The remote beauty of New Hampshire's White Mountains has reinvigorated summer visitors for more than a century. Today the region, about 150 miles from Boston, is more playground than retreat. Hikers emerge from the forests to compare calluses over local microbrews. Skiers throw themselves down Tuckerman Ravine to celebrate summer. Train buffs pile aboard the Cog Railway, hoping to feel the 60-mile winds blow atop 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, the highest peak in New England.
This loop is 135 miles long. It can be done in one day or several. Pack the Thule rack with a full load of sporting gear and bring plenty of film to snap moose trampling through the lupine and rock climbers scaling Cathedral Ledge, outside of North Conway. Expect great dining and a wide range of lodging, whether the top priority is luxury linens or a heated kiddie pool.
Start in Littleton, an unpretentious river town off Interstate 93. Stock up on picnic supplies and enjoy the short drive southeast on 302 past walled pastures and giant fir trees into Bethlehem. Though coveted for its postmark in December, Bethlehem is best known as a 19th-century summer resort. You'll have no trouble imagining the days when trainloads of Victorian city folk arrived to inhale the mountain air.
Heading east, watch for the black smoke from the coal-powered Cog Railway tourist train as it chugs up Mt. Washington. From a distance, the peak looks serene. Don't be fooled. Meteorologists study this peak for a reason.
Contemplate the fates on the porch of the Mt. Washington Hotel. Europeans gravitate to this grand old place, as well as to nearby hiking trails such as Crawford's Notch. Listen as the Euros offer accented encouragement to young hikers who have run out of gorp and steam.
The road continues past forests with few interruptions. Watch for Attitash Bear Peak ski area. It's a busy summer playground, particularly for mountain bikers. Recharge on ribs at The Red Parka Pub in nearby Glen. Don't go near this town with children unless you're willing to visit Storyland to see Little Bo Peep and other characters come to life. You'll know the place by its huge parking lot (always full).
For retail therapy, detour south to North Conway's 200-plus outlet stores, galleries and antique shops. Then jog back to Route 16 and head north to admire the covered bridges of Jackson (population 700). From there the road ascends toward the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center. This is the parking area for Tuckerman Ravine. Sign in and hike the 3.5 miles to the base of the ravine, a stretch moderate enough that revelers manage to cart in beer kegs. On sunny days, hundreds of spectators plant themselves at Lunch Rocks to watch skiers rocket down the bowl's headwall. Snow sometimes lasts through the Fourth of July.
Next, head to Gorham and Jefferson. The road ambles past inns, farms and Santa's Village¿yes, Christmas in July. Try Lancaster for lunch, then follow the Connecticut River back to Littleton, reinvigorated by the White Mountains as visitors have been for 100 years.
Drive Length 135 miles
Drive Time Take a full day¿or several.
Try To Avoid North Conway's shops on Saturday afternoon¿so enticing they attract big-city traffic on small-town roads.
Don't Miss The Wentworth, a classic New England inn with elegant restaurant in the white-washed village of Jackson, junction of Carter Notch Road and Route 16A, (800) 637-0013.
Get Out Of Your Car To pedal the mountain bike trails at Attitash Bear Peak. Lift-service to the top and water slides for post-cycling fun.
Contact Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, North Conway, (800) 367-3364; www.mtwashingtonvalley.org