If you were an unscrupulous European settler in New Hampshire circa the 1680s, you’d most likely think twice before crossing Kancamagus. The intense sagamore of the Pennacooks was uncompromising and reliant on the element of surprise as he led bloody, vengeful raids against the English.
If you’re a vacationing motorist in New Hampshire today, you should think twice before not crossing the chief’s namesake, Kancamagus Highway. Its beauty year-round is intense and uncompromising and will surprise you after every tree-lined twist, turn and elevation change. And the only way you can incur the wrath of Kancamagus these days is by not paying attention to your fuel gauge. As signs warn, there are no gas stations along the 34-mile, two-lane route. In fact, there’s no anything except a few campgrounds—and the unspoiled White Mountain National Forest. Well, maybe a moose or two.
As for filling your tank, fortunately you can fuel up in Lincoln after departing South Mountain Resort. Your Bluegreen Vacations hillside haven is right on New Hampshire Route 112, which becomes Kancamagus Highway east of town. In 1996, when this stretch of road was designated a National Scenic Byway, it also became known as the Kancamagus Scenic Byway. But locals who tire of pronouncing KANK-uh-MAW-guss simply call it “the Kanc.”
The locals might have a name for you, too. Are you what some call a leaf peeper—someone who lives to experience the annual change of colors? If so, there’s no better place to satisfy your fall foliage fixation. The Kanc is unforgettable in the fall—a dizzying succession of flaming maples, birches and beeches that pop like fireworks against the backdrop of dull, dark pines—but it’s no less stunning in the green of summer. Much of the area was reforested after the federal government acquired the land in 1911 to protect it from the ravages of logging and other unregulated industries. And you can pull off the highway and park (provided you bought a parking pass in Lincoln), pick a hiking trail and explore on foot. Look out for moose!
If you don’t plan to stop, figure on devoting an hour to your drive each way depending on the time of day and year. The volume is highest in autumn, when as many as 4,000 leaf peepers might pass through in a single day. Your constant driving companion along the Kanc is the Swift River. It courses over a conspicuous bed of boulders as it hugs the entire route. And when the Kanc reaches its eastern terminus at the town of Conway, the Swift continues on. It merges into the Saco, which in turn flows through Maine into the Atlantic. The western portion of Kancamagus Highway sits in one valley, the eastern portion in another. The valleys mutually crest at Kancamagus Pass, which at 2,855 feet is the highest point of the drive. The climb from the east is especially steep, so drive cautiously and make sure you’re buckled in.
Driving west to east, some highlights you’ll enjoy include:
Sabbaday Falls.Visit the popular 45-foot falls on your hike along the handicapped-accessible Sabbaday Brook Trail. Enjoy a picnic or perhaps use the restroom facilities near the parking area and then follow the trail to the “Best Viewing” area at the top of the falls. If you descend to the basin at the bottom, note that the “no swimming” sign reportedly is loosely enforced.
The Pemigewasset Overlook. One of several scenic overlooks, this clearing just before Kancamagus Pass casts a spectacular view of the White Mountains to the north against majestic open skies.
The Lower Falls Scenic Area. Stop and enjoy a picnic under a canopy amid the hardwoods a rippling waterfalls. The boulder formations in the river here are especially eye-catching.
The Covered Bridge Campground. To reach the campground on the opposite side of the Swift River from the Kanc, you must cross the 120-foot Albany Covered Bridge built in 1858. A 3-mile hike around the Boulder Loop Trail within the campground provides spectacular views of Mount Chocorua.
So what’s the story behind the highway—and who was Kancamagus?
The highway was formed by the connection of two unpaved dead-end roads. The project was completed in 1959—22 years after it began—but the highway was not paved until 1964.
As for Kancamagus, leader of the Pennacook Confederacy—he distrusted English colonists but first set out to abide by the peaceful trade relationship with them established by his grandfather, Passaconaway. But relations waned as English deceit and brutality escalated into unprovoked atrocities. Many Pennacook and other tribes fled their ancestral lands for protection offered in Quebec. Those who stayed rallied behind Kancamagus and exacted revenge in a series of attacks culminating in the famous Cocheco Masscare of 1689.
The exploits of Kancamagus made the chief a slightly controversial choice as namesake. But the selection recalls his pre-provocation interest in peace and mostly speaks to his passion for preserving his beautiful homeland. And once you’ve explored Kacamagus Highway, driving or on foot, you’re sure to share his love for it.