FRANCONIA, N.H. -- The brilliant golds and reds of autumn make New England a legendary fall destination, drawing connoisseurs of color from around the world. The entire region shares the bounty, but New Hampshire, with New England’s highest mountains as a backdrop, stands above its neighbors for dramatic scenery.
The rugged granite peaks of the White Mountains, stark and grand, are awesome to behold, rising above vast vistas of color. The spectacle is brighter thanks to the abundance of hardwood trees, which produce the most vivid hues, especially the bright red sugar maples that yield the region’s famous maple syrup.
Several drives through the mountains are famed for their scenery and the hiking is so choice that the Appalachian Mountain Club has headquarters here, with several convenient huts and lodges to accommodate visitors on foot. The Appalachian Trail laces through the area. Scenic train and chair lift rides add to the beauty.
Those traveling from afar will find easy access to the mountains from Boston’s Logan Airport. A 140-mile drive on Route I-93 from Boston leads to the stunning panorama of peaks and valleys, awesome gorges, tumbling waterfalls and ice-blue mountain lakes of Franconia State Park. Franconia Notch within the park is a spectacular mountain pass traversed by an eight-mile parkway running from the Flume Gorge at the south to Echo Lake at the north, winding between the high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges.
The Flume is a natural gorge whose 70- to 90-foot granite walls extend for 800 feet along the southern flank of Mount Liberty. A wooden walkway crisscrossing the stream leads to the crescendo of sound that announces Avalanche Falls, a torrent crashing 23 feet down the canyon. Another fine walk is the 1 1/2-mile trail to Artist’s Bluff, a rocky palisade with fine views of the Franconia and Kinsman Range.
The view that beats them all is the cable car ascent via the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway to the 4,200-foot peak of Cannon Mountain. This was the first such lift in America and remains one of the most thrilling. The present tram completed in the 1980s goes a mile straight up affording amazing views of the White Mountain ranges in their best fall dress. On a clear day you can see four states and Canada.
More spectacular scenery awaits on one of New England’s most beautiful scenic drives, the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112), running for 32 miles through the heart of the White Mountains from Lincoln to Conway. To access the highway, drive south from Franconia to Lincoln (17 miles), perhaps making a stop here for another birds-eye view from the Loon Mountain gondola, which bills itself as the state’s longest aerial ride. The tartan-clad competitors in New England’s largest Celtic festival, the 37th annual New Hampshire Highland Games, will add another kind of color to the area from Sept. 21 to Sept. 23.
The Rocky Gorge area where the Swift River has worn a cleft in the rock makes for a special stop along the highway. Falls Pond is a five-minute walk over the gorge via a rustic footbridge. Some other easy walks are to Boulder Loop, with a fine vista of Mt. Chocorua and the Swift River Valley and Sabbaday Falls, a picturesque series of cascades in a narrow flume. You could spend an hour here — or a day.
In Conway, the end of the drive, it’s possible to take a break aboard an old-fashioned train on the Conway Scenic Railroad. But an even more memorable ride awaits by taking Route 302, the best route back to I-93. This is the major artery of the Mount Washington Valley. It runs through busy North Conway and offers lovely detours through peaceful villages like Jackson and scenic passes like Crawford Notch or the road to Cathedral Ledge in Echo Lake State Park, a park with many leafy hiking paths. The intersection at Route 16 leads to Bretton Woods and literally one of the biggest attractions in the state, Mt. Washington.