After a busy summer season on Cape Cod, just as the air turns crisp and the leaves begin to burn bright with the yellows and reds of autumn, Amy and I like to head north to the mountains for some hiking, mountain biking, and even some paddling. We recently took a three-night stay in Jackson, New Hampshire, where we spent the mornings and afternoons in the hills or along the Saco River, and then headed back into town for some super chill accommodations at the Snowflake Inn, one of Jackson’s many luxury inns where you can shake of the trail dust and rest your feet by a crackling fire with a glass of wine or beer.
Traveling in late September and into the first weekend in October, I have to say that the weather was damn near perfect. Although the foliage was about a week ahead of peak color, we were able to enjoy our activities in shorts (Gregg) or light wind pants (Amy), and a layering fleece that went on and off a few times throughout the day. It definitely feels like autumn, but you can still get away with pretending it’s still summer. It really is a great time to visit.
Day 0 – Arrival
Accomodations – The Snowflake Inn
The Great Room at the Snowflake Inn features a large sitting area with a fireplace, a billiard table upstairs, and several small tables for eating or gathering.
This wasn’t our first trip to Jackson, NH, but it was our first stay at the Snowflake Inn. I booked here based on a recommendation that I got many years ago, but the advice has aged well, nonetheless. The Snowflake Inn has very large guest rooms featuring a king-sized bed, gas fireplace, and an in-room jacuzzi that we did not feel the need to use. The inn has an indoor hot tub/spa the size of a small swimming pool, so we used that instead.
The Great Room or the central sitting area is seasonally decorated and features a wood-burning fireplace for maximum ambiance and mountain vibes. Coffee is available from 7am to 7pm, with tea and hot chocolate available 24 hours.
Although there are no microwaves or refrigerators within the guest rooms, there is a guest kitchen off of the Great Room that does have these amenities and guests can use the area to chill wine or microwave some popcorn.
After dropping our bags in the room, we asked the innkeeper about restaurants within walking distance and settled on the Wildcat Inn & Tavern located directly across the road.
Wildcat Inn & Tavern (Dinner) – 94 Main Street, Jackson, New Hampshire
Pork Belly Bahn Mi at the Wildcat Inn & Tavern
It’s a Wednesday evening during the shoulder season and not too busy, so we walked right in and were seated straight away. The restaurant has a bar area with high-top tables and a quieter dining area made up of a few rooms. Like most everything about Jackson, the location is chill and relaxing. It also has an amazing menu with quite a few unique specialties that won’t be found at most restaurants that bill themselves as a tavern, including some small plates and entrees with a Korean flair, one of my favorite cuisines.
After dinner, it was time to shower, grab a cup of herbal tea from the inn, and turn in. Bed comfort is a super personal preference, so my recommendation may have varying mileage, but I found them to be comfortable, with moderately firm mattresses and excellent sheets and comforters.
Day 1 – Hiking
But you can’t go hiking on an empty stomach. First, you need some breakfast. This is the one area where the Snowflake Inn is lacking, compared to some of its competition. Breakfast consists of a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and some kind of fresh baked pastry of the day. It’s decent, and it was good enough to keep us going for a few hours but it’s not a full breakfast, so consider that when making your lodging arrangements.
Jackson, NH offers some decent hiking trails close to town including ascents to the top of Mt. Washington. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is only 10 miles away. From there, there are a multitude of hiking options into the alpine zone, should you wish to challenge yourself with such a climb. Amy and I have done several of these in the past including the following:
Huntington Ravine Trail:
Widely considered the most difficult trail in the White Mountains, if not the eastern side of the country. The Huntington Ravine Trail is not a technical climbing route but does have a few sections where the exposure seems like you could get seriously hurt if you fall. It is challenging but doable for experienced hikers. However, it is NOT for young families or dogs. Don’t try.
The Huntington Ravine Trail is meant for travel in one direction – up. Due to the difficulty of the trail, descending becomes dangerous and so Huntington is usually looped with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail for descending back to Pinkham Notch.
Tuckerman Ravine Trail: This is the most popular trail to ascend Mt. Washington. You will not find solitude here, but if this is your first hike to the top and prefer to not be alone in the woods, then this is the way to go. It is not technically challenging and has great views of Wildcat Mountain once in the alpine zone.
The view from Frankenstein Cliffs
However, we have done Mt. Washington several times and instead opted to drive a bit further (25 mins from Jackson, New Hampshire) to Crawford Notch State Park. Here, we found a nice loop that proved to showcase the best of the mountains. It had everything on the checklist: waterfalls, vista views, and a steep ascent combined with a gradual descent that left the knees and ankles feeling great at the end of the day.
Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliff Loop: This 4.9-mile route takes you to the top of Frankenstein Cliffs for some fabulous views. The ascent is steep, but after the first mile of the loop, the climbing is mostly finished. After that, it’s mostly a ridge walk and a descent to Arethusa Falls – the highest waterfall in New Hampshire. Continue on the loop and when the trail forks, be sure to take the Bemis Brook Trail in order to see another cascading falls and hike alongside the brook on your way back to the car.
This was an outstanding route and recommended as a summer or autumn hike. To see more photos of this hike, visit my Smug Mug photo page.
Arethusa Falls is the highest waterfall in New Hampshire
After heading back to the inn, we took a dip in the swim spa, the unusually large hot tub, having the whole thing to ourselves. We found pool noodles in the closet and floated in circles while emptying a bottle of Prosecco.
Red Fox Bar & Grille – 49 Rte 16, Jackson, New Hampshire
For dinner, we headed over to the Red Fox Bar & Grille, a large restaurant that packs a crowd, even on weeknights. We arrived early, so it was not too crowded, but the evening prior the lot was full, so be sure to join the waitlist online if going during prime dinner hours. Although the space is large, they do a good job of breaking it up with walls and booths to prevent it from getting too loud in there. We ordered wings and steaks with draft beers, all of which were excellent. The menu is basic meats and sides, but what they have on offer is done well.
After dinner, we returned to the Snowflake Inn, opened a bottle of red wine, and played a couple of games of pool at the billiard table, a nice amenity that few other inns will have. Then we went to the fitness center not to work out, but to hang out in the massage chair for a few minutes.
One more note about the Snowflake Inn. It has a great workout area. This was a pretty active trip, so I did not use the space to work out. However, this area is excellent for an inn/hotel and contains everything needed for a full-body workout, including free weights, bench, cable-cross system, and high-end cardio equipment.
Day 2 – Biking and Stand-Up Paddling
With the weather in the low 60s, it was a perfect day for getting out on the trail and then catching the current down the Saco River. We chose North Conway’s East Side Trails due to their proximity to the river, making an easy transition for the day’s biathlon. The East Side Trails are conveniently located behind Walmart, and you can park in the plaza lot and ride from there. The trail network is maintained by the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA) and includes trail signage with the familiar rating system used at ski areas. 20% of the trails are easy (green dot), 60% moderate (blue square), and 20% difficult (black diamond).
We stayed on relatively easy terrain, using the Pillar to Pond and Pudding Pond Trails. Both have pretty good flow and a number of bog bridges that keep you from getting too muddy and also increase the complexity a bit. We really were not up for a steep climb, so this mostly flat trail checked the box for us.
After about 90 minutes of riding, we loaded the bikes and drove 4 miles to Saco Bound Outdoors in Center Conway to rent stand-up Paddleboards for a bit. We thought about bringing our own, but the price was dirt cheap at $25 per person including a ride back to the launch.
Paddling the Saco River really doesn’t involve much paddling at all. The current does all of the work and you just need to steer as you make your way downstream. Given that it was a Friday afternoon on the last day of September, we had the river to ourselves. We literally saw no other people on the approximately 75 minute journey. We did however, see a few trout in some of the deeper spots under out boards. We beached the paddleboards about halfway through and enjoyed snacks and beer in the afternoon sunshine. It was a great end to our outdoor adventures.
Saco Bound Outdoors also rents canoes and kayaks, so if stand-up paddleboarding is not your thing, then you have options. Just be aware that the river tends to be low in the summer and autumn and you may have to drag a kayak through a few shallow spots. We were standing on the nose of our boards in a few areas to keep the fin from scraping.
Shovel Handle Pub – 357 Black Mountain Road, Jackson, New Hampshire
Dinner was not within walking distance on this day. We drove, albeit a short drive, to the base of Black Mountain Ski Area where we got burgers at the Shovel Handle Pub. This was a repeat visit for us. We had been here several years ago on a previous visit to Jackson. The pub gets its name from an old ski lift in the 1930s and 1940s that had actual shovel handles hanging from the overhead cable. Grab the shovel handle and up you go. The menu serves pub classics and New England comfort food like Yankee Pot Roast, Lobster Mac and Cheese, and Chicken Pot Pie. The burgers were perfectly adequate. Not great, but not bad, either. Live music is featured on weekends and the pub overall has a cool, barn-like vibe with a large fireplace. I would recommend this restaurant for a come-as-you-are, sweatshirt and baseball hat kind of evening.
Day 3 – Departure
With a 4.5-hour drive back to Cape Cod ahead of us, we only had a few hours to enjoy the town before leaving. We decided to get a full breakfast and skipped the yogurt parfait at the Snowflake Inn. We walked across the street to Yesterdays, a full-service breakfast diner. Like most diners, the coffee was terrible. The eggs and pancakes were pretty good, though. Get there prior to 9am on weekends to avoid waiting for a table.
We got decent coffee afterward at Autumn Nomad Café, where they serve gourmet and specialty coffee. They also serve food including breakfast sandwiches and burritos, so this is a great option for a hot breakfast as well.
Through the month of October, the businesses in Jackson participate in an event called Return of the Pumpkin People. Each business creates a scene with people or animals made with pumpkins or gourds. It’s pretty neat and we walked around the town checking out some of the creative scenes. The most elaborate, and best, in my opinion, was from the Snowflake Inn which created quite a few characters from the Fraggle Rock muppet series. They even had the theme music playing in the background. Other scenes included ET, Peanuts, and the Three Little Pigs, amongst others. It’s a cool thing to check out while walking around town and drinking coffee.
The Return of the Pumpkin People can be seen around Jackson Village through the month of October.
One thing I can say about Jackson, New Hampshire is that it’s just about the quaintest place on earth. Going there, you will feel like you are on a movie set the entire time. In terms of ambiance, historical preservation, and a relaxing vibe, they nailed it. Be sure to stay here the next time you plan a trip to the White Mountains. You won’t regret it.
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