Of all the ways you could choose to enjoy the fall foliage colors of September and October in New Hampshire, none beats looking out over miles and miles of red, orange, and yellow forests spread below you. Gondola lifts and even a train ride can take you to a few of these lofty spots, but the best viewpoints are rewards reserved for hikers.
Fall is my favorite time of year for hiking in the Granite State, but I also love hiking through the spring woods to see the woodland wildflowers and finding a breezy spot above the treeline on a hot summer day when the wild blueberries are ripe. And on a glorious winter day after a fresh snowfall, I head for one of my favorite New Hampshire snowshoe trails.
New Hampshire’s Tallest Mountains: The Presidential and Franconia Ranges
The Presidential Range is a chain of 4,000 footers named for U.S. presidents that extend well above the treeline. A hike here requires sturdy boots, a warm and waterproof jacket, food, and water. The weather can change in an instant, and a sunny day at the base can become a cold, windy one at the open summit. Always check the weather report before starting, and never expect it to be warm at the top. It won’t be.
For these hikes, be sure to carry the latest Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) White Mountains Guide. When I’m hiking in the White Mountains, I use the AMC Hiker Shuttle to get to and from trailheads, so I can do one-way routes without hiking back to my car. I like to stay at the AMC Highland Centre, which has family rooms and bunks, hearty meals, packed lunches and even free use of equipment. In the evening, fellow hikers share their favorite trails and tips.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Check out our complete guide to backpacking for women, so you have all the gear you need for a serious hike.
Mount Washington: Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail
If you want to start big, they don’t get any bigger (at least in New England) than mile-high Mt. Washington. My favorite approach to its rock-bound summit follows the Ammonoosuc River through the ravine it has carved as it falls from Lakes of the Clouds, high on a shoulder of the mountain. You’ll pass several waterfalls before reaching the Lakes of the Clouds and the Appalachian Mountain Club hut.
Franconia Ridge Trail
The 8-mile hike along the ridge line of Lincoln, Lafayette and Haystack mountains looks down into Franconia Notch on one side and the vast wilderness of the White Mountain National Forest on the other. You’ll feel as though you’re walking on top of the world.
My first time hiking this trail was in my early teens, and we split the trip into two days by staying at the Greenleaf AMC hut. I remember that my biggest problem was keeping my eyes on the trail underfoot instead of the scenery in every direction.
Depending on which direction you choose for the hike, you begin or end on the Falling Waters Trail, following a series of waterfalls.
The Presidential Range Traverse
Not for new hikers or day-trippers, the route across the summits of the Presidential Range — Adams, Jefferson, Clay, and Mt. Washington — is one of the most scenic on the Appalachian Trail. At its shortest (you can take some side trails to smaller peaks), it’s almost 14 miles point-to-point, most of it above timberline on rocky trails. This is not a Sunday walk in the woods, and you’ll need to be well-equipped for any weather and for long stretches without sources of water.
You can break the trip at Madison Springs and Lakes of the Clouds Huts and shorten it a bit by taking the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to the base of Mt. Washington instead of continuing to Mt Jefferson. The most beautiful views are before and on Mt. Washington.
Best Mountain Hikes in New Hampshire
Not that the higher peaks are unfriendly, but they are daunting with their miles of hiking above timberline. New Hampshire has plenty of mountains to climb that make good day hikes for the whole family. Most have rocky summits, where the glaciers scraped off the soil, leaving bare granite. Without trees blocking the way, you can enjoy panoramic views extending well over 100 miles.
Close to Mt. Washington, at the head of the steep Crawford Notch, Mt. Willard is one of the first I climbed, when my legs were too short for tougher hikes. The trail to the top follows an old carriage road, so it’s not too steep, but you get lots of WOW! for your work. The top opens out onto ledges that overlook the entirety of Crawford Notch as it carves a wedge between two steep mountainsides.
The mountains are covered in forest right to their tops, and in the fall the view is painted in orange, red and yellow, with dark pine groves for contrast. Although Mt. Willard has the easiest mountain trail in New Hampshire and is a good hike for kids, the ledges at the top drop off sharply, so be sure to keep little people (and yourself) way back from the edge. This is no place for cliff-edge selfies.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of climbing Sugarloaf, the double-topped mountain that I could see from our campsite below in Sugarloaf Campground. While my parents savored the view, my brother and I savored the wild blueberries that grow there in August.
The round trip with both peaks is about 5 miles, with some steep places, but a good family hike; from the top you can see the White Mountains spread out before you.
Mount Chocorua: Champney Falls Trail
You’ve probably seen pictures of this mountain not far from North Conway, its sharp triangle peak reflected in a mirror-smooth lake. Several trails climb the mountain, the easiest is the Piper Trail, popular for scout and summer camp trips.
My favorite is the Champney Falls Trail, which begins on the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, the most famous fall road-trip route in the northeast. After climbing for almost an hour, watch for signs to the waterfall, a series of cascades that are at their best after a rain or in the spring. At the top is a 360-degree panorama of the White Mountains and the lake below.
Welch-Dickey Loop Trail
The Waterville Valley, best known for its ski resort, is at the southernmost edge of the White Mountain National Forest. The Dickey Loop is 4.5 miles round-trip, exploring the ledge-clad summits of Welch and Dickey mountains.
Their twin summits are sloping ledges that give uninterrupted views of wooded wilderness. Mostly hardwoods, which turn the most brilliant colors in the fall, the scene includes enough dark pines to frame the oranges and yellows.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Choose a dry day, as the smooth rocks are slippery when wet.
Mount Monadnock: White Dot Trail
Standing alone in the southeast corner of New Hampshire, Mt. Monadnock is a local landmark and one of America’s most climbed mountains. Don’t choose it for solitude, but the views reach as far as Boston on a clear day.
The 3.8-mile White Dot Trail is challenging in places and becomes an open ledge near the top.
One of the best hikes in southern New Hampshire, the mountain is so popular that to prevent overcrowding, the parking lot requires an advance reservation.
Best Short but Spectacular Hikes
The best views are not always from the highest mountain. Standing on a ledge overlooking a blue lake surrounded by brilliant red and orange trees can give a better view than you’ll get from a mountaintop. Maybe not as far-reaching, but a better picture to take home.
West Rattlesnake Mountain
A 1.8-mile round-trip hike on a former carriage road takes you to one of the best views in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, overlooking Squam Lake. The ledges are directly above Rattlesnake Island, where you may see eagles returning to their nests. Beyond stretches Squam Lake, its irregular shore almost entirely bordered in trees.
Beautiful in summer greens and a blue sky, the view is unparalleled in autumn colors. You’ll want to take a picnic.
Near Center Harbor, Red Hill stands between Squam Lake and the expanse of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire’s largest lake. From its top you can see both lakes and to the north.
A bonus on this hike is the fire tower, which you can climb for even longer views. Although it’s rough in places, the trail is mostly on an old jeep road; the round-trip is 3.8 miles.
Mount Kearsarge: Rollins Trail
No rule says you have to begin at the foot of a mountain, so when my girls were younger, I liked to drive through Rollins State Park to the overlook, about a mile’s climb below the summit of Mt. Kearsarge.
Like Mount Monadnock, Kearsarge stands alone in the southern part of New Hampshire and commands 360-degree views. You can also drive part-way to the summit from Winslow State Park, near New London.
Best Hiking Trails with Waterfalls
The best hikes have a reward in addition to the fun of being in the great outdoors – a natural attraction, something interesting to see, a chance to observe wildlife or a wonderful view.
My favorite reward is a waterfall, preferably one with a pool where I can dip my feet into the cool water of a mountain brook.
Arethusa Falls: Bemis Brook Trail
Dropping 175 feet over a sheer granite wall, Arethusa Falls is the tallest waterfall in New Hampshire. The trail from Crawford Notch is only 1.3 miles, but is rocky in places as it climbs past two smaller waterfalls, Bemis Brook Falls and Coliseum Falls. To make a total of four on the same hike, continue two miles beyond Arethusa to the 100-foot Ripley Falls.
Crawford Notch has other attractions, including the ghost town of Livermore and one of my favorite romantic places to stay in New Hampshire. The stone Notchland Inn is a historic stone home with beautifully decorated rooms and a talented chef.
The Flume Gorge: Flume Trail
The Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch is easy to reach, with its own exit off I-93. This natural 800-foot gorge has walls rising almost straight up to heights of 90 feet and a river dropping into it in a 45-foot waterfall. The Flume Trail passes through the gorge and climbs beside the falls on a wooden walkway, then continues above the gorge and along the mountainside to complete a 2-mile loop trail.
A second waterfall, Liberty Gorge Cascades, is spanned by a covered walking bridge. Along the trail, you’ll pass giant free-standing boulders dropped there by glaciers.
Best Easy Hikes
Not all trails involve climbing, and some of the best New Hampshire hiking follows mountain streams or weaves through forest preserves. Here are two of my favorites.
Lincoln Woods Trail
The East Branch of the Pemigewasset River tumbles down the mountainsides of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, the largest in the northeast. Where it crosses the Kancamagus Highway, the Lincoln Woods Trail begins by crossing a suspension bridge before following the rocky river upstream on the railbed of a former logging railroad.
Along the 1.8-mile hike as far as the footbridge over Birch Island Brook, you’ll get occasional views of the mountains beyond, and if you’re ambitious, you can follow a more challenging side trail to Franconia Falls, about 3 miles from the trailhead. Stop at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center at the trailhead to learn more about the White Mountain National Forest.
Harris Center: Harriskat Trail
The Harris Center for Conservation Education is on the grounds of a former summer estate in Southwestern New Hampshire, where miles of trails explore the woods, wetlands and low rock ledges. One of the best hikes in southern New Hampshire for families is the 4-mile Hassiskat Trail, which connects with two other trails for a loop walk that includes two low mountains with views of nearby Mount Monadnock.