The White Mountains allow for some of the most challenging and scenic backpacking in all of the Northeastern U.S. The best trails are within the huge White Mountain National Forest, which encompasses several 5,000-plus-foot peaks and more than 100,000 acres of designated wilderness. Its trails range from easy walks along bubbling streams to demanding ridgeline paths buffeted by fierce winds.
The Appalachian Mountain Club (tel. 603/466-2727; www.amc-nh.org) is an excellent source of general information about the region's outdoors offerings. It's a major supplier of lodging, too. Eight sturdy mountain huts (small cabins) offer bare-bones, bunkroom-style shelter and great campfire conviviality in dramatic settings; hearty breakfasts and dinners are included with your rates, which are about $90 per adult in 2007, less for kids. The AMC maintains a clutch of other cabins and lodges in the mountains, too, such as the Shapleigh Bunkhouse in Crawford Notch (a bunk plus breakfast cost about $35) and the Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch, which has some four-person family rooms.
Other AMC-operated overnight options include the Hermit Lake Shelters (about $10 per night) and a dozen other more primitive shelters and campsites, about half of which are free. The rest charge a nominal fee of $8 per person. Check AMC's national website (www.outdoors.org) for all the lodging details and to make reservations, which are essential for all of these lodgings in summer.
In addition, a number of three-sided Adirondack-style shelters exist throughout the backcountry and can be used on a first-come, first-served basis. Some are free, others have a small fee. (Simply pitching a tent in the backcountry is free, subject to certain restrictions, with no permits required.) Check with the White Mountain National Forest headquarters (tel. 603/528-8721; www.fs.fed.us/r9/white) or a district ranger station for rules and regulations concerning these shelters.
The Appalachian Trail passes through New Hampshire, entering the state at Hanover and running along the highest peaks of the White Mountains before exiting into Maine along the scenic, tough-to-climb Mahoosuc Range northeast of Gorham. The trail is well maintained in these stretches, though it tends to attract teeming crowds along the highest elevations in summer.
Everything you could possibly need for a day or overnight hike, including sleeping bags and pads, tents, and backpacks, is available for rent at Eastern Mountain Sports (tel. 603/356-5433) on Main Street in North Conway at reasonable rates. It's open daily.
There's some challenging road biking near Sugar Hill northwest of the White Mountains; you'll be rewarded with great vistas and charming villages. For other great routes and spots, consult Backroad Bicycling in New Hampshire (Countryman Press, 2004) by Andi Marie Cantel. The White Mountains have plenty of opportunities for mountain bikers, too; all trails are open to bikers unless noted otherwise. (Bikes are not allowed in the forest's "wilderness areas," however.) The upland roads outside Jackson allow for superb biking, for instance, as does the steep terrain around Franconia and Sugar Hill.
Bike rentals cost $30 to $60 per day. Great Glen Trails (tel. 603/466-2333), near Mount Washington, and Waterville Valley Base Camp (tel. 800/468-2553), at the southwest edge of the park, each provide bike rentals and maintain mountain-bike trails. (Waterville Valley also has lift-serviced mountain biking down the ski hill.) At both facilities, the trail systems cost $6 to $8 per person to use if you've brought your own bike. They're free to use if you get a rental.
In the northeastern corner of the state, 8,000-acre Lake Umbagog is home to bald eagles and loons, and is especially appealing to explore by canoe. In general, the farther north you venture, the wilder and more remote the terrain.
The Androscoggin River offers superb Class I to II white-water and swift flat-water canoeing upstream of Berlin; downriver from there, the river can get faintly noxious with mill effluent. Serious whitewater enthusiasts head for the upper reaches of the Saco River during spring run-off, when the Class III to IV rapids are intense, if relatively short-lived, along a 6 1/2-mile stretch running parallel to U.S. Route 302.
The White Mountains offer more than 1,000 miles of trails. The essential guide to hiking in this region is the Appalachian Mountain Club's White Mountain Guide, which contains up-to-date and detailed descriptions of every trail in the area. The guide is available at most bookstores and outdoor shops (and even at some filling stations) in the region.
The White Mountains are renowned for their impressive, towering granite cliffs, especially Cathedral and White Horse ledges, attracting legions of rock climbers from throughout the U.S. and Europe. Ascents range in difficulty from "pretty easy" to "extraordinarily hard; my life flashed before my eyes." The North Conway area hosts three climbing schools, and experienced and aspiring climbers alike have plenty of options for improving their skills. Classes range from 1 day to a week.
Contact the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School (tel. 800/310-4504; www.emsclimb.com), the International Mountain Climbing School (tel. 603/356-7064; www.ime-usa.com/imcs), or the Mountain Guides Alliance (tel. 603/356-5310) for more information.
The best downhill ski areas in the White Mountains are Cannon Mountain, Loon Mountain, Waterville Valley, Wildcat, and Attitash Bear Peak, with vertical drops of 2,000 feet and all the services one would expect of a professional ski resort. See below in this chapter for details on these ski hills.
The state boasts also two dozen cross-country ski centers, which groom a combined total of more than 500 miles of trails. The state's premier cross-country destination is Jackson (tel. 800/927-6697 or 603/383-9355; www.jacksonxc.com), with more than 50 miles of trails in and around a scenic village near the base of Mount Washington. Two more good Nordic ski centers are located at Bretton Woods Resort (tel. 800/314-1752 or 603/278-3322) at the western entrance to Crawford Notch, and the spectacularly remote Balsams/Wilderness cross-country ski center (tel. 800/255-0600 or 603/255-3400) in the northerly reaches of the state. Adults must pay $15 to $17 per day to ski the trails at any of these facilities (there are discounts for kids and seniors), and all of them can rent you a set of good skis.
Truly Vertical Drop (For Experts Only) -- The most impressive ski run in New Hampshire isn't served by any lift. Tuckerman Ravine (also known as Tuck's) drops a scary, stomach-churning 3,400 feet from its lip on the shoulder of Mount Washington down to the valley floor. It's become something of a mecca for extreme skiers. These ski pilgrims arrive from all over the country early each spring (it's dangerously avalanche-prone during the middle of winter), hiking to the top from Pinkham Notch and then launching themselves almost vertically to the bottom of a dramatic glacial cirque. The slope is sheer and unforgiving of any mistakes; only very advanced skiers should attempt it. (Careless or cocky skiers are hauled out every year on stretchers, and sometimes people die.)
If you're in that upper-upper reach in skill level, the AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (tel. 603/466-2721) can give you information about current conditions. There's also a volunteer-run website (www.tuckerman.org) with avalanche-warning updates. If you're not in that upper tier, it's worth coming anyway when the avalanche danger is low; lots of folks hike up here just to sit on the rocks and watch, drinking beverages, getting tans (sometimes without their clothes), and tossing Frisbees.
Snowmobilers will find some 6,000 miles of groomed, scenic snowmobile trails lacing the state, interconnected via trail networks maintained by lots of local snowmobile clubs. All snowmobiles used on these trails must be registered with the state; this costs $93 per year for nonresidents ($78 for residents), and can be done through any of the 200-plus off-highway recreational-vehicle agents in the state. Contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department's Enforcement Division (tel. 603/271-3129; www.wildlife.state.nh.us) for more information. Registration is discounted $30 if you join the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association (tel. 603/224-8906) first; go online to www.nhsa.com for details.
The state's most remote, spectacular snowmobile destination is the unpopulated nub thrusting up into Canada like an index finger at very top of New Hampshire. This is also the snowiest part of the state.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.