A Bostonian’s Guide to the White Mountains
Stretch your legs, lace up your hiking boots, and grab your water bottle—this choose-your-adventure guide is guaranteed to lead you to an unforgettable fall.
You know the name like the back of your hand—it looms to the north of us, a giant sierra with winding trails, mirror-like lakes, and the highest peak in the northeast. But just because you know of the White Mountains doesn’t mean you know the White Mountains, especially what to eat, where to sleep, and what to do (other than drive around gawking at the foliage). Until now. So stretch your legs, lace up your hiking boots, and grab your water bottle—this choose-your-adventure guide is guaranteed to lead you to an unforgettable fall.
I’m in the heart of the White Mountains, huffing my way through birch trees and glacial boulders to reach Thoreau Falls, a thundering 80-foot gusher deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, when something strange shakes me from my blissful hiker’s trance. Previously alive with the buzzing of insects, chirping birds, and the tinny battle cries of red squirrels, the Ethan Pond Trail—my soggy, bog-bridge-festooned access route—suddenly goes completely silent. The sky darkens, and a hand of cool wind sweeps through the balmy woods. It looks like a storm is brewing.
Still, I’m not too worried. I have a rain jacket in my daypack, and there’s plenty of tree coverage—unlike the exposed Presidential Range ridge, where hikers ascending Mount Washington must keep an eye on the sky at all times. I suit up and watch the treetops sway as the cloudburst blows through and drenches the forest. Pea-size hail pellets bounce off my hood. Rivulets of rain are running down the trail. And then, it’s over as swiftly as it started, without a single clap of thunder. By the time I haul myself out of the trees and onto an exposed ledge running across the rockslide, the sky is clearing again, and a wispy rainbow has begun to form over the Pemigewasset woodlands.
These sudden, thrilling weather changes happen all the time in the White Mountains. Covering nearly a quarter of New Hampshire, the mountains were formed more than 100 million years ago, when the North American plate scraped across a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic. Since then, three major wind patterns that blow west to east have collided directly above New Hampshire’s craggy peaks and rustling valleys. Mount Washington Observatory employee Sal Pagliuca experienced the ripple effects of this convergence in 1934, when he tied a thick rope around his waist and ventured out of the building to register a summit wind speed of 231 miles per hour—the fastest surface wind ever recorded in the northern and western hemispheres. How Pagliuca made it back into the observatory without becoming a human kite is anyone’s guess.
From the First Nations peoples who gave the waters and woodlands their earliest names to the contemporary alpine explorers and scientists who’ve documented the region’s extraordinary climates and weather events, visitors to the White Mountains have historically been awestruck by their power. This is how it all began for me. Ever since my pre-K days, when my parents took me on a short hike to Diana’s Baths—those ethereal swimming holes near Pinkham Notch fed by thundering mountain streams—I’ve logged enough time in the White Mountains to tell my own tales of close meteorological encounters. There was the time my dad and I woke up in a high-altitude hiker hut near Mount Monroe—on the first day of July—and looked outside to find the rocky tundra newly glazed with rime ice. (Good thing we brought our bucket hats.) Years later, when walking the Presidential ridgeline with friends one August night, an unusual lack of cloud coverage yielded a blue pre-dawn luminance that eliminated the need for headlamps.
In other words, there’s an unpredictability to what the White Mountains might throw at you on any given day. Glorious golden sunlight? A hearty round of thunder snow? Misting rain that gives way to a fuchsia dusk? Spending time amid these peaks or even just gazing up at them from local towns such as Littleton and Gorham can feel like being in the presence of old granite gods, their haunches blanketed with evergreen trees and their heads alternately exposed or lost in the clouds.
Of course, that’s the beauty of the White Mountains, to say nothing of the summit trails flanked with fragile mosses and wildflowers or the horsetail cascades that crash through the woods. You’re guaranteed a showcase of naturalistic grandeur. The question is whether it’s the kind of grandeur that leaves you feeling like you’ve wandered into a Cézanne painting or the kind that leaves you soaked to the bone.
That suspense is why I can’t help but recall the Jurassic Park theme music every time I approach the region on I-93 and enter the stony gate of Franconia Notch—one of four mountain passes in the Whites where the road makes a thrilling climb between neighboring peaks and vast wilderness zones. These notches are doorways to some of New Hampshire’s most exhilarating hikes and natural wonders. They’re also a helpful means of getting oriented to the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. Villages have sprung up in their vicinity, allowing millions of annual visitors to make basecamp for localized adventures.
If you’re like me, you’ll find the wonder you experience on those adventures never quite leaves you. Whether you’re following a root-festooned trail into the woods along the Saco River, biking past the profile of Mount Adams on the Great Glen Trails, or tucking into a smaller mountain of house-made fettuccine Bolognese at Tim-Bir Alley, the humbling magic of the White Mountains is as pervasive as the scent of those boreal spruce trees that grow 3,000 feet above sea level.
Choose Your Lodging
As you approach the White Mountains on I-93, an enormous granite gateway looms ahead, with ragged cliffs on both sides. This is Franconia Notch, where the Cannon-Kinsman Range meets a 45,000-acre forest known as the Pemigewasset Wilderness. With charming mountain villages on both sides of the notch and plenty of scenic destinations—the Kancamagus Highway, waterfalls on Cascade Brook, the Cannon Mountain tram—everything about Franconia Notch feels like an escalation.
Your idea of communing with nature is:
A. Savoring the skyline views at your favorite restaurant, cocktail in hand
B. A picnic lunch with the kids, followed by a swim somewhere close by
C. Loading up your backpack and setting off into the wilderness
In a previous life, you would have been:
A. A 1930s movie star
B. A 1970s alpine skier
C. A 19th-century lumberjack
The best tonic after a long day outdoors is:
A. A soak in a Whirlpool tub complete with a bottle of bubbly
B. A round of Pac-Man for the kids…and a round of Malbec for the grownups
C. A bowl of stew or a mug of tea by a roaring fire
Your preferred stargazing venue is:
A. A private porch with hanging chairs
B. An outdoor pool and Jacuzzi combo
C. The stony banks of a gushing river
Sugar Hill Inn
This romantic B & B in the hills north of Franconia Notch has drawn an illustrious cadre of visitors over the ages, including Hollywood icon Bette Davis (who would later marry the innkeeper at another local spot!). The luxurious guest rooms and cottages boast enviable views of the Franconia ridge.
RiverWalk Resort at Loon Mountain
The rustic grandeur of the White Mountains—Summits! Critters! Cascades!—is complemented by this mountainside resort’s more-is-more approach to amenities, which include heated pools, yard games, arcade classics, and a wintertime skating rink. (Note to weary parents: There’s also an onsite winery and day spa.)
Fall asleep to the ripple of the Pemigewasset River—which flows south through Franconia Notch before spilling into Lincoln—inside one of these cozy one-to-two-bedroom abodes tucked in the deciduous woodlands near the mouth of the notch. The cabins offer a range of creature comforts, including kitchenettes, screened porches, and fireplaces.
Choose Your Fuel
Polly’s Pancake Parlor
For nearly 85 years, breakfast buffs have flocked to the aptly named Sugar Hill area for syrup-drizzled stacks of buttermilk heaven. Classic and creative pancakes (gingerbread coconut, anyone?) are served in a sunlit dining room where the walls are decorated with timber saws, washboards, and other tools fit for a lumberjack.
Schilling Beer Co.
As many breweries try to out-hop one another with double and triple IPAs, Schilling Beer Co. has a more ambitious mission: replicating the European beer hall experience in New Hampshire. Wood-fired pizzas and kraut-festooned brats are paired with lighter, complex German- and Czech-inspired lagers on a breezy porch. But the real chef’s kiss is the outdoor dining area, which overlooks the mighty Ammonoosuc River as it exits the White Mountains and rumbles toward Vermont.
Tim-Bir Alley Restaurant
The hills and valleys northwest of Franconia Notch include a healthy speckling of farms, and at Tim-Bir Alley Restaurant, chef Val Fortin is always cooking up adventurous ways to prepare a seasonal harvest. Located right along Main Street in Littleton, the restaurant serves up gastronomic temptations like crispy skin-on Kvarøy salmon dressed up with soft polenta, corn succotash, and scape oil, alongside a robust wine list.
Choose Your Adventure
Sometimes, being surrounded by mountains—as opposed to standing on top of one—is the more dazzling sight to behold. You’ll have to pry your eyes away from the looming summits of Cannon Mountain and Mount Lafayette as you reach the 12-acre cold-water fishery known as Lonesome Lake—but it’ll be worth it to glimpse the peaceful rippling water and even the occasional moose. For a picturesque 4.9-mile round-trip hike to your destination, follow the Basin Cascade Trail and the Cascade Brook Trail, which climb at a gentle grade past gorgeous spattering waterfalls.
Reach New Heights
Hiking up a mountain is such a tiring, incremental experience that it’s easy to lose sight of the epic scale of the pile of rocks and roots you’re scaling. A ride to the top of the 4,080-foot Cannon Mountain in one of America’s first alpine cable cars offers unforgettable views of the huge cliffs you might otherwise overlook on the way up. Once the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram delivers you to the peak, a sunny and windswept path leads to a tower, where you can peek into Vermont and Canada.
The Kancamagus Scenic Byway
Some days you wake up ready to scale a wall of boulders. Other mornings you wonder, Could I drive through the mountains? New Hampshire’s answer to that question is the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, which twists and climbs more than 34 miles from Lincoln to the North Conway region through the White Mountain National Forest. Bonus for those who do feel like stretching their legs: Trailheads on “the Kanc” offer access to gems like Sabbaday Falls and Greeley Ponds, and the roadside views of valleys and roaring rivers will have you activating your turn signal frequently.
As you head deeper into the White Mountains, the gargantuan peaks of the Presidential Range suddenly explode upward from the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The deep green valley where this topographic transition happens is Crawford Notch, a rugged oasis packed with waterfalls and rockslides. Even the vast Omni Mount Washington Resort—where delegates from 44 nations negotiated the aftermath of WWII in 1944—looks pithy next to the majesty of the forest and mountains.
Choose Your Adventure
A lot of us still remember the end of The Land Before Time, when Littlefoot and his friends lay eyes on that improbably lush Great Valley. That’s what hiking to Zealand Falls through the Pemigewasset Wilderness feels like. The peaceful 5.4-mile journey follows an abandoned railroad bed through halls of birch trees before the forest opens up to reveal expansive beaver ponds where moose often wade. And then there’s the cascade itself, which features multiple levels of crashing water that seem to go on forever.
Bartlett Experimental Forest
The trick to planning the ultimate leaf-peeping excursion is choosing an area that doesn’t include flashy signposts for tourists. Take the Bartlett Experimental Forest: Established by the U.S. Forest Service in 1932 and spanning 2,600 acres through the woodlands near Bartlett, it’s a special place where the evolution of northern hardwoods is studied year-round. The best part? You can drive, walk, or bike the well-maintained dirt roads that snake through corridors of sugar maple, beech, and white pine.
Take a Wild Ride
The Mount Washington Cog Railway
A “mountain-climbing railroad” might sound like the sort of thing you’d slap together with Lego bricks, but since 1869, “The Cog” has ferried riders to the summit of Mount Washington at a thrillingly steep angle. Operating on both sun-soaked and cloud-socked days, the Cog ascends the western face of the mountain, switchbacking through rocky nooks and at one point crossing a stomach-plunging trestle known as “Jacob’s Ladder,” which can feel as precarious and rickety as it sounds on windy days.
Choose Your Lodging
Omni Mount Washington Resort
The century-old Omni Mount Washington Resort is still the region’s finest pairing of White Mountain spectacle and decadence, and recent upgrades like a rooftop observatory bar (the Jewell Terrace) keep the vibes fancy-fresh. Soak in a marble bathtub after a day of hiking and sightseeing, tee-off at a palatial golf course, and indulge at the five onsite restaurants—one of which is housed in a Prohibition-era speakeasy with stone walls.
Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center
Looking to spend time outdoors with the kids, but not necessarily a rainy night in a four-person tent? With a nourishing daily breakfast and an outdoor playscape for the little ones, Appalachian Mountain Club’s cozy Highland Center lodge puts you at the doorstep of Crawford Notch State Park, where destinations like Mount Willard and Ripley Falls are less than 10 minutes away.
Some glamping sites can seem unreflective of a region’s character, but part of the allure of Alpine Garden is the way it feels like a woodsy homegrown operation. The handcrafted cabins, treehouses, and dome-roofed “Hobbit homes” are tricked out with stylish touches like record players and espresso makers. And then there’s the Alpine Garden Winery, where Ryan Classen uses locally grown grapes to craft tantalizing vinos and ciders for your sampling pleasure.
Choose Your Fuel
What time of day is it? 8 a.m.
The sun is just emerging as wisps of fog still hang in the air, partially obscuring the orange and red woodlands.
Where you’re going: The Maia Papaya, a colorful and aromatic nook in the little town of Bethlehem best known for its savory vegetarian/vegan breakfast menu.
The vibe: Every town has its own hub of the universe, and here you’ll find residents and travelers bumping shoulders and breaking the ice over freshly brewed coffee and a dizzying lineup of breakfast burrito and sandwich options.
Can’t-miss dishes: Don’t sleep on the daily quiches, which are packed with seasonal greens and plant-based proteins, or the “breakfast sundae” of toasty granola layered with maple Greek yogurt.
What time of day is it? 1 p.m.
You’re driving past the Bretton Woods ski resort, wondering what awaits visitors at the top of the Skyway Gondola.
Where you’re going: The Switchback Grille at Rosebrook Lodge, a recently opened mountaintop eatery that’s accessible by the gondola.
The vibe: You’ll feel like you’ve been spirited away to a lodge in the Alps as you take a seat at a table beside floor-to-ceiling windows that boast mesmerizing views of the valley and any clouds that might be blowing through.
Can’t-miss dishes: Whether it’s the smoked sausage board, the heirloom tomato bruschetta, or the Bavarian pretzels with fondue and pickled veggies, a hearty round of shareable apps might be your best strategy up here.
What time of day is it? 6 p.m.
You’ve reached the east end of Crawford Notch, and the last flares of sunlight are fading behind the mountains overhead.
Where you’re going: The Tap House, a cozy, lounge-like restaurant with a generous tap list and an inventive dinner menu that’s hidden in the Grand Summit Hotel at Attitash resort.
The vibe: While the Attitash resort is a popular portal to ski trails and alpine roller coasters, the Tap House eschews traditional lodge trappings for a more industrial-chic look—though not without the necessary pine accents.
Can’t-miss dishes: The beer-braised short ribs with kimchi and wild mushrooms strike that perfect balance between culinary elevation and comfort food.
If the White Mountains had their own capital city, North Conway would be it. Not only does the village thrum and sizzle with good eats; a bustling shopping district with crafts, antiques, and mountain apparel; and savory characters, but Route 16 serves as “NoCo’s” artery to Pinkham Notch. The craggy cradle between Mount Washington, the northern Presidentials, and the wilder, quieter Carter-Moriah Range, Pinkham is flush with hikers, skiers, cyclists, and others who’ve come to experience the Whites at their best.
Choose Your Adventure
Your dream living-room painting would depict:
A. A towering granite wall festooned with waterfalls
B. A family of white-tailed deer drinking from a stream
C. A mountain of glittering gemstones
If you had to pick a new career, you’d become:
A. A professional skier ripping down New England’s steepest drops
B. A botanist searching the woods for moss
C. A sculptor crafting fish from metal
When you hear “Danger Zone,” you imagine:
A. An enormous slide of glacial boulders
B. A bike path called “Dragon Corridor”
C. Shelf after shelf of gummies and fudge
A friend asks for birthday gift ideas. You suggest:
A. Mountaineering boots with extra-thick soles
B. A sugar-maple tree sapling
C. New England–made blueberry jam
This enormous glacial bowl on the side of Mount Washington is its own attraction, with lovely cascades and mountain vistas all along the rugged 2.4-mile Tuckerman Ravine Trail. During winter, skiers climb and then scream down the ravine’s snow-covered headwall at face-melting velocities.
Great Glen Trails
The deep saddle between Mount Washington and the northern Presidentials contains some of the most pristine, naturalistic wilderness in the White Mountains. The Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center positions you at the entrance of this rustling forest, with 28 miles of gentle trails that can be explored by bike (which you can rent onsite) or on foot.
“NoCo” Main Street
Whether you’re hunting for locally crafted home décor at Naked Bohemian, glittering jewelry at It’s My Girlfriend’s, or a hefty bag of penny candy from Zeb’s General Store, the shops along North Conway’s main commercial strip will have you reaching for your wallet like a triumphant mountaineer grasping for their CamelBak hose.
Choose Your Fuel
If there’s any place in North Conway that proves breakfast can be the most exciting meal of the day, it’s Peach’s. You practically need to scribble down notes when comparing the dizzying options for omelets, pancakes, French toast, and eggs Benedict. And then there are the fruit crêpes stuffed with light cream cheese filling and garnished with whipped cream. Can’t decide? Order a second breakfast for takeout.
May Kelly’s Cottage
Part of the White Mountain experience is discovering the range of people who’ve found their way to the north country. Take Marie and Patsy McArdle, who grew up in Ireland’s County Louth before journeying to North Conway and founding May Kelly’s Cottage, a real-deal Irish pub. Chase your last bite of shepherd’s pie or fried haddock with a Smithwick’s Red Ale while admiring the cliffs of nearby White Horse Ledge from the outdoor patio.
Thompson House Eatery
Chef Jeff Fournier earned widespread acclaim for his work at the beloved Newton restaurant 51 Lincoln. But in 2017, he left it all behind to open this spot in the laid-back mountainside village of Jackson. The dominant theme here is homegrown: Flowers hang from the ceilings like chandeliers, and an adjoining farm produces key ingredients for entrées such as pan-roasted North Atlantic hake with rösti potatoes, squash, and cherry tomatoes.
Choose Your Lodging
Once the private estate of a carpet manufacturing kingpin in the foothills of Black Cap Mountain, Stonehurst Manor is now a five-star hotel with luxurious amenities and alpine ambiance to spare. Trappings include four-poster beds, wood-burning fireplaces, and an in-house “Library Lounge,” featuring creative cocktails from Stonehurst’s longtime resident mixologist.
The Glen House
Getting up close to stunning sights like the roaring cascades at Glen Ellis Falls can really make the mountains come alive for families. A boutique hotel in the heart of Pinkham Notch, the Glen House puts these wonders within easy reach. The Great Glen Trails are located right next door, and the balconies, dining room, and indoor pool double as venues for admiring the peak foliage (and catching the occasional gnarly mountain storm!).
Huttopia White Mountains
Whether you fancy a soft-lit tent, a tiny house with a screened porch, or a timber chalet capable of hosting plenty of pals, you’ll find a dreamy menu of dwellings at Huttopia White Mountains. Hidden in the woods near the east end of the Kancamagus Highway, south of North Conway, the camp is built on the meditative waters of Iona Lake, which you can mill around on by canoe or standup paddleboard (rentals are available onsite).
Though the White Mountains are usually seen as a New Hampshire destination, they actually spill across state lines into western Maine’s pine forests and farmlands. And it’s right along the Maine-New Hampshire border where you’ll find Evans Notch, the most mysterious and elusive recreation destination in the White Mountains. Remember when you unlocked that “lost world” of bonus levels playing Donkey Kong? That’s what gazing into the stony depths of Evans Notch feels like.
Choose Your Adventure
That old platitude “The best things come in small packages” doesn’t just apply to gift cards. Consider Caribou Mountain: The rocky moonscape summit of this modest, nearly 3,000-foot peak offers a panoramic vista of four mountain ranges, not to mention glimpses of Maine’s Rangeley Lakes. Follow the Mud Brook Trail to the top and take the Caribou Trail back to the parking lot for a challenging 6.6-mile loop hike with enough wispy waterfalls and surprise overlooks to charm the most jaded hiker.
You could admire the colors of fall through your windshield or a trail. But why stop there when you can also see the leaves reflected on glassy water, slowly moving as the wind whistles overhead? This enchanting sight is what draws visitors to the Basin, a vast glacial lake carved into the Baldface-Royce Range. A public boat launch offers easy canoe and kayak access, and the grassy banks of the Basin are ideal for picnics, naps, proposals—you name it.
Go Hog Wild
Parents and/or literary nostalgists should set their GPS for this annual blue-ribbon agricultural fair, which feels a bit like stepping into the carnival in Charlotte’s Web or Babe—especially when the sheepdog trials kickoff. Admire prize-winning pigs, cattle, and draft horses, wolf down some candied apples, and, if you’re brave enough, take a spin on the newly minted Superman 360 ride.
Choose Your Fuel
Generations of artists have answered the call of the White Mountains—and now, thanks to painter Tadhg Slater, a new haven for local creatives has taken root in the middle of Gorham. Since its founding during the first year of the pandemic, the coffee house has emerged as a rare double act where the local artists’ gallery exhibitions are as much a draw as the crisp croissants, gooey pecan rolls, and potent coffee.
302 West Smokehouse & Tavern
For whatever reason, rugged scenery seems to deepen our desire for comfort food. The team behind 302 West Smokehouse & Tavern gets this. Sidle up to the bar or procure a table at this roadhouse-style space, and lose yourself in a mountain of pulled pork, smoked brisket, burnt ends, and/or St. Louis–style ribs with plenty of savory fixings.
Craftsmanship is a hallmark of this region, and it’s no different at Nonna’s Kitchen, where you can twirl your fork through a plate of homemade spaghetti con salsiccia on the mountainside patio. That’s what keeps Nonna’s busy throughout the year—authentic, lovingly prepared Italian cooking that you’ll tell friends about when you return home. Don’t sleep on the antipasti, including the PEI mussels with basil and garlic.
Choose Your Lodging
What you’re looking for: Grand, ornate accommodations that echo the grandeur of the White Mountains.
Where to book: Once the home of Fryeburg-based timber titans, the Oxford House Inn is now a luxe home base for exploring the crags and ravines of Evans Notch (see: the walk-in rain showers and Adirondack chairs overlooking the nearby wilderness).
The vibe: Imagine borrowing a friend’s country estate for the weekend. The ambiance and carpentry are enviable, the well-manicured lawns boast sterling views of the mountains, and underlying the whole experience is a soothing sense of camaraderie.
Coolest amenity: Excellent homemade desserts and breads whipped up by the inn’s proprietors, who cut their teeth in the culinary world before setting their sights on this hospitality venture in western Maine.
What you’re looking for: A homey little abode for recharging and freshening up with the family after a big day of exploration.
Where to book: Top Notch Inn, a reliable portal to the most remote realms of the Whites that’s situated steps away from the restaurants and shops of Gorham.
The vibe: Take a classic hotel aimed at the road-tripping crowd, add inspired touches like cornhole, grilling supplies, and an eight-person Jacuzzi, and you have an Evans Notch basecamp fit for hearty gatherings of kith or kin.
Coolest amenity: Mount Madison—the northernmost of the Presidentials—towers over the heated outdoor pool.
What you’re looking for: A unique chance to step into the forest, pull off your socks, and enjoy some “moss therapy” before retiring to a yurt or canvas bell tent.
Where to book: Hub North in Gorham, a glamping masterpiece with plush beds and stunning views of northern hardwood forests.
The vibe: This is a place not just for glimpsing the White Mountains—it’s a place to feel them, savor their aromas, and temporarily merge with their wild ecosystem. At the same time, it’s also a place to recharge your phone and enjoy a shower at the day’s end.
Coolest amenity: The stargazing here is so pristine and unfettered by light pollution that when you return home, you’ll gaze at the hazier night sky with a sense of what’s truly out there.