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I don't think it's overstating things to say that most of northern New Hampshire is very different from most of southern New Hampshire. Where you can find gentlemen's farms, technology companies, summer homes, and sandy beaches in the southern reaches of the state, the northern half is a lot more flinty and hard-won. Everything's compressed and conserved. The weather is iffy, the summer is short, budgets are tight, votes are Republican -- and the wilderness, well, that's about the only thing that's big.

At the heart of this region are the tough White Mountains, wind-driven, ancient, and inscrutable. That's not to say they're forbidding, though: Put simply, the Whites are northern New England's outdoor recreation capital. This high range of peaks is a sprawling, rugged playground that calls out to legions of intrepid kayakers, mountaineers, rock climbers, thrill-seeking skiers, mountain bikers, bird-watchers, and backpacking hikers.

The White Mountain National Forest organizes and administrates much of this vast landscape, encompassing nearly 800,000 acres of rocky, forested terrain, more than 100 waterfalls, dozens of backcountry lakes, and miles of clear brooks and cascading streams. An elaborate network of hiking trails (more than 1,000 miles' worth) dates back to the 19th century, when city folk took to these mountains to build character and experience nature first-hand. Trails ranging from easy to vertical lace the forests, trade the rivers, and traverse knife-like ridgelines where the weather can change so quickly and dramatically it can do you in, if you're not ready for it.

The heart of the White Mountains is their highest point: 6,288-foot Mount Washington, an ominous, brooding peak that's often cloud-capped and mantled with snow both early and late in the season. It's so big, you can see it from Portland, Maine, 100 miles away. An often-blustery peak, it's accessible by cog railway, car, and foot, making it one of the more popular destinations in the region. You won't find untouched wilderness here, but you will find abundant natural drama.

Flanking Washington is the brawny Presidential Range, a series of similarly wind-blasted granite peaks, similarly named for U.S. presidents and offering similarly eye-popping views. Beyond this range, plenty of lesser-known ridges also beckon hikers seeking an elemental test.

If your idea of fun doesn't involve steep cliffs or icy dips in mountain streams, you can still enjoy the scenery via spectacular drives. The most scenic is the Kancamagus Highway between Conway and Lincoln, offering plenty of pull-outs to picnic and snap great photos.

You'll need a home base. North Conway is the lodging capital, with hundreds of motel units; Loon Mountain and Waterville Valley are condo villages; and Bethlehem, Jackson, and the Franconia and Crawford notches offer old-style inns and hotels.