From the small town of Glen in Mt. Washington Valley, take a detour south to the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) for an alternate scenic drive that’s shorter and less traveled than US-302 and US-3 through Crawford and Franconia Notches. Along the way to “The Kanc” you’ll pass through North Conway and Conway, both of which have things to offer for travelers.
If you’re overdue for a little retail therapy, you might consider continuing south on Route 16 from the US-302 junction toward North Conway (pop. 2,349), one of the cornerstones of New England’s factory-outlet circuit. If you can turn a blind eye to all the retail frenzy, North Conway’s central park offers one of the best views of Mt. Washington, and its baseball diamond hosts some pretty intense games.
Besides factory-outlet stores, North Conway is also home to New Hampshire’s most popular scenic railroad, running steam engines throughout summer and during the fall color season. Based out of North Conway’s downtown depot, the Conway Scenic Railroad (603/356-5251, $17.50 and up depending on trip) runs historic trains.
Although all the tourists may well drive you away from North Conway, there are some good places to eat along Route 16, like Elvio’s Pizzeria and Restaurant (2888 White Mountain Hwy., 603/356-3208), where you can get slices or full pies, submarine sandwiches, and big salads, plus wine and beer. During the day, the place to eat home-style breakfasts or great sandwiches is family-friendly Peach’s Restaurant (2506 White Mountain Hwy., 603/356-5860).
There are lots of accommodations on and near Route 16, from old cabin courts to anodyne motels, but the most interesting place has to be the Cranmore Inn (80 Kearsarge Rd., 603/356-5502, $79 and up), a quick walk east of Route 16, which has been welcoming travelers since 1863.
Conway, five miles down Route 16 from North Conway at the south end of the scenic railroad line, is a nicer littler town, with a couple of restaurants, a post office, and the clean and friendly White Mountains Hostel (36 Washington St., 866/902-2521, $34 per person, $64 private rooms), in the heart of town. If you have your doubts about hosteling, this place is sure to dispel them; it’s as clean as it is serene, and besides saving money staying here, you’re apt to meet like-minded fellow travelers over breakfast or relaxing in the game room.
Up in the hills above Conway, off Route 16, and half a mile south of the Kancamagus Highway at the edge of the White Mountains National Forest, the Darby Field Inn and Restaurant (603/447-2181, $165 and up) is a B&B open year-round for skiing, hiking, and great après-outdoors meals.
The Kancamagus Highway
Running east-west from Conway over the mountains to Lincoln, the 34-mile Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) is a National Scenic Byway and one of the most incredible drives in the White Mountains. Much shorter and a lot less traveled than the prime tourist route along US-302 and US-3 through Crawford and Franconia Notches, The Kanc, as it’s often called, takes you up and over the crest of the peaks, giving grand vistas over an almost completely undeveloped landscape—great for fall-color leaf-peeping. Fall is definitely prime time for the drive, but any time of year (except maybe winter, when it can be a bit hairy) it’s a lovely trip, lined by lupines in early summer and raging waterfalls in the spring.
Near the midpoint of The Kanc, the Russell-Colbath House dates from the early 1830s and now houses a small museum (Sat.-Sun. summer, free) with an on-site historic interpreter and exhibits describing the lives of the White Mountains’ early settlers. From the house, the short loop Rail N’ River Trail explores the effects loggers had on this region in the 1890s, when everything you see along The Kanc (and most everywhere else) was devastated by clear-cutting.
Three miles farther west, just east of the crest and an easy half-mile walk from the well-signed parking area, Sabbaday Falls is a lovely little waterfall roaring through a narrow gorge. In a series of noisy, splashing cascades, the river drops down through a polished pink granite gorge, barely 10 feet wide but surrounded by dense forest. It’s an ideal picnic spot, and only 10 or 15 minutes from the road.