Guide To Driving Kancamagus Highway In New Hampshire

Kancamagus Highway

New England is one of my favorite places to visit for outdoor road trips in the fall. There’s so much to explore including winding mountain byways that will make you ask yourself “How is this even real?!

With lots of stunning overlooks, ample opportunities to pull over and enjoy easy day hikes, and beautiful waterfalls, it’s no wonder that Kancamagus Highway is considered to be one of the best byways in New Hampshire.

If you’re planning to drive down the Kancamagus Highway, here is our guide covering all the best stops along the way, what to know before you go and other tips to help you prepare for a great road trip!


About Kancamagus Highway

Kancamagus Highway (also nicknamed “The Kanc”) is a picturesque 35-mile-long byway that stretches across the White Mountain National Forest. Kancamagus Highway is one of the most scenic byways in New Hampshire and a must-do for those who enjoy fall road trips.

Although the route itself is only 35 miles long, it provides visitors with an abundance of options for sightseeing, hiking, recreational activities, and wildlife sightings such as moose, deer, and black bears.

White Mountain National Forest is the most eastern National Forest in the United States. Here you can experience dramatic and rugged mountain landscapes including some of the highest peaks in the state. Kancamagus Highway reaches nearly 3000 feet at its highest point and offers plenty of overlooks to enjoy the panoramic views.

Kancamagus Highway is named after a Tribal Chief from the 1600s who tried to keep the peace between his tribes and the early settlers. As violence and betrayals from the settlers increased, Kancamagus and his people were forced to move on to northern New Hampshire or Canada.


Where To Start

You can start your Kancamagus Highway road trip in Lincoln town to the West or Conway town to the East.

This is a paved two-way highway so you can start your road trip in either city and turn around at any point if needed.

Lincoln is a charming small adventure town at the base of Franconia Notch State Park. Before you head into the byway you can stop by the White Mountains Visitor Center in Lincoln to check out information on the area, grab a few maps and purchase a White Mountain Recreational Pass that you’ll need for parking.

We drove Kancamagus Highway as part of our New England fall road trip while traveling from Franconia Notch State Park to Acadia National Park. If you’re looking for other places to visit after Kancamagus Highway, be sure to check out these posts next:


Best Time To Go

Kancamagus Highway is a wonderful place to visit any time of the year, but the fall season is an especially popular time when the trees in the White Mountain National Forest change colors from lush greens to a sea of yellows, oranges, and reds.

Early to mid-October is a great time to drive the Kancamagus Highway

The scenery along this highway is simply breathtaking with towering mountains, meandering rivers, serene waterfalls, and panoramic viewpoints that overlook the mountains as far as you can see.

We drove Kancamagus Highway mid-October at the peak of fall colors and a week later the byway was already covered in snow so the timing of your trip is a very important aspect. I use Fall Foliage Prediction Maps for my fall road trips and always leave some room in my itinerary for change of plans in case one area is past its peak time.


How Long Does It Take?

Without stops, it takes a couple of hours to drive the Kancamagus Highway. With stops, you could spend several days coming back to explore its many highlights and trails.

Most people spend half a day to a full day along the Kancamagus Highway. We visited Kancamagus Highway over a 2-day trip and made close to 10 stops, including several hiking trails. The distance itself is not very long but most people take their time driving at a leisure pace to enjoy the scenery.

Be sure to set aside some time to explore the nearby parks and highlights of White Mountain National Forest aside from Kancamagus Highway. Driving North from Lincoln stop by Franconia Notch State Park which is a pristine outdoor area that is popular for hiking and camping.

Try climbing the 1.5 miles long trail to Artist’s Bluff Lookout for sunset or explore the deeply carved gorges and waterfalls of Flume Gorge. On the East of Kancamagus Highway driving up the Mt Washington Auto Road is a must – the summit holds the world record for the highest wind ever observed!


Is Kancamagus Highway Free?

While some stops and overlooks of the Kancamagus Highway are free, most attractions, picnic areas, and hikes do require a small parking fee.

It costs $5 for a day-use pass that you can purchase at the self-service pay stations at each site. These passes are valid for the entire day and apply anywhere within the White Mountain National Forest. So if you pay $5 at the first stop, you can just display that pass at the other stops as well within the same day.

You can also purchase an annual White Mountains Recreation Pass for $30 at the local visitor centers and ranger stations. If you plan to spend a lot of time in this region, it might be more economical to purchase the annual pass than pay $5 every day.

They also accept nationwide passes such as the Interagency Annual & Lifetime passes, Golden Age, or Golden Access, among others.


Other Tips To Know Before You Go

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you head out there:

  • There are no gas stations along the Kancamagus Highway. Make sure to fill up on gas in Lincoln or Conway before you travel into this scenic byway.
  • Reception is very limited once you reach the mountains so look up directions and what sights you want to see ahead of time. I recommend downloading a Google offline map and Maps.Me hiking app especially if you plan to go on any trails.
  • There are no stores or places to get water or food along this byway. Bring any snacks, food, and water that you may need for the day.
  • Kancamagus Highway travels through a protected wilderness area. Please stay on trails and follow Leave No Trace principles to keep this area pristine for future generations.
  • There will be a few primitive restrooms at the main stops of the highway.

Kancamagus Highway Attractions

While you can certainly drive the entire byway and enjoy the scenery out of your car’s window, I highly recommend stopping at a few main attractions along the way.  

The Kancamagus Highway stops that we cover below are listed in order starting from Lincoln and traveling East to Conway.

Hancock Overlook

If you plan to start the drive in Lincoln town, the iconic Hancock Overlook is the first noteworthy stop along the Kancamagus Highway. This is also the newest part of the byway that was added in 1959.

Hancock Overlook is a hairpin turn in the road that looks like a perfect U-shape from up top. This is a very popular stop for photography, especially in the fall.

There is a designated visitor parking lot next to the highway where you can pull over to enjoy panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains. You can also learn about the history of how traveling and hiking developed in the White Mountains from one of the many information signs.

In the early days of the White Mountain National Forest settlement, outdoor recreational activities were off-limits to most people. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that trails were established and a footpath was built to Mt Washington to guide adventurers and explorers.

By the late 1800s, the White Mountains experienced an increase in tourism as places became more accessible and easier to reach. Now the White Mountain National Forest includes over 800,000 acres of wilderness and receives around 6 million visitors a year.

Google Map Location: Hancock Overlook


Pemigewasset Overlook

The next few stops along the Kancamagus Highway include more overlooks and viewpoints. You can stop and see them all or just pick as many as you have time for and skip over to the waterfalls and hikes ahead.

Pemigewasset Overlook is easily accessible and offers incredible views of the Osceola Mountains and Pemigewasset river valley. There is a large parking lot where you can pull over to stretch your legs and use the restroom.

Here you can also take a rest break at a scenic gazebo and read the information on the geology makeup of these mountains.

Google Map Location: Pemigewasset Overlook


CL Graham Wangan Overlook

The CL Graham Wangan Overlook is just around the corner and offers stunning views of the changing fall colors.

This viewpoint overlooks the Swift River Watershed that supports a variety of wildlife and recreational activities like fishing, swimming, kayaking, and canoeing. This viewpoint is named after “Wangan” – a portable kitchen that used to follow the logging crews.

In fall this mountain viewpoint displays an incredible array of colors. CL Graham Wangan Overlook is located near the highest point of Kancamagus Pass which is 2855 feet in elevation.

Google Map Location: CL Graham Wangan Overlook


Sabbaday Falls

Sabbaday Falls is one of the most scenic attractions along the Kancamagus Highway and quite the rewarding stop that requires somewhat little work.

Sabbaday Falls consists of three different falls, pools, wooden rails, granite steps, and viewing platforms. This waterfall has been in the making for over 10,000 years as glacier water melted and carried rocks and boulders carving out the deep canyon that we can see here today.

A trail to Sabbaday waterfall was first established in 1880 by a local farmer who created a path here from his hotel for visitors to enjoy. Sabbaday Falls earns its name after “Sunday” – the rest day. While for early settlers surviving in the White Mountains took a lot of work, families would often take the Sunday off chores to enjoy a stroll to this waterfall.

Now visitors can easily access Sabbaday Falls from the parking lot through a 0.7-mile out-and-back trail that leads directly to the waterfall. You will first see the Lower Pool that flows from Lower Falls through a narrow gorge. Here you can walk around for a closer look but be careful on the slippery rocks.

Keep going up the rock stairs and you’ll reach the upper Sabbaday Falls. This can be quite the busy attraction but if you wait around, you can enjoy the waterfall with minimal crowds. This stop looks similar to the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park, just a cheaper and shorter version of it.

Google Map Location: Sabbaday Falls


Rocky Gorge Scenic Area

The next stop along the Kancamagus Highway is Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. This attraction consists of walking paths and a bridge that overlooks the deeply carved Swift River and its cascading pools.

From the parking lot, you can follow the short path that leads directly to the bridge. We saw people walking around near the river and waterfalls but do it with caution.

Keep in mind that jumping or swimming in this section of the river is not allowed due to unpredictable currents and underwater rock tunnels that can trap you in.

While this is a very popular and busy stop, we stayed here until sunset and enjoyed it all to ourselves as the crowds started to clear out.

Google Map Location: Rocky Gorge Scenic Area


Falls Pond

Falls Pond is located just a quick walk from the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. If you’re already stopping at the Rocky Gorge be sure to keep going past the bridge to explore Falls Pond as well.

Once you reach the pond you can enjoy views from a platform that offers serene sights of the pond’s shoreline. You can also head on a quick 1-mile long trail around the pond that is part of the Lovequist Loop.

Google Map Location: Falls Pond


Lower Falls

Lower Falls is a very popular stop for those on a Kancamagus Highway road trip. This recreation site allows easy access to the Swift River and has an observation platform overlooking the cascading Lower Falls.

Although adventurers have been paving the way through the White Mountains for centuries, travel to Lower Falls wasn’t possible until 1959 when the final part of Kancamagus Highway was completed.

Now it’s one of the most visited stops of this byway attracting people to explore one of the nearby trails, jump in for a swim in the water, or enjoy a relaxing picnic.

Google Map Location: Lower Falls


Albany Covered Bridge

Albany Covered Bridge is a must-see historical attraction that is close to the byway. There is a large visitor parking lot where you can park and easily reach the bridge within a short walk. Here you’ll also find many interesting signs about this region’s origins and history.

Albany Covered Bridge was built in 1859 by local farmers to safely transport goods and people across the Swift River. Back in the day, the bridges were built with covers to protect the wood from rotting in rain and snow.

This bridge spans across the river providing excellent views along its pathway. This bridge is used by pedestrians and cars so be on the lookout for incoming vehicles as you roam around it.

Google Map Location: Albany Covered Bridge


Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co.

End your Kancamagus Highway road trip by indulging in some delicious food and drinks at Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co, perfect after a full day of outdoor adventures. This is a very popular eatery in Conway so there might be a waitlist, especially around dinner time.  

Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co menu offers a variety of comfort food items but their specialties are smoked meats. If you can’t choose what to order, go with the Combo Platter that has a little bit of everything – pulled pork, smoked chicken, and beef brisket. For a mountain restaurant, their menu is pretty extensive so there is something to choose from for everyone.

And be sure to try one of the core beers that they’re famous for! Our favorite was the East Intervale Session IPA that is low in alcohol but comes packed full of flavor and notes of citrus and pine.  

Website: Moatmountain.com


Where To Stay

Based on our own experiences and research, we have selected some of the best places to stay around Kancamagus Highway for visitors.

  • InnSeason Resorts Pollard Brook is a three-star resort in Lincoln, near the Kancamagus Highway west entrance. Each suite of this resort is spacious and features contemporary décor and upgrades that will make your stay comfortable and enjoyable. Other noteworthy features include multiple pools on-site, a sauna room, a game room, and various sports courts to keep the whole family entertained.  
  • Kancamagus Swift River Inn is located in a prime spot for those visiting the White Mountains. This charming Bed & Breakfast is right off the Kancamagus Highway providing easy access to Swift River and the nearby attractions.
  • Residence Inn by Marriott North Conway is an excellent choice for a stay in North Conway, less than 5 miles from the Kancamagus Highway east entrance. Each room in this hotel comes equipped with a coffee machine, fridge, stovetop, and dishwasher. The hotel helps guests start their day off right with a continental breakfast.

If you’re a big fan of chasing fall colors like me, you’ll want to set aside a full day to explore all the best that Kancamagus Highway has to offer. With dramatic mountain landscapes, plenty of hiking trails to choose from, and jaw-dropping overlooks, Kancamagus Highway is a dream come true for fall leaf peeping!

Looking for more fall travel inspiration? Here are some of our popular travel posts that you may like:


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