Adventures in the White Mountains

One of only two national forests in New England, New Hampshire’s White Mountains are home to the region’s highest peaks and some of its best hiking, climbing, and more—all only a couple hours from Boston.

Swaths of land as large as the nearly 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest are hard to come by in New England, a region that was heavily settled well before the Forest Service was even a thought. Born from public outcry over uncontrolled logging and wildfires, this massive tract in northern New Hampshire (traditionally inhabited by Wabanaki peoples) is home to the highest peaks in the Northeast, endless lakes and rivers, one of the most rugged sections of the Appalachian Trail, four ski areas, dozens of campgrounds, six congressionally designated wilderness areas, and roughly 1,200 miles of hiking trails. And after less than a 3-hour drive from Boston, it’s easy for visitors to experience some of the deepest, most remote parts of the region. The volume of activity the Whites hold—and hide—is a gem in one of the most densely populated parts of the country. 

Getting Oriented

For the forest’s size, it’s surprisingly simple to access nearly all corners of the White Mountains. Interstate 93 shoots north from Boston into the heart of the range. The hub of Lincoln, N.H., is only 2 hours from Beantown, and it’s a central access point for the forest’s western side. The Pemigewasset (Pemi) Wilderness, Franconia Notch, scenic Kancamagus Highway (the “Kanc”), and more are all accessed easily from here. Either the Kanc or beautiful state Route 302 (through Crawford Notch) lead east to North Conway, another hub of the range. From here, the Presidential Range, including Mount Washington, is close at hand. Various ski and wilderness areas, huts, rock and ice climbs, and scenic drives are sprinkled in and around small towns throughout the Whites, but all are within fast reach from these two main towns. 

Backpack the Presidential Traverse

The Presidential Traverse—a range of peaks along the crest of the Whites named after former U.S. commanders in chief—is a backpacking trip worthy of anyone’s life list, no matter where you typically spend your time. A steep climb from Crawford Notch gains the ridge where the trail eventually breaks out of the treeline, rolling between broad, grassy summits and blue tarns before climbing to the bouldery top of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast. From there, the trail continues into the slightly more dramatic and rocky northern peaks of the range before the trail drops off the ridge to the town of Randolph, N.H., after nearly 22 miles (the Appalachian Mountain Club runs a shuttle service between the two trailheads). While the traverse is a popular trail run and can certainly be done as a day-hike, it’s more enjoyable to savor the views staying at one of a number of campsites just below the treeline on the ridge. Alternatively, pack a daypack and stay at the Appalachian Mountain Club huts placed along the route, where they’ll take care of your food, bedding, and shelter. 

Fish the East Branch Pemigewasset River

Tucked below the rugged Pemigewasset Range outside Lincoln, N.H., the East Branch of the Pemi River is a trout angler’s paradise. The best of it is accessed from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead. Follow the trail north into the Pemigewasset Wilderness at Franconia Brook. Various trails follow the river northeast past campsites and immediate access to the river. Take your pick and wet your line for brook, rainbow, brown trout and more. Want to combine your fishing with some more hiking? Trails into the Pemi Range (try hiking to the summit of Bondcliff, just 4 miles from the river) are plentiful, and other inspiring points of interest liks Thoreau Falls or Shoal, Norcross, or Ethan ponds are all a day-hike away. 

Climb at Cathedral Ledge

The 500-foot Cathedral Ledge towers over North Conway, long known as a hub of New Hampshire trad climbing. It’s not just known to climbers, though; topping out here also means climbing up to a fence designed to hold back tourists who drive to the top. High-quality granite makes up for the lack of seclusion, and the cliff has a litter of classic routes from 5.6 to 5.13. Add to all that the fact that the east-facing cliff gets the morning sun and early warmth, and there’s a strong case for making a trip to North Conway just to visit Cathedral. Trad beginners can set sights on the four-pitch 5.6, Thin Air, while more experienced climbers will enjoy The Prow, a 5.11 test-piece. In the winter, Cathedral fills with classic ice climbs like Goofers Delight (WI 3) and the North End Pillars (WI 3-4). 

Take a Scenic Drive

Enjoying the White Mountains doesn’t always need to require getting your boots muddy. A network of roads zigzag across the mountains, making the views from even the tallest summits accessible to all. The Kancamagus Highway is a 34.5-mile route along state Route 112, which climbs through the mountains between the Pemi and Sandwich ranges. It passes numerous campgrounds and trailheads between Lincoln and Conway. And, come fall, it earns a spot atop any list of New England destinations to enjoy the foliage colors, thanks to broad vistas above the trees. 

For anyone who’s done much driving around The Granite State, they’ll know the bumper stickers that proclaim, “This Car Climbed Mount Washington.” Though jaded local hikers chafe at the word “climbed,” it’s not wrong; even this tallest peak in the Whites features a twisting auto road that’s worth the effort (and gas). The drive begins from the hamlet of Glen House (north of North Conway), weaves above treeline and across the rocky expanse of Mount Washington’s broad summit cone, and then up to the weather observatory on the summit. 

Backcountry Ski in Tuckerman Ravine

Skiing in the East is notably different from skiing out West, for more reasons than one. But Tuckerman Ravine on the east side of Mount Washington is surprisingly similar to some of the massive bowls you would expect to find in the Rockies. The broad glacial cirque carved a chunk out of the side of the mountain, just southeast of the summit, to create another bucket list-worthy destination for East Coast backcountry skiers—and a classic spot for any alpine aficionado. When the cirque fills with snow in the early winter, there are lines galore from the Alpine Garden above, including everything from the broad but often icy headwall (comprising routes like the Lip and Icefall), to the narrower and more protected Left Gully. A short tour up the Sherburne Ski Trail from Pinkham Notch (also north of North Conway) leads to Hermit Lake and the Ravine just above. In springtime, the Ravine takes on new life as a hub of ski activity and celebration. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.