NORTH CONWAY — A ride along the Saco River aboard the Gertrude Emma, a 120-year-old Pullman parlor car, is more than a trip back in time; it’s a slow-moving journey through a picturesque strip of the Mount Washington Valley, with vistas that have lured autumn travelers here for almost 200 years.
Guests relax in white wicker chairs and listen to songs from the 1940s, oldies about railroad life. They gaze at color-sprinkled landscapes through open windows, while the grand old lady of the Conway Scenic Railroad makes a hypnotic clickety-clack as she crosses each joint in the track on the way to Bartlett. The train’s whistle blows as the steam engine chugs. You’re steeped in nostalgia and brilliant fall color.
Perhaps nobody knows the local fall colors as well as Mike Lacey, the CSRR’s head engineer. “It’s electric. All of a sudden, it’s like somebody turned on the electricity,” said Lacey, who marvels at the changing palette. “I describe it as neon.”
Beside round-trip excursions south to Conway village (one hour) and north to Bartlett (an hour and 45 minutes), CSRR offers a 50- to 60-mile, 5- to 5 1/2-hour roundtrip to Crawford Notch which takes passengers across the narrow, 85-foot-high Frankenstein Trestle (named for an artist who painted here), which spans a gap gouged in mountain rock by a stream.
Whether you’re a newcomer to New Hampshire or have lived here for most of your life, the journey is mesmerizing, a trek through postcard scenery that looks a little different each time. The ambiance of the antique train plus the resplendence of fall makes for a great sanity break.
For two centuries, the Mount Washington Valley has drawn tourists, artists and leaf peepers to bask in the changeover to fall. Time moves more slowly when you leave the main North Conway strip of boutiques, outlets and specialty stores. A warren of back roads winds past dairy farms, horse barns, hunting camps and colonial homes that are summer retreats. You hear crickets outside at night, no matter where you’re standing. In the 1800s, landscape painters of the Hudson River School flocked here from New York City to inhale the fresh air and immortalize Mount Washington from a variety of vantage points.
Today, North Conway is a mecca for shoppers, but it’s also a year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come for skiing, hiking, biking and paddling. Here you’ll find ways to enjoy the fall away from the hubbub, regardless of your age or athletic ability, and leave with reverence, and feeling restored.
Make your road trip part of your mini-vacation. From Boston, Nashua, Manchester or Concord, travel north on Interstate 93 to Exit 32 for Lincoln and head east on Route 112 past Loon Mountain on the Kancamagus Highway, a scenic byway that courses through overlooks and starting points for brief, satisfying, family-friendly hikes.
Lincoln Woods is a popular spot for walks with or without your dog, on a 2.6-mile trail that is wide and flat, tracing the vigorous, rocky East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.
As you head east to the Mount Washington Valley there are frequent pullouts with scenic views. One noteworthy stop with an easy but beautiful walk is Sabbaday Falls, which follows a stream to a cascade of waterfalls cut through granite. From the parking area about midway along the Kanc, the 0.7-mile trail starts as a dirt path and ends in a wooden, railed walkway that zigzags to closeup views. It’s popular for all ages, including grandparents with grandchildren enjoying a first hike. Beyond the uppermost section of boardwalk is a quiet streamside spot for wading or picnicking.
Just before the Kancamagus ends at Route 16 in Conway, stop at Rocky Gorge in Albany, where you can park and trace the bank of the Swift River through small rock plateaus you can stand on. Take the walking bridge across the river to a trail loop encircling quiet Falls Pond. The riverside trail through woods and the pond loop are about 1 mile roundtrip, and a cool and contemplative break from driving. No hiking shoes are necessary, but sneakers are wise.
Once you get to Conway, North Conway and Jackson, the possibilities for quick and easy scenic hikes walks expand with the views.
A good morning hike is Black Cap Path, a 2.3-mile trek through a pine and spruce forest to a bare rocky summit with views of Maine and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Reached from Hurricane Mountain Road in Intervale, it’s an easy to moderate trail, requiring sturdy footwear and a water bottle. An alternative time to try is golden hour, the bracket around sunset when colors are most intense.
A short ride from North Conway village is Diana’s Baths off West Side Road, a spectacular section of falls with great places to sit, wade, walk out on rocks, or sunbathe. It’s a 1.3-mile walk on a well-worn trail from the parking lot, winding through 100-foot pine trees near the start.
For great panoramic views, drive to the top of Cathedral Ledge, a park with nearly 360-degree views of the valley and flanking hills, and paths to walk around on top, with great options for snapping family photos with beautiful landscape backdrops. You’re likely to see climbers completing their arduous ascent up the ledge’s sheer face.
If you’re feeling adventurous or in need of a thrill, there are ziplines and gondola rides at Wildcat Mountain and Attitash, as well as Alpine disk golf on the ski slopes of Wildcat with a view of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington.
Dining choices abound in the valley as well. Among my personal favorites are:
Black Cap Grille in North Conway, which doubles as a sports bar Sunday afternoons, but which serves gourmet fare for lunch and dinner. The service is excellent, and the baked haddock, a New England classic, is top notch.
Barley and Salt Taphouse, at Settler’s Green outlet center, has an aficionado’s assortment of 30 craft beers and offers a great a la carte menu that lets you cobble together a feast from affordable, palate-worthy appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts that are fun to divvy up and share.
For a romantic gourmet dinner, make reservations at the Snowvillage Inn in Eaton Center, a short drive south on Route 153 from Conway. Start with drinks on a screen porch with a mountain view (blueberry mojitos in Mason jars with straws are a great way to wind down while gazing at the heroic landscape during golden hour), followed by an appetizer of crab cakes, served with corn relish and roasted red pepper remoulade, truly a standout. A favorite entrée: braised sea scallops on a bed of sautéed spinach, with a side of mashed winter squash.