11 Fabulous Fall Foliage Drives
Try these byways for peak leaf-peeping
To see the best foliage, get off the highway.
New Hampshire is never more enticing than during the spectacle of fall foliage. From locals to international travelers, thousands are drawn to Mother Nature’s brilliant display, as easily seen from the more than 1,000 miles of designated scenic and cultural byways, and the myriad meandering backroads that wind through the state.
“The byways crisscross every region of the state and take visitors on a journey through beautiful mountains, by pristine lakes and along the seacoast, through quintessential country villages, and down long and winding country roads,” says New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development Communications Manager Kris Neilsen. “Fall is a great time to explore the road less traveled here, because you just never know what you might find around the next bend.”
Even with surprises hiding around every bend, a few sights are a safe bet. Driving around the Granite State, you’re likely to find resplendent village greens with white steeples, mom-and-pop stores, covered bridges, country fairs, historic cemeteries and sites, glimmering waterways, staggering alpine vistas and more.
Before venturing out behind the leaf-peeping wheel, it’s a good idea to check in with a fall foliage report for regional updates on the colors. Though peak pigment is preferred by many, roadways tends to be less trafficked during pre- and post-peak times, which can still hold satisfying hues.
The 34-mile Kancamagus Highway, or Route 112, is a remarkably scenic and popular drive though the heart of the White Mountain National Forest between Conway and Lincoln. Though crowded on weekends, it’s a leaf-peeper’s delight with its thick, broad-leafed trees. Motor to nearly 3,000 feet in elevation on the twisting road named after Chief Kancamagus, “The Fearless One.” The Kanc, as locals call it, is a gateway to adventure with its campgrounds, waterfalls, hiking trails, historic sites, gorge and more. There’s even a hidden ski jump for high school competitions, a barebones forest cabin for rent, a suspension bridge and the under-the-radar, multiuse Albany Town Forest trails.
Set in the splendor of the Pinkham Notch area, the state’s most famous toll road is a glorious and often white-knuckled thrill ride to the summit of the Northeast’s highest peak. Opened in 1861 as a carriage road, the Mt. Washington Auto Road is a sinuous nearly 8-mile drive to the notable summit.
What will you find on the rock pile?
“Crisp air, panoramic views, brilliantly colored arrays of deciduous trees set to a backdrop of dark evergreens and jagged mountain boulders,” says Digital Media Director Shannon Duffey-Ball.
You can opt for a guided van trip if driving up the mountain scares you, but, in any case, be sure you know the weather before you go — and don’t forget to take advantage of the pull-offs.
Beyond the Whites lay the North Country’s Great North Woods with the flowing Androscoggin River, mighty Dixville Notch and ample opportunities for wildlife spotting. Gorham is an excellent jumping-off point for a roughly 120-mile loop that goes up through Berlin, past the historic Nansen Ski Jump, along the Androscoggin and through the delightful Thirteen Mile Woods to Errol. Wiggle through Dixville Notch past The Balsams and into Colebrook before following along the Connecticut River south to Groveton, past the covered bridge in Stark and then back through Berlin and Gorham. Roads used are Routes 16, 26, 3, 110 and back to 16.
Make it a day or spend the night during the nearly 134-mile Lakes Loop that showcases everything from the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee to small towns along winding backroads in the central and eastern part of the state. From Meredith’s cozy town docks, meander along the Big Lake shores east on Route 25 to Center Harbor and Moultonborough before turning south on Route 109 into charming Wolfeboro. The lovely loop then encompasses Routes 153, 11, 202A, 4, 107 and then 3 back to Meredith while taking in slices of Americana in communities like Sanbornville, Northwood and Nottingham.
Another spectacular circuit is the roughly 80-mile Monadnock loop from Keene, anchored by lofty Mount Monadnock, that pierces the heart of classic New Hampshire small-town ambiance through gems like Marlborough, Peterborough and Marlow. Take Route 101 to Marlborough, then head south on Route 124 by Monadnock State Park. Go north on Route 123 to Peterborough and follow Route 136 to Greenfield. Then it’s Forest Road to Route 123 in Hancock to picturesque Marlow before meandering back to Keene.
Also in the state’s southwest area, Neilsen recommends driving Route 119 from Fitzwilliam through Winchester or traveling north on Route 12 from the Massachusetts border up through Fitzwilliam and Troy into Keene for invigorating autumn splendor.
Revolutionary War general John Stark provided us with our “Live Free or Die” motto, so what better way to explore the state than on a highway named in his honor? You’ll catch classic snapshots of white and brick buildings and a rainbow of fall color across the 34-mile General John Stark Scenic Byway, which stretches through Goffstown, Dunbarton, Weare and New Boston along Routes 113, 77 and 114.
Route 113 from Goffstown to New Boston along the Piscataquog River down through Mont Vernon, Milford and Brookline to the Massachusetts border is another Neilsen-recommended gem.
Take your time in the Upper Valley and the Lake Sunapee area during a 140-mile spin along the Sunapee Loop, taking in the Franklin Pierce Homestead and the resplendent village green in Washington. Launch and finish from Greenfield by driving north on Route 31, then following Route 10, Springfield Road, Route 114, Routes 202/9, Route 13 and Route 136 back to your starting point. Along the way, enjoy a few college towns, like New London, home of Colby-Sawyer, or Henniker, anchored by New England College.
The state’s small slice of seacoast also satiates many a scenic appetite. The Coastal Byway, Route 1A from Portsmouth to Seabrook, serves up historic sites, coastline views and lots of restaurants where you can stop in and relax.
No matter which route you choose, enjoy the Granite State at leisure during the fabulous fall foliage season.