Go Chase These Gorgeous Waterfalls on a Road Trip to New Hampshire

The Granite State offers abundant opportunities to see dramatic waterfalls in the White Mountains over the course of a two day road trip.

arethusa falls

Arethusa Falls photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

New England’s roaring waterfalls are reliable cooldown zones when the summer temperatures reach broiling-point. But sometimes as soon as July, the heat and aridity have taken their toll on these gushers and reduced certain cascades to little more than a trickle of water. There’s no time like spring to experience New England waterfalls in their most dramatic form. From April to early June, all that melted snow and rain turns the cascades into rip-roaring behemoths that seem to explode through the trees. The trails to these mighty waterfalls will be a tad muddy thanks to all that snowmelt and the recently thawed forest floor, but there’s a double upside to this—you’re likely to have the woods to yourself and hotels will be offering lower rates before the summer crowds arrive. Nowhere is this contrast with the hubbub of June-to-August more noticeable than in the White Mountain National Forest. So grab your water-resistant footwear and embark on this weekend road trip to the region’s most prodigious spring cascades.

Day 1: Boston to Crawford Notch to North Conway

201 miles
3.5-4 hours driving

Hit I-93 early in the morning and head through Concord. As the humpback profile of the White Mountains begins to appear, take Exit 23 and drive into Bristol for some waterfall aperitifs. Get caffeinated and pick up a hearty breakfast sandwich or pastries from the Purple Pit Coffee Lounge, and bring your provisions just a few minutes south down Rt. 3A to Profile Falls for a waterside breakfast. This thundering fan waterfall spills 30 feet into a serene pool with plenty of picnicking rocks and it’s accessible via a gentle 0.1 mile dirt path from the parking area.

After motoring through the granite gateway of Franconia Notch, get off the highway at Exit 35, wind through a mixed hardwood forest, visit YAYA’s Market and Deli to pick up trail snacks or lunchables (if you haven’t packed them already) and then head east along Rt. 302 to enter the verdant expanse of Crawford Notch—a veritable cascade corridor. Several plunge and spatter right next to the road, such as Flume Cascade and Silver Cascade. Look for parking pullouts for these two falls just past the AMC’s Highland Center and Saco Lake as you enter Crawford Notch State Park. Here, you’ll immediately be treated to an unbelievable vista of the notch.

The big league waterfalls await in the depths of the notch, into which the road descends at an excitingly steep grade before leveling out and following the Saco River. Here, you have three waterfall choices (and you don’t have to pick just one.) For a short hike, take the 1 mile trail to Ripley Falls, a beautiful 100 foot waterfall which slides down an angular rock face that’s often glittering with sunlight. For a more robust hike, continue down the road to the 2.8 mile trail up to Arethusa Falls, which climbs through boreal woods at a patient grade before descending log stairs to the tallest year-round waterfall in New Hampshire at a whopping 200 feet. And for a lesser-glimpsed wonder, consider the 4.9 mile trail to the Nancy Cascades, an elegant duet of waterfalls with an estimated height of 300 feet. You might encounter some patches of leftover snow on this hike, which climbs 1,500 feet by way of switchbacks. Micro-spikes may be useful.

Nearby North Conway is your best bet for nourishing lodging and food. Kearsarge Inn offers all the comforts of a classic New England B&B while Stonehurst Manor cranks up the decadence with wood-burning fireplaces, whirlpool baths, and a “library lounge” with cocktail service. The center of North Conway offers enticing shopping venues like the penny candy counter at Zeb’s General Store or the consignment outdoor gear room at International Mountain Equipment (IME). And when it comes to dinner, you’ll find farm-raised New American fare at the White Mountain Cider Company in Glen (next door to “NoCo”,) heavenly Irish comfort food at May Kelly’s Cottage, and a dizzying draft beer roster at Barley & Salt Tap House and Kitchen.

gordon falls

Gordon Falls photo by Cappi Thompson/Getty Images

Day 2: North Conway to Littleton to Boston

217-227 miles
4-4.5 hours driving 

Come sunrise, tuck into a syrup-drenched stack of fluffy pancakes at Peach’s Restaurant, or nab some scones from Old Village Bakery and cart them over to the mini cascades and pools at Diana’s Baths for a more bucolic breakfast. (In summer, cars will often line up to access this beloved swimming hole.) Once you’re fueled up, take Rt. 16 North through the stony passage of Pinkham Notch, turn right on Rt. 2 into Shelburne, and then pull a left onto North Road. Here, at the northern edge of the Whites, you’ll find a quiet 2.8 mile trail that climbs through the Peabody Forest to Giant Falls, a 200 foot-tall secret of a waterfall which is especially gigantic in spring. (Look for a white trail sign on the shoulder of North Road and park on the opposite side.) For an easier morning waterfall jaunt, take Rt. 2 west through Gorham, park in the Appalachia lot just outside of town, and take the bumbling 1.5 mile Fallsway loop (from the easternmost edge of the parking area) to visit a trio of rumbling cascades—Gordon Falls, Salroc Falls, and Tama Falls.

the basin new hampshire

The Basin photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Begin your return journey by taking Rt. 2 through the western edge of the Whites to Littleton. The wood-fired pizzas at Schilling Beer Co. or the colorful and aromatic curries from Taste the Thai make for a peaceful lunch on the banks of the Ammonoosuc River (accessible from downtown.) From here, the road leads back to I-93 South and Boston. But before passing through Franconia Notch again, pull into the lot for The Basin (almost always full in the summer) and borrow some nostalgia by visiting the bowl shaped roadside waterfall that once dazzled Henry David Thoreau.