Heading to the White Mountains with kids? There is so much great stuff to see and do in this beautiful corner of New Hampshire! Check out the recap of our trip below, including lots of tips and information for planning your own family vacation.
We tried to keep our expectations low during our first family vacation. It was our first time traveling as a family of four, with two kids under the age of three. COVID-19 and its consequent impact on travel were still an unpredictable threat. Our original plan had been to travel through Ontario and Quebec, Canada, so New England was our second choice destination, and there was a small worry that we would be disappointed.
Frankly, we weren’t exactly sure what we were getting into.
But then New Hampshire absolutely blew us away. The state was so impossibly gorgeous and easy to love that I found myself turning to M and asking, “So… are we moving to New Hampshire?!” Now, even though I look back on our time in Rhode Island and Vermont fondly, it is New Hampshire that I think of most often and can’t wait to revisit as soon as possible.
Today, I want to share some highlights of our time in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with our kids. If you’re looking for a family-friendly destination with lots of fun things to do, especially outdoors, then this area might be perfect for you!
White Mountains Overview
Covering a massive part of New Hampshire and some of Maine, the White Mountains are a northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains. They are a wonderland of natural attractions, from glacially-carved valleys and gorges to waterfalls, caves, and lush green forests. The highest mountain on the United States East Coast is here, a formidable peak called Mount Washington where the weather can change in an instant and winds once reached a speed of 231 miles per hour.
Some of the most famous mountains include the Presidential Range, a series of peaks named after former US heads of state and other prominent Americans. Part of the area is protected as White Mountain National Forest, which provides ample opportunities for hiking, backcountry camping, wildlife and bird viewing, skiing, whitewater rafting, and more. The White Mountains’ easy driving distance from Boston and coastal New England makes them a popular year-round destination for millions of visitors each year.
Day 1: Echo Lake State Park
One of the major goals for this first family vacation of ours was to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Not only were we headed to a beautiful area of the United States, but getting outside would provide some low-cost fun while also giving E plenty of opportunities to burn off all that toddler energy.
Our first full day in New Hampshire provided us with the perfect setting for our first hike as a family of four: Echo Lake State Park.
Echo Lake was perfect for us because it:
- is located less than two miles off Route 302, the main road through North Conway;
- features a flat, .8-mile-long loop trail around the eponymous lake that was the perfect distance for our toddler; and
- was stunningly beautiful.
We were fortunate to have a gorgeous, blue-sky morning on the day we headed to Echo Lake. After paying our entrance fee, parking, and changing what felt like our thousandth diaper blowout of the trip thus far, we hit the trail. First, we passed through a nice picnic and recreation area, where we certainly would have enjoyed a packed lunch if we’d brought one.
It didn’t take long before we were in full view of Echo Lake and the massive rock faces that make it so scenic.
A wide stretch of sand led down to the calm, blue-green water.
The trail looped around the lake, sometimes hugging the water’s edge but mostly leading through the forest.
Whether by design or the work of visitors, there were also numerous offshoot paths cutting down to the water at various points along the way. E, of course, wanted to take each one for a new opportunity to toss sticks and/or stones into the lake.
At last, to E’s delight, we reached the main recreation area and allowed him to run squealing into the lake. It was a little chilly, and we hadn’t brought a swimsuit, but he had a blast splashing and swimming around in the calm, shallow water. The rest of us, meanwhile, basked in the bright sunlight and the incredible scenery.
By the time we got E dried off and changed into his spare set of clothes, we were all pretty hungry. We drove the short distance back into town, grabbed takeout from the scrumptious Stairway Cafe, and returned to our home base for naptime. Thanks to the exertion of the hike and the excitement of his impromptu swim, E slept like a log.
Tips for Echo Lake State Park with Small Children
- On a warm day, be prepared for the kids to take a dip in the water. There are nice bathhouse facilities near the park entrance where you can change clothes and diapers.
- At the time of writing, entrance fees for the park were $4 per adult and $2 for each child aged 6-11.
- While we drove right in, the park can fill up on nice weekends and holidays, so consider booking your entrance in advance via the state park website.
If you have older children or more time...
- Try one of the longer and more scenic hikes. I’ve read that Cathedral Ledge (also its own state park, but hikable from Echo Lake) is particularly stunning.
- In good/warm weather, spend a few hours at the little beach.
Day 2: The Mt. Washington Cog Railway
Our second day in New Hampshire just might have been the best day of E’s short life thus far. Within a 12-hour span, he got to ride a train, eat lunch overlooking a golf course, play miniature golf, and eat a giant dessert.
I mean, what more could a 2.5-year-old golf and machinery aficionado want?
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is a three-mile rack-and-pinion railway that climbs all the way to the top of the tallest mountain on the US East Coast. Not only is it incredibly scenic, ascending through the tree line with views of the gorgeous White Mountains all around, but it’s a mechanical marvel and a piece of history. Although you can hike or drive up Mount Washington, there’s no doubt that the railway is the most charming and memorable way to reach the top.
Visiting the Cog Railway is one of the most popular things to do in New Hampshire, and we thought it would make a great activity for our machine-obsessed 2.5-year-old. Our train tickets were actually the only activity we booked in advance for the entire trip, and we’re very glad we did. We were able to get seats at the very front of the train, and fortuitously had chosen the left side, which seemed to be a bit more scenic than the right.
It wasn’t long after M and I got the two of us settled with a kid on each lap that the train chugged into motion and began its ascent.
I wrote a full account of our journey on the Mount Washington Cog Railway in another post, so this recap will be a bit abbreviated. But suffice it to say that this trip was well worth the price of admission for the scenery alone!
The views from the upper portions of the railway were stunning. The trees fell away to reveal green mountains rolling off into the distance, stretching all the way into Vermont and Quebec before disappearing into the horizon.
At last, we reached the summit and emerged from the train into a chilly fog. This wasn’t unusual; the summit of Mount Washington is notorious for terrible weather, and especially for wind. The highest wind speed on in the northern and western hemispheres – a whopping 231 miles per hour – was recorded here in 1934. I knew when we booked the trip that it was likely that we wouldn’t be able to see much from the top, and for a few minutes, I was right.
But then, Mount Washington’s fickle weather began to work in our favor, and the clouds began to dissipate.
The rest of our time at the summit was beautiful, with mostly blue skies, some fluffy white clouds, and unobstructed views for miles in every direction. Depending on which way we were looking, we could see all the way to Vermont, Quebec, Maine, or Massachusetts. We could even spot the thin line of the Atlantic Ocean along the eastern horizon!
After our hour at the summit, we boarded our return train for the trip back down the mountain. The journey was just as scenic as the way up, though I’m glad I couldn’t see the steep drop in front of us!
By the time we returned to Marshfield Base Station, it was well after noon and we were all pretty famished. There weren’t many open places to eat near the Mount Washington Cog Railway, but that ended up working in E’s favor. The closest place we found was The Grille at the Bretton Woods Golf Clubhouse & Nordic Center near the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods. The resort was incredibly picturesque: a large, white, red-roofed hotel with all the glamor of the turn of the 20th century and a backdrop of soaring mountains.
After a quick drive-by, we parked at the golf course clubhouse and had lunch on the terrace overlooking the 18th hole. E loves golf (it’s genetic on his father’s side), so he was in his glory eating grilled cheese and watching the golfers play. Now, when we say we’re going out for lunch, he still often asks if we’re going to eat at the golf course.
After lunch we drove back to our condo. The kids fell asleep almost as soon as the wheels began to move, so M and I got to enjoy the beautiful drive in a reverent silence. Upon our return, M took E to play mini golf at Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf (I’m serious, the kid’s obsessed) while I did a couple loads of laundry. Later that night, we had a fantastic dinner at Tuckerman Brewing Company, where E’s kid’s meal came with an entire ice cream sandwich that our server decorated with dollops of whipped cream and a generous drizzle of chocolate syrup.
Best. Day. Ever.
Tips for the Mount Washington Cog Railway with Small Children
- I wrote an entire post about our ride on the Cog, including lots of tips for planning your own trip. Don’t miss it!
- There are no bathrooms on the train, so make sure everyone has a last-minute potty break before each leg of the trip.
- Regardless of the weather down below, make sure to bring warm clothes for the summit.
If you have older children or more time...
- Spend some time in the White Mountain National Forest. There were lots of gorgeous-looking hiking trailheads and scenic viewpoints along the way to the Cog Railway.
- Take a hike around the summit of Mount Washington. The Summit Loop trail is fairly difficult but features great views. Make sure to be prepared for any weather.
Day 3: The Kancamagus Highway
Although the next stop on our family road trip was in Vermont, we still spent the bulk of our day in the White Mountains. On today’s itinerary: the Kancamagus Scenic Byway.
Especially famous for its fall foliage, the Kancamagus is a 34.5 mile-long section of Route 112 that runs between the towns of Conway and Lincoln. It passes through the White Mountain National Forest and includes plenty of photo stops, hiking trails, waterfalls, picnic areas, and other recreation spots.
We set off into a cloudy morning, but the views were still beautiful. Again, little hints of autumn colored our way.
Our first stop was the Albany Covered Bridge, about six miles down the highway. We rumbled across the bridge in the car, but then there were lots of small trails and viewpoints to explore the area on foot. It was a peaceful little spot, with the bridge spanning a slow-moving river filled with countless rocks and boulders worn smooth over the centuries.
It was also a great place for E to stretch his legs and indulge in one of his most favorite pastimes (besides golf): throwing rocks into water to see the splash.
There were hiking trails nearby, but we still had a long way to go to reach our destination in Vermont. So we continued west along the Kancamagus.
Within moments, we were stopping again, this time at the Lower Falls scenic area. Located right alongside the highway, it’s impossible to miss. There, the Swift River tumbles over huge boulders and rock formations, creating pretty waterfalls and beautiful pools perfect for swimming.
It was too cold for a dip, so I just spent a few minutes admiring the views before we continued on our way.
Next on our list was a stop at the Sabbaday Brook Trail, which ambles an easy 0.3 miles to Sabbaday Falls. There are lots of longer or more difficult hikes along the Kancamagus, but this one seemed perfect for our little family.
The Sabbaday Trail and Falls area is a nice place to stop for a snack or meal, as there are a number of picnic tables tucked into shaded alcoves of the forest. My understanding is that it can get crowded in the summer or peak fall foliage season, but we had plenty of space to ourselves when we visited.
E got to spend some more time tossing rocks and sticks into the slow-moving stream, and later we made our way up the trail to the falls themselves. The trail was wide and easy, with a bit of incline as we neared the falls but nothing unmanageable for our two-year-old. It was nice to be surrounded by such lush greenery, with the distant rumble of the falls getting steadily closer.
It didn’t take long at all to reach the falls, which tumbled over a mishmash of rocks in a rush of white water.
A wooden walkway and stairs allowed us to get up close and personal and admire the cataract from all angles.
After giving the waterfall its due, it was time to hit the road again. If we had had older kids or more time, I would have loved to spend the whole day along the Kancamagus Highway. There were so many beautiful overlooks, tempting trails, and other fun places to explore. As it was, however, the troops were getting hungry and tired, so we pushed on.
Especially as we got into some of the higher passes through the mountains, the scenery was just stunning. Eventually, however, we emerged from the national forest and back into civilization.
It was well into the afternoon by that point, so we stopped at the Woodstock Inn Brewery. There, we enjoyed a tasty late lunch on their flower-filled patio until a thunderstorm chased us indoors.
Tips for the Kancamagus Highway with Small Children
- Lower Falls is a great spot for a picnic or bathroom break, as there are facilities available. Just make sure to keep an eye on the kids and NEVER enter the water if it is high or rushing.
- Make sure to pack water and snacks, as there are no services along the highway.
If you have older children or more time...
- Take advantage of the many hiking trails and other scenic viewpoints along the way.
- In warm weather, go for a swim at the Lower Falls.
- The Woodstock Inn also offers accommodations if you’d like to break up the trip to Vermont to really enjoy the Kancamagus.
Other Things to Do In the White Mountains with Kids
There is enough to do in the White Mountains to fill a few weeks if you have them! Here are some additional suggestions beyond what is listed above:
- There is so much more to do outdoors than we had time (or the ability, given our kids’ ages and stamina) to do! Hiking, rock climbing, fishing, mountain biking, camping, and all manner of winter sports are available in the White Mountains. You can even go gold panning!
- Take advantage of the White Mountains’ many rivers and streams by going white water rafting, kayaking, or canoeing.
- Go on a moose safari or other wildlife tour!
- Spend some time walking the main drag through North Conway (White Mountain Highway, or Rt. 302). There are lots of great restaurants, shops, boutiques, and other places to explore and fill a couple of hours.
- Just outside of North Conway is a family amusement park called StoryLand, which also has an aquarium onsite. Both were recommended to us for a return visit.
- In addition to the Cog Railway, train enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the Conway Scenic Railway. These multi-hour journeys depart right from downtown North Conway and travel into the White Mountains. There is also a one-hour Conway Valley Train for small children.
Where to Stay in the White Mountains with Kids
For our trip to the White Mountains, we based ourselves near North Conway, a convenient jumping-off point for many of the attractions in the area. The main road through town is lined with restaurants and shops on one side, with the Conway Scenic Railroad, a fire station, and a nice playground and community center on the other.
The Harvey Dow Gibson playground was a major bonus for the kids, as it allowed E to burn off some energy multiple times during our stay in North Conway. It’s funny how you can take kids all over the world, but sometimes there’s nothing better than a good playground.
Our home for the next few days was an Airbnb outside of town in the Nordic Village Condominium Resort. Our particular condo was tucked away in the woods off the highway. Although there are plenty of great places to stay in North Conway that would have put us closer to dining and shopping options, we really liked being a bit removed from the action.
Our hosts had clearly done a lot of work to update the place and turn it into a cozy mountain retreat. There was plenty of living space and three bedrooms that allowed us to spread out. Considering we were going to be coming back to the condo for afternoon naps and turning in early for the kids’ bedtimes, it was nice to have the extra space.
Despite being part of our second-choice itinerary, New Hampshire’s White Mountains dazzled us with their beauty and awed us with their overabundance of fun things to do with kids. We would return in a heartbeat – as our first choice this time! – and hope you will also consider spending some time in this gorgeous corner of the United States.
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