You’ve probably heard it said that experiencing fall in New Hampshire is a bucket-list worthy item. I know I have, so my husband and I finally decided to see what all the fuss is about.
We’ve experienced fall color all over the world (Kyoto, Japan still remains a personal favorite), but nothing prepared us for the breathtaking beauty of fall in New Hampshire, specifically the White Mountains.
Every year, millions of visitors flock to this corner of the world to experience a forest alive with exhilarating shades of rusty oranges, deep reds and vibrant yellows.
So put on your cozy sweater, grab a cup of coffee and let’s discuss the absolute best spots to catch fall in New Hampshire. I’ll explain exactly why this world-renowned destination should be your next trip!
The White Mountains, New Hampshire
White Mountain National Forest sits near the New Hampshire and Maine border. The massive forest spans 800,000 acres and is defined by swaths of healthy pines, oaks and maples, alpine lakes and jutting granite cliffs.
These elements together create a delight for the eyes, especially during fall when the White Mountains come alive with autumn’s cheery color palette.
Experiencing fall in the White Mountains is a phenomenon that attracts millions of international visitors annually.
The most common towns folks stay at are North Conway and Lincoln, with Jackson and Sugar Hills following closely behind.
Getting to the White Mountains
The two closest airports to White Mountain National Forest are:
- Burlington International Airport
- Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (often cheaper)
Best time to visit New Hampshire for fall color
Fall color in New Hampshire is weather dependent and varies from year to year. A general rule of thumb is to visit between late-September to early-October for the best fall color in the White Mountains.
Since most folks (us included) plan trips months in advance, it’s hard to know exactly when to visit the White Mountains for fall color, as such — I personally suggest planning your trip for the first week of October.
At worst, you might show up too early, but too early is better than too late because you’ll still see fall color, even if it’s peppered between green leaves.
But if you show up too late, you’ll find the trees barren. Leaves become more delicate when they change color, and all it takes is an unexpected rainstorm or a terribly windy day to blow them off the trees.
Catching fall foliage at peak is ideal, but missing peak by a few days (or even a week) isn’t the end of the world. In fact, all our photos were taken one week past peak. And honestly — it turned out just fine.
We used this foliage tracker religiously in the days leading up to our trip.
Experiencing Fall Color in New Hampshire (Helpful Hiking Tips)
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Leave No Trace
- If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, make sure to read these guidelines before your trip: Leave No Trace. We all love our public lands, so please read this before visiting.
You + Sunscreen = Best Friends (Forever)
- I swear by this sunscreen, I discovered it in France and now buy it in bulk. You’ll never catch me without it!
Be prepared for the rain
- We woke up to an absolute downpour on our first day and snow on our last. We felt smart for packing both rain jackets and warm layers, but still had to buy hats and gloves two days in – yikes!
Crowds, crowds, crowds
- Since experiencing fall in the White Mountains is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most folks, this area draws millions of international visitors annually. It’s safe to say crowds are all but guaranteed.
Wear hiking boots with good traction
- The best way to experience fall in the White Mountains is by trail. So make sure you pack a good pair of hiking boots because the leaves get slippery when wet. If helpful, these are my hiking boots, and I’d sleep in them if I could.
Fall Foliage in New Hampshire | The White Mountains
Kancamagus Scenic Highway
Arguably one of the most iconic things to do while visiting the White Mountains in the fall is taking a drive down the breathtaking Kancamagus Scenic Highway (known to locals as “The Kanc”).
Of all the unbelievable drives we took during our time in New England in the fall, driving the 34-mile Kancamagus Highway was the most memorable.
The scenic highway cuts through the massive forest and connects the towns of Lincoln and Conway. You’ll be privy to a kaleidoscope of colors as far as the eye can see in either direction.
The entire drive will take approximately an hour but plan to spend time popping off at the various viewpoints along the way for an experience you won’t soon forget.
The Kancamagus Scenic Highway is often considered one of the best fall foliage viewing areas in the entire world, so believe me when I tell you it is worth the effort.
Since this drive is one of the most popular ways to see the fall foliage in New Hampshire, start your day early (preferably sunrise) because the parking lots at the viewpoints fill up quickly!
I can guarantee that driving the Kancamagus Highway will be the highlight of your trip to New Hampshire in the fall!
Albany Covered Bridge
If there’s one thing New England is best known for (outside of striking fall color), it’s definitely charming covered bridges capable of evoking feelings from simpler times.
Which brings us to one of the best spots for fall color in New Hampshire, the Albany Covered Bridge. This is actually one of the most photographed bridges in the state, and you can see why.
The bridge was constructed in 1858 and restorations throughout the years have kept it in great condition. In fact, cars are allowed on the bridge.
We chose to cross by foot in an effort to explore both sides of the river and couldn’t believe all the fall color surrounding us. Every shade of orange, yellow and red made an appearance and we found ourselves smitten.
Location: Albany Covered Bridge is located six miles west of Conway, New Hampshire.
Artist’s Bluff at Franconia Notch State Park
Artist’s Bluff is nestled into Franconia Notch State Park and reaching the viewpoint requires a hike.
The trail is rated easy/moderate and meanders through a dense forest for 1.5 miles, gaining 400 feet of elevation before opening up to a giant rock formation ripe for exploration.
The views from the top prove that this is one of the best spots to see fall color in New Hampshire.
A sea of yellow engulfs the edges of Echo Lake as the majestic White Mountains loom in the distance.
You can even spend an afternoon at the lake if you’d like. There’s kayaks, canoes and pedal boats for rent and a lovely beach to rest on. Just know that the temperatures are on the chillier side during autumn in New Hampshire, so bring a warm jacket.
We saw a lot of families with children on the trail, so this is a great activity if you’d like to stretch your legs and have children in tow.
Flume Covered Bridge
Built in 1871, the Flume Covered Bridge has withstood the test of time and seems like it’s straight out of a fairy-tale.
A vibrant red coat of paint gives this bridge a fighting chance for attention amidst the colorful forest that surrounds it. The whole scene feels like it was made for a calendar photo!
If you’d like to spend time exploring this area, continue down the inviting trail for a two-mile nature walk that passes through waterfalls, more covered bridges and a dense forest.
Location: The Flume Bridge is located east of Route 3 (Daniel Webster Highway) in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Take the Flume exit from I-93, park in visitor lot.
Who doesn’t love a scenic waterfall surrounded by vibrant fall foliage? If you’re into easy fall hikes and stunning views, this is the hike for you.
When exploring New Hampshire in autumn, you quickly learn that you can see great foliage from the car. In fact, we found ourselves driving around more than we planned to.
Which makes Sabbaday Falls a great stop for anyone in need of stretching their legs.
The flat trail is less than one mile long (0.7 miles) which makes this a great pit stop that requires very little effort.
This is an easy hike with great fall foliage and a pretty waterfall, so crowds are all but guaranteed. If you’d like to avoid crowds, try arriving early and don’t forget your mask regardless of when you visit.
Tip: We saw tons of kids out on the trail, it’s a great hike for all skill levels. Just remember to bring hiking boots with traction, this trail gets slippery!
Zealand Falls Hut via Zealand Trail
Since we planned to spend a full week in New England during fall, we decided to do research on great hikes. We’re active people by nature and love exploring new areas on foot.
We were excited to learn about the Zealand Trail — a relatively flat 2.8 mile trail that cuts through a forest before spitting you out at a scenic waterfall.
My husband and I had a blast soaking in the fresh mountain air and brilliant colors. And since we didn’t run into many folks on the trail, it felt like we practically had the entire forest to ourselves.
As you know, solitude is hard to come by (especially during peak fall foliage in the White Mountains), so we took advantage of the quiet time and enjoyed the experience immensely.
Sawyer River Trail & Road
To fully experience fall color in New Hampshire, you can’t afford to miss a scenic 7.5 stretch of road known as Sawyer River Road.
Seldom crowded for reasons unbeknown to me, seeing Sawyer River Road was one of the highlights from the trip for us.
You can either walk along the road or drive, we chose to do a little of both. The fall color was mesmerizing! Between the striking colors, bird song and fresh mountain air, it was hard to convince ourselves to leave this spot, it was so beautiful.
We’re talking about never-ending fall foliage in every direction — you won’t want to miss it!
Location: US 302/Crawford Notch Road 1.5 miles south of Lucy Road (Hart’s Location) and Kancamagus Hwy/SR 112
Franconia Ridge Loop Trail
Hiking the Franconia Ridge Loop is not for the faint for heart because the trail covers 8.6 miles and has an elevation gain of 3,800 feet.
However, this is a great thing to do during fall in New England if you are the adventurous sort.
The challenging trail takes you through three different mountain ranges and offers sweeping panoramic views of fall foliage in the White Mountains.
The best part? You can hike a small portion of the trail if you’re not feeling up for a hearty hike. Which is what we did.
Either way you slice it, this is a must do for fall color in New England. In fact, it was named as one of the world’s top 10 best hiking trails by National Geographic in 2017.
Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram
- Address: 260 Tramway Drive – Franconia, New Hampshire 03580
- Admission: $19 per adult
If you’re looking for an aerial view of the breathtaking fall foliage in New Hampshire, look no further than the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram.
A quick 10-minute gondola ride takes your directly to the summit of Cannon Mountain, reaching a dizzying elevation of 4,080 feet.
You’ll be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the White Mountains swallowed up by fall color. What’s more, on a clear day you can see Canada and mountains from four different states.
This is a great way to give your weary hiking legs a rest.
When you reach the summit make sure to pop off and check out the observation deck and grab a snack at the cafe. Restrooms available as well.
For more information about the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram, click here.
Visit Mount Washington
Reaching a height of nearly 6,300 feet, Mount Washington is the tallest peak in the northeast.
It probably comes as no surprise that such a high vantage point would provide spectacular views of the fall foliage in the White Mountains.
There’s two ways to reach Mount Washington, either by driving the Mount Washington Auto Road or hopping aboard the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
Driving to the summit of Mount Washington was one of the more memorable parts of our trip. The historic 7.5-mile scenic road leading to the summit offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape as you gain elevation.
Fun fact: The Mt. Washington Auto Road was built in 1861 and is officially the oldest man-made attraction in America.
If you’d prefer a more interactive and unique experience, you may want to reach the summit via the Mount Washington Cog Railway. This was the first mountain cog railway in the world and is operational to this day!
What’s more, it’s also one of the steepest railways in the world, with grades reaching 37%.
Regardless of how you reach Mt. Washington, just know you’ll be rewarded with the ever-famous fall foliage of New Hampshire — it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Where to stay in the White Mountains
I wrote about the BEST spots to stay in the White Mountains, you can read all about it here: 10 PRIME Lodging Options in the White Mountains for Your Next Fall Trip
Image courtesy Wakefield Inn
Camping in the White Mountains
Visitors are welcome to camp in the White Mountains. For a comprehensive list of all campgrounds in the White Mountain National Forest, click here.
Camping reservations must be arranged on Recreation.gov or by calling the National Recreation Reservation Service at (877) 444-6777.
All reservations require a minimum of 7-day advance reservation. Less than 7 days? Availability is based on first-come, first-served sites where available.
Best Restaurants in the White Mountains
- We highly recommend Flapjacks and Polly’s Pancake Parlor. Both restaurants are known for their legendary fluffy pancakes.
- For a vintage spin on breakfast, try Sunny Day Diner (originally opened in 1958!), where Eggs Benedict and pancakes rule supreme. For a quick bite, it’s hard to go wrong with Dunkin’ Donuts.
- Schilling Beer Company is a great brewery offering delicious pub fare, The Sunrise Shack is also a great spot for lunch specials, don’t make the mistake of missing their tater-tots, brace yourself!
- Libby’s Saalt Pub is hard to beat because the chef here was a James Beard semi-finalist – which is a huge deal in the culinary world.
Driving and Gas
The roads in this area are well maintained, so any standard vehicle will do. Some of the unpaved roads may require high-clearance vehicles, but the top attractions are found via paved roads.
Gas stations were easy to come by so no worries in that department.
The White Mountains area is split into four quadrants and each region experiences fall color at different times:
- Western White Mountains (The Kancamagus Highway) takes you though the towns of Lincoln/Woodstock, Camption/Thornton, Waterville Valley and Plymouth.
- Northern White Mountains (Route 302 through Bethlehem) takes you through the towns of Franconia Notch, Franconia/Sugar Hill, Bethlehem, Twin Mountain/Bretton Woods and Gorham.
- Eastern White Mountains (Route 16 through Pinkham Notch) takes you through the towns of Bartlett/Glen, Jackson and North Conway.
- Southern White Mountains/Lakes Region (Route 302 through Bethlehem) takes you though the towns of Ashland, Meredith, Center Harbor and Tilton.
Flying a drone during fall in the White Mountains
We took our drone with us but made sure to follow the drone rules to a T. Please respect the forest, these rules are in place for a reason. For an outline of the rules, click here.
Per the National Forest Website: Recreational use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (drones) is allowed on White Mountain National Forest lands as long as the landing of the drone does not occur within 1/4 miles of a Forest Protection Area, alpine zone, or area otherwise listed in Exhibit B of Forest Order R9-22-19-01.
Notice of prohibited areas are generally posted with signs at trailheads and at informational kiosks, but drone users are responsible for familiarizing themselves with the map before use.
Fall color New Hampshire (Post Summary)
In sum, these are the best spots for fall color in New Hampshire.
- Kancamangus Highway
- Flume Covered Bridge
- Artist’s Bluff
- Albany Covered Bridge
- Sabbaday Falls
- Zealand Falls Hut
- Sawyer River Road
- Cannon Aerial Tram
- Franconia Ridge Loop Trail
- The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Best spots for fall color in New Hampshire (Helpful Map)
- Best Places of Fall Color in Kyoto
- 10 BEST hikes at Mt. Rainier National Park
- 9 BEST Hikes in Redwood National Park
- Sequoia National Park in Winter (+Video)
I hope you enjoyed this hefty guide on fall foliage in the White Mountains of New Hampshire!
Experiencing the fall color in New England really can’t be topped and the memories will last a lifetime.
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Happy fall color hunting to all!
Will and Antonina