The White Mountains May Be the Most Fun, Overlooked Peaks in New England
General stores, snowy peaks, and tons of maples syrup to pour on award-winning pancakes.
State nicknames say a lot about a place, and when it comes to New England, nature reigns supreme. Maine is the Pine Tree State, Massachusetts is the Bay State, Vermont is the Green Mountain State. Though New Hampshire’s leading nickname is the Granite State, after its granite quarries, another lesser-known but equally as important sobriquet is the White Mountain State. The latter speaks to its arguably most visit-worthy area—especially when winter rolls around.
The White Mountains—home to Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast (casual)—offers up the staples that travelers come to New England for: general stores, maple syrup, rolling landscapes. But during its coldest season, the area transforms into a winter wonderland mecca, complete with snow-centric outdoor activities and hibernal indoor spots (roaring fires and hot toddies galore).
Perhaps the best part about this neck of the woods? You don’t need to ski or snowboard to feel like you belong, a stereotype that often comes with New England winters (and yes, sometimes it’s true). While the ski resorts are there if you want them, the “things to do” list goes well beyond hitting the slopes.
Head to Mount Washington for a scenic (and snowy) ride aboard a legendary cog railway, then visit a fortress made of 25 million pounds of ice. Trade the cold for general store hopping to stock up on local cheese, fudge, and booze before heading to your hotel that’s known for its rich history, but with a twist (something about ghosts, more on that later).
Whatever you choose to do during your time in the White Mountains, you’ll never not be surrounded by glorious, snow-capped peaks that give the region its name. Welcome to the Colorado Rockies of the Northeast, folks.
First thing’s first: rent a car
If you’re not within driving distance of the White Mountains, book a flight to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, which is roughly a 1.5-hour drive to the town of Campton, aka the southernmost point of White Mountains territory. Luckily, you can rent a car right at the airport, which is highly recommended in a state where the lyrics of “Life Is a Highway” never resonated more. Just remember, eyes on the road—you will get distracted by the beautiful mountains from your seemingly tiny car.
Hot tip: New Hampshire has no sales tax, so stop at the various NH Liquor and Wine Outlets hugging the highway for local, national, and international selections. When in New Hampshire!
Ride up Mount Washington
Sure, seeing the mountain with the tallest peak in the Northeast is cool, but stepping foot on it? Bragging rights granted.
Mount Washington is one of 13 mountains that makes up the Presidential Range, with more than half its peaks named after US presidents. Being the tallest of them all, Mount Washington is equipped with a cog railway built in 1868 that brings passengers up the mountain. While the summit isn’t reachable in the winter due to weather conditions, a train can get you to Waumbek Station, located at an elevation of 4,000 feet (about two-thirds up the way).
If you prefer to drive, Marshfield Station is a fully accessible stop that stays open to visitors all year round, situated at an elevation of 2,700 feet. You’ll still get some pretty snappable views, plus you can pop into the Cog Railway Museum for a quick history lesson and refreshing bevvy.
For those seeking an unconventional mode of transportation, sign up for a seat on the SnowCoach. The vehicle sits on four triangular tracks, and the tour brings you up the Auto Road, a famed 7.6 toll road that is otherwise closed off for the winter. After a photo op at 4,200 feet, you can opt-out of the SnowCoach and in to snowshoeing for the descent.
Warm up in general stores oozing with nostalgia
Nothing feels better than getting to the entrance of a general store, all bundled up, knowing that on the other side, shelves of jarred jams, homemade fudge, maple sweets, and every trinket you could imagine await you. That’s exactly what you’ll get at Zeb’s General Store in North Conway, where maple syrup greets you at the door (an effective thirst trap).
Speaking of maple syrup, Fadden’s General Store and Maple Warehouse in North Woodstock makes the good stuff in their very own backyard (and you can sign up for a tour). Harman’s Cheese & Country Store in Sugar Hill produces their own cheese, including their famous “really-aged cheddar” that, as the name suggests, has been aged for a really long time: more than two years. Locals eat this stuff up.
And remember, no *clap* sales *clap* tax.
Eat award-winning pancakes, syrup, and other goodies
The syrup talk is not over, my friends (it never is when you’re in New Hampshire), especially when there’s still pancakes to discuss—and in the White Mountains, that means Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill. This spot isn’t just good: Polly’s won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2006. Go big with a fluffy stack of pancakes drizzled in maple syrup, and don’t forget a dollop of their homemade maple spread. Another place to get your breakfast fix: Benton’s Sugar Shack in Thornton, which serves the perfect plate of face-sized pancakes and crispy bacon alongside their homemade maple syrup (so you can buy your syrup and eat it, too).
Switching forms of sugar, the next stop on this train is Chutters in Littleton, home to the world’s longest candy counter of 112 feet with over 500 varieties to choose from. And if you’re making your way to Lincoln (more reasons to do so below), pop by Moon Café & Bakery for some of their warm, gooey brownies that pair perfectly with a cup of hot cocoa.
Skip the log cabin and stay at a historic hotel
After retiring the car for the night, you’re going to want a place where you can put your feet up. Why not pick a historic spot to immerse yourself further in the White Mountains ethos?
Enter the Omni Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods. While the property is tucked away from the main drag, it’s almost impossible to miss it with Mount Washington hovering over like a halo. Once you walk into the lobby, you’re transported back to 1902, when the hotel first opened. It’s even rumored that the owner’s wife, Carolyn, still lives in the hotel (don’t worry, a friendly tenant), and ghost aficionados jump at the opportunity to book her old quarters in Room 314.
For unwinding, there are two heated pools (one indoor, one outdoor), hot tubs, a spa, and outdoor fire pits for s’more-making. Grab dinner at the Main Dining Room, which underwent renovations last year, and end with a nightcap at the hotel’s speakeasy, The Cave. And when you’re starting to itch for adventure again, you can book an onsite activity like a sleigh ride or canopy zip line to get your adrenaline pumping—without having to get in the car.
Speaking of adventure, you can choose your own if staying at the Adventure Suites in North Conway. Quirky, unexpected, and historic, this one-of-a-kind hotel has suites designed with themes in mind. Rooms range from Showtime, catering to the film fanatic with a private movie theater, to Roman Rendezvous, an Ancient Rome-inspired space with a dome projector displaying the stars. Escapism, here you come.
Hit the slopes—or skip right to apres ski
There’s no denying that the White Mountains is a dream come true for skiers and snowboarders: the region is home to nine of the state’s 18 alpine resorts, which means lots of places to hit après ski.
Loon Mountain Resort in Lincoln makes boozy hot drinks named after its trails at the Paul Bunyan Room, and Attitash Mountain Resort in Bartlett has live music and cold beers at Ptarmigans Pub. Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway is home to Meister Hut, serving gooey grilled cheese to go with your beer or wine, and Bretton Woods Ski Resort offers summit views from Rosebrook Lodge, where you can enjoy a cocktail and Bavarian pretzel while watching the world go by.
If you want to skip skiing and get right to a good drink, Woodstock Inn Brewery in Woodstock is a solid place to start. What began as a B&B has grown into a fully functioning brewery and venue space. Come for the wide selection on tap, stay for the award-winning chili that’ll warm your soul.
Over in Lincoln, you can hit a bunch of drinking spots all from one parking lot. There’s Seven Birches Winery, which has a tasting room and wine bar; Rhythm Beverage Studio, stocked with fruity ciders; and One Love Brewery, home to its flagship Northern Lights Helles lager. Across the street is Gypsy Café, a mosaic-covered restaurant loved by locals for its impressive marg’ list and European-inspired dishes. A 30-minute drive from here will get you to Schilling Brewery in Littleton, which functions out of an 18th-century mill and has an extensive European-inspired beer list.
Experience winter through an ice tunnel or from high above the trees
When it comes to majestic attractions made of ice, you might think Sweden, maybe Switzerland. But the White Mountains is home to some of the most stellar ice castles in the country, no international travel necessary.
The Ice Castles in Woodstock, one of six locations in the U.S., just opened for the season in January 2022. The castles are created using a method that involves making vertical icicles by hand and stacking them, a process that takes thousands of hours (imagine doing this for six locations?!). Other than gazing in pure awe, you can explore tunnels, climb towers, and slide down ice tunnels. Outside the castle walls, walk the Mystic Forest, book a snow tubing session, and visit the illuminated frozen fairy village and ice sculpture garden (both new this year).
Looking for something to get your blood pumping a bit more? Check out the many adrenaline activities at Adventure Alpine. Take a zipline tour across Barron Mountain, hike a back-country guided trek, and go off-road in a Pinzgauer, a 6-wheel drive Swiss army transport vehicle (be prepared for things to get bumpy). And then, there’s Thrillville, a self-guided aerial challenge park that takes you across bridges, up a rope ladder, into a treehouse, and then some. Basically, it’s a more intense version of the zipline tour, for those who seek the thrill.