THE WHITE MOUNTAINS OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: A PLAYGROUND FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Many RVers believe vacations fall into two categories: the ones you take with the kids (think Fort Wilderness) and the ones you take without the kids (think Napa Valley). Over the last six years, we learned that the best RV vacations offer the right balance of thrills and relaxation for everyone, and we love discovering destinations that kids, parents, and grandparents can all enjoy equally. The White Mountains of New Hampshire win the blue ribbon in this category.
Located at the northern end of the Appalachian range, the White Mountains host 48 peaks that rise over 4,000 feet, including Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. The rugged terrain, glacial formations, and rushing waterfalls have beckoned tourists since the early 1800s. Hundreds of years later the tourism industry is still booming, drawing us in with its promise of world-class hiking and kayaking.
But the region offers even more than endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. The White Mountains is also known for an abundance of theme parks, charming downtown boutiques, and roadside curiosities. A single day of vacation can include a stunning hike, a paddleboat rental, and a brewery tour. So if you love kayaking and your kids love rollercoasters, then pack up the RV and head to New Hampshire.
There are many wonderful places to stay when visiting the White Mountains, but our favorite basecamp is the Lincoln/Woodstock KOA located in Franconia Notch, one of the more popular areas in the region. The owners, Rob and Darlene, are longtime locals and gave us the lowdown on all the best hiking, food, and secret cliff-diving spots. They helped us plan out an itinerary that had us head over heels in love with this destination by the end of day one.
On our first morning we headed out to Franconia Notch State Park to hike the show-stopping Flume Gorge. We arrived when it opened at 8:30 am and were practically alone for the entire hike to the top of the gorge. By the time we were coming down, the tour buses had arrived and the crowds were building. We were so relieved we had come early and enjoyed the stunning natural wonder in peace.
We purchased the Discovery Pass which includes admission to the Flume Gorge and a ride on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, just a couple of miles up the highway. So after a ridiculously delicious lunch at the Flume Gorge Visitor Center (grilled cheese and tomato on Texas toast, for the win), we were whisked up to the 4,100-foot summit of Cannon Mountain where we took in views of Maine, Vermont, and Canada. A short loop trail at the top led us to an observation tower that the kids scrambled up in seconds. Another highlight? The Old Man in the Mountain Museum, where an amazing rock installation helps visitors visualize what the “Old Man” looked like before the mountain face crumbled off overnight in 2003.
With three young children in tow, we planned our hikes to maximize views with minimal effort. If you have ever carried a toddler in a backpack, you will understand this strategy well. The Artist’s Bluff Trail is a perfect 1.5-mile loop right next door to Echo Lake, where we let the boys swim and play after their hard mountain climb. The Basin hike is also kid friendly and offers plenty of water to splash in along the way.
On day two of our time in Franconia Notch, we got a bit more adventurous and went for the rock scrambling and dramatic views of Bald Mountain. Our boys knew in advance what their reward would be for all that hard work: a visit to Chutters in nearby Littleton, which claims to have the world’s longest candy counter. We didn’t get a chance to fact check that as we were too busy keeping our boys’ hands out of the candy jars. While in town, we also ate lunch at the Littleton Diner, famous for hosting presidential hopefuls as they stump through the state during primary season.
Another amazing road food joint is the Sunny Day Diner in Lincoln, where we stuffed ourselves with pancakes and eggs benedict before crossing the street to visit Clark’s Trading Post, one of the oldest roadside attractions in the White Mountains. Blaster boats, Segway rides, and a tilted house are just a few of the kitschy activities available here. The real star of the show, though, is the 25-minute ride on a steam-powered locomotive. We innocently boarded the train thinking we were about to enjoy a scenic ride through the New Hampshire woods. Little did we know that an elaborate drama involving the Wolf Man was about to unfold. Plenty of antics ensued, and the kids were all encouraged to shout things like, Scram you old goat.
Believe us, our kids remember this train ride a lot better than the views from Cannon Mountain.
There is no shortage of amusement parks in the White Mountains, and our absolute favorite is Santa’s Village, a pristine theme park located in Jefferson. Our boys rode the log flume literally dozens of times, and since this is Santa’s summer home, they were also able to sit on his lap and offer a few suggestions for Christmas gifts. Storyland and Whale’s Tale are two other awesome parks nearby, and the trick for us is always deciding which one to visit.
It would be unthinkable to visit the White Mountains without taking the trip up Mount Washington, known to have some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. The morning we departed for the highest peak in the Northeast, it was a warm 78 degrees at the campground. As we climbed the Mount Washington Auto Road — more of a white-knuckle driving experience than we ever imagined — the temperature kept dropping lower and lower, bottoming out at 42 degrees. In July.
We were prepared with sweaters and windbreakers, but nothing prepared us for the strength of the winds at the top. After a quick photo op, we ran inside to tour the museum and buy some hot chocolate. It may sound a little corny, but we loved listening to the audio tour that they give you when you buy your tickets to drive up the road. The history of the region and wild feats of engineering were fascinating.
The rugged topography of the White Mountains means it takes some time to fully explore the region. Every visit means a new mountain notch to explore, a new waterfall to swim under, and a new roller coaster to ride. Although Franconia Notch is the most accessible in many ways, Crawford Notch State Park hosts Arethusa Falls and Elephant Head Rock, two of our all-time favorite family hikes. We also dream about returning to the Highland Center Lodge, run by the AMC, where we ate homemade soup and bread, and sipped on craft beers, all while watching our boys play in a beautiful outdoor adventure park.
And that is how we remember the White Mountains of New Hampshire — as a playground for every member of our family. The hiking, kayaking, cliff diving, swimming, roller-coaster riding, candy-eating, and tram-riding made us feel lucky to be playing against one of the most beautiful backdrops in the country.
It is always recess time in the White Mountains.
To see more recommendations for the White Mountains and dozens of other RV Destinations, check out Stephanie and Jeremy’s book Idiot’s Guide to RV Vacations.