by Jean Grant – Meander in a meadow of spiky lupine, hike to the alpine summit of New England’s highest mountain, bask in crimson and yellow autumn foliage along country roads, or swoosh down powdery ski runs. A plethora of outdoor excursions await in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
The 800,000-acre hardwood White Mountain National Forest is home to over 150 miles of trails, lakes and waterways, with 48 peaks topping 4,000-feet, and awe-inspiring views among the Presidential Range. Family camping, recreation and adventure for all ages and seasons await you in the granite state, and below are some seasonal favorites.
Bountiful Spring in White Mountains, New Hampshire
The Sugar Hill Lupine Festival is a must-see throughout the month of June, peaking mid-month. The stalky, purple, blue, pink and white flowers are some of the first to show their glory.
Follow daily updates on the Sugar Hill Lupine Festival Facebook page, grab yourself a map from the local Franconia Notch Chamber of Commerce, hop in the car and take a self-guided tour of fields, lakes, old churches and barns adorned with a pointillistic carpet of lupine.
As winter loosens its grip and temperatures rise, more hiking trails become accessible, and with the thaw comes water. The Flume Gorge is an easy walk (with stairs/platforms) through 90-foot natural granite walls. A brook cuts through the gorge and has several waterfalls. It’s a wet, fun excursion.
- Lupine panoramas in Sugar Hill
- Tastings and flourishing art as the warm weather lengthens the days
- Bursting waterfalls and the Flume Gorge (a fee-based kid-friendly hike)
- Early season hiking (bring insect repellent and sturdy trail shoes for muddier trails)
Sunny Summer in White Mountains, New Hampshire
The “Whites” teem with adventurous opportunities July through September. Lincoln, New Hampshire serves as an ideal hub for exploring Franconia Notch State Park and the western side of the White Mountains while North Conway and towns north offer access to the eastern side (Mount Washington and Crawford Notch State Park). The Kancamagus Byway, a scenic New Hampshire gem, transects the White Mountain National Forest.
Western White Mountains: Franconia Notch State Park
The Notch’s rich cultural and natural heritage lures tourists throughout the seasons. Each time we drive the highway that sweeps between the rugged vertical ledges of Franconia Notch, my jaw drops. One of the most popular trails in the park (and state) begins at Lafayette Place. Get an early start (and parking spot) at either the Bridle Path or Falling Waters trails on the Lafayette Loop.
This 9-mile strenuous loop takes hikers up and over three 4,000-foot peaks and along the Franconia Ridge, so be sure to fill up your portable water bottles. It’s a favorite hike in New Hampshire, but be mindful of weather and ability level, as much of the hike is along the exposed ridgeline.
Outdoor safety being paramount, parents of younger children should be wary, but older children can tackle this climb. More moderate, but still-rewarding trails in the valley include Georgiana Falls and Lonesome Lake. Afterward cool off at the beach of Echo Lake.
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Up for a twisting drive along a river speckled with waterfalls? Take the 34-mile nature-laden Kancamagus Scenic Byway, the primary connector between the western and eastern slopes of the White Mountains. At Covered Bridge Campground, enjoy a picnic and walk the family-friendly Boulder Loop Trail for respite.
Eastern White Mountains: Mount Washington and Crawford Notch State Park
The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) has eight high-mountain huts throughout the Whites along the Appalachian Trail (AT). Through-hikers, day hikers and peak-hopping enthusiasts alike enjoy these stops. Founded in 1876, the AMC fosters the enjoyment of forests and waters through protection and education. The AMC has lodges, cabins, huts and campsites dotting the AT from the Mid-Atlantic to Northeast, offering something for everybody.
We’ve stayed at two of the huts. After an initial, easier excursion to the Zealand Falls hut, on a second trip we climbed to Lakes of the Clouds, an alpine hut nestled 1.5 miles down from the Mount Washington summit. Though the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail (4.5 miles each way, and the easiest trail to the summit) can be done in one day, it was worth the splurge to lodge in this famous hut nuzzled on the side of the windiest mountain in the world.
For the ambitious and skilled, the Presidential Traverse tackles several of the highest peaks. As with anything in the White Mountains, always plan ahead for reservations (some huts and campgrounds book well in advance) and weather. Wicked winds on all the summits and ridges can curtail even the most robust hiker.
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- An abundance of hiking: easy, moderate, strenuous and multi-day
- Lodging: Lafayette Campground in Franconia Notch, six campgrounds dotting the Kancamagus Byway, eight high-mountain AMC huts, hotels in Lincoln, North Conway or surrounding towns, or week-long rentals through online sites such as Homeway.com
- Kayaking, canoeing, swimming, zip-lining
- Lost River Gorge and Boulder caves: sluicing and hikes (family-friendly)
Polychromatic Autumn in White Mountains, New Hampshire
Vibrant foliage dazzles travelers in the autumn and peaks in early-mid October. From valley or summit, The Whites were made for this season of color. Depending on weather, most trails and summertime activities still thrive through October-November. Enjoy the harvest: apples, cider, donuts, honey and other fresh treats.
While in winter the mountain becomes a frozen cone, summer and autumn are ideal times to visit the summit of Mount Washington, the tallest peak (6,288 feet) in the Northeast most famous for extreme weather and record-breaking winds up to 231 MPH.
Check out the interactive observatory and museum and eat in the historic Tip-Top House. Be prepared with appropriate gear, as adverse weather can move in fast.
For an easy family jaunt, stroll along the brook in The Basin, glide to the summit of Cannon Mountain via the Aerial tram, or ride the Loon Mountain gondola and explore the glacial ice age boulders and caves at the summit. The tight squeezes are exhilarating for the child in all of us, although a platform runs alongside these gigantic boulders for those less nimble. In September, experience all things Scottish at the Highland Games and Festival.
- Spectacular autumn foliage and scenic drives
- Gondola rides
- Cooler, pleasant temperatures for hiking
- Mount Washington, Auto Road and Cog Railway
- Harvest’s abundance and treats galore
- Highland Games and Festival at Loon Mountain in September
Snowy Winter in White Mountains, New Hampshire
Want to explore powdery snow and icicles? Bundle up, because you’ve come to the right place. New England winters are long, running from December through late March, but burst with activity. From skiing and snowboarding, tubing and sledding, snowshoeing and ice-climbing, adventure calls. Lincoln and North Conway again serve as hubs for exploring the snow-covered mountains, offering ample dining and lodging.
And never fear, hikes, there are plenty of open trails in the winter. Arethusa Falls/ Frankenstein Cliff in Crawford Notch State Park is a 4-mile moderate/strenuous snowshoeing trail along several bubbling brook waterfalls culminating at a 200-foot bridal falls.
An ice-climber haven, the falls are frozen over in winter. For an easier excursion in the summer, take the shorter detour along the Bemis Brook Trail to the smaller falls and return before you reach the steeper section that continues to Arethusa.
- No shortage of prime outdoor sports mountains and resorts: Loon, Attitash, Cranmore, Bretton Woods, Cannon, Wildcat
- Arethusa Falls (snow-shoeing)
- Snow-tube down Loon or Cranmore for a fun family escape
- Maple Sugarhouse tours in March
- Ice castles in Woodstock, New Hampshire: experience thousands of hand-placed icicles by ice artists, highlighted with LED-lit sculptures, tunnels and slides
- If you need to warm up, the area offers a multitude of indoor activities from museums to climbing and fun kid centers
All Abilities-Inclusive Programs in White Mountains, New Hampshire
This winter we participated in a program run by New England Disabled Sports (NEDS). We took advantage of an amazing first-timer’s opportunity from the WINGS scholarship for Families with Autism. The program provided lodging at Loon Mountain and a weekend of introductory ski lessons for our son.
The objective of the scholarship is to increase awareness and provide opportunities for individuals living with autism to participate in adaptive snow sports in a safe and supported environment. The scholarship has served over 125 families in the four years since its genesis.
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From Michele Brait, the founder of the scholarship: “Having our son begin at NEDS 15 years ago was a life-changing event for our entire family. We watched him overcome challenges, gain skills, make friends and be successful on the mountain.
We became a part of the NEDS family of love, support and acceptance.” She elaborated, “We began the scholarship to give families like ours the opportunity to try snow sports in a supported environment, with well-trained, caring coaches.” Our family, too, found the spirit of independence, confidence and fun in this program sponsored by an annual charity fundraiser. Since participating, our son is now skiing regularly.
Jean Grant is a scientist, author, and mom to two active, nature-loving sons. She currently resides in Massachusetts. She writes where her heart takes her…from castles to craters to crags of all kinds. Her website can be found at: jeanmgrant.com