New England is renowned for its forestlands, which shelter wildlife and burn bright with autumnal colors during an annual spectacle that never fails to attract visitors. No woodland in the region is more alluring than the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, located mainly in New Hampshire but spills over into western Maine. There are areas of ancient growth as pristine as they were in 1642 when Darby Field became the first non-native person to reach the summit of Mount Washington.
Few places in America offer more diverse recreational opportunities in all four seasons. The Appalachian Trail cuts an 89.5-mile winding, diagonal route through this federally-managed area, though you can also explore the landscape by visiting well-loved state parks, landmarks, and historic sites. Ski slopes are abundant, and most of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot-plus climbing peaks can be found within the forest’s boundaries. Even if you only see the White Mountain National Forest from the comfort of your vehicle on a drive across the Kancamagus Highway, you will be in awe.
Things to Do
It is no exaggeration to refer to the White Mountain National Forest as a recreational paradise. Just about every activity that stretches and strengthens your limbs can be enjoyed here. There may not be an ocean beach, but you can swim in cool, clear lakes and swimming holes, fish the forest’s rivers, lakes, and ponds, and hike to myriad waterfalls. This forested region is better known for its high peaks, including Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in New England. For avid climbers, peak-bagging is a sport here. Yet, no one is left out when it comes to the exhilaration of standing atop New England. Mount Washington’s summit is also accessible via guided coach tours, a drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road in your own vehicle, or a ride aboard the marvel that is the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
Overlapping and on the outskirts of the national forest, a dozen state and local parks offer nearly limitless recreational opportunities. The must-visits among them include Franconia Notch State Park, famous for Flume Gorge and the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway; Crawford Notch State Park with its historic Willey House; and Mount Washington State Park at the 6,288-foot summit, where you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the White Mountain National Forest below.
The long list of outdoor pursuits within the national forest includes bicycling, birdwatching, boating, hunting (pursuant to state regulations), gold panning and rockhounding (free permits are required), scenic driving, stargazing, and a full slate of winter sports.
Best Hikes & Trails
Many of the top hikes in New Hampshire are in the White Mountain National Forest region, including pinnacle experiences for skilled hikers like the climb up Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and the Presidential Traverse: an epic 22-mile hike across eight mountain summits in the Presidential Range. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) operates lodges and a hut system that provides shelter and guidance for hikers undertaking the region’s most rigorous hikes.
Don’t despair if you’re not buff enough for the expert-level stuff. Beginner-friendly and moderate hikes are plentiful in the White Mountains, too. Some of the best trails include:
Arethusa Falls: A 3-mile, round-trip hike to New Hampshire’s tallest waterfall.
Artist’s Bluff: Moderate but relatively short, this 1.5-mile loop is a popular route with a spectacular lookout.
Boulder Loop: A moderate hike that begins near Conway, New Hampshire, with a few steep spots and some dazzling views.
Elephant Head: A kid-friendly, woodsy walk of just over a quarter-mile each way, this trail offers a panoramic view of Crawford Notch.
Lonesome Lake: Located within Franconia Notch State Park, this moderately challenging, 3.25-mile trail utilizes switchbacks to ease the climb up the side of Cannon Mountain to a pristine lake in the woods.
Mount Willard: A moderate-rated, 3.2-mile mountain climb that rewards hikers with an incredible view of Crawford Notch.
It is widely agreed that the Kancamagus Highway, which travels 34 miles east-west through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, is New England’s most superb scenic drive. Don’t miss it, particularly in the fall when the mountains are dappled in red, orange, and gold. The “Kanc” is just a small section of the 100-mile national scenic byway known as the White Mountain Trail, which showcases even more of this region’s natural beauty.
The treed slopes within the White Mountain National Forest are home to eight ski areas, including Cannon Mountain and Bretton Woods, plus daredevil terrain in backcountry spots like Tuckerman Ravine. You’ll also find a full complement of other snow sports, like snowmobiling with Northern Extremes and rides with New England Dog Sledding.
Where to Camp
Within the White Mountain National Forest’s boundaries are 21 developed campgrounds; of these, Barnes Field in Gorham and Hancock in Lincoln stay open through the winter. The White Mountain National Forest Developed Campgrounds booklet provides comprehensive information about locations, types of sites, and the reservation process. Three rustic cabins are also available for group rentals. Wilderness and backcountry camping is also allowed, at no charge, in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rules.
Don’t overlook the option of camping at a state park in the region. White Lake State Park offers three campground areas, and some sites are located right on one of the best swimming lakes in the White Mountains. With its proximity to Story Land, Dry River Campground in Crawford Notch State Park is an excellent choice for families.
If you’re looking for a private campground with tent sites, RV hookups, and cabin rentals, consider Lost River Valley Campground, which is surrounded by the national forest and close to all of the family-favorite White Mountains attractions. Take things up one more notch with a glamping getaway at Huttopia White Mountains.
How to Get There
A car is practically a must, and you’ll find it exhilarating to drive along scenic byways and through this region’s mountain passes (aka “notches”). Even Interstate 93 is incredibly scenic. If you have no other alternative, you can travel by bus from Boston to the White Mountains. The connection is operated by Concord Coach Lines and takes about four hours between Boston South Station and North Conway.
The Forest Service provides detailed information about accessible trails and accessible water bodies within the White Mountain National Forest, as well as an extensive accessibility guide for its day-use and overnight camping facilities. While admitting that barriers to full access still exist, the Forest Service’s long-range goal is to make recreation locations accessible to all travelers.
Tips for Your Visit
The White Mountain Visitor Center in North Woodstock, the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center in Lincoln, the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Campton, and three Ranger District Offices in Campton, Gorham, and Conway provide visitor services.
While most forestlands are open for your use fee-free, some developed sites do require the purchase of a $5 daily pass. Annual passes are also available and may be purchased at a number of locations or online; these cost $30 per individual or $40 per household. Review this fee and requirements guide, and display your pass on your vehicle’s dashboard.
There are many dog-friendly trails in the White Mountain National Forest. Dogs should be leashed in all developed areas and are not allowed inside buildings.
Drone use is allowed, but there are landing restrictions.
In the winter, check for road closures before you venture into the forest.
Keep bears away from your campsite by stowing food in a bear canister, which you can rent for free at any of the forest’s visitor centers or ranger stations.