North Conway, New Hampshire, is a favorite destination of New Englanders that want to escape city life for a few days and unwind. Its popularity is not unwarranted. I have been coming to North Conway since my teenage years. First as a skier, then a rock climber, hiker, and later on in life a father just trying to get away with my family on a few short outings. This has always been the place that I could count on to cleanse my harried soul and it never disappoints.
North Conway is located in the Mount Washington Valley, a nearly year-round vacation destination. There are countless possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast looking for a challenge and just as many for families that have less ambitious goals. As a New England mountain town, you can imagine that your menu of activities will be influenced by the season, and in this article, we will focus on the summer and fall seasons. Below are some places that we enjoyed on a recent long weekend to the area, as well as some favorites from the past.
Conway is located at the eastern terminus of the Kancamagus Highway, known locally as “the Kanc”, a 35-mile scenic byway that runs through the White Mountain National Forest and provides visitors with an array of hiking trailheads, scenic vistas, mountain swimming streams, and National Forest campgrounds at which to play. There are several hiking trails on the highway that are sure to please any ability level. There is a $5 day-use fee that is transferrable to all parking areas along the Kanc.
Also located in the area is Mount Washington, the highest point in the northeast and home to so much exposed granite that your feet will almost certainly hate you by the end of the hiking day, no matter how great your boots are. Climbing Mount Washington is a bucket list trip for any remotely serious hiker. If you don’t mind a long day, some blisters, and sore muscles the next day, there should be a trail for your ability level, given that you have some hiking experience.
Visitors should check-in at the White Mountain National Forest Ranger Station prior to hiking to obtain the latest information and weather conditions for each location.
Sabaday Falls, Kanc (1 Mile Out and Back, Easy) ⚤
If you are short on time or hiking with small children, older parents, or you just want to see a waterfall without the long hike, then this is your place. The Sabaday Falls Trail is a wide, well-maintained path that climbs 1/2 mile to the falls and is suitable for all ability levels. Due to the relative ease in accessing the falls, this is one of the most heavily trafficked trails along the Kanc. Do not expect solitude. The upper cascades and the flume is viewed from a series of staircases and platforms, so there is not much physical agility required as long as you stick to the path. Visitors often explore the pools above the falls, but beware of any high water conditions or fast-moving currents, especially in spring and early summer. Swimming in any of the pools, above or below the falls is prohibited.
My daughter Zoe used to love to "plop rocks" when she was little. Here she is in 2005, and again in 2019 at Sabaday Falls, located off the Kancamagus Highway.
Mount Potash, Kanc (4 Miles Out and Back, Moderate Difficulty)
Located across the Kanc from the Passaconaway Campground is Potash Mountain, standing tall at 2700 feet. The Mount Potash trail is the route to the summit. The trail is moderate in pitch, with some decent incline near the summit. But with such a short trail, it is doable by most folks that are adequately equipped (read: hiking shoes/boots, water, at least one extra layer of clothing). There is also a river crossing near the beginning of the trail. In late summer and fall, it should be no big deal, but might be a problem for some during the snow-melt seasons, with higher, faster and colder water.
Huntington Ravine Trail, Mount Washington (9.5 Mile Loop, Very Difficult)
Looking for a challenge? The Huntington Ravine Trail is considered by many to be the most difficult trail in the east. It is for experienced adventurers only. Once in the alpine zone (above treeline), the route is slow with considerable lengths of scrambling where handholds are necessary and exposure could create anxiety in less experienced hikers. For those up to it, you will be rewarded with incredible views of the valley below and Wildcat Mountain in the distance. Because of its difficulty, this is one of the least frequented trails on Mount Washington. My wife and I hiked it on Columbus Day Weekend a few years ago and we encountered only 5-6 others on the trail.
Also due to its difficulty and pitch, this is a ONE WAY trail. There will be a point of no return where you will not be able to climb back down, so be sure of your abilities prior to setting out. Once you reach the summit, return via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, along with the hordes of others. The serenity is over.
Tuckerman Ravine Trail/Lions Head Trail (8 Mile Out and Back, Difficult)
The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is the most heavily trafficked trail to the summit, although breaking off onto Lions Head offers some respite from the crowds. The trail is not technical, and besides being a long slog to the top, it is doable for most athletic types. Wear good hiking shoes with thick soles. You will be walking on quite a bit of irregularly shaped rock.
Diana’s Baths (1.3 Miles Out and Back, Easy) ⚤
Just outside of North Conway is Diana’s Baths, a popular spot where visitors encounter cascading falls and naturally formed swimming holes along Lucy Brook. It is named after Diana, the Roman goddess of nature, and one can imagine a place like this nestled in some divine spot on Mount Olympus. Luckily, in this case, you won’t have to travel that far. The area was once home to a sawmill in the late 19th century (very ungod-like), then a three-story guesthouse as tourism in the area expanded. Those buildings are gone now, but what remains is a prime recreation area that is great for families to visit and enjoy. Visitors can walk on the rocks and wade in the natural pools, picnic, and enjoy some time outdoors. It’s a great place to explore. Plan on this trip taking a couple of hours, most of that just rock-hopping and hanging out.
As with any outdoor mountain activity, North Conway has it in spades. We found this excellent series of mountain bike trails on a recent trip to the area.
Marshall Conservation Area
Located on West Side Road just behind town, Marshall has 10 miles of maintained single and double track. Trails are not too technical, but some do have a few nice features like banked turns and jumps. The initial entry onto the trails is about 1/4 mile of incline, and it’s a gasser. But after that, it’s easy to pick up speed and enjoy some wind in your face. On this trip, we forgot to pack helmets, so stuck to the easier trails and kept it pretty tame.
Really, just about anywhere is great for spreading out and digging into a packed lunch. The top of any hiking trail is sure to provide great views, but if you are with a young family or elders, you might need to keep it close to the road. On this trip, we visited two great picnic spots.
Echo Lake State Park ⚤
Located just west of town, between Marshall Conservation Area and Diana’s Baths, is this great little state park. Swimming is the main draw here in the summer, but there is also a nature walk that circles the lake, and some additional hiking up to Whitehorse Ledge, the predominant feature that you will see while at the park. The park has a large picnic area with tables and charcoal grills, where you can sit, relax, and watch Whitehorse reflecting off the water of Echo Lake. The trail around the lake has no elevation, but I cannot call it flat. There are lots of exposed tree roots, taking down the occasional nature walker that cannot look up from their phone. Watch your step.
Lower Falls Recreation Site ⚤
This is the most popular destination on the Kancamagus Highway and for good reason. Although you will not find solitude here, what you will find is an incredible swimming area during the summer season. In the autumn as the water becomes lower, more water smoothed rock is exposed, giving visitors plenty of room to spread out and walk around, take in the view of the Swift River, and enjoy the autumn breeze - not hot, but not yet chilly either. My 15-year-old son had a blast practicing parkour moves on the rocks, hopping from boulder to boulder and sliding sideways down the smooth rock faces. As far as picnicking goes, enjoy lunch out on the rocks or at one of the covered picnic tables.
Echo Lake with nearby Cathedral Ledge
It's easy to see why its called Echo Lake
Lower Falls on the Kanc is extremely popular. But we were still able to spread out and not feel crowded.
Amy and Troy rock-hopping at Lower Falls on the Kancamagus Hwy
Of course, the entire 34 miles of the Kanc is scenic, but if you just want to catch a cheap view from the top without having to travel or work for it, then there’s an option for that, too.
Cathedral Ledge ⚤
This 500-foot cliff behind the center of town is popular with rock climbers, and in fact, is where I learned to climb back in the 1990s and did so for a few years. This was my favorite spot to climb, and to this day brings back some serious nostalgia, the tingling in my belly still strong and the sense that a little piece of me is still there on the other side of the chain-link fence that separates the tourists from the climbers.
But you won’t have that problem. You will simply be treated with a stellar view of the Mount Washington Valley. The main viewing area overlooks North Conway and the Saco River and there is a good view of Mount Cranmore Ski Resort. You can also walk along the paths and onto some exposed rock where you can see the adjacent Whitehorse Ledge. It's a bit congested up here, too. Its the price you pay for easy access. Hike up Whitehorse and you will have it mostly to yourself.
The next time you visit the mountains of New Hampshire, I hope you have as great of a time as I always do. I'm looking forward to returning already.
What are some of your favorite places near here?
⚤ Restrooms or vault toilets available