White Mountains, NH
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White Mountains, NH

Scaling Mt. Washington: a peak experience for the whole family.

Presidential Summit

Mount Washington, copyright Mt.
Washington Auto Road

You don't have to be "Mountain Family Robinson" to enjoy New Hampshire's great outdoors. Adventures in the scenic White Mountains can be as rugged -- or laid back -- as you like.

There's hiking, biking, river paddling, and trekking up Mt. Washington, the granddaddy of the Presidential Range. And when little feet need a break, head to Santa's Village, Story Land, or any number of local theme parks sure to keep spirits soaring.

Mt. Washington or Bust!

The first order of business? Checking out the amazing view from atop Mt. Washington, the northeast's highest peak (6,288 feet). On a clear day, you can see the Atlantic, the Adirondacks in upstate New York, and the Canadian province of Quebec. There are four ways to get to the summit. Pick the one that matches your family's stamina and attention span:

Mount Washington Observatory
at Summit, copyright Mt.
Washington Auto Road

  • Mt. Washington Auto Road. Like navigating switchback turns on steep grades? You'll love the 8-mile drive up this twisty road. Plan on 35-45 minutes roundtrip, including time for picture-taking. If it's a yucky day (but not raining), go anyway. Your kids will feel like they're flying through the clouds. Plus, you'll earn the right to affix one of those "This car climbed Mt. Washington" bumper stickers to the car.
  • Mt. Washington Auto Road Stages. Leave the driving to someone else. "Stages" are vans navigated by well-informed guides, who spout facts and figures on mountain wildlife, weather, and terrain, as well as the history of the road, which opened in 1861 as a carriage route. The round trip takes 1.5 hours, including a few picture-taking stops and a 30-minute stay at the summit.

Cog Railroad at Bretton Woods,
copyright Mt. Washington VCC

  • Mount Washington Cog Railway. It's like a slow-motion roller coaster ride headed straight for the clouds, complete with noise and soot. Be forewarned: Young children may squirm on this three-hour round trip excursion.
  • Hiking. In-shape families with older kids and lots of hiking experience will want to conquer Mt. Washington on foot. Most popular is the 4.5-mile Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which begins at the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (2,032 feet). Start your climb early in the day -- it takes 4-5 hours to get to the top and 2-3 to get down. Talk to experts at the visitor center about weather conditions, appropriate gear, and safety issues before embarking on this adventure. As the sign says, "The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."

Tyke Hikes

Climbing to the top of Mt. Washington is by no means the only hiking adventure in town.The White Mountains National Forest has more than 1,200 miles of trails, 350 of which are maintained by the AMC. Several family-friendly routes start at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, where the AMC offers nature talks, adventure programs, and workshops on family hiking, backpacking, and camping basics. Here are a few of the easiest trails:

  • Lost Pond Trail. The goal is reaching lovely Lost Pond. Along the way, you'll see beaver dams, beaver homes, and even some moose wading in the swamp. The half-mile hike takes 20-30 minutes (one-way).
  • Square Ledge Trail. The prize at the end of this hike (also 20-30 minutes one-way) is the incredible view from a rock outcropping that's 500 feet above Pinkham Notch, with Mt. Washington looming above.
  • Crystal Cascade. For a quick thrill, take a 15-minute walk (round trip is less than a mile) on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Crystal Cascade, a take-your-breath-away waterfall.

Not-So-Rough Riding

You don't have to be an "extreme" athlete to mountain bike here. The "Green Trails" at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center (at the base of Mt. Washington) are ideal for families -- smooth, wide, and not too hilly. Nearly 25 miles of scenic trails (ski trails in winter) loop through fields, woodlands, beaver bogs, and streams. Mt. Washington and the Presidential Mountain Range are almost always in view, too. Lessons and mountain bike rentals are available.

Chill Out in the River

Need some lolling-around time? Head for the crystal-clear, shallow waters of the Saco River. This wide, calm, sandy-bottom river has dozens of places to stop for picnic lunches and refreshing swims. It's also a great place for canoeing and kayaking. Saco Bound's 7-mile day trip works well for most families -- not too long, not too short, and all the paddling is downstream.

Theme Park Escapes

Okay, as awesome as your days in the "wilderness" may be, at some point, someone's going to want to switch gears. That's when the theme parks and family attractions come in handy. Most of the following popular attractions are located in Mt. Washington Valley, less than 20 minutes from North Conway, the area's tourist town:

  • Story Land. For 45 years, this charming park has entertained kids who tag along on their parents' outdoor adventures. The characters, rides, live shows, and play areas are all based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall near the front entrance and the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe is just down the lane. Don't miss the chance to ride in Cinderella's coach, "fly" in a wooden shoe, and squirt your spouse at the Octopus Sprayground.
  • Santa's Village. Spend a summer day in a winter wonderland with Santa, his elves, and the reindeer. The park's 13 rides include a Skyway Sleigh monorail and the Yule Log flume. At Santa's Workshop, the kids can be Santa's Helpers and make their own gifts -- candles, wreaths, dolls, teddy bear clothes, and wooden toys.
  • Attitash Bear Peak. Slippery thrills include two alpine slides, four water slides, and a delightful kiddie pool. If that's not enough action, there's also a climbing wall, bungee-trampoline jumping, a brand new skate park, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
  • Heritage New Hampshire. This interactive time-travel adventure, great for a rainy day, takes you on a journey through 350 years of New Hampshire history. Constantly changing theater sets, talking mannequins, live actors, and lots of special effects do a good job of keeping young explorers interested.
  • Weather Discovery Center. Finally, a place where kids can get answers to all those questions about weather. The big draw? The Wind Room, an exhibit area that re-creates what it felt like to be stationed atop Mt. Washington in 1934, when the world's highest wind speed (231 mph) was recorded. The kids can also "play" weather forecaster in front of a TV monitor with all the necessary props.

Outlet Shopping

If the little ones can visit theme parks, why can't the grownups go outlet shopping? Between the Settlers' Green Outlet Village Plus and three Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, there are more than 75 nationally recognized off-price stores in North Conway. Happy bargain hunting!


Type of trip: Outdoor adventure, theme parks, shopping

Best ages: 8 and up for challenging outdoor fun; 4 and up if nature trails and theme parks are more your family's speed

Ideal trip length: 4-5 days

Distance: Portland, Maine (70 miles); Boston (150 miles); Hartford (235 miles); New York City (325 miles)

Best time to go: June, July, and August for warmest weather and attractions in full operation. Stay away in May -- it's black fly season. For the best leaf-peeping, go in September and October.

Weather: 76/55 degrees June through August. Temperatures at the summits are 20-30 degrees cooler than in the valleys. Always pack sweatshirts and windbreakers. Mt. Washington is known for extreme weather. Check forecasts before heading up for a hike, drive, or train ride.

Lodging: Mt. Washington Valley has campgrounds, inns, B&Bs, motor inns, lodges, and resorts.

Squirm Factor: Some

If You Go...

Tuckerman Ravine,
copyright Mt.
Auto Road

Mt. Washington Auto Road at Great Glen Route 16, Pinkham Notch in the town of Gorham Phone: 603-466-3988


Mt. Washington Cog Railway Route 302, Bretton Woods Phone: 603-278-5404


Mt. Washington Summit Museum Mt. Washington summit Phone: 603-466-3388


Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Route 16, Gorham Phone: 603-466-2721


Great Glen Outdoor Center Route 16, Gorham Phone: 603-466-2333


Saco Bound on the Saco River Route 302, Center Conway Phone: 603-447-2177 Canoes are for two people. Kayaks are for one person. A family of four needs two canoes.


Story Land, copyright
Mt. Washington VCC

Story Land Route 15, Glen Phone: 603-383-4186


Santa's Village Route 2, Jefferson Phone: 603-586-4445


Attitash Bear Peak Route 302, Bartlett Phone: 603-374-2368


Heritage New Hampshire Route 16, Glen Phone: 603-383-4186


Weather Discovery Center North Village Commons, 2936 Main St. (Route 16), North Conway Phone: 603-356-2137


Settlers Green Outlet Village Plus Route 16, North Conway Phone: 603-356-7031


Tanger Factory Outlet Centers Three locations on Route 16, North Conway Phone: 207-439-6822


Contact: Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce Phone: 800-367-3364


Conway Village Area Chamber of Commerce Phone: 603-447-2639


White Mountain National Forest Phone: 603-528-8721


New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development Phone: 800-386-4664


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: The Trading Post AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, Route 16, Gorham Phone: 603-466-2721 This rustic dining hall serves up hearty family-style suppers (buffet on Fridays) and soup-salad-and-sandwich buffet lunches. Try the popovers and double-chocolate brownies. Meals are served at specific times of day. Call ahead for menu and time.


Local foods: Rainbow trout, maple candy, and bumbleberry pie.

Best souvenir: A souvenir photo of you and the kids riding in Cinderella's coach at Story Land. A junior ranger patch for kids completing the Appalachian Mountain Club's junior ranger program -- can only be earned, never bought.

Traffic alert: Route 16 between Conway and North Conway is the area's primary north-south road -- with all the outlet shops, restaurants, hotels, and attractions -- and can get quite snarly. Be prepared for stops and starts. The only bypass is West Side Road in Conway to River Road and back onto Route 16 or Route 302 further north. This 10-minute detour can save you 30 minutes in traffic.

If you plan to drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, use low gear both ways. Get your car's overall condition checked, especially the brakes, before you go.

Seasonal events:

Mount Washington Valley Band Concerts North Conway Village gazebo, Sundays at 6:30, July through Labor Day Phone: 603-447-2639

Mt. Washington Auto Road Birthday August Phone: 603-466-3988

Mt. Washington Auto Road Bike Climb August Phone: 603-447-6991


Side Trips

Franconia Notch

Don't miss two of New Hampshire's most famous "natural wonder" landmarks, located in Franconia Notch State Park:

  • Flume Gorge. An 800-foot gorge with waterfalls, scenic pools and mountains all around. Boardwalks, bridges and gravel paths guide you through this natural chasm with its 90-foot walls.

Getting to Franconia Notch from Conway is part of the fun. Take the Kankamagus Highway, a 35-mile-long scenic drive that cuts right through White Mountains National Forest and the 2,860-foot Kankamagus Pass. Mountains and forests surround you. Stop and say "wow" at any of the scenic overlooks.

Once you get to Franconia Notch State Park, consider another fun ride, this time on the Cannon Mountain Tramway. You'll get a grand and glorious view of 4,180-foot Mt. Cannon. Franconia Notch Parkway off I-93, 603-823-8800.


Reviewed April 2004.