Everyone goes to Maine for flannel shirts and butter-soaked lobster rolls; Vermont for picturesque old barns and Ben & Jerry’s; and Boston for Italian food and history. With all the draws of our neighbors, you might be inclined to leave New Hampshire off your itinerary. That would be, in local parlance, a wicked big mistake. You need to include New Hampshire on your next trip to the Northeast — it’s the most underrated destination in New England.
1. New Hampshire is largely still the way it always was.
There’s no need to head into a trendy hipster gift store or chain outlet when you can shop at the local general store. The floor creaks, there’s a big jar of pickled eggs on the counter, and you’re more likely to find maple sugar candy than Slurpees. The old man in overalls (he calls them dungarees) behind the counter might seem a little gruff, but there’s a twinkle in his eye when he spots your out-of-state plates and tells you to be sure to stop at all the moose crossings.
2. The state is flush with epic bridges.
If you thought Madison County was something special, wait until you get a look at New Hampshire’s covered bridges. Once upon a time there were over 400 throughout the state. There are fewer than 75 left, and each one is more postcard-worthy than the last. Many date back to the 1800s and some are restricted to foot or train traffic. The locals used to call these scenic spots “kissing bridges” and you can still spot faded old initials carved by secretive sweethearts. Keep an eye out for signs warning you to walk your horse or face a two dollar fine, and prepare to be charmed.
3. You can get a taste of the ice ages.
Tap into your inner explorer at the Polar Caves in Rumney. Formed during the last Ice Age, you’ll feel the arctic chill as you descend the narrow metal ladder between the mossy boulders that mark the entrance to the cave. By the time you reach the bottom, you’ll be glad you brought a sweater. Inside the cave, you’ll find a few wooden railings to help you keep your balance but for the most part, you’re on your own to meander through the rocky chasms. Rumney is also a prime rock climbing destination. Note that the Polar Caves are closed for the 2018 season, but will reopen with the good weather in the spring.
4. The state is lined with local and US history.
Start with Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg. This 400-year-old village is so well preserved that you can still see the actual china, furnishings, and other household goods from the original settlers. This living time capsule, named for the wild strawberries that still grow along the waterfront, will bring you back through centuries of community life, all the way to the Abenaki tribes who originally occupied the land. The history is palpable as you’re encouraged to duck through the doorways of houses built in the 1600s and peek through mullioned windows across rutted dirt lanes and kitchen gardens to the neighboring houses.
Next, head over to Portsmouth Harbor. You might get the impression that this spot is little more than lighthouse and salt-water taffy, until you realize the whole area is really a collection of historic military forts that are now one of the area’s top tourist draws. The craggy coast full of salt air and seagull caws is also home to the lion’s share of the state’s history, including a rebel rousing by Paul Revere that predates his famous midnight ride in neighboring Massachusetts. The best way to experience the harbor is on foot, where you can poke around in little shops festooned with buoys and fishnets, as well as discover historical markers tucked away in nooks and crannies. Try not to share your fresh scallop lunch with the seagulls.
5. Many of the state’s towns are cute AF.
The Granite State is full of storybook downtowns and “Norman-Rockwell-painted-this” shops and streets, but North Conway is the best of them all. Shop after shop showcases the work of craftspeople from around the state with blown glass baubles, pottery, specialty foods, and countless varied objects d’art. Zeb’s General Store in Mt. Washington Valley is full of Moxie memorabilia, goat milk soap from local farms, birch beer, bath bombs, and moose-shaped cookie cutters. The rest of the town is full of Victorian architecture and a train station that could have been transplanted from a toy Christmas village.
6. New Hampshire is everything you imagined of scenic New England.
Millions of leaf peepers can’t be wrong, but you’ll find yourself slack-jawed and giddy as you creep along the Kancamagus Highway no matter the season. New Hampshire packs a lot of mountain into such a compact state. They’re lichen green and deep emerald through spring and summer, and by mid-September the whole state appears engulfed in flames as waves of sunflower, saffron, and pomegranate wash over the hills. Fall is when the area really shines.
White Mountain National Forest has magic all its own if you’re looking to dive deeper than leaf peeping. To experience as much of it as possible, you’ll want to have your own wheels. Driving the 100-mile loop through the mountain passes, you’ll spot racing rivers and waterfalls, lakes that invite you to stop for a picnic on their banks, and if you’re lucky, some of the state’s notoriously bashful wildlife. Be prepared to pull over at every scenic viewpoint along the road for a better look at mountain panoramas that seem to go on forever.
Just be prepared for wind. The Mount Washington Observatory has the highest recorded wind speed ever observed, a brisk 231 miles per hour. The observatory is full of interesting weather information, but the best part is getting there. You could hike or drive to the top, but many prefer to take the train. The Mount Washington Cog Railway has been chugging up into the clouds with passengers since the 1800s and the experience is sure to take your breath away — and not just because you’ll be at an elevation of over 6,000 feet once you reach the top. When the clouds part, the view across the White Mountains is nothing short of otherworldly.