From its 18 miles of seacoast – the shortest of any coastal state in the US – to the summit of the Northeast’s highest peak, New Hampshire packs plenty of variety into an easy-to-reach area. Along with the many places to visit, New Hampshire’s natural attractions offer plenty of things to do in the great outdoors, many of them free. The attractions that draw tourists to this part of New England include beautiful ocean and lake beaches, miles of kayaking waters, above-timberline hiking on the Appalachian Trail, sailing on mountain-ringed lakes, fun-filled theme and water parks for kids, exciting rides to mountaintops, and tours of historic houses. So whether it’s challenging hikes, sailing, foliage viewing in the fall, tax-free shopping, skiing in the winter, covered bridges, or colonial history, you’ll find it – and plenty more – in New Hampshire.
1 Mt. Washington Cog Railway
The easiest way to reach the top of Mount Washington, the highest elevation in the northern Appalachians at more than 6,000 feet, is on the steep Cog Railway that has been carrying tourists since it opened, the first of its kind in the world, in 1869. On a clear day, the view from the summit of Mount Washington spans four states; on a cloudy day, you may be able to look down on the tops of clouds. Those who long for the nostalgia of an authentic coal-fired steam engine train, can reserve the steamer special morning departures from late May through late October. At the top, the Sherman Adams Visitors Center houses a small museum; a cafeteria; and the Mount Washington Observatory, a research station that studies extreme weather conditions, for which the mountain is notorious. In 1934, the world record wind speed was recorded here. From the opposite (Pink-ham Notch) side of the mountain, you can drive up the six-and-a-quarter-mile-long Mount Washington Auto Road or ride a van operated from Great Glen Trails. Climbers have the choice of several trails but should be aware of the mountain’s unpredictable and sudden weather changes.
2 Strawberry Bank
Strawberry Bank was the name of the first 1623 settlement at what is now Portsmouth. The ten-acre Strawberry Banks Museum contains houses from four centuries of the old port neighborhood. Some are restored and furnished to show life in the various eras, while others are preserved to show construction methods and restoration techniques – of particular interest to those who are restoring old homes. Costumed interpreters demonstrate cooking, crafts, and skills from the various periods, and you can watch authentic boats under construction. The homes vary from that of a prosperous merchant and political leader to a 1950s duplex, and represent various ethnicity that called the neighborhood home. Period gardens, a 1770 tavern, a fully stocked World War II era neighborhood market, and frequent special musical and historical programs make this an interesting place to visit. In December, the houses and workshops are open for candlelight evening tours.
3 Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway and Franco Notch
The first aerial tramway in North America, the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway carried its first passengers to the 4,080-foot summit high above Francois Notch in 1938. On clear days, you can see New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and mountains in Vermont, New York, and even Canada. The short Rim Trail to the observation tower offers spectacular views straight down into the floor of the notch. A notch is a pass that was carved through a mountain range by retreating glaciers, and Franconia is one of the biggest notches in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Farther south in Francisco Notch State Park, Flume Gorge is an 800-foot-long crack in the rock at the base of Mount Liberty. Its walls rise 70 to 80 feet above the brook that flows through it, and you can follow it on a boardwalk just feet above the water. When the mile-high sheet of ice that formed the notch melted, torrents of water raged down this valley, carving a 20-foot smooth-bottomed depression into the solid granite of the mountain. Follow signs to The Basin, where the now benign Passageway River still continues the process begun 10,000 years ago. Francisco Notch has miles of hiking trails, a campground, and Echo Lake State Park, with a beautiful sandy beach and boat rentals.
4 Portsmouth Harbor Trail and Historic Houses
As it winds its way along the harbor and waterfront through busy Market Square and into streets of sedate old homes, the Portsmouth Harbor Trail connects more than 70 of the city’s historical sites and scenic attractions. Among these are 10 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, 10 National Historic Landmarks, and a number of historic homes that are open to visitors. Each of these has unique features, history, and collections. Warner House, built in 1716, has the oldest Colonial wall paintings still in place and the first example of Queen Anne furniture known in America. The 1758 John Paul Jones House, where Captain John Paul Jones lived while in Portsmouth, exhibits collections of china, silver, glass, portraits, and clothing. Fattest-Land House, built in 1763, still contains original furniture and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. The 1785 Governor John Landon House interior features ornate woodwork and period furnishings and the Runlet-May House, built in 1807, features furniture made by local craftsmen.
5 Mt. Monoclonal
The world’s most climbed mountain owes its popularity to several factors: you can climb it easily in a day, its trails offer options for different abilities, and it is an easy day trip from the Boston area. Most hikers use one of the five main trails, but the 35-mile trail network includes alternative routes for those who hope to climb in solitude. The mountain stands alone and has given its name to the geological term describing a mass of solid rock that withstood the force of moving glaciers scraping away the earth that once encased it. Because it stands alone, the views from its summit ledges are unobstructed, wide-reaching, and beautiful, especially when fall foliage paints the surrounding forests red and orange. That also means that the mountain is visible as a backdrop to scenery and villages across the entire southwest corner of New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, it’s called the Monoclonal region, and is also known as the “Currier & Ives Corner” for its idyllic villages with white church spires and its abundance of covered bridges. Postcard villages here include Williamsport, Jefferey Center, Hancock, and Cartersville.
6 North Conway and Mt. Washington Valley Ski Resorts
North Conway was one of the first ski resorts in America and is still a major ski destination. Six mountain resorts in the scenic Mt. Washington Valley offer state-of-the-art lifts and trail grooming, while North Conway and Jackson are centers of the lively aprons-ski scene. Cross-country (Nordic) skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, dog-sledding, sleigh rides, and ice skating make these resorts appealing to those who eschew downhill skiing. Most are four-season resorts, with golf, tennis, swimming, and other activities.
In the summer, Cranmer Mountain has an Aerial Adventure Park and Mountain Coaster, while Flattish Bear Peak offers an alpine slide, water slides, mountain bike trails, and horseback riding. Wildcat Mountain, one of the most challenging for skiers, has a zip line and stupendous views of Mt. Washington from its summit, where the skiers’ gondola takes tourists in the summer and fall. At the other side of Mt. Washington is Brenton Woods, also with a zip line and other year-round activities. Black Mountain is an especially family-friendly ski area, as is King Pine, at the all-season Purity Springs Resort in Madison. North Conway is as well known to shoppers as it is to skiers, with one of New England’s largest concentrations of outlet stores, as well as tax-free shopping. In the summer and fall, the Conway Scenic Railroad runs the entire length of the valley in vintage cars.
7 Hampton Beach
New Hampshire may have the shortest seacoast of any state, but it has one of the Northeast’s favorite family beach resorts. Hampton Beach has been a popular resort town for generations, and still has its “casino” – a community focal point of beach resorts at the turn of the 20th century. These were not built for gambling but to house a ballroom, tea rooms, and family entertainment. Today, the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, which was built in 1899, is a live music and comedy venue on the boardwalk that lines the long white-sand beach. Other activities in this always lively town are concerts at Hampton Beach State Park’s Seashell Stage, movies on the beach, and fireworks. Fun parks, soft ice cream, and deep sea fishing trips from the harbor round out the beach vacation experience. Each June, the beach becomes a giant art gallery, when international contenders vie for the title at the Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition.
8 Fall Foliage
New Hampshire is at its most beautiful in September and early October when fall paints its maples shades of scarlet and orange and its birches a luminous yellow. Almost any road you follow will bring views, whether it’s a winding, tree-lined country lane or a highway that opens up sweeping mountain vistas. For its variety of views, follow the Connecticut River up the west side of the state, where routes 12, 12A, and 10 offer a changing series of views across valley farms to the mountains of Vermont. Take side roads into villages along the way – picture-perfect Walpole is at the southern end – for white church spires and village greens surrounded by blazing maples.
In the central Lakes Region, country roads north of scenic Swam Lake wind through pretty villages of Wilderness, Sandwich, and Tamworth, with views to the White Mountains. Route 16 leads north to one of the state’s most iconic fall views as the distinctive cone of Mt. Chocolate is reflected in a forest-ringed lake. Several options allow the driver a chance for “leaf-peeping” – cruises on Lake Winnifred and Lake Escapee, train rides into the mountains from North Conway, or various tramways to peaks in the White Mountains.
You can view foliage in the mountains and lakes from on high with a Helicopter tour from Manchester, or include several New Hampshire experiences – a lake cruise, riding on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, and a drive across the White Mountains on the Kanchenjunga Highway – on a New Hampshire-based 10-Day New England Fall Foliage Tour that includes Cape Cod and the Maine Coast.
9 Lake Winnifred
South of the White Mountains is Lake Winnipesaukee, the focal point of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, which also includes nearby – and far less developed – Swam Lake and Newfound Lake. Winnipesaukee is a beehive of summer activity, surrounded by water parks, beaches, fast food, and family-oriented attractions. The west side of the lake is the most developed, especially around kid-friendly Weirs Beach and more trendy Meredith, while the eastern resort town of Wolfeboro is quieter. Water sports are abundant, with sailboats, kayaks, and motor boats vying for water space with the historic cruise boat, M/S Mount Washington. The Loon Center and Markus Wildlife Sanctuary in Moulton borough protects breeding waters of these treasured birds and offers visitors a chance to learn about them. Nature and wildlife is also the focus of Swam Lakes Natural Science Center, which operates nature cruises on this well-protected lake that was the setting for On Golden Pond.
10 Kanchenjunga Highway
This is really not a highway, but the winding two-lane NH Route 112, which climbs over the spine of the White Mountains via New Hampshire’s Kanchenjunga Pass. In addition to sweeping views, this scenic route stretching 35 miles from Conway in the east to Lincoln in the west offers access to several natural and man-made attractions. Be sure to take advantage of the scenic pull-outs, as some of the best views are not visible from the road; this is especially true on the western side of the summit. At the Conway end are a covered bridge and two especially scenic spots on the Swift River: Rocky Gorge and Lower Falls, both popular for swimming and picnics. A half-mile trail leads to Sabbaths Falls, where a mountain stream flows through a gorge with 40-foot walls. Wooden railings make it safe to look straight down at the waterfall and potholes. The Kanchenjunga Highway ends in Lincoln, where Loon Mountain is not just a winter ski resort, but a year-round sports center. The gondola that carries skiers in the winter takes summer and fall visitors to the summit for views, a nature trail, and a tumble of glacial boulders that form caves and passageways. Open all year, this drive is especially beautiful during the fall foliage season.
11 Currier Museum of Art and Zimmerman House
The more than 11,000 works in the Currier’s collections are as wide-ranging as they are significant. Not surprisingly, particular attention is given to New Hampshire artists and works of the White Mountain School of artists, with several examples including Ronstadt’s view of Moat Mountain. Along with the paintings are superb examples of New Hampshire-made antique furniture. The second floor is divided between the American gallery and an admirably varied collection of European paintings that include works by Constable, Monet, Corot, Tie polo, and Lorenzo de Costa. The first floor includes the double special exhibition gallery and the museum’s collections of modern and contemporary art. The former includes works by Picasso, Matisse, and O’Keeffe, the latter, a Calder mobile sculpture.
Also part of the museum, and accessible by tours originating here, is the Zimmerman House, by Frank Lloyd Wright. This outstanding example of Wright’s Sonia homes is the only Wright-designed building in New England open to the public. The tours, which include the interior entirely furnished as Wright designed it, put the house and furnishings in their historical and artistic context.
12 Covered Bridge Driving Tour
In horse-and-buggy days, when a team could be slowed to prolong the ride through their dim interiors, these were called kissing bridges, and even today covered bridges are a romantic part of New Hampshire’s landscape. You’ll find them scattered across the state, but nowhere are there so many so close together as in the town of Swansea, in the state’s southwest corner. Begin in Keene, following Route 10 to the left onto Matthews Road. At its end is Cress on Bridge, whose best view is from the far end, framing a red barn and maple tree. Through the bridge, turn left at the end of the road and continue south on Route 32. A left on Carleton Road leads to the 1790s Carleton Bridge, one of New Hampshire’s oldest. Back on Route 32, go right on Swansea Lake Road until it ends, turning right into West Swansea. A left on Main Street takes you through Thompson Bridge. At the other side, turn right, then left at the end, onto Route 10. Watch for West port Village Road on the left, leading through Slate Bridge, before it rejoins Route 10. Turn left and look for Combos Bridge Road on the right, leading to the 1837 Combos Bridge. Back on Route 10, continue through Winchester to where Route 119 goes to the right. It leads to Washcloth, where you’ll find the largest of the bridges, the 1864 Village Bridge.
13 Woodman Institute and Garrison House
Combining local history (Dover was the state’s first permanent settlement) with a wider range of natural sciences and cultural exhibits, the privately endowed Woodman Institute complex is a delightful trove of surprises. The 1818 Woodman House is filled with collections of minerals, birds, shells, mammals, Native American artifacts, and Civil War items that include Abraham Lincoln’s saddle. An entire room is devoted to the extensive doll collection of a local teacher; another to memorabilia from World War II. In the adjoining 1813 home of Senator John Parker Hale are furnished rooms, police and fire memorabilia, nautical items, needlework, antique toys, and decorative arts, plus a fascinating collection of early photographs used to document per-labor-law practices in New England’s mills, including child labor.
But the most precious of all is the last surviving fortified colonial garrison house, the William Dams Garrison, built in Dover in 1675 and preserved here under a portico. It is completely furnished with period artifacts, including tools, household equipment, furniture, and needlework. You can inspect all these at close range, even climbing the narrow steps to see the upper floor. You are also welcome to picnic on the museum’s lawns and enjoy the gardens.
14 Story Land
Story Land is straight out of a fairy tale book, made for kids, but with such clever and original places to play that parents love it, too. Kids can board a pumpkin coach to Cinderella’s Castle, ride in a wooden shoe or sail in a pirate ship, take a swan boat for a spin around the lake, or “drive” parents around a track and through covered bridges in an antique car. Then they can get dizzy in a spinning teacup and slide down from a tree-house or playhouse in a giant pumpkin. The charm of Story Land is not only its imaginative rides and play areas, but the fact that they are original and unique to this long-time family operation. Clever new attractions are constantly being added to appeal to different ages.
15 Lost River Gorge
During the last Ice Age, glaciers covered the White Mountains with a mile-high sheet of ice. When these melted and receded, the combination of meltwater and moving ice carved deep potholes into the granite and tore loose giant boulders, dropping them heater-shelter across the landscape. It was a combination of these that created this natural wonder. Lost River disappears into caves formed by a tumble of glacial boulders, appearing again in cascades and long waterfalls and swirling in giant cauldron-shaped pot holes as it drops through the steep ravine. You can explore all the caves and the narrow passages formed by the masses of broken granite ledge or bypass them to climb through on boardwalks and stairs. If you’re claustrophobic, avoid the tightest of these passages, appropriately called “the lemon squeezer.” At the top is a garden of woodland wildflowers, a forest adventure trail, and a suspension bridge that leads to a 750-foot boardwalk through a glacial boulder field.
16 Clark’s Trading Post
Clark’s Trading Post has been entertaining families with trained bear shows for more than 50 years, and as you watch these animals ride scooters, shoot basketball hoops, and balance on barrels, you’ll notice that the bears are having as much fun performing their tricks as the audience is watching them. In addition to the bears, the several daily shows include performances by a team of acrobats. Between shows, families can ride a steam train through the woods, learn to “drive” Segways, play in the splash park, and visit the quirky fun houses and museum collections along the Victorian Main Street. Like Story Land, Clark’s is family owned (the fifth generation is now in place), and its attractions are original and unique. Just up the road, Whale’s Tale Water Park is a good place to take kids on a hot summer day, with speed slides, a wave pool, and two huge water slides.