603-356-3177. Kearsarge St., North Conway. This cozy inn is owned and operated by the much larger Eastern Slope Inn, which anchors downtown North Conway. Just a few blocks from the village, this circa-1900 Victorian offers a quieter alternative with mountain views. Best of all, guests may use all the amenities at Eastern Slope. Open year-round. 21 rooms. theoxenyoke.com
The Red Elephant Inn Bed&Breakfast, 800-642-0749. 603-356-3548. 28 Locust Ln., North Conway. Peace and quiet reign at this smaller-scale 1850 Victorian. Some rooms have fireplaces and Jacuzzis, and many have mountain views. Open year-round. 8 rooms. redelephantinn.com
Wyatt House Country Inn, 800-527-7978, 603-356-7977. Main St. (Rtes. 16 and 302), North Conway. How best to relax after a day of shopping? Book a room at this 1893 Victorian set on the banks of the Saco River with a panoramic view of the Moat Mountains. Open year-round. 9 rooms. wyatthouseinn.com
Fox Ridge Resort, 800-343-1804, 603-356-3151. Rtes. 16 and 302, North Conway. Here’s a welcome departure from North Conway’s plethora of motels on “the strip.” This gem, set high on a hill on 300 acres, is virtually invisible from the main road. Its perch affords great mountain views and a peaceful setting. Most rooms have private patios. After a long day of shopping, the indoor and outdoor swimming pools and whirlpool are a godsend. Open May-Nov. 136 rooms. foxridgeresort.com
The Green Granite Inn and Conference Center, 800-468-3666, 603-356-6901. Rtes. 16 and 302, North Conway. This family-owned inn is one of the most attractive and hospitable places in the Mount Washington Valley. Features indoor and outdoor pools, exercise room, and hot tub. Open year-round. 91 rooms. greengranite.com