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The Fearless One: The Kancamagus Highway

New England's Most Superb Scenic Drive, from "Backroads of New England"

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Backroads of New England Book Cover

"Backroads of New England." Text by Kim Knox Beckius. Photography by William H. Johnson. © 2012

Published by Voyageur Press, Inc.

Excerpted from Backroads of New England (compare prices), a guide book featuring directions, narrative, maps, and photography for 30 scenic drives in New England. Text © 2012 by Kim Knox Beckius. Published by Voyageur Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Route
Follow Route 112, the Kancamagus Highway, west from Conway to Lincoln.

New Hampshire's National Scenic Byway with the tongue-twister name--the Kancamagus Highway--is New England's most superb scenic drive. You can call it "the Kanc" for short, as locals do, and you can revel in the pure pleasure of motoring through this thickly treed mountain gap, as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each year. On a peak day, more than 4,000 vehicles traverse at least a portion of this route. The 34-mile road cuts an east-west channel through the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. When the dense stands of leafy deciduous trees exchange their summer greens for the dazzling shades of autumn, they are illuminated against the immutable evergreen of their coniferous counterparts, making this a most dramatic and beloved leaf-peeping route. Motorcyclists relish the twists and turns as the highway climbs to nearly 3,000 feet at the peak of Mount Kancamagus. Easily accessible trailheads summon hikers, and rocky swimming holes, carved by erosion, lure families craving relief from summer's swelter.

Though it maintains a legendary reputation among scenery seekers, the Kancamagus Highway is a relatively new route, as New England scenic byways go. Some old logging roads and town roads edged into the rugged National Forest, which was set aside for conservation by the federal government in 1911, but a connection between Conway and Lincoln was not completed until 1959. The road was paved in 1964, and in 1968 it was plowed for the first time, allowing for year-round traffic. New Hampshire State Route 112 is named for Chief Kancamagus, "The Fearless One." Kancamagus was the last leader of the Penacook Confederacy, a union of more than seventeen central New England Indian tribes, first forged by Kancamagus' grandfather, Passaconaway, in 1627. Kancamagus tried to maintain peace between his people and encroaching English settlers, but war and bloodshed forced the tribes to scatter, with most retreating to northern New Hampshire and Canada.

At the Saco Ranger Station just west of Conway, you can pick up a map and begin to plot your stops at the various well-designated scenic overlooks, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, and historic sites along the Kanc. Unless you plan to drive straight through without stopping, you'll also need to purchase a parking pass. A visitor information center is also located on the western end of the Kanc in Lincoln, should you decide to drive the route in reverse.

As you enter the White Mountain National Forest, you'll notice that the highway follows the path of the Swift River, which is studded with large boulders that create an obstacle course for the water. The river surges as mountain snows melt in the spring, but the flow slows come summertime. The first popular stop on the route is Covered Bridge Campground, where you can walk across the wooden Albany Covered Bridge, built over the Swift River in 1858 and restored in 1970. The campground's 3.1-mile Boulder Loop Trail offers hikers views of the river and of 3,475-foot Mount Chocorua to the south. The Lower Falls Scenic Area is a popular steamy-weather hangout for those who want to sunbathe on the rocks or splash in the shallow pools. It's a great place to watch for whitewater boaters when the river is raging with runoff in the spring.

The cascading Upper Falls at the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area provide a soothing natural soundtrack for sunbathers. Swimming in this steep-walled gorge is not permitted. The Lovequist Loop Trail around Falls Pond is an easy and enjoyable walk in the woods.

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