Photo: Courtesy of New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development
I grew up in New Hampshire, and we go back every Christmas to celebrate the holidays with the grandparents, but we rarely get to play tourist in my own home state. Turns out, there’s still tons to do after New Hampshire’s famous fall foliage season has ended. Winter in the White Mountains is for skiing, sledding, small-town charm and gorgeous snow-scape views.
You don’t have to be a mountaineer or hardcore hiking family to enjoy the White Mountains. Have you ever seen those “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper stickers? They refer to Mount Washington, the highest—and one of the windiest!—points in the northeastern US, and it’s a super-popular route with road trippers. Unfortunately, from late October to early May the popular Auto Road to the summit is closed, so you won’t be able to drive there in your own car. As an alternate option, look into the Mt. Washington SnowCoach—a vehicle with giant triangular tracks that will take you up to the tree line. (If your kids are early risers, you might even consider the Sunrise SnowCoach tours, offered on specific dates.)
All aboard! Both the popular Cog Railway (this is the one that ascends Mt. Washington) and the Mountaineer Crawford Notch train (a route that winds through the mountain passes) are closed in winter. But if you’ve got a train-loving toddler in your family, the valley route with North Conway Scenic Railway is still worth it. It’s a peaceful, guided one-hour round trip chugging along aboard the Gertrude Emma, a lovingly restored passenger train dating back to 1898. The historic train station and ticket office are cute-as-can-be. Before you step on board, bring some cash for the snack bar. (You know your kids will ask!)
Keep your camera at the ready for covered bridge photo ops as you drive around the White Mountain region. The tiny town of Jackson, New Hampshire (population 816) is known for theirs, pictured above. (The Covered Bridge Gift Shoppe in nearby Bartlett usually closes in the winter, but they re-open for holiday shopping during the second weekend of December.)
You can’t drive through New Hampshire or Vermont without passing several family-friendly ski resorts well-suited to beginners. There’s Whaleback, Attitash, Cranmore, Cannon Mountain, and Loon Mountain, just to name a few. Bretton Woods is famous for over 100 kilometers of Nordic trails, and it’s the closest ski resort to the stately and historic Omni Mount Washington Resort Hotel. (Even if you can’t afford to stay there, make sure you gawk at it from the highway.)
Our family spent a day at Cranmore Mountain Resort in North Conway, which has a great set-up for little kids: children from six months old to age five can secure a spot at the ski resort daycare (half days are $50; full days are $75), right next to the meeting spot where kids in private and group lessons get matched up with their ski instructors. Lessons are available for skiers and boarders as young as three. Ditching the kids for a few hours while we snuck away for a couple runs—and some slope-side lodge beers—was well worth the childcare fees. (Day dates for the win!) At the end of the afternoon, we picked up the kids and we all enjoyed making après-ski s'mores outside the main lodge.
Cranmore also has a separate admission fee and parking area for the alpine slides and tubing at the adventure park. It’s usually a battle to persuade our five-year-old to get into ski boots and full gear, but he was more than thrilled to ride the Magic Carpet up the hill and spin down the tubing runs. Kids need to be 42 inches tall to ride by themselves (it's $29 for two hours of tubing), but if they’re shorter than 42 inches and sitting with a paying adult, the tot ticket price is only $5.
If you’d rather shop than ski, North Conway is the town for you: Outlet shopping at the Settlers Green outdoor pedestrian mall complex is a must, with over 70 different stores and well-known retailers. Cross-border shopping is particularly popular in New Hampshire because there is no sales tax in the entire state. Look for kids’ clothing deals at Carter’s, the Old Navy Outlet and Children’s Place. And if you forgot any essential winter gear or your kids lost their mittens (again), check out the L.L. Bean Factory Outlet, REI, Eddie Bauer or Columbia Sportswear.
For New England charm and bed-and-breakfast friendliness, we recommend the Christmas Farm Inn and Spa in Jackson. While the dining room has a gourmet, farm-to-table, grown-up feel, they also offer a cozy adjacent den area for kids to play or watch a movie while parents enjoy their meals in peace. The property, which dates to 1778, has a wonderful backstory, and each room has a festive name—you can book the Dasher, Donner, Vixen or Rudolph rooms. (And check out the address: 3 Blitzen Way, Jackson, NH.)
For something a little larger and less quaint—but great for older kids and tweens—check out the North Conway Grand Hotel. It’s got an arcade and billiards room, regular movie nights, and it’s super conveniently located on the main retail route in North Conway, next to the outlet shopping malls. There are also two pools and two hot tubs—both indoors and outdoors. Warming up in the fire-side outdoor hot tub as snow gently fell all around us is one of my fondest memories from our stay.
The White Mountain region of New Hampshire is about 9.5 hours by car from Toronto and 4 hours from Montreal. We usually choose to drive, as our kids are generally pretty good in the car (with the occasional bout of motion sickness).We stop every couple hours to let them run around for a bit. (Thank goodness for McDonald’s PlayPlaces!) The biggest nearby airport is in Manchester, NH (MHT); you could also fly into Boston-Logan Airport and make the drive north to the White Mountains in less than three hours. Pro tip: Make sure your car has snow tires, and beware of quickly changing conditions (due to high elevations) on the Kancamangus Scenic Byway. (This is a famously scenic, 56-kilometre section of Route 112 that takes you through the White Mountain National Forest.)
Some of the writer's costs were covered by Visit New Hampshire.