The White Mountain National Forest maintains two dozen drive-in campsites scattered throughout the region, from small to large. Campsites mostly cost in the $16 to $20 per night range. Reservations are accepted at many of these through the National Recreation Reservation Service (tel. 877/444-6777; www.recreation.gov). Most campsites are basic (some with pit toilets only), but all are well maintained. Remember that some require reservations at least 1 week in advance (in other words, no walk-ins) and 2- to 3-night minimum stays on some Saturdays and Sundays.
Of these national forest campgrounds, the largest and least personal is Dolly Copp Campground (tel. 603/466-2713), near the base of Mount Washington. But it has a superior location and great views from the open sites. Along the Kancamagus Highway, I'm partial to the Covered Bridge Campground (tel. 603/447-2166), 6 miles west of Conway, which is adjacent to an 1858 covered bridge and a short drive to delightful river swimming at the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area. Both are open seasonally, from around mid-May until mid-October.
Backcountry tent camping is free throughout the White Mountains, and no permit is needed. (You will need to purchase a parking permit to leave your car at the trail head.) Check with a ranger station for current restrictions on camping in the backcountry. Three-sided log lean-tos are also scattered throughout the White Mountain backcountry, providing overnight shelter for campers. Some shelters are free; at others, a backcountry manager will collect a small fee. Contact any ranger station for details and locations.
There are also eight state park campgrounds located in northern New Hampshire (tel. 603/271-3628; www.nhstateparks.org).
Backcountry Fees -- The White Mountain National Forest requires anyone using the backcountry -- for hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, skiing, or any other activity -- to pay a recreation fee. Anyone parking at a trail head must display a backcountry permit on the car dashboard. Those lacking a permit face a fine. Permits are available at ranger stations and many stores in the region. An annual permit costs $20, and a 7-day pass is $5. You can also buy a day pass for $3, but it covers only one site. (If you drive anywhere else in the mountain later in the afternoon and park again, you'll have to pay the $3 again.) You're much better off with the 7-day or annual pass. For information, contact the Forest Service's White Mountains office (tel. 603/528-8721; www.fs.fed.us/r9/white).
Ranger Stations & Information -- The Forest Service's central White Mountains office is located at 719 N. Main St. in Laconia (tel. 603/528-8721), near Lake Winnipesaukee. Your best general source of information while in the mountains, though, is probably at the Saco Ranger Station, 33 Kancamagus Hwy., 300 feet west of Route 16, Conway (tel. 603/447-5448). Other district offices that might be more convenient to your route include the Androscoggin Ranger Station, 300 Glen Rd., in Gorham (tel. 603/466-2713); the Pemigewasset Ranger Station's Plymouth office, 1175 Rte. 175 in Holderness near the Plymouth town line (tel. 603/536-1315); and the Pemigewasset station's Bethlehem office, 660 Trudeau Rd. in Bethlehem (tel. 603/869-2626).
The good Evans Notch Ranger Station (tel. 207/824-2134), which covers the Maine portion of the White Mountains (about 50,000 acres), is also not far off if you're in the easternmost parts of the mountains; it's located in Bethel, Maine, at 18 Mayville Rd., just off Route 2 north of the Bethel downtown.
The National Parks Service also maintains two helpful visitor centers. The Gateway Visitor Center (tel. 603/745-3816) is just off exit 32 of Interstate 93, well-stocked and in a good position en route to many attractions. It's open daily, year-round. Then there's the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center (tel. 603/630-5190), about 5 miles east of Lincoln right on the Kancamagus Highway. There's a suspension bridge very near this visitor center, too, accessible via a footpath.
Finally, even more info and advice on recreation in the White Mountains is available at the AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (tel. 603/466-2721), on Route 16 between Jackson and Gorham. The center is open daily, year-round, from 6am to 10pm. It has a cafe and a travel store, too.
Car campers shouldn't have any problem finding a place to pitch a tent or park an RV in the northern half of this state. White Mountain National Forest maintains two dozen drive-in campgrounds totaling more than 800 sites (though none with electrical hookups); some of these campgrounds are very small and personal, others quite large and a bit noisy. Sites tend to be fairly easy to come by Monday to Friday, but on summer or foliage weekends, don't expect to snag a spot without reservations. Also, some require reservations in advance and some require at least a 2-night minimum stay over Saturdays and Sundays.
To reserve most of these national forest's campgrounds in advance, an overhauled online reservations service was being unveiled by the federal government at press time. Known as the National Recreation Reservation Service (tel. 877/444-6777 or 518/885-3639), its new online home is now at www.recreation.gov. It's a useful, sophisticated site giving highly detailed information about individual campsites.
There are also eight state park campgrounds in northern New Hampshire, operated by the state. These parks are described and listed in the New Hampshire Visitor's Guide, available at information centers, online, and by mail from the Division of Travel and Tourism Development, P.O. Box 1856, Concord, NH 03302 (tel. 800/386-4664; www.visitnh.gov). To reserve spaces at these campgrounds, call tel. 603/271-3628 (Mon-Fri 9am-4pm). During high summer season, though, it's often better to call the campground directly or reserve online at www.nhstateparks.org. Some of these campgrounds are first-come, first-served.
The White Mountains attract experienced outdoors enthusiasts testing their mettle against blustery mountain peaks. The experience is unparalleled if you're properly equipped and in shape -- the Whites are never more peaceful than they are after a heavy winter snowfall, and that's also one of the few times you can enjoy the crystalline views from atop its peaks without sharing them with dozens (even hundreds) of others.
Guided day hikes to the top of Mount Washington are available throughout the winter. These are suitable for people in reasonable shape with hiking experience -- no winter mountaineering experience is needed. Not all these excursions make the summit because weather conditions are so tricky, but the experience of simply being on the shoulders of wind-driven Washington is memorable. Think of it as a low-cost trip to the Arctic.
The Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School (tel. 603/356-5433; www.emsclimb.com) can outfit you with crampons and an ice axe, and teach you how to use them well on the lower slopes of the mountain. "We spend several of the worst months each year on the slopes of Mt. Washington," the school says.
Two of the AMC's eight huts in the White Mountains (Zealand Falls and Carter Notch) are kept open during the winter for a small fee ($28 per night). Both require long ski or snowshoe hikes to reach them (Zealand Falls is the less demanding of the two, but neither one is for anyone out of shape). Meals aren't served to you as they are in summer, but use of the huts' gas stoves and kitchenware is included in the rates. Make sure to boil or treat water in winters. Also, heat is provided by woodstoves at night in common rooms but not in the bunkrooms, so one must bring a very heavy-duty sleeping bag. The upside? You have the magnificent, snowy peaks almost all to yourselves in the daytime. Contact the AMC (www.outdoors.org) for more information or to make reservations.
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.