Living just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, the White Mountains National Forest provides some of the most striking and readily accessible mountain scenery in New England. I have been visiting the National Forest for over 30 years, often with family in tow, but always keeping an eye open for photographic opportunities. I don’t pretend that this guide is in any way comprehensive, but it may give some ideas about what to expect in the different seasons and describes some of the better shooting locations accessible from the roadside or from a short hike. If you do want to explore further afield and hike into the back country, please make sure you are fully prepared with appropriate clothing, footwear, map, compass, water etc. The weather can be quite capricious, especially early or late in the season. Mobile phone and GPS service is very patchy outside of the towns.
Cascade on the Cutler River
Most of the accommodation in the White Mountains is in Lincoln on the southwest corner of the forest or in North Conway, Jackson and Bartlett on the eastern edge. NH route 112 connects the two sides of the forest. Both locations offer a wide range of accommodation, with everything from bed and breakfasts through to condos and houses. The main highway north from Boston is I-93, it’s a pretty easy highway for most of the year and will give you a roughly two and half hour drive to Lincoln. Try to avoid holiday weekends as traffic will slow down around the Boston and the bigger towns in New Hampshire that you pass.
The area is busy in winter for skiing and very busy in the fall when the region is inundated with tourists seeking a view of the foliage changing color. Parking at scenic overlooks is very limited in winter as these are typically not plowed. In the fall you will encounter many slow moving tour buses on the single lane roads. The end of March through mid May is the quiet season. The skiing is done and the summer attractions aren’t yet open. You may find some of the restaurants and cafes to be shut in this period.
There is a $3 for a one day pass or $5 seven day pass for use of the National Forest parking lots. You can pick up the pass at any of the visitor centers and at a number of the major overlooks/trail heads. If you are only visiting Franconia Notch or Crawford Notch, these state parks administered by the state of New Hampshire and no pass is needed.
I have arranged this guide into sections based on the different scenic highways through the forest. These are:
The term “Notch” was used by early pioneers to denote a gap in a mountain range that allowed a path through the mountains to be made.
Starting in Lincoln before route 112 turns into the Kancamagus highway, Loon Mountain is worth a visit. The ski gondolas operate in the summer and at the top of Loon there are great views of the surrounding countryside, some glacial caves to explore and also a cafe. Continuing on route 112 into the forest you find otter rocks. This is a nice spot to grab a few shots of cascades and rock pools on the Pemigewasset river. However it can get crowded in summer with families and children playing in the river, so if the parking lot is looking busy I would drive on by. Next up is the Lincoln Woods visitor center. This will give you another access point to the Pemigewasset. You can grab views up and down the river from the road bridge or the foot suspension bridge. The course of the river opens up towards the west and it’s quite a good spot for some late afternoon/early evening light.
View from Kancamagus Highway, early evening
You will start to ascend towards the Kancamagus pass. There are a number of overlooks going up to the pass. I generally skip the first one, unless there is some promising looking foliage color. My favorite is the second pull out. It has good views across the valley and the mountains are not so far as to be too hazy. There are some large rocks and tall grass that can be incorporated into the foreground. The light is very nice in the late afternoon and early evening. Further up the road, the highest overlook has some impressive views, but much of the landscape is at a distance and often quite hazy. There has been some die off on trees closest to the overlook and finding some interesting foreground can be a challenge.
Once you cross the high point of the pass and start your decsent, you will encounter a viewpoint fairly quickly. This viewpoint provides some very nice views down the Swift river valley. There are generally a good number of wild flowers in the late spring and summer that you can incorporate into the foreground of shots. The early evening light is good. Since the valley faces east it should be good for sunrise, but I haven’t tried it at that time yet.
As you proceed east, you will encounter the Lily pond on the left. This quite a good spot for late afternoon before the sun drops below the mountains an casts the pond into shade. This spot can be fairly buggy, so you may not want to linger if the insects are biting. Further down the Kancamagus you will encounter the Sugar Hill overlook. This has some nice views of the Swift river valley and is a good spot for foliage color in the fall.
Deeper into the Swift valley you will find the Sabbaday falls picnic area. This is one of my favorite spots. There is a short hike ⅓ mile along the Sabbaday brook to the falls. There are plenty of access points to the brook for shot of the brook flowing through the rocky riverbed. The falls them themselves are quite impressive, with a series of cascades and drops that turn though a 90 degree angle. The trail provides numerous vantage points to photograph the falls. The falls have a good flow of water throughout the year.
Sabbaday falls after heavy rain
Back on the highway, you will pass the Bear Notch road on the left. This road connects the Kancamagus with route 302 and Crawford and Pinkham notches. This road provides a scenic bypass to the built up area around North Conway. There are a number of overlooks providing some nice mountain views. The views aren’t the most dramatic, but do liven up in the foliage season. Starting from Lincoln, Bear Notch road is on the left a mile or two past the Sabbaday falls parking lot. The road is gated and closed after the first snowfall of winter.
Continuing down the Kancamagus towards North Conway you will find Rocky Gorge and Lower falls. Rocky gorge is an area of exposed granite ledge, with a small square cut gorge that the river Swift flows through. The granite ledges and bank side trees provide some foreground interest. There is bridge above the gorge that provides good views up and down the river. If you follow the trail from the other side of the bridge for a short distance, you will find a mountain pond. There is usually some good color here in the fall. I like photographing here in the morning before the sun has got too high. The rocks can be a little harsh to photograph in the middle of the day. Further down the Swift valley is Lower falls. There isn’t a waterfall, but a series of cascades with some good size rocks and boulders. It’s a pretty enough area, but can get crowded with families in the summer months due to its proximity to North Conway. In the summer months, I usually turn back at Rocky Gorge and take Bear Notch Road over to Crawford or Pinkham Notch.
When you explore the Kancamagus, keep in mind that there are no gas stations on either the Kancamagus highway or Bear Notch road.
From the end of Bear Notch road in Bartlett, take left onto NH 302. A few miles outside of Bartlett, you will find the trailhead for the Ripley falls. This is one of the biggest waterfalls in the White Mountains and well worth a visit. The trail is fairly steep near the beginning, but otherwise fairly easy, its about an hour for the round trip. At the falls, there are some good size boulders for foreground interest. During the fall the basin around the falls has good yellow/golden foliage color .
About a mile further down 302, you will come to the site of Wiley house and pond. There are some impressive views here with the mountains rising steeply from the pond. It’s not unusual for the mountain tops to be shrouded in mist, especially in the cooler months. The short walk around the pond will give you an excellent choice of views. There is good red and yellow color on the mountainside in the fall and there are wild flowers in the late spring and summer. There are also some nice stands of white birches. The pond is formed by a low wooden dam. You can get a good shot of the dam with mountains in the background by walking a little downstream of the dam. The original Wiley house was carried away in a landslide, but there is a small cafe here now and its a nice place to take some refreshments and sit on the porch absorbing the beautiful scenery.
Dam at Wiley Pond
A mile further down the road you will start the ascent through the notch itself. This provides some quite impressive scenery, with sheer cliffs rising well over a thousand feet from the roadside. There are two small parking lots on the left before you climb the hill. These give access to the Flume Cascade and the Silver Cascade. These waterfalls plunge through a series of drops over several hundred feet. You will need to cross the road and climb up on the rock ledges to get the best view. There is good color here in the fall, but the flow of water drops off considerably during the course of the summer. At the top of the hill there is another parking lot on the left. This provides a great view back through the notch. There is excellent foliage color in the fall. Unfortunately the view is due south, so lighting can be difficult in the middle of the day. On the far side of the parking lot there an entrance to a short, but steep trail to Dismal pond. Despite its name, it is a pretty little pond and worth a visit.
As you exit the notch you will see Crawford depot train station. This is one terminus for the Conway scenic railway. The station building has some interesting architecture and Saco lake opposite provides some more photo opportunities. Heading west on route 302 you will get some nice views back to the presidential mountain range. If you are lucky in the fall, you can see snow capped peaks with brightly colored foliage at the lower levels. You will also pass the landmark Mt. Washington hotel at Breton Woods, with its scenic mountain backdrop. Further along 302 you will see Base road that will take you to the Mt Washington cog railway. The railway tickets are expensive, currently $62/person, but the railway provides some impressive views if the weather is clear. Worth a stop on the way to the railway are the Ammonoosuc falls. You can park at the side of the road and a very short trail provides good access to the head and base of the falls.
If you are heading back to Lincoln, the easiest route is to take a left onto route 3 south at Twin Mountains and then merge into I-93 south. I-93 will give you a very scenic drive through Franconia notch and on to Lincoln.
From the end of Bear Notch road in Bartlett, take a right onto NH 302. As you approach North Conway, take a left onto NH 16 north. You will go past Storyland, a theme park much loved by younger children. You will go through Jackson, which has a number of covered bridges. It’s worth a brief stop. As you get away from town and begin to climb the landscape opens up. A few miles north of Jackson there is a wide pull out on the right side of the road with some good views into the Ellis river valley and nice stand of birches for some foreground interest.
Continue on 16 north to the Glen Ellis falls. The parking lot will be on the left side of the road. This is a popular spot and you my find the parking lot full later in the during the summer and fall. The short walk to the falls takes you under the road and then along the course of the Ellis river. There is plenty of photographic interest from the scenic cascades and riverside trees. You approach the falls from the top, but before you descend into the falls basin, there is an excellent view from the top across to the facing mountainside. There a number of viewpoints for the falls themselves and the Ellis river as it continues if southbound course.
A mile or two further north on 16 will bring you to the Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch camp. There is a cafeteria, gift shop and rest rooms here. There is also a short 15 minute hike along the Cutler river leading to the Crystal Cascade falls. There are couple of good vantage points to the river. Near the falls there is a bridge that provides excellent views downstream and some very pretty cascades upstream. The falls themselves provide a 100 foot total drop. The falls basin is a very scenic combination of rocky cliff face and foliage. This along with the Sabbaday falls is one of my favorite falls in the White Mountains.
Mount Washington auto road
A couple of miles further on will bring you to the Mt Washington auto road. This is a toll road - $25 for car and driver, plus $8 for each adult passenger. It’s a narrow two way road with steep drop-offs that will take you to the top of Mt. Washington. If you don’t the mind mountain driving, this road will give you superb views from the various pull-outs on the way. The drive goes well above the tree line, but there are plenty of interesting lichen covered rocks formations and boulders for foreground interest. At the top of the mountain there is a weather station, small museum, cafeteria, etc. You will likely see the cog railway train loading and unloading passengers. If you are lucky, you will see mist and clouds in the valleys below. Check the weather before you as the summit is often completely engulfed in fog and clouds. After Mt. Washington, I usually head back south on 16 to Jackson and on to my final destination for the day.
North Woodstock is a small New England off exit 33 on I-93. The Pemigewasset river runs through the middle of town and there is easy access down to the river. Fadden’s general store is worth a visit and has some interesting artifacts related to the manufacture of maple syrup and I always try to get a lunch or breakfast at Peg’s cafe. Traveling west for 7 miles on NH 112 will take you to the lost river gorge. This is a scenic walk following the path of the Lost river as disappears into various underground caves. The scenery in general is very pretty and at the further point on the walk you will see the Paradise falls. There is a $17 admission charge. A couple of miles beyond the Lost river is Beaver pond. This is very pretty pond with a mountain backdrop. There is good foliage color here in the fall. If you have time on your way back to North Woodstock you can stop by the Agassiz basin, a small set of cascades and glacial pot holes. The Agassiz basin will be on the right of the road behind a restaurant. The restaurant was shuttered the last time I went this way, but may have been re-opened since,
To visit Franconia Notch state park you will need to get back on I-93 north. I-93 runs through the middle of the park. Flanked on both sides by 4,000 ft mountains it is a very scenic drive. Within the park there are many photographic opportunities. The Flume is the best know attraction in the park. The flume is an 800 ft long gorge about 80 ft high and 15 ft wide. The Flume brook runs through the floor of the gorge. Access is provided by a series of boardwalks. The boardwalks aren’t that wide, but there are some spots where there is room to set up a tripod and not block other visitors. Inside the gorge is always cool and damp and the walls of the gorge support a wide variety of mosses, ferns and other plant life. In addition to the cascades in the gorge, the very nice Avalanche falls are at the far end of the gorge. There are viewpoints at the front and from the top of the falls. The gorge is part of a two mile hike. On the rest of the hike, you will see two covered bridges and Liberty gorge and falls. There is a $15 entrance fee for the gorge, but in my mind, it is well worth the money.
Heading a short distance north on I-93 you will reach the Basin. Walking towards the Basin you will cross the Pemigewasset river. The bridge affords good views up and down the river. The basin itself is a large glacial pothole. It’s worth a shot or two, there a limited number of vantage points. You can follow the path of the river upstream and there are a number of good photographic opportunities as the river cascades down over the with carved granite. There is another marked trail from the basin that follows the path of the Crystal cascades up to the Kinsman falls. Its fairly easy to get out on the granite ledges by the cascades for close up shots of the rock formations and good views of the surrounding country. There is water in the cascades year round, but if you can catch them after a big rainstorm the results can be spectacular. The full hike to the Kinsman falls is about a mile round trip.
Back on I-93 north, be sure to stop off at the Lafayette campground exit. There are excellent views of Cannon mountain cliffs. The foliage can be quite spectacular in the fall and if you are lucky you may get some mist or clouds near the top of the mountain. There is also the trail head to the Falling Waters trail. This is three mile round trip with a 450 ft elevation gain that will take in the Stairs falls, the Swiftwater falls and the 80 ft Cloudland falls.
Cannon Mountain in the fall
Another mile further on exit 34 will give you access to Echo lake and Bald mountain. Echo lake is used for swimming, but if you can get there early in the morning or out of season, the lake with the cliffs behind can make a good shot. The trail to Artist’s Bluff on Bald mountain is about 1 ½ mile, easy to moderate, round trip. There is a fine view from the Bluff both north and south into the notch. I have only visited during the day, but the notch is open the west at this point and I suspect would make an excellent late afternoon, early evening location. Also at exit 34 there is a recreation that leads to an overlook that faces full west and is a good spot for a colorful sunset.
For some more samples of White Mountains scenery, please feel free to visit my White Mountains photo gallery.