White Mountains of New Hampshire for Four Season Fun
Mt. Washington Cog Railway, White Mountains, New Hampshire
Wooded White Mountain Forest
View of the White Mountains Range

For active and outdoorsy families, the White Mountain region of New Hampshire offers bountiful outdoor fun for all seasons with some of the most beautiful mountain scenery on the East Coast.

In the upper half of New Hampshire lies a quietly hidden treasure of protected wilderness: the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) 603/536-6100.  Protected since 1918, it has now grown to almost 800,000 acres and draws over 6 million visitors each year.  The scenery is breathtaking and the appeal for adventurous families covers all seasons and many activities. 

The Presidential Range of mountains runs through the WMNF with 48 White Mountain 4000-footers throughout the park, not all of them presidential. As the highest mountain in northeastern North America, Mt. Washington is the granddaddy of them all at 6288 feet, and has proclaimed its mountaintop weather the world’s worst.  Within the WMNF there over 1200 miles of trails, 23 developed campgrounds, and 4 ski touring areas, plus 4 alpine ski areas.

The secret weapon of the White Mountains is the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which promotes the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the mountains, forests, waters, and trails of the Appalachian region.  In the White Mountains, the AMC has built a remarkable network of lodges and huts, helps maintain miles of trails, and provides organized hikes and activities throughout the area.

AMC Huts & Hikes for the Fit

The AMC operates two lodges within the WMNF: Highland Center Lodge and Joe Dodge Lodge, which are both modern full-service hotels, also offering dorm rooms for groups. Highland Center is near Crawford Notch, while the more rustic Joe Dodge is located in Pinkham Notch, right at the base of Mt. Washington and perfect for those who plan on tackling the Presidentials. Organized lectures and hikes help families select age-appropriate activities.

The AMC’s eight wilderness huts are found throughout the far reaches of the trail system and provide bunkhouse style facilities and hearty meals to hikers weary from the trail. Though trails vary widely in difficulty, a family would be smart to train for the more rigorous routes. The two most kid-friendly huts are Lonesome Lake Hut and Zealand Falls Hut, both short and relatively easy hikes from the trailhead. Tired hikers can refresh themselves with a swim in the lake at Lonesome, but the water can be chilly! Zealand Falls is right next to a beautiful waterfall with many chutes and pools—perfect for a foot soak.

The hut crews who man the huts in the summer, usually college students, are very friendly and often host activities such as explaining how that composting toilet really works—which your kids may enjoy for the gross-out factor—or talks on the local wildlife and the importance of protecting the forest.

The ideal plan for the huts is to start from a lodge (leaving heavier gear behind), then hike hut-to-hut for two days or more. The AMC operates shuttle buses that run throughout their system and bring hikers from their furthest points back to their point of origin.  Reservations are necessary in the summer months for both lodges and huts. 

Easy Family Day Hikes in the White Mountains

If a hut-to-hut hike seems too intense, there are numerous short day hikes that make for family fun.

The Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park provides a trail through a dramatic narrow chute shared with a raging stream. The hike through the 800-foot long gorge is a treat.

Also near Franconia Notch is Mt. Pemigewasset, a short and rewarding day hike. A 3 mile (round trip) trail to the top of the mountain rewards hikers with views of the notch from the mountain’s rock ledges. You can find many more trail suggestions and descriptions at HiketheWhites.

Mount Washington Valley Summer Attractions

Summer is a beautiful season to visit the Whites. For the non-hikers, the historic Mount Washington Cog Railway (c. 1869) will take you to the top of Mt. Washington (our recommendation), or you can do it the old-fashioned way and drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road. With the Cog, you’ll have bragging rights to having ridden the second steepest railway in the world. Rates in 2014 for the Cog are $66 for adults, $39 for kids, and the Auto Road is $28 per car, plus $8 for additional adults and $6 for kids. Children under age 5 ride for free. A CD audio guide is included for the Auto Road trip.

Whatever your means of conveyance, the view from the top is nothing short of spectacular, but can often be chilly and extremely windy. The summit’s normal maximum temperatures for the summer months are around 50°F, so make sure to bring a jacket with you. The Mount Washington Weather Observatory is another bonus at the summit, with a small museum, and gift shop and snack shop.  To explore its inner workings, you’ll need to become a member, which can be done on site.

In the area you’ll also find the Conway Scenic Railway, which offers two scenic train rides: one through the Mount Washington Valley and one through Crawford Notch. Fares start at $16 for adults, $11 for kids. Children under four ride for free.

In addition to the mountain scenery, the White Mountains are also host to some fun family theme parks and resorts. The Whale’s Tale Water Park has a large wave pool, 11 water slides, and a lazy river. All day tickets for 2014 are $35, and tickets for toddlers are $5.

At Attitash ski resort, summer brings the mile-long alpine slide, a Mountain Coaster, waterslides, lift-assisted mountain biking, climbing walls, and horseback riding. Wildcat Mountain, directly across from Mount Washington, offers a scenic gondola ride up to the summit with Lunch and Ride packages available so you can picnic at the top. For thrill seekers, you can also ride on the ½ mile long Ziprider, a zip line that reaches speeds of up to 45mph.

Younger kids will delight in Storyland, a fantasy-themed children’s theme park with 21 themed rides and storybook characters throughout the park.

Just interested in driving around and exploring? One notable White Mountain town is the prosperous and charming Littleton, home to the amazing Bishop’s Ice Cream and Lahout’s, a great outdoor equipment store. More famous is North Conway, an outlet store mecca.  Lincoln and North Woodstock are pleasant small towns with a good variety of restaurants near to the Loon Mountain ski resort.

Skiing & Winter Fun in the White Mountains

The AMC roster of activities can take care of the late spring, summer, and early fall, and for the hardiest hikers, the winter.  But for most families it is the ski areas of the White Mountains that take over winter duties, and do it well. 

Across the road from the Bretton Woods Ski Resort, the historic Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods is a luxurious getaway with stunning views. Though the rooms are a bit pricey, it may be worth it to stay in such a beautiful location. Built in 1902, the hotel hosted the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, with delegates from the Allied nations meeting to establish international monetary policy for the post-WWII period. It contains 200 luxury guest rooms and suites, including family suites. In addition to skiing, the hotel offers a year-round slate of activities, including a zip line, mountain biking, horseback riding, golf, and tennis, as well as spa services. Bretton Woods is New Hampshire’s largest ski resort, and the extensive selection of beginner and intermediate trails make it an ideal family destination.

The bustling town of Lincoln is centrally located between four of the state’s best ski areas, including Loon Mountain, Waterville Valley, and Cannon Mountain, which is one of the state’s oldest ski areas, and hosts the New England Ski Museum. All of these have well-regarded children’s ski and snowboard programs.  Attitash and Wildcat Mountains are also located in the area, as are numerous moderately-priced B&Bs and condos.  

The White Mountains are located about two hours from Boston, and under six hours from New York City. The closest and most convenient airports for the region are Boston’s Logan Airport and New Hampshire’s Manchester Airport. For more information on the White Mountain region, check out Visit White Mountains.com.

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