Make sure you read all the way to the end of this post to find out about Mount Willard, our favorite short hike on our trip to the White Mountains!
When you think of extreme environments in the United States, New Hampshire may not be the first place you think of. But in 2023, the summit of Mount Washington hit -108°F, likely the coldest windchill temperature ever recorded in the US. The mountain is also home to the country’s record wind speed, a whopping 231 mph. The same forces that give rise to these extremes, namely jagged peaks of the White Mountains sitting at the confluence of multiple climate systems and the jet stream, creates an environment of extreme beauty in the winter that beckons for winter hiking. And at only a two hour drive from Boston, it’s an easy trip for a weekend or a short mid-week break from many places in New England.
We visited the White Mountains at the end of December and had a great time taking in some short hikes with great views over two days. Except for some trouble getting takeout from restaurants, we encountered almost no crowds as we explored some spectacular scenery. We stayed at the Best Western Plymouth Inn, a comfortable and super friendly hotel with free breakfast a short walk or drive from Covered Bridge Farm Table, a great eclectic restaurant with a wide range of food near a covered bridge over the Pemigewasset River. Thai Smile, just ~10 minutes down the road in Plymouth, was also a nice option for take-out dinner with decent vegetarian Thai curry and sushi roll options.
Like we mentioned on our post about winter hiking in Yosemite, winter micro spikes are a must on winter trails because of icy conditions. Deeper snow may call for snowshoes, but this depends a lot on the temperature in the park and how packed or icy the snow is on the trails; for our trip, we didn’t need them. Also, because of the weather extremes in the White Mountains, it’s really important to bring enough warm clothing, face and head over, and other survival supplies on hikes; many hikers have died in the area when the weather on a seemingly nice day got bad. Because of this, it’s super important when you’re out in the Whites to let someone know where you’re going and to carry a GPS beacon if you have one.
Weekend Itinerary and Map
Day 1 (The Squam Lakes Area and Plymouth)
- West Rattlesnake Natural Area (Old Bridle Path) (1.7 mi out and back)
- Walter Newton Natural Area (1.6 mi loop past Rainbow Falls; CW)
Day 2 (Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch)
- Artist Bluff (1.5 mi loop, 436 ft elev. gain; CCW)
- Bronson Hill Conservation Area (1.6-mile Overlook Farm Loop; CCW)
- Mount Willard (3.1 mi out and back, 895 ft elev. gain)
- Bonus: View of Mount Washington from the Bretton Woods Nordic Center
West Rattlesnake Mountain Trail (Squam Lakes Area)
- A short, icy ascent to a panoramic view of Squam Lakes and Lake Winnipesaukee
- Difficulty: moderate
- Trail Map (1.2 mile loop)
- Parking: Off route 113 near the trailhead
We started our time in the Whites on a pretty cold and snowy afternoon near the Squam Lakes area. We explored the shore of the Lake in the Chamberlain-Reynolds Memorial Forest, where we saw some daring folks playing hockey and some beautiful patterns in the ice that had recently frozen.
On that trail, we met someone who recommend we drive around the lakes to the West Rattlesnake area, and are we glad we did! After a ~20 minute icy uphill walk through the woods, we emerged on a beautiful late afternoon panorama of the Squam Lakes area and Lake Winnipesaukee in the distance. The trail is dog friendly and was pretty easy to navigate in microspikes. It was a great way to start our trip!
Rainbow Falls (Walter Newton Natural Area)
- An easy but icy forest trek to a waterfall that looks like it is frozen in time
- Difficulty: easy
- Trail Map (1.6 mile loop)
- Parking: Next to a bridge on Cummings Hill Rd.
We had time for a quick hike before dark on our first day and managed to sneak in this great trail to the frozen Rainbow Falls. The trail was quite easy but had an excellent payoff at the end! Frozen waterfalls are always an amazing sight, but we’ve never seen one quite like this. The texture of the water in the falls really made it look like the waterfall was frozen in time, although you could still hear and see unfrozen water flowing behind it.
Artist’s Bluff and Bald Mountain Loop (Franconia Notch State Park)
- A trek over rocky and icy staircases to commanding views of the White Mountains, including the Cannon Mountain Resort
- Difficulty: hard because of large, icy steps
- Trail Map (1.5 mile loop counter-clockwise)
- Parking: The parking lot of Cannon Mountain Ski Resort
Artist’s Point shows up on many “best of” lists in the White Mountains because it is an accessible hike to a close-up view of the mountain peaks and Echo Lake in the Franconia Notch area. It’s famous for the views of fall colors, but it is also very beautiful in the winter. We combined this destination with a higher panoramic viewpoint at Bald Mountain (above) on a suggested counter-clockwise loop. The views from both locations were magnificent, but required scrambling over totally frozen rocky staircases (including some teamwork on a tricky section up to Bald Mountain). Conveniently, after your hike, you can use the restrooms or grab a bite to eat across the street at the base of Cannon Mountain. This is a great option if you want to enjoy some of the views in Franconia Notch in the winter without hitting the slopes!
Overlook Farm Loop (Bronson Hill Conservation Area)
- Hike out to a warming cabin framed by mountain peaks
- Diffculty: easy
- Trail Map (1.6 mile loop, CCW)
- Parking: At the end of Dyke Road, near the intersection with Hadley Road
This hike in the picturesque Sugar Hill area is a bit of a hidden gem that we discovered on an excellent blog about the White Moutains. If you take the trail counter-clockwise, as we did, you meander through the woods and quickly spit out in a clearing near a warming hut (you can go in the hut, but we did not on this trip). If you walk up the hill a bit to near the bench on the trail marked “Harry’s Way” and turn around, you get an awesome view of the hut framed by the White Mountains in the background. This would be a great family walk or stroll if you were in the mood for a short but pretty winter walk after a long day of hard hiking or skiing. The trail is also open to dogs, and there are other trails in the area if you wanted to make your walk a little longer!
Mount Willard (Crawford Notch Area)
- The biggest bang for your buck: a beautiful wooded trail to an iconic view in the White Mountains
- Difficulty: moderate
- Trail Map (1.2 mile loop)
- Parking: On route 302 near Crawford Notch Station and the AMC Highland Center
Crawford Notch is just a few minutes drive from a famous viewpoint of Mount Washington, and this is the area of the White Mountains that is famous for its blustery conditions. After walking in relatively balmy weather near Franconia Notch, the whipping winds on the road at Crawford Notch nearly deterred us from making the uphill trek to Mount Willard. We stopped in at the AMC Highland Center to use the bathroom, and the staff assured us that many people had ventured up to Mount Willard on the day we visited. So, we decided to persevere through the wind and make our way towards the forest trailhead behind the historic train station.
As soon as we got into the woods, the wind died down and we were treated to beautiful rays of light tumbling through the trees. The way up was more packed down and snowy here than on many of the other trails we visited on the trip, but we were still glad to be wearing micro spikes! The view at the top of Mount Willard through Crawford Notch was spectacular. There are also some views along the ridge line out to Mount Washington and down the Notch at different angles, but it seemed like the views from near where the main trail spit out were among the best. When we came out of the woods near the top, the wind picked up again, and so we made sure to stand far away from the edge and check our footing to avoid any problems.
After the hike at Mount Willard, we drove back down route 302 and made a stop at the Bretton Woods Nordic Center on the grounds of the Omni Mount Washington Resort. Normally, the Nordic Center charges a fee to go on the groomed trails, but you can explore the trails closer to the hotel and near the bridge over the Ammonosuc River without paying a fee. The trails and hotel grounds were particularly nice for catching the start of the orange glow on the snowy summit of Mount Washington in the late afternoon. The hotel itself is also magnificent, with an outdoor swimming pool that sits in the shadow of Mount Washington as well as lovely shops to get local gifts (including local candy and treats at the sweet shop). This was a perfect end to our exciting day of hiking!
That’s a wrap on our winter hiking trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire! There’s a lot more to discover – do you have any easy to moderate hikes you like to explore in the winter? Any recommendations for folks staying on the eastern side of the mountains? Please comment and let us know!
3 thoughts on “Short Winter Hikes in the White Mountains”
I’ve never been in this part of the country, but I can say I truly didn’t expect it to look like this! Absolutely beautiful scenery! Looks similar to Montana, where I’m from.
Sheryl, thank you for the kind words! Our first visit to the White Mountains was quite a surprise for us, too! You are so right that Montana’s scenery is absolutely spectacular. We really loved our time in Glacier National Park (we have a few blog posts about our time there, too) and know there is so much more to explore there!
This is such a great post with so many beautiful photos. I believe that on a winter holiday, you don’t always have to ski or snowboard to enjoy and explore the snow-covered landscape. You can just slip into your sturdy shoes and warm clothes and off you go onto the dreamy winter hiking trails, up and down mountains, through meadows, forests and valleys passing old villages and frozen waterfalls. I wish we had more snow in Ireland! Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx