The gateway to the White Mountains, North Conway, New Hampshire, is quintessential New England: a village chartered in 1765 with flaming autumn maples and covered bridges. Its destination status is nothing new. In the late nineteenth century, the railroad whisked well-heeled urbanites from Boston, New York and Philadelphia into town to take in the bracing mountain air and stay the region’s grand hotels. Now it’s both a year-round hub for rugged outdoor adventures and a fine family destination.
The birthplace of American skiing
The first Scandinavian immigrants brought stiff leather boots and gumption to ungroomed, wooded trails which have transformed over time into the buffed-out resorts that ring the area: Attitash, Bretton Woods, Cranmore, and Wildcat. Long the darling of seasoned ski bums, Wildcat is finally introducing state-of-the art snowmaking this year.
If woodsy solitude is your quest, check out the vast Nordic trails at Bretton Woods, meticulously groomed and fitted with a warming yurt. Or venture into the backcountry for a taste of the region’s outstanding ski touring. The classic route is the Sherburne Trail at Pinkham Notch, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The same route takes die-hards up to Tuckerman’s Ravine for steep spring skiing (experts only). For après-ski, hit the friendly Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co, a rambling old home serving half-pound burgers and craft brews made onsite.
A stately white sentinel surrounded by wilderness, the Omni Mount Washington Resort was built in 1902 with the help of over 250 master craftsmen. Host to presidents and poets alike, its rural grandeur remains hard to resist. In addition, a number of area bed and breakfasts give a taste of classic New England.
When the snow melts and springtime arrives, the maples are tapped and sugar shacks collect buckets of sap. Ask around for their backroads locations and you can fill up with fresh syrup direct from the source.
A summer bounty
Hikes in the Whites and lazy canoe rides down the Saco River define the relaxed summers here. But there’s also a wild side. While the 500ft cliff face of Cathedral Ledge attracts pro climbers, there’s also room for newbies. Longtime local outfitter IME (International Mountain Equipment; http://www.ime-usa.com) provides instruction and offers popular summer climbing camps for kids.
In recent times, the ski resorts have buffed out their summer offerings, with mountain coasters, zip lines and mountain bike access. Attitash has added the longest single span zip line in North America. Families flock to the homespun-style theme park Storyland, known for its carved storybook characters, wooden playhouses and rides.
The northeast’s highest peak, the lofty Mount Washington (6288ft) is known for some of the wildest weather in the hemisphere. The summit observatory has clocked winds of 231mph. You can take the easy approach, via the cog railway, from the base. There’s also an auto road with swirling hairpin turns making the vertiginous climb to the bald summit. On top, visit the free Weather Discovery Center (mountwashington.org) and chat with the on-site scientist. Those really into storm tracking can plan an overnight stay.
Hiking options abound, whether it’s scaling Black Cap, a favorite day hike to a rocky summit in town, or exploring the numerous 4000ft peaks in the Presidential Range. The AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club; outdoors.org) provides information on trails and overnight hut reservations. If all this hoofing wears thin your treads, stop in at Limmer Boots (limmerboot.com), a family workshop that has been crafting custom-made hiking boots for nearly a century.
Fall foliage peaks between late September and early October, when blazing colors alight the great northern forests. Take it all in with a driving tour through the White Mountains on the Kancamagus Highway, a masterpiece of rural New England splendor. Access this 26.5-mile route that locals dub 'The Kank' from nearby Conway.
Another fall favorite is the Conway Scenic Railroad, which runs between North Conway and Bartlett. A highlight is stopping at the White Mountain Cider Company (ciderconh.com), a favorite breakfast spot that also serves warm cider donuts and sells plump pumpkins in fall.
Unexpected cold spells can throw off leaf peeping season by weeks. Those willing to play your visit by ear can time it right for peak season, but be aware that it’s the most popular time of year for visiting. To get it right, keep tabs via New Hampshire’s foliage tracker app.
Tax free or die
Tapped out on every license plate is the New Hampshire motto ‘Live Free or Die.’ One way the state actively manifests its rugged individualism is by not charging sales tax. Visitors can best take advantage by hitting Settlers’ Green, a shopping complex that offers over 60 factory outlet stores. This is the place to find deals at a number of mainstream stores and the outdoor clothing and gear to get you on your next adventure.