White Mountain Escape: Riding the Kancamagus Highway

Kancamagus Highway
At 2,855 feet, Kancamagus Pass is the highest paved public road that crosses New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

It’s early November in northern New England. The leaves have fallen, the tourists have gone home and the daylight hours have gotten very short. Then, just when I think it’s time to put the motorcycle up for the winter, it happens: Indian Summer. Warm temperatures and bright sunshine mean it’s time for one last ride. After a quick scan of the map, I decide that a ride over the Kancamagus Highway is in order.

The Kancamagus Highway is an absolutely spectacular road that twists its way through the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. In the summer it’s popular with tourists, and in the fall it’s one of New England’s great leaf-peeper drives. Most of the year spirited rides over the Kanc are tempered by traffic, but now, on a November weekday, traffic should be nonexistent.

Kancamagus Highway
Late November sunlight shines on the Kancamagus Highway.

The highway was constructed as a joint venture by the New Hampshire Department of Public Works, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the U.S. Forest Service. It opened in 1959 and takes its name from nearby Mount Kancamagus, which is named for a Native American of the same name. In English, it translates as “The Fearless One.” Kancamagus was the final sagamore (chief) of the Penacook Confederacy. In the late 1600s he tried to maintain peace between Native Americans and European settlers. Continual incursions by settlers finally caused him to “let loose the furies of war, causing much bloodshed.” After this, the tribes of the Penacook Confederacy scattered, and Kancamagus and his followers moved farther north.

Kancamagus Highway
The more gradual northern flanks of the White Mountains.

I cross the Connecticut River into Woodsville, New Hampshire, and turn onto New Hampshire Route 112, a.k.a. “The Kanc,” a few miles up the road. This western portion of the highway between Woodsville and North Woodstock is not as well known or as well traveled, and I have the road to myself. The first few miles of the highway match the Ammonoosuc River bend for bend before climbing up to Kinsman Notch. The top, at an elevation of 1,870 feet, is more than 1,200 feet higher than Woodsville, and the landscape has a decidedly alpine feel to it. There is a turnout for Beaver Pond, and I pull in to admire the scenery. It is a beautiful spot, but the concrete spillway has me questioning just what sort of beaver built this pond. From here the road crosses the Appalachian Trail before descending past the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves. The gorge is closed for the season but in the summer it’s a cool place, both literally and figuratively, where you can scramble over boulders and through caves where the river gets “lost.”

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Kancamagus Highway
Beware! North America’s largest mammal roams these parts.

North Woodstock and Lincoln straddle Interstate 93 and provide a brief departure from the scenic beauty on either side, with a plethora of tourist amenities and attractions. Soon enough, I’m crossing into the White Mountain National Forest and heading up to Kancamagus Pass. I bank the bike tightly through the famous “hairpin turn” and continue through some absolutely wonderful twisties. At the top, the trees are noticeably shorter from being battered by the wind over the long and cold winters. The White Mountains stretch out and seem to go on forever. At more than 2,800 feet, Kancamagus Pass is the highest mountain crossing in New Hampshire and the road has climbed more than 2,000 feet in the 15 miles since Lincoln. There are turnouts on either side of the summit and, looking closely, you can see that the mountain profiles are asymmetrical. The northern flanks are more gradual from being pushed around by glaciers during the last Ice Age.

Kancamagus Highway
The beautiful but treacherous waterfall at Rocky Gorge is just one of the scenic stops along the Kancamagus Highway.

Then it’s down the east side toward Conway. On the left is the Russell-Colbath House. Like the campgrounds along the road, it is closed for the winter, but I stop anyway. The house was built around 1831-1832, and has been preserved as a reminder of life here in an earlier time.

Kancamagus Highway
The Kancamagus Highway crosses the White Mountains from Woodsville to Conway, New Hampshire.

Farther on I stop at Rocky Gorge. The gorge was beautiful except for an abundance of signs telling me not to swim there. Then I read about Dorothy Sparks. She was swimming at Rocky Gorge with friends in 1942, when she fell into the falls and was pulled under the water. Locals dumped rocks and trees and brush into the river to temporarily slow the water flow. Three hours later, with the water level lower, they spotted a hand protruding from the water. Using a lasso they pulled her limp body to shore, only to discover that she was very much alive. She had been pulled into an alcove under the rocks and the frothing water contained enough air that she could breathe.

Kancamagus Highway
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

I was planning to head all the way to Conway before retracing my steps, but now I realize that the sun is setting early and I turn around to head back. Now I’m heading west and, with the sun sinking toward the horizon, I’m squinting for the first few miles. Heading up the east side, the highway plunges into shadows and the temperature drops accordingly. Making one last stop just above the hairpin turn, I look at the long shadow cast behind my bike, zip up my jacket a little tighter and tuck my gloves in a little more. This may be my final ride of the season, but I have the memories to last all winter.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Rides up through the White and Green Mountains is standard for most New Englanders, but when on 2 wheels you need to check out Bear Mountain Road. It takes off of the Kancamagus and then a once and back on Hurricane Mountain Road, which is off Rt. 302 or zip up North South Road and avoid the traffic.

  2. Hurricane Mountain Road’s pavement is so damaged by frost, it is no pleasure for sporting road bike and not knurly enough for GS/dirt bike fun. Just a bumpy ride!! I would recommend a pass on that till after repaving.

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