A Mini Guide to The White Mountain National Forest for Families with Mini Hikers
Fairly often I get asked for suggestions on hikes and activities in the White Mountains that are kid friendly, where to go, what to do, and where to stay. This is my comprehensive list of all the hikes and attractions we have visited over the years. I have tried to note in each description if it is good for families with strollers/carrier, toddlers/preschoolers, big kids or combination of any. Click the blue title to view more information on each spot! We spend most of our time in the Lincoln/Franconia Notch area so this mini guide is mostly for activities in that area, but I have tried my best to include options in other areas of the White Mountain National Forest.
These hikes range from easy and stroller friendly to hard/strenuous for families with hiking experience and endurance. I recommend getting a real guide book such as AMC's Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains or White Mountain Guide: AMC’s Comprehensive Guide to Hiking Trails in the White Mountain National Forest to read full trail descriptions, and access to maps. Please always be prepared for any and all hikes. Carry your 10 essentials, tell your plans to a trusted person, stay together, and turn around if necessary. For more information visit www.hikesafe.com
The Basin is a glacial pothole created 25,000 years ago. This pothole is 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep is a natural wonder. This is a must see attraction when passing through Franconia Notch. It is easy to access from either side of I-93 with plenty of parking for cars and for larger campers or trailers. The wide and easy to follow paths follow a series of small waterfalls and even places you can dip your toes in (the water is COLD year round, so don’t plan on too much swimming). There are handicap accessible areas for viewing the Basin, as well as picnic tables and outhouses. Stroller Friendly in most areas, Dog Friendly and Free.
This natural Gorge features boardwalks that follow the gorge. You will be surrounded by 70ft granite walls. The hike starts at the Flume Gorge Visitor Center where you can learn about how it was formed. The hike is a 2 mile loop where the first section passes through a wooded trail, passing by glacial erratic boulders. Then after passing the Covered Bridge and Boulder Cabin you will then enter the actual Gorge. This is where the boardwalks and stair begin. Use caution as the walkways can be slippery when wet. At the top of the Gorge, you will find the Bear Den Cave, which is fun picture opportunity (no bears currently reside here!). The trail then winds back down to another small gorge and over another covered bridge and finishes back at the visitors center. There are two rain shelters along the way incase you happen to get caught in a passing rain. There are also picnic tables along the Ridge trail for breaks. No strollers, bring carriers to use for small children. Dogs are not allowed in the Gorge. Bathrooms are located in the visitors center. $
Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves-
This Gorge gets its name by how the river that runs through it disappears under granite rocks, before reappearing in another area. This park features 11 different caves in a wide variety of difficulties. Before entering each cave you will find a sign describing what you will find once inside and how to move through the cave. One cave named the Lemon Squeezer even features a “Squeeze Gauge” that if you can not fit through the frame, you will not fit through the cave. You do not need to enter the caves to enjoy Lost River, as you will find plenty to see from the boardwalks. However you might be amazed on how many caves you are able to complete. The first one is always the hardest and once you make it through one, the rest get easier (mentally!). The newest addition to Lost River Gorge is the Adventure Trail which is a 750ft long boardwalk out to the Bird Nest and Tree House and then over a 60ft Suspension bridge! A few things to note about Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves. This is NOT stroller friendly. Do not even attempt it. Also the caves are not accommodating to children in carriers. They are too small and narrow in many places. There were many places within the caves that I would have to remove my small daypack and toss it through openings, crawl on my stomach while my back rubbed the rock above me. The caves are best explored by preschoolers and up. My daughter managed most at 2.5 years old but had a lot of assistance from the adults in our group. Parents/Caregiver with a child that needs to be in a carrier can easily skip the caves while another parent/caregiver goes through the caves with older children. No Dogs. $
Bald Mountain/Artist Bluff-
This is a short an easy hike in Franconia Notch. The trail starts off near the Peabody Slopes of Cannon Mountain Ski area. After .25 miles there will be a short side trail to reach the open summit of Bald Mountain. There are some scrambles and steep slabs that can be hazardous when wet near the summit. This is something to consider if uncomfortable with this type of hikes. My daughter first did this hike at 2.5 years old and didn’t mind the scramble, but each time we have done it we have met other older children (and some adults) who have not be able to climb up. If scrambles aren’t your thing skip the Bald Mountain side trail and continue on to Artist Bluff. The rest of the trail is wooded and fairly level. The trail will begin to descend and pass by some large boulders and cliffs. The trail then spurs off to the open Artist Bluff view point. This viewpoint offers great views of Franconia Ridge, Cannon Mountain and Echo lake. Note of Caution- this view area does have steep drop offs so constant supervision of young children is necessary. The trail then descends steeply and there is a side trail to follow back to your car or alternatively you can follow the road back. This hike is not stroller friendly, good for toddlers (bring a backup carrier) dogs are welcome. Not stroller friendly.
Mount Pemi (Indian Head)-
This mountain on the NH 52 with a View hiking list is reached in just under 2 miles. It is often called Indian Head because the profile looks like an Indian warrior. The trail starts at the Flume Gorge Visitor center, take the Franconia Recreational Trail north and look for the Mount Pemi signs that direct you left. You will pass under I-93 through two tunnels which is fun for kids to experience. The trail then begins to climb uphill until leveling out near the summit. Note of Caution- This summit area has EXTREMELY steep drop offs. Constant supervision is necessary for young children. There are areas that are safer to take a break and enjoy the views. This hike is not stroller friendly, but does not feature any scrambles so those using carriers should not find it too difficult. At just under 4 miles roundtrip strong preschoolers and older can hike this without much need to be carried. Dogs are welcome on the trail.
This is a short but steep hike up to a mountain lake. The trail leaves Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch. The easy to follow trail features many switchbacks as you climb partly up Cannon Mountain. The trail ends after 1.6 miles at Lonesome Lake, home of an AMC hut. You can swim in the lake and visit the hut. During summer months you can book a stay at the hut which operates like a B&B, breakfast and dinner is included in your stay. In the off season guests need to bring all food, but are free to use the kitchen. The views from the lake are not to be missed. Generally the AMC runs promotions that children stay free during the summer months. This hike is not stroller friendly, but features no steep scrambles so those using carriers should not find it very difficult to manage. Dogs are welcome on the trail, but are not allowed within the Lafayette Place campground (passing though is ok) and they are not allowed in the hut. *Note in 2017 Part of the Lonesome Lake trail has been rerouted to follow Hi-Cannon trail while trail maintenance is done and should be open by fall 2017*
Mount Willard is also on the NH 52 With A View hiking list. This peak is located in Crawford Notch. Parking can be found at the Crawford Notch Depot and AMC Highland Center. To find the trail you must cross over the train tracks (they are still used!) and follow the trail into the woods. This trail is short at 1.6 miles to the summit but also features 1000 feet of elevation gain. You will pass by Centennial Pool on the way which is a small pool of water from the cascading waterfall. The trail is like walking up a washed out river bed. There are many rocks, so it is not stroller friendly, but those will carriers will be fine and does not have any scrambles. Preschoolers and older should be able to manage most if not all of this trail on their own. Note of Caution- The summit features steep drop offs so constant supervision with young children is necessary. Views of the southern presidentials and Crawford notch make this one of the most photographed views in the White Mountains. Look for the smoke from the trains as they come through the notch.
This hike is outside of the White Mountains, located in the Lakes Region it can be a good hike to visit on the way there or home. Located just a couple miles past the Squam Lake Science Center in Holderness NH this is a easy mountain to summit. Less than one mile up it follows a well maintained trail to an open summit. Toddlers can often call this the first mountain they complete on their own feet. The summit is fairly open, but there are some drop offs so caution is needed. The summit features awesome southern views of the lakes region. This trail is not stroller friendly, but those using carriers will find it easy without any steep scrambles. The trail is dog friendly.
Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram/Summit Loop-
The Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram is the highest pulley operated list in NH. This Tram fits around 80 passengers up and down the mountain. Once at the summit of Cannon Mountain (one of NH’s famous 4,000ft peaks) you will find a large Cafeteria (and BAR!), bathrooms and seating areas. There is a short scenic trail that leads to the observation tower. Views of the Franconia Ridge are stunning from this location. The trail is not stroller friendly, but they are allowed on the tram. No Dogs are allowed on the tram or in the summit building. $
Franconia Recreational Path-
This 8 mile paved path links the north and south ends of Franconia State Park. This is a stroller friendly path and good for new walkers. You can even rent bikes at the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram (trailers too!) and take off for a ride and they will pick you up at the Flume Gorge when you are done!
Forest Discovery Trail-
This 1.5 mile loop trail off the Kancamagus Highway features 10 stations with interpretive signs that teach users about different parts of the forest. It is rated as wheelchair accessible, so strollers should be able to manage the trail. There are bathrooms at the trailhead. $
Welch and Dickey
The Welch and Dickey Trail is 4.5 mile loop trail. It's actually a fairly moderate hike, but I rated it Black as the granite slab can be hazardous when wet or snow/ice is present. Also much of the hike is above the treeline so if you meet poor weather while hiking this trail there are areas where seeking shelter can be hard.
The trail (follows a Counterclockwise direction) starts out as an easy to moderate hike through the woods for just about a mile. You will then enter into an area that is similar to alpine zones on the higher peaks in the WMNF. Stay out of the protected areas and on the trail. Explain to young children very small plants will be harmed when stepped on. You will now spend most of the hike above the trees and will occasionally pass through forest sections, as you alternate hiking up very steep slab. These steep slabs are smooth (unlike the steep scrambles on Monadnock), use of hands are rarely needed. Be prepared for a calf burner. The trail is fairly easy to follow but there are a few areas that blazes appear to be missing or can be found in an odd twist in the trail, also times you will be following cairns. The hike above the treeline ends with a walk along a steep ridge which is breathtaking but an area any young hikers need to be watched carefully. After this ridge walk you are back into the woods for the last mile or so.
If you are looking for a somewhat family friendly 4,000 footer to tackle, consider Jackson in Crawford Notch. This is a 5.2 mile round trip hike, that features some pretty tough scrambles as you near the summit area. The rest of the trail is actually fairly easy in areas. Be prepared for mud and a few small water crossings as you go. If summiting Jackson isn’t in your cards, there is also an option to hike smaller Webster, or there are two small spur trails to Elephant head rock, just a short distance from the trailhead, and Bugle Cliff a mile or so in. Both of these would make good hikes depending on how strong of hikers your family is. The trailhead is located on Route 302 in Crawford Notch near the depot, parking is free but be sure you park off the road.
Morgan Percival *
* These are all suggestions I have heard for hikes for more adventurous families. I have not hiked them yet, but will update once I have!
There is more to do than hike in the WMNF check out some of these attractions to make more childhood memories!
Clarks Trading Post-
Home of the Famous Trained Black Bears and Wolfman! This is a small attraction park in Lincoln NH. It features a 30 minute trained bear show featuring Tula and Echo. This is an entertaining and educational show. The bears are kept and trained very humanely and outlive their wild counterparts. You can take a ride on the White Mountain Central Railroad, but be warned once you cross over the covered bridge you are entering Wolfman’s Territory! Real warning- he can be frightening to some children and this ride features use of a pop gun and fireworks. There are bumper boats, a raft water slide, segway rides, rock climbing wall and museums to explore. There are a few food choices or you can bring in your own food. $
The Disney World of the North! Located in Glen, just north of North Conway, this park is geared to preschoolers and elementary age kids. It features ridge and attractions for all ages. From train rides, to roller coasters all kids will enjoy this place. $
It's christmas time all year at Santa's Village, Located in Jefferson, this amusement park features rides for all ages, and even a water park all included in the admission price! Here you can even visit with Santa’s Reindeers and feed them treats! $
I don’t think I have yet to meet a toddler who is not amazed by trains. The Hobo Railroad in Lincoln offers many Kids Friendly scenic rides. On Sundays they usually do a Storybook ride where children are treated to an on board story. They also do special events throughout the summer. At the train station they have a large playground for kids to enjoy. $
Mount Washington Auto Road-
This drive is not for the faint of heart but it really is an amazing experience. You will take the 8 mile road to the summit. This road is mostly paved, but there are some dirt sections. It features a 12% grade and no guardrails. The road is wide enough for two cars to pass, but at some areas it will have you questioning your sanity! The road has many areas where you can pull off to the side and give your car and knuckles a rest. At the summit you will find the Mount Washington Weather Observatory, gift shop, cafeteria and museums. A note of caution- bring extra layers up with you! It can be 80 degrees and sunny at the base of the mountain, but it can be cloudy in the 40s with 50mph wind gusts at the summit. That is exactly what we experienced on our visit! $
(Kanc-ah-mangas) This 34 Mile Scenic HIghway connects Lincoln NH to North Conway. Along the way you will find many trailheads, campgrounds and scenic vistas. There are no stores or gas stations along this highway so be prepared for the drive.
Loon Mountain Adventure Park-
In an attempt to attract users year round Loon Mountain has added an Adventure Park. The park features an aerial climbing park, ziplines, rock wall, and Glacial Caves. There are different package options you can purchase. Most of the Aerial Adventure Park features are for older kids who meet certain height and/or weight requirements. Younger children can enjoy a Gondola (a 4 person enclosed ski lift) to the summit of the ski area, at the summit you will find a mountain top playground, walking trails and observation tower and cafeteria and restrooms. Also at the top is the Glacial Caves (included in your Gondola ticket). There are 10 caves located here and will test your guts. Unlike Lost River (described above) once you enter the 3rd cave, you must do the next 6 caves as they are all linked together. The last cave is the hardest and can be skipped. As previously stated under Lost River the caves are not stroller or carrier friendly. They are very small spaces and often times your crawling on your stomach as your back is rubbing the rocks above you. Neither front nor back carry are safe within the caves. There is a boardwalk for anyone who needs to bypass the caves can do so, which offers gorgeous views.
There are MANY camping options in the White Mountains, here a few I have stayed at over the years. In addition to these there are Federal Campgrounds which average $25/night depending on location and amenities. Some take advanced reservations, some are First Come, First Serve. Campgrounds usually book up quickly for weekends so make reservations as soon as possible. If planning on finding a FC/FS site for a weekend it is recommended showing up by Thursday Afternoon to get a site. There is a sign board right off Exit 32 that will show which campgrounds have openings. Click here for a Booklet of all Forest Service campgrounds in the WMNF
This small and rustic campgrounds offers just enough modern conveniences and none of the expensive resort frills. They have cabins, rental campers, riverfront tent sites, and RV sites. Their rates are competitive with the local state and federal campgrounds. A grassy tent campsite (no hookups) on the Pemi River is only $26/night, a RV sites range from $29-$47/night depending on hookup and location. Cabins Range from $74-120/night depending on size and amenities. The campground offers free wifi, free hot showers, on site laundry, playground, duck pond, arcade and a camp store. Dog Friendly without extra fee.
Crawford Notch Campground-
This rustic campground is large and offers a variety of sites, mostly for tent camping. They have 9 RV friendly sites (no sewer hookups), but will accommodate pop up campers on select sites. They also have a few cabins and yurts to rent. RV sites are on Route 302 so it's heavy with traffic noise, tent sites can be far away from the bath house and drinkable water. There is ZERO cell service. Showers are coin operated. No Playground. They have a pet surcharge of $5/night. Rates range from $36-98/night (I do not recommend this campground for families as I feel that it has a lot of misses and you can get a site at the Dry River State Park for $25/night or others closer to North Conway that offer more for about the same price. However it's the only campground that I have stayed at in the area)
There are many hotels, condo rentals, and hostels in the area. Check online for the best rates and packages available. This is the only one we have stayed at.
Days Inn Lincoln
This used to be The Beacon Resort, but new owners have converted it to a Days Inn. Rooms are basic hotel rooms. Nothing fancy. They have an indoor pool, outdoor pool, playground and continental breakfast.