Motorcycle Tours - Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire

Cranking On The Kanc

By the time I'd reached the pass things were not going particularly well. The deserted road was as slippery as a frog's belly, and a mixture of freezing fog and sleet had reduced visibility to about two and a half feet. In the 10 minutes I'd been sitting there, hoping in vain that a state road crew and sander would pass by, the conditions had deteriorated from bad to worse. I knew I had to get going, but the question was, which way? I was having a tough time deciding, in part because I was becoming increasingly distracted by what appeared to be some sort of large and very unfriendly animal eyeballing me through the underbrush. As I pondered my next move, it dawned on me that if I didn't get my butt in gear and quickly, the first thing to find my rapidly stiffening body would probably be wearing antlers. It cheered me no end when I recalled that moose are vegetarians.

Opened to traffic in 1959, the Kancamagus Highway, officially New Hampshire Rt. 112, and informally known as the "Kanc," traverses the White Mountains from east to west, running directly through the White Mountain National Forest. Its eastern terminus begins in the White Mountain Valley village of Conway, directly in the shadow of Mount Washington; 38 writhing miles later it spits you out in Lincoln, a short ride below the Franconia Notch. In between are numerous elevation changes, intense twisties and plenty of rugged, eye-popping scenery. What you won't find along the route are traffic lights, fast-food joints, gas stations or the ubiquitous plastic souvenir stands that pollute much of what was once scenic America.

For nearly 30 years I'd been planning on riding the Kancamagus, but it was one of those things I kept putting off until "someday," which in my experience is a day that almost never arrives. Fortunately serendipity took matters into her own hands. I needed a weekend ride (badly), and I also wanted to spend some time with my friends, Dan and Judy Kennedy, proprietors of Whitehorse Press/Whitehorse Gear, and their pup Buster. Since the Kennedys live in Center Conway, New Hampshire, about three gearshifts and a hard twist of the throttle away from the Kanc, and had graciously offered to put me up for the night, the plan was pretty simple. I'd burn up to their place on the first weekend in November, spend the evening with them, then hit the Kancamagus on a leisurely return trip.

After a most excellent evening of good food and stimulating conversation in front of a warm fireplace, not to mention my choice of Buster's chew toys, I hit the sack, figuring that if Sunday was anything like Saturday, which had been a typical crisp, clear, New England fall day, it'd be smooth sailing down the Kanc with nothing to do except enjoy the ride and snap a few photos.

Of course this being New England, the land of unpredictable weather, things are always subject to change. The day dawned gray and chilly, though thankfully, not wet. Frankly, if I'd had my druthers I'd have just as soon stayed by the fire discussing the finer points of chasing squirrels with old Buster, but duty called-it was time to return to the big city. As I suited up, Dan checked the Weather Channel one more time. The bubble-headed forecaster promised the day would remain absolutely dry, if a little cool, no rain was forecast until much later that night, and temperatures would rise as I headed south. Despite the slate-gray sky it sounded promising, so off I went. Within 10 minutes, the "no rain" that was forecast started to sprinkle on my windshield. As I turned onto Conway's main drag I also noticed that fog and snow had made much of Mt. Washington disappear. Just about then it dawned on me that the rest of the ride might not be as pleasant as I'd anticipated.

Sincerely believing that fortune favors the bold, I ignored my better judgment and pressed on to the Kancamagus. For all practical purposes the road was devoid of traffic; had it been warm, and maybe 20 years earlier, it would have been full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes. Older, and slower, if only slightly wiser, and very conscious of the fact that I was on a greasy and unfamiliar road, I rode conservatively, content to take in the craggy surroundings and the aptly named Swift River, which parallels the Kanc for much of the way.

As I climbed toward the summit of Loon Mountain (an ironically appropriate name in my case), I began to notice piles of fresh snow, and evidence that the road had been recently sanded and salted. I wasn't as concerned with that as I was with fog and spitting sleet, which was making it increasingly difficult to see, especially since it was freezing to everything it touched and slowly turning me into a Marksicle.

At the Kancamagus Pass (2855 feet above sea level) I pulled over and took a breather-I really had no other choice-and pondered my options. I could play it safe; turn around and head back to Conway. From there I'd pick up the interstate, which would put me on a southeasterly trajectory. The trip home would be boring, and it might be wet, but at least it'd be above the freezing mark. Or I could continue on, hoping that things might get better at the lower elevations. Like they say, God hates a coward-of course he wasn't about to find out how well a motorcycle works as a bobsled was he? So down the hill I went. As I engaged the clutch the sun made a brief appearance, the diffuse light gave everything a surreal quality that I'd have liked to share with someone, but since no one else was foolish enough to be there I couldn't.

Fortunately after a few miles things began to improve. The road became dry and although the weather remained gray, damp and chilly, at least it wasn't sticking to me. When I pulled into the ranger station that marks the western end of the Kancamagus I realized that while I may have passed over the highway, I still hadn't ridden it, certainly not in any meaningful way. Oddly enough that doesn't bother me; so far as I'm concerned it's all the more reason to go back, but I can promise you that this time I won't wait 30 years.

The Kancamagus is a wonderful ride, but it is short, so it's best to include it as part of a larger outing, or perhaps as a day trip while visiting the general area. It can also get crowded; it's a prime jumping-off spot for outdoorsmen of all types, and additionally the main route between some mighty popular vacation spots. It's also a favorite day trip for Laconia attendees who tire of the raucous Weirs Beach scene.

Excellent accommodations, ranging from quaint B&Bs; to Victorian-style hotels straight out of a John Irving novel, can be found in Conway, Lincoln and the surrounding areas. If you'd prefer something a little more modern there are plenty of Motel Whatever's about, and being New England, a fair amount of ski lodges as well. Food ranges from five stars to Mickey D's and is priced accordingly. The region gets pretty crowded during the summer, especially in the Lakes Region and around any of the tourist attractions like Mt. Washington and the outlet store areas in the Conways, so expect some traffic delays should you decide you'd rather be a tourist as opposed to a traveler. Lastly, bring plenty of warm clothes-even at the height of the summer the highway and the surrounding mountains can get plenty chilly, especially during the early morning and late evening hours, and in the fall the weather can be unpredictable, and at times, downright inhospitable.