North Conway: 150 miles N of Boston; 62 miles NW of Portland

For better or worse, North Conway is the commercial heart of the White Mountains. Outdoor purists abhor the place, considering it a garish interloper to be avoided at all costs -- except, maybe, when seeking a post-hike pizza and a beer. Shoppers, on the other hand, are drawn magnetically to the outlets and accouterments of commerce perched along routes 302 and 16, the two highways that overlap in town.

No, North Conway itself won't strike anyone as a natural wonderland. The strip south of the village is basically one long turning lane flanked with outlet malls, motels, and chain restaurants of every architectural stripe. On rainy weekends and during foliage season, the road can resemble a linear parking lot. There's so much clutter here you often forget to look up -- which is where the peaks of the Whites are standing. Behind that big grocery store.

Sprawl notwithstanding, North Conway is beautifully situated along the eastern edge of the broad and fertile Saco River valley (also called the Mount Washington Valley). Gentle, forest-covered mountains, some with sheer cliffs that could be distant cousins of those in Yosemite's, border the bottomlands. Northward up the valley, hills rise in a triumphant crescendo to the blustery, tempestuous heights of Mount Washington.

The village is trim and attractive (if often congested), with an open green, some colorful shops, Victorian frontier-town commercial architecture, and a distinctive little train station. It's a good place to park, stretch your legs, and find a cup of coffee or a snack. (There's a Ben & Jerry's "scoop shop" off the green, near the train station.)

Go West! Avoiding North Conway -- For those who don't need to stock up in North Conway, and want a more scenic, less commercial route bypassing the town's strip malls, consider this detour. Arriving from the south on Route 16, turn left at the light in Conway Village onto Washington Street. One-half mile north, bear left onto West Side Road. The road passes near two covered bridges in the first half-mile, then dips and winds through the broad farmlands of the Saco River Valley. You'll pass working farms and farm stands, and some architecturally distinctive early homes.

You'll also come upon dramatic views of the granite cliffs that form the western wall of the valley; if you like, stop for a swim at Echo Lake State Park. (It's well marked, on your left.) At the first stop sign you reach, turn right to double back into the other end of North Conway village, or left to connect to Route 302 in Bartlett, passing more handsome ledges and cliffs -- and bypassing the sprawl entirely.