White Mountain National Forest | Review & Guide

View from the top Franconia Ridge Loop Trail at Franconia Notch State Park in White Mountain National Forest
Franconia Ridge Loop Trail

When people think about getting outside in New England, they either dread the brutal cold or reminisce about the beach. However, hikers from across the world know about this true gem of the Northeast, the White Mountains.

With serene nature, free camping, and plenty of stunning views to choose from, there is something for everyone in the White Mountains.

Hopefully, they can offer something for you, too. Here is everything you need to know in our comprehensive guide to the White Mountain Nation Forest’s best hikes, attractions, policies, lodging, and more!

White Mountain National Forest Regions

Before we jump into everything, let’s quickly go over the regions in the White Mountain National Forest so that we’re all on the same page!

RegionLocationTallest MountainBest Routes
Crawford Notch/Pinkham NotchCentralMount WashingtonRt 16, Rt 302
Franconia Notch State ParkWest (Lincoln, NH)Mount LafayetteI-93, Rt 112
Evan’s NotchNortheast (North Chatham)Rt 113, Rt 2
Waterville Valley/Sandwich RangeSouth (Below Kancamagus Highway)Rt 112, Rt 49
Chatham RegionEast (N. Chatham, S. Chatham, N. Conway)Rt 113, Rt 16
Kilkenny RegionFar NorthRt 110, Rt 3

Best Mountains for Beginner Hikers

Whether you’re looking to start hiking, enjoy a casual hike with friends, or just get a quick view from the mountaintops before your next adventure, we have the trails for you!

Remember, dogs are generally allowed on New Hampshire hiking trails, so feel free to bring your four-legged friends along for these comfortable hikes!

3. Mount Willard Trail

For beginners, very few hikes will be as satisfying as Mount Willard Trail The out & back trail is just under 3.2 miles (total) with an elevation gain of 895 feet. If you don’t know much about hiking, then for context, one of Mount Washington’s trails is almost 11 miles long with 4,652 feet of elevation gain.

However, don’t let Mount Willard’s small stature deceive you. The views at the top are serene, and most hikers complete this hike in under 2 hours (round trip).

Even for beginners, most people who have taken this trail say that it felt more like a peaceful, uphill walk rather than a challenging hike. Expect to see plenty of people and their dogs on this trail, especially around sunset!

2. Diana’s Baths

If you are looking for an easy hike and you find yourself on the North Conway side of the White Mountain National Forest, then Diana’s Baths is worth the trip!

In terms of beautiful views for a short distance, you won’t find a better deal. For a $5 admission, you can take the out & back trail, which is only 1.3 miles with a 118’ elevation gain.

You should be able to complete this hike in around 35 to 40 minutes. However, you will want to stay for the views!

The trail is open year-round, and the main attraction is the beautiful series of “baths” at the end of the trail. They say that May through October is best, but not if you’re an introvert or winter lover! Don’t be fooled, this hike is beautiful throughout all four seasons.

1. Mount Pemigawasett (Indian Head Trail)

Now, this one is only for beginner hikers who want to challenge themselves. Few trails in the White Mountains are “easy”, and this one will be a challenge.

However, if you’re interested in taking a couple of hours and pacing yourself, this hike is excellent for hikers of all skill levels, but it can still be strenuous at parts. Much of the hike is uphill, so be sure to take breaks and pack plenty of water.

At the start of the hike, the serenity is slightly hindered by the fences, tunnels, and other man-made structures you have to pass near the busy road. However, once you pass through that, you will only see trees, and hear the sound of running water from the streams nearby on the trail.

Once at the top, you will have an excellent view of the Franconia Notch area within the White Mountain National Forest.

While these views are not 360, you can see the entire valley where I-93 cuts through, with stunning views of the mountains around. With a 3.7-mile out & back trail and 1,253 elevation gain, it’s hard to match this reward for a roughly 2-hour hike! Read our full review for more information!

Other Easy Hikes

For other easier hikes, choose from any of the following. They all have great payoffs at the top, so you can choose any that you like and you won’t be disappointed!

HikeLocationDistanceElevation GainAverage TimeTrail Type
Basin Cascade TrailLincoln, NH1.6 miles400 ft1 hourOut & Back
Flume GorgeLincoln, NH2 miles488 ft<2 hoursLoop
Lincoln Woods TrailLincoln, NH7 to 9.4 miles495 ft3 to 5 hoursOut & Back
Three Ponds TrailWarren, NH5.6 miles577 ft3.5 hoursLoop

Best Mountains for Intermediate Hikers

If you’re looking for a hike that’s challenging but that will allow you to take your time, then there are options for you in the White Mountains. Here are a couple of the best!

Mount Moosilauke

For those looking to challenge themselves and enjoy a full-day hike, Mount Moosilauke has it all. Most hikers will use the South Peak Loop trail, which is 8.2 miles long and requires no rock scrambling and a slower ascent of 2,506 feet.

However, there is also the Gorge Brook Trail, which is a more moderate 7.1 miles, which is steeper and more physically demanding.

On either trail, most hikers take between 4 and 6 hours to finish.

Most experienced hikers in the area agree that this is the easiest 4,000-footer in the area, so if you’re looking for great views and a longer day hike, this is the one for you!

Other Intermediate Trails

Moosilauke is definitely the crown jewel for intermediate hikers. However, for other moderate/strenuous hikes in the area, try any of these!

HikeLocationTrail LengthElevation GainAverage TimeTrail Type
Mount AvalonBretton Woods, NH3.41,550 ft4 hoursOut & Back
Hedgehog Mountain (UNH Trail)Wonalancet, NH4.9 miles1,450 ft4 to 5 hoursLoop
Caribou MountainBatchelder’s Grant, Maine8.8 miles1,900 ft5 to 6 hoursOut & Back

There are plenty of other hikes based on your skill level that you should consider trying, but these are all favorites of ours, so we highly recommend them!

Best Mountains for Advanced Hikers

For advanced hikers, especially based in New England, you will find a challenge on the majority of mountains in the area. Almost all of them have at least one challenging trail.

Most Appalachian Trail through-hikers agree that New Hampshire is the most challenging stretch of the entire journey from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

However, when you’re looking for a genuine challenge as an experienced hiker, two mountains stand out above all else. Let’s talk about them.

3. Mount Moriah

Located in Gorham, NH, there are 3 major trails on Mount Moriah, and they’re far from equal. Carter Moriah Trail is a 9.1-mile out & back trail with a 3,234’ elevation gain. Some hiker’s refer to this trail as a “slow burn” because it starts out quite flat for the first mile or more and quickly becomes more strenuous.

For a longer but more moderate hike, consider the Stony Brook Trail, which is 10.4 miles long and takes an average of 5 and a half to 6 hours to complete.

Once at the summit, you’ll enjoy 360-views in the heart of the White Mountains. Arguably, these are some of the best in the entire region, 

2. Franconia Ridge Loop Trail

Located in and around Lincoln, NH, this is one of the most sought-after hikes in the entire United States. Famous for its stunning views atop 3 separate mountains of at least 4,000’, the Franconia Ridge Loop Trail is a must-see for confident hikers.

The most famous of which is Mount Lafayette. Once you reach this summit, you will continue on the loop with beautiful views of the White Mountain National Forest for at least another hour.

Generally, an experienced hiker will finish this trail in around 7 hours, but many advanced hikers have finished in under 5. The loop is around 9 miles long with an elevation gain of 3,803’, so come prepared with the right shoes, plenty of food, and lots of water.

At the summit, you will find one location to refill your water bottle, but there is no second chance, so come prepared.

1. Mount Washington

Of course, there are no giants in the New England mountains. It’s very different from Colorado or the Pacific Northwest. 

However, Mount Washington is not only the tallest mountain in the White Mountain National Forest, it’s also the tallest in New England. It is also widely considered the most dangerous small mountain in the world, claiming the lives of at least 150 people, standing at only 6,288’.

Not only that, but Washington is considered to be the windiest place on earth, and for good reason. At its elevation, it has nothing to slow down eastward winds flowing with the earth’s rotation after the Rockies.

Essentially, that means that unobstructed winds come from multiple directions and have well over 1,000 miles to pick up speed before reaching a funnel in the western White Mountains that carry them to the top of Mt Washington. For this reason, wind speeds often exceed 150 mph.

For that reason, there is always a crew stationed on top of the mountain to track the weather, so always update yourself periodically until just minutes before the hike. If you are uneasy at any point, turn around.

Understand that the hike itself is strenuous. Trails range between 8.2 and 10.8 miles long with plenty of steep parts that include rock scrambling, taking most hikers between 5 and 6 hours (or more). Do not attempt this hike unless you are certain you meet the physical standards.

However, if you make it to the top on a nice day, you will never forget these views for as long as you live. The summit offers stunning 360 views of the entire mountain range, as well as clear glimpses into Maine, Vermont, and Canada.

Other Advanced Hikes

New Hampshire is widely considered to be the hardest stretch of the Appalachian Trail, even though it doesn’t have the tallest mountains. However, it’s not always the elevation that makes a hike challenging. Here are some other advanced hikes in the White Mountain National Forest.

HikeLocationTrail LengthElevation GainAverage TimeTrail Type
Mount OsceolaLivermore6.4 miles2,050 ft5.5 hoursOut & Back
Mount CrawfordHart’s Location5.3 miles2,100 ft5 hoursOut & Back
Mt Eisenhower (Edmund’s Path)Crawford6.6 miles2,750 ft5.5-6 hoursOut & Back
Mount ChocoruaAlbany7.8 miles2,250 ft5-6 hoursLoop

Best Mountains for Winter Hiking

If you’re an experienced winter hiker, then you can enjoy any mountain in the range with the right gear. However, if you’re new to winter hiking, we strongly suggest starting with some of the easier hikes, especially on trails that are maintained year-round. Either way, you’ll enjoy some of the best scenery that winter in the north has to offer!

Cannon Mountain

The former home to the famous “Old Man of the Mountain” stands at 4,080’, but don’t let that intimidate you. In terms of prominence, which is the height of a mountain or hill’s summit relative to the lowest contour line encircling it, the mountain only stands at 781’.

However, this mountain offers a moderate ascent and descent, and the trail is generally packed down throughout the winter. We still recommend packing spikes or snowshoes, but they aren’t always necessary on this trail.

Moreover, you will have the option of taking a loop trail or the more popular Once at the top, you will have an unobstructed view of Franconia Notch State Park and surrounding mountains.

Mount Washington in New Hampshire during winter
Mount Washington During Winter

Preparing for a Hike in the White Mountains

Before getting started, there are a few things to know about hiking in the White Mountains that could save you money or your life. Here’s what you need to know.

Parking & Fees

For most hiking trails around Lincoln, NH and other popular destinations, parking will be free. The only challenge will be getting there before everybody else, but if you’re willing to camp overnight or drive there early enough, then this shouldn’t be a problem.

However, some hikes, including Franconia Notch State Park, may have certain fees depending on the time of the year. Generally, these are only $4 per adult and $2 per child, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

If you are visiting some other popular attractions like Flume Gorge, then the entrance fee will be $18 per adult, $16 for ages 5 to 12, and free for any children under age 5.

Search & Rescue

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is responsible for search and rescue services in the White Mountains. However, you do not want to rely on these services under any circumstances.

Now, NH is not the only state in the US to have fees for search and rescue services, but it is the only one that actively uses that right. If you need to be rescued from a trail due to injuries or a wrong turn, you may find a charge or fee for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

For this reason, you must come prepared. If you come prepared and you still need rescue, the department will generally waive any fees associated with the rescue.

If you need to call for help, call 911 or contact the NH Department of Fish & Game at to ask for search and rescue. Keep tabs of your location to offer more details. NH Fish & Game Search & Rescue Team can be reached at (603) 271-3421

Gear to Pack

Whether you’re hiking a beginner trail or Mount Washington, we always recommend bringing a map, which you can often find for free at the trailhead (or take a picture of one). If you can’t find one, pack a book that has the maps of all the White Mountain trails, as we’re sure you’ll be coming back soon!

Charge your phone and bring a portable charger just in case you get lost. Generally, there will be access to US Cellular on most of the hikes in the area, but you may have to walk a little extra to find service.

Beyond that, no matter what time of the year you are hiking, pack a first-aid kit, plenty of food and water, and a flashlight at the bare minimum. Do not rely on your phone flashlight, even if you are starting the hike early in the morning.

Moreover, if you are hiking in the winter, pack a backpacking tent, lighter, spikes, snowshoes, and trekking poles.

Weather in the White Mountains

If you live in New England or you’re familiar with the area, then you know that the weather is as unpredictable as it gets. Your weather app may say something now, but forecasts for two hours from now can change in a matter of minutes.

For this reason, you should always start planning a week in advance and prepare for a backup day if your plans fall through. Certain hikes in this mountain range are very unsafe in the wrong conditions, so do your research on the trail ahead of time and keep checking the weather for the latest updates.

Also, when searching for the weather on a specific mountain, search for the mountain itself, and not the town, as they may have different conditions. Seriously.

Hiking With Pets

As we mentioned, there are no restrictions on hiking with dogs in most areas in the White Mountain National Forest. If your dog is well-trained, you generally won’t need a leash either if you’re comfortable without one.

Now, if there are any restrictions, they will be clearly marked at the trailhead and you can choose any one of the nearby hikes for your furry friend. If you’re driving on the Kancamagus Highway or I-93, then you will have plenty of lakes, rivers, mountains, and trails to enjoy with your dog. 

Before you choose a hike, we recommend starting with one of the beginner hikes at the top and seeing how they do. If you know their limits, pack a hiking water bowl for your dog, bring plenty of extra water, and enjoy!

Cat on a leash in the White Mountain National Forest

Camping in the White Mountains

For a true retreat to nature, we think that the best way to enjoy your trip to the White Mountains is to camp for at least one night, at any time of year. However, there are a few things you need to know first!

Camping Laws

No matter where you are hiking, camping, or backpacking, always follow the same Leave No Trace principles, and you shouldn’t have any issues.

If you want to have a fire, you will simply need to camp in designated camping areas with a firepit. Otherwise, backcountry camping is legal throughout the entire forest.

Most importantly, do not use fireworks or leave a fire unattended in the White Mountain National Forest, as this will result in fines of up to $5,000, not to mention the potential of starting a forest fire.

Best Campgrounds in the White Mountains

You may not believe it if you’re from southern New England, but there are genuinely free camping sites in the White Mountains. Seriously.

No, they don’t have showers or electric hookups. They are dry, backcountry camping spaces, but they are a well-spread out, quiet, and peaceful way to connect with nature.

While there are multiple of these options available, we recommend arriving as early as possible and having a backup plan in mind, as these are first-come, first-serve.

If you’re looking for a backup plan, search for campgrounds near the mountain of your choice online, and you will be bombarded with options. We promise, there is no shortage of paid campgrounds in the area.

However, you should look for them as far in advance as possible and save the addresses on your phone, as internet service is limited in the area. Don’t rely entirely on the free spots, as they may be taken by the time you get there, especially during peak season.

Below, you’ll find a map to some of the free campgrounds on Gale River Brook Road in Bethlehem, New Hampshire in the White Mountain National Forest, but there are others around!

Camping Safely

Camping in the White Mountains isn’t particularly dangerous, but you still need to take some precautions. Your two biggest concerns should be fire and bears.

Always use a firepit and extinguish your fire before leaving the campground, and don’t store any flammable liquids or materials (including your car) too close to the fire.

Beyond that, bear spray is handy, but it isn’t exactly necessary. Bears in the area are used to humans, so with a little diligence, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Store your food in a bear safe, hoist your food 10 or more feet off the ground, or at least store your food away from your tent. We never recommend storing food in your vehicle, as bears simply don’t care how much money it will cost to replace windows or repaint your exterior.

Also, don’t keep any food in the tent with you, and change out of the clothes you used to cook before going to bed. If you follow these tips, you should have a safe and enjoyable trip.

Winter Camping

If you are planning to winter camp in the White Mountains, we recommend bringing the right gear. You can use a hot tent, RV, or a properly designed vehicle.

Of course, RVs and converted vans are the best options for winter camping, so we will spare you the details.

For a hot tent, ensure that you’re on an actual campsite and that you never leave your wood stove running unattended, as you don’t want to receive a $5,000 fine.

Now, if you’re using an SUV or station wagon, we recommend buying a roll of Reflectix insulation for $30, sticking them to your windows, and bundling up. You’d be surprised how quickly your body heat will warm up a smaller vehicle and how effectively it helps your car retain heat.

No matter what you sleep in, pack a stove and the appropriate pans to cook with, as it will be challenging to find viable firewood in the snow. Bring plenty of food and water, as this certainly isn’t foraging season in New England.

Driving on the Kancamagus Highway

Drone view of Kancamagus highway in the White Mountain National Forest during the fall
Kancamagus Highway, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Now, if you’re new to the White Mountains, then there’s a chance you’ve never heard of the famous Kancamagus Highway, or as it’s less commonly known, New Hampshire Route 112.

Well, this road is arguably more popular than any hike or campground in the area. It travels east-to-west directly through the heart of the White Mountains, offering many scenic overlooks, tourist information, and beautiful hiking or walking trails for all skill levels.

If you turn the other way off 93, you’ll find a small town with plenty of little shops and places to grab a bite to eat before starting your day.

Fortunately, this attraction isn’t only for hikers and campers. Here’s what you need to know about the most famous scenic drive in New England.

Best Destinations on Route 112

So, is the Kancamagus highway overrated or is it worth a visit? If you’ve never been, pick a clear day to see for yourself. While it will be overcrowded and touristy during the fall peak, you will find plenty of breathing room throughout the rest of the year.

Nearly every stop on this 34.5-mile bypass is breathtaking, overlooking long stretches of the mountain range and the natural beauty northern New England has to offer. Some of the best overlooks include:

  • Hancock Overlook.
  • Pemigewasset Overlook.
  • CL Graham Wangan Overlook.
  • Sugar Hill Overlook.

Also, if you want some more beautiful views, stop at Sabbaday Falls and take a dip in the river. If you’re looking for any great hikes off of this highway, we recommend Lincoln Woods or Loon Mountain to start!

Best Time of Year to Visit

For the Kancamagus Highway, most people associate it with the fall, which is the peak season. However, the spring is quite underrated, as there are significantly fewer people and plenty of gorgeous scenery.

Now, if you’re planning to hike, that will be mud season, so plan accordingly. Otherwise, we recommend visiting in the summer, when there is medium traffic, stunning scenery, great hikes, and opportunities to swim in the rivers.

Although, winter lovers will love the emptiness of this highway. If you want a quiet, scenic, snowy, winter wonderland, then drive on 112 in January. Just remember to take it slow and be careful, as the roads are windy and New England drivers don’t have the best reputations.

Best Attractions in White Mountain National Forest

Fortunately, the White Mountains aren’t just for hikers, campers, and backpackers. No matter who you are, what you enjoy, or who you’re bringing with you, the White Mountains have something for everyone.

Ice Castles

From mid-January through February (most years), you can experience a true winter wonderland in the White Mountains by visiting the seasonal ice castles. That’s right, actual castles made of ice.

Moreover, for a visit to the Winter Wonderland in North Woodstock, NH, you will only need to pay $27 per adult ($20 under age 12) for general admission.


During the winter, there are plenty of great skiing destinations for all levels of skiers. We recommend planning ahead for your trip so you find the best ski resort or slope for your needs!


No, you didn’t read that wrong. In terms of family-friendly activities to enjoy in the White Mountains, you can’t beat the many bodies of water offered in the area. Ponds, lakes, and rivers are all around the area, and you can take a dip and cool off.

Honestly, we prefer this over Hampton Beach, which is what most New Englanders will think of when they hear “New Hampshire” and “swimming”. Wherever you go, there will be peace and quiet.

Flume Gorge

Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park in Lincoln, New Hampshire
Flume Gorge, Franconia Notch State Park, Lincoln, NH

For another short hike with beautiful scenery, we mentioned Diana’s Baths in the hiking section, but Flume Gorge is even easier to access. 

Right off I-93 and just a short walk in, you’ll find a gorge with walls of granite that rise between 70’ and 90’ that are 12’ to 20’ apart. The natural chasm has a stream running directly through it with a powerful waterfall, creating a must-see view on a visit to Franconia State Park.

Whale’s Tale Waterpark

If you come here when it’s not quite warm enough to swim outdoors, or if your kids need some splashing time, then this is a great attraction for families.

Ropes Courses

In the area, you will find plenty of challenge courses (ropes courses) to choose from if you’re looking for a unique adventure. If you have children or teens with you, then this is a great way to spend the day.

Depending on where in the mountains you’ll stay, there are two near the Kancamagus/Franconia area known as Alpine Adventures and Adventure Center at Loon Mountain Resort. If you’re further north, you can find the Bretton Woods Canopy Tour with ziplining!

Lodging Near the White Mountains

Whether you’re visiting the ice castles or swimming in Flume Gorge, you don’t have to “rough it” in the area. There are plenty of hotels you can book for as little as $79 per night, as well as plenty of lovely Airbnbs in the area.

If you don’t mind a 20-minute drive to your destination, lodging outside the White Mountains, especially during peak seasons, will be even more affordable. Some of the small towns in the area like Conway and Littleton will have plenty of affordable and high-quality lodging.

Enjoy the White Mountain National Forest

Now that you know just about everything there is to know about the White Mountains, let’s do a quick recap of the most important information we covered:

  • Come prepared (maps, flashlights, food, water, etc.)
  • Don’t leave fires unattended
  • Keep your phone charged
  • Pay attention to signs
  • Dress in layers in the winter
  • Plan ahead for big hikes or camping trips

If you can manage that, then you will have a safe, enjoyable, and memorable trip to look back on forever. There truly is something for everyone in this national treasure, so come prepared and enjoy!

Leave a comment below if you feel we’ve missed anything, stay up to date with our latest reviews of your favorite spots in New England, and feel free to check out our reviews of Maine’s best mountains.

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