The Kancamagus Highway -- sometimes called "the Kanc" by locals -- is among the White Mountains' most spectacular drives. Officially designated a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Forest Service, the 35-mile roadway joins Lincoln and Conway through the 2,860-foot Kancamagus Pass. When this highway was built in the early 1960s, it opened up 100 square miles of wilderness, irking wilderness advocates but quickly becoming popular with folks who preferred sightseeing by car.
The two-lane route begins and ends along wide, tumbling rivers on fairly flat plateaus, but rises steadily to the pass; along the way, several rest areas allow visitors to pause and enjoy sweeping mountain views. This highway also makes a good destination for hikers, since a number of day and overnight trips can be launched right from the roadside. One simple, short hike along a gravel path (less than .3 mile each way) leads to Sabbaday Falls, a cascade that's especially impressive after a downpour. A half-dozen national-forest campgrounds are also located along the highway.
To get the most out of the Kanc, take your time and make frequent stops. Think of it as a scavenger hunt as you look for a covered bridge, cascades with good swimming holes, a historic home with a quirky story behind it, and spectacular mountain panoramas. All these things, and more, lie along the route.
Kanc'ed-Out? More Driving Options -- The "Kanc" is far from the only scenic drive in northern New Hampshire; it's just the most jaw-dropping (and jaw-droppingly popular) one. There are others. If you're allergic to crowds, try these: U.S. Route 302 carries travelers through Crawford Notch and on to the little towns of Bethlehem and Littleton. Route 16 travels north from southern New Hampshire into congested North Conway, but then twists up through dramatic Pinkham Notch at the base of Mount Washington. Fast Route 2 skirts the northern edge of the mountains, with wonderful views en route to the town of Jefferson. Finally, Interstate 93 might be the most scenic interstate in New England, passing through spectacular Franconia Notch and narrowing to just two lanes (one each way) out of deference both to its vertical surroundings and the wishes of locals.