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Crossing New Hampshire via the 'Scenic' Route

October 26, 1986|DICK KLEINER | Kleiner is a Palm Desert free-lance writer

CONWAY, N.H. — Ordinarily we would not have driven New Hampshire 112 from Lincoln to Conway. On the American Automobile Assn. map it is just a thin gray line--somewhere between the thin red line of "secondary road" and the broken gray line of "gravel road." Not very encouraging to a motorist.

But we had time to kill and it was also marked with a series of dots, meaning that it was "scenic." So, to cross New Hampshire from west to east, we took New Hampshire 112.

And we found that we had stumbled onto what just might be one of the most beautiful roads in the United States. It runs for 37 miles between Lincoln in the west and Conway in the east, and on many maps it is called the Kancamagus Highway.

We had spent the previous night in a Lincoln motel and had also stumbled onto a great restaurant there, the Common Man. So we started out early in the morning to cross New Hampshire via the Kancamagus Highway. At the motel we were told that it was "a pretty fair" stretch of road.

Highway Eyesores

It wasn't too promising to start. The first mile and a half were full of typical highway eyesores--motels, fast-food joints, gas stations and self-service laundries.

But by the mile-and-a-half mark, all that was behind us. We were out in the wilds of the White Mountains, which are very green, but do have occasional granite outcroppings that give them their name.

A few of the last signs we saw--"Last Chance for Dry Wood for Campfires"; "No Gas for 32 Miles"--testified that we were leaving the glories of civilization behind. Temporarily.

And for the balance of the drive there were no businesses, no houses (save one, and more about that later) and few signs. Only signs such as "Drown Campfires" and other admonitions to campers marred the otherwise unspoiled beauty.

The 2,860-foot Mt. Kancamagus is off to the left. We learned from a ranger, later, that Kancamagus is pronounced "Can-ka-mah'-gus." But even that is uncertain; others we talked to said "Can-ka-may'-gus."

Entering Forest

At the four-mile mark we passed a sign saying we were "Entering White Mountain National Forest." The road, from then on, seemed to primarily ride along a ridge, mountains visible on both sides.

The Kancamagus virtually bisects the White Mountain area of New Hampshire. Famous Mt. Washington is to the north, Mt. Whiteface and some others to the south.

By the six-mile mark we had a constant companion. A lovely brook, one of those for which one must use the adjective babbling, ran alongside the road. Sometimes it was on one side, sometimes on the other, but rarely was it absent for the balance of the trip.

The road itself is fine. Two-lane, but lightly traveled, with plenty of areas for vehicles to pull over to let an impatient motorist pass.

The several hairpin turns are well marked and banked so they present no problems. Each is accompanied by a spectacular view of the mountains, trees, streams and an occasional lake.

Scenic Overlooks

At the 11-mile mark we came to the first of many scenic overlooks. You can pull over and admire the view at your leisure. At one, a few miles farther on, a panorama and a display sign identified the mountains you were looking at.

From left to right we saw Mt. Kancamagus, Mt. Osceola, Scar Ridge, Loon Mountain and Big Coolidge Mountain, foliage ablaze in the rich colors of New England autumn.

At the 16-mile mark we saw a gem of a little lake. It could have been where they filmed "On Golden Pond." New Hampshire natives insist the film was shot in their state, at whatever lake you happen to be talking about, but so do Vermont natives. Still, if this little lake weren't the one, it could have been.

At the 21-mile mark is Passaconaway--not a town, as such, but an area, where the state has an information center. Here you can take one of several well-marked trails and hike into the mountains.

The Passaconaway trail takes you, after a relatively easy 15-minute hike, to Sabbaday Falls. There you learn that Passaconaway was, years ago, a logging center. The falls are narrow and not exceptionally high, but in their rustic setting, they are beautiful.

Nature Trails

At many places along the Kancamagus Highway are signs indicating other nature trails.

At the 27-mile mark is a turnoff indicated to Rocky Gorge. There our old companion, the babbling brook, temporarily went berserk. It became a rushing stream, channeled into a narrow gorge and a series of rapids and small waterfalls.

The state has built a little bridge and walkway alongside and over the gorge, and it is a popular spot to stop and picnic or just observe the mad rush of the water.

"No Swimming or Wading," the signs advise, and the speed and frigid temperature of the water make the advice seem eminently sensible.

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