Alternative Route around North Conway
Photo Treasures on the Road Less Traveled
You might ask how taking the road less traveled will increase your fall foliage enjoyment. Let’s say you’ve planned out your route and you are heading into New Hampshire’s White Mountains via route 16 from the south. Well-known destinations on this route include the beginning of scenic Kancamagus Highway (route 112), the outlet shopping mecca of North Conway, and the Conway Scenic Railway. In foliage season these are well traveled to the point of crowded. Here is an alternative route, with photo opportunities that those who stick to main roads often miss.
For example, as you drive along route 16, you pass through Tamworth, NH, and you note the pond next to the Dam Ice Cream & Gift Shop. Look for decent color there and the opportunity to take a photo with good reflection from the water.
The next place to look for color is Lake Chocorua, just up the road. You pull in at the little parking lot on the left at the bottom of the hill. As you walk over the wooden bridge separating the pond from the lake you look right and see Mount Chocorua with its triangular summit. The water is as still as a mirror. Another photo opportunity. Be on the lookout, too, for diverse flocks of birds taking flight with an explosion of wings slapping the water.
You leave here reluctantly and proceed up route 16. A few miles north, you pass the turn-off for route 112, a scenic byway known as the Kancamagus Highway or the “Kanc.” You could follow that well-traveled route, but today we’re avoiding the crowds and heading further up route 16, so you pass up 112 and come into Center Conway.
There you will find a confusing left turn. If you want to stay on route 16, you take the second left and this will take you through the outlet shopping area of North Conway. If you were taking the Conway scenic railway or looking for shopping then you would want to go this way.
But as we want to avoid the traffic that this route carries, we will take the first left in Center Conway and this takes us on West Side Road in order to sidestep most of the traffic. Don’t worry we will join up with route 16 on the other side of North Conway. There are many reasons to take this road besides just traffic avoidance.
The first is just a few hundred yards up this road — the Saco River Bridge, one of Conway’s two covered bridges. The Saco River Bridge is on the right at the triangle of the small park where East Side Road and West Side Road diverge. There’s a small parking lot, also a sidewalk on one side of the structure. We’ve been stalking this for many years looking for just the right light for photographs. We think it’s early in the day, so the big maple tree to the right is backlit with early morning light. Watch for traffic at any time of day.
Once you are done here you get back on the West Side Road and go less than a hundred yards. Here you will come to a small parking lot for the Swift River Bridge, again on the right side. Cars don’t drive through this bridge anymore so you can take your time photographing it. The downside of shooting this bridge from either end is that it’s difficult to get a colorful tree into a shot of the bridge.
Remember what I said about getting off the main road to find photographs most people miss? Don’t shoot the bridge from the same place everyone else shoots it from. Go back into the parking lot and go to the short, knee-high fence. Carefully go down over the embankment to the river’s edge and, if it hasn’t rained in a while, walk to almost the middle of the river. There’s a large maple that turns red and gold between you and the bridge and, if you explore, you can frame the bridge with this tree in the picture and make a really special shot.
Cathedral Ledge and Diana’s Baths
Now we will continue to travel north a short ways and if you keep your eyes open you should see Cathedral Ledge looming on your left and the turn into the state park will be just after that. The nice part here is that you can drive up to the top. Within 4-5 minutes you will find parking around the loop at the top. From there you find several paths to take you out onto the edge of Cathedral ledge. Most of it has been fenced off so kids should be safe, but be warned that there are a few areas without fencing so climbers can traverse the face of the hill.
On a clear day you can see well up into Pinkham Notch and if the area is near peak the valley around the foot of the ledge will be a tapestry of reds and golds. After exploring up here you can head back to the car and the short drive back down the hill. Once back onto West Side Road, take a left and head north again.
Just up the road, again on the left, will be signs for Diana’s Baths, a series of cascading waterfalls. Each stair step of falls flows down into holes and depressions in the rock that then flow into the next level below. During the summer people come here to wade and swim in the pools formed by the water wearing away at the granite. But at this time of year, leaf peepers come here for the falls and the reflections of the surrounding autumn colors.
We continued up to the falls and found several red and gold maples to use in framing photos of the falls. This is a very easy walk into the falls and even if you have kids and a stroller you shouldn’t have too much trouble. Once at the falls there are roots and rocks to navigate, so that might give you a slight workout. We soon headed down the path to the parking lot and car.
On the road again, West Side Road meets back up with route 16 and, in skipping the shopping route, we found two covered bridges and two attractions that are wonderful to visit at any time of the year but especially during the fall foliage season.
This drive has been adapted from Jeff Folger’s 2010 blog post on enjoying foliage by avoiding traffic