Kancamagus Highway Scenic Drive is a trip along New Hampshire’s highway 112 from Conway to Lincoln. The 34-mile long scenic byway winds through the White Mountain National Forest, much of the way following the course of the Swift River. Along the way, one can explore and enjoy Sabbaday Falls, Lower Falls, Rocky Gorge, Champney Falls, and the Kancamagus Pass on Mt. Kancamagus. This is one of the best fall foliage drives in the nation, so expect heaver traffic when the leaves are turning and the “leaf peepers” are in season.
Kancamagus was a real person, whose name means “The Fearless One”; he was the grandson of Passaconaway “Child of the Bear”. Passaconaway united over 17 tribes within central New England in 1627. This unification formed the Panacook Confederacy. Passaconaway ruled the Panacook Confederacy until his death in 1669. The town of Conway gets its name from Passaconaway.
Begin at the town of Conway, where Sherman Farms is a popular place to visit, have some homemade treats, and get fresh produce. Other landmarks in Conway include The Old Depot, and Echo Lake State Park, with its swimming beach and great views of Cathedral Ledge. Heading west of town on hay 113, make a right on to 112, a two lane road throughout your drive. Along the Kancamagus Highway you will have hikers, bikers, motorcyclers, trailers, tour buses, and wildlife. Signs will remind you to brake for moose; if you are fortunate enough to see them, keep a respectful distance. Shops, stores and gas stations along the drive are nearly nonexistent, so gas up before you go. Expect no cell service on this drive. By the way, the entire White Mountain National Forest is dog-friendly, if your dog is on a leash.
If you like vintage shopping you might want to stop at the Lil Shop on the Kanc, an indoor consignment shop, just after 112 begins. Soon you will come to Kancamagus Swift River Inn; it has only a very small sign to let you know it is there, a Bavarian style B and B, hidden in the woods from 112. Not long after, comes Darby Field Inn, located high above the highway, in a forest setting with lovely mountain views. It is an old fashioned style New England Inn offering lodging, casual dining as well as the cozy Littlefield’s Tavern. You will continue on a stretch of road with the Swift River on the right. At the sign indicating you are entering the White Mountain National Forest, there is a small pullout, and there are several more soon after, as you continue to climb, all of them afford lovely views of the Swift River.
You will see a sign for the Albany Covered Bridge, to the right; take that turn off to see the bridge and the area surrounding it. Built in 1858, the bridge is 120 feet long with a clear span of 100 feet. You can drive across it and it is a good location for photos. Boulder Loop Trail begins in the covered bridge campground. Walk the whole three-mile loop in about three hours. When you reach the flat area at the summit, look to you left and follow the big rock and the rocky path to two breathtaking views. This is a moderate hike, popular with families. You will see boulders as big as houses. Your drive continues with more great views of the river. The next stopping point is at Lower Falls Scenic Area, one of the most popular stops on the Kancamagus Highway. There are restrooms and picnic tables, and a swimming hole in the summer when the water is safely low. The broad waterfall is twelve feet high.
Your drive continues upward along the river. Next comes Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. You will enjoy the footbridge over the gorge and the photo ops here of the Swift River rushing through it. Take the path on the far side of the bridge up to Falls Pond. The next feature on the drive is Champney Brook Trail and Bolles Trail. The first is a 7.6-mile hiking trail with access to Mount Chocorua and Champney Falls, a series of cascades about seventy feet long. Walking time to the falls and back takes about two and a half hours. Bolles Trail splits from and then returns to Champney Brook Trail, making a loop. This is a very popular feature and the lot is often overflowing, with cars parking on the side of the road, so proceed with caution.
Wilderness Cabins offers truly get away from it all lodging and is at the heart of many radiating hiking trails. Russell Colbath Historic Site is a single story center-chimney Cape Cod style house built in the 1830s by Thomas and Amzi Russell; it is the only early 19th century homestead in Swift River valley. Inside is a small historic house museum, interpreting 19th century life. Even if you do not stop, the house and barn are distinctive landmarks in the landscape as you drive along. Passaconaway Campground, across the highway from the campground is the trailhead for the tail to Mt. Hedgehog, the Downes Brook Trail, and the Mt. Potash Trail. Next comes Sabbaday Falls Picnic Ground, from which you access the falls. The hike to and from the falls is on an easy gravel path, making this a great stroll for all ages. The views of the falls are lovely and refreshing. There is an upper fall, a flume and lower falls. There is plenty of parking. For many people this is their favorite feature of the Kancamagus Highway Scenic Drive.
If you want to have a broad panorama with absolutely no hiking required, you will enjoy the Sugar Hill Scenic Vista, with a great view of the Swift River Valley and the surrounding mountains. The views continue to be amazing and ever changing as you ascend to Kancamagus Pass on Mt. Kancamagus, with the road passing though a rocky declivity. Stop at the Pemigewasset Overlook, just after the pass, as the road begins its descent. The Hancock Overlook is next with more lovely views, just where the road offers its tightest hairpin turn. Otter Rocks Day-Use Area has a small pullout and is the location of a popular swimming hole.
There are some nice long straight stretches of road as you continue to descend, then just before you cross over the east branch of the Pemigewasset River, turn right into the Lincoln Woods pull out area. This will offer you a chance to get a closer look at the water and the bridge. Be sure to enjoy the 150 foot pedestrian suspension bridge crossing the river just a few hundred yards north of highway 112. As you continue westward, a small pullout just a short distance along offers another short trail to the water’s edge.
You are now on the outskirts of Lincoln, where there’s lots to do. Franconia Notch State Park is nearby; be sure to hike to The Basin. Clark’s Trading Post is well-known for their bears and for the White Mountain Railroad. Visit the Flume Bridge (covered bridge). The Flume Gorge offers wooden boardwalk hike deep in the gorge. For a meal in Lincoln, consider the popular Gypsy Café (order the crispy salad), the Purple Tomato (a deli with some dining), and Flapjack’s Pancake House; lodging options include the Kancamagus Lodge, the Lodge at Lincoln Station Resort, and the Red Sleigh Inn.