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SMACKDOWN! Mohawk Trail vs. Kancamagus Highway

The boulders of Lower Falls off the Kancamagus Highway make a cool perch for looking at the foliage.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

The boulders of Lower Falls off the Kancamagus Highway make a cool perch for looking at the foliage.

New England has the most beautiful fall foliage in the world. That’s not an opinion — it’s a fact. Which roadway in the region is best for leaf-peeping is another matter, but the Kancamagus Highway across the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Mohawk Trail across the northern Berkshires of Massachusetts are top candidates. Both are recognized in the federal Scenic Byways program. As we drove them, the Kanc stretches 34.5 miles west to east from Lincoln to Conway, N.H., while the mountainous portion of the Mohawk Trail covers about 36.5 miles east to west from the Greenfield traffic circle (intersection of Route 2 and Interstate 91) to downtown North Adams. Here’s how the two drives stack up on some essentials.

SCENIC OVERLOOK

The Kanc: Each of the highway’s scenic overlooks has its virtues, but we favor the Pemigewasset Overlook just west of the 2,855-foot Kancamagus Pass, the watershed between the Pemigewasset and Swift rivers. The northwest view to the White Mountain peaks is wide open, and although most of the trees are evergreens, the sky always looks immense.

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The Trail: At 2,173 feet, the Whitcomb Summit in the town of Florida is the highest point on the trail. Views north to the Green and White mountains stretch as far as 100 miles on a clear day.

Advantage: Mohawk Trail. A bronze statue of an elk, a memorial to peace and to all who gave their lives in service to their country, provides scale to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

BRIDGE

The Kanc: As if the Kanc didn’t have enough New England clichés, the mid-19th-century Albany Covered Bridge stretches 120 feet across the Swift River on Dugway Road, connecting the Kanc with a White Mountain National Forest campground.

The Trail: You can’t drive over the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, just off the Mohawk Trail, but the 400-foot, five-arch pedestrianized trolley bridge over the Deerfield River has been a horticulture showcase since 1929. Although it’s a quintessential tourist attraction, it’s much more charming than a big ball of twine.

Advantage: Draw. The Bridge of Flowers claims to be one of a kind, but what’s a foliage drive without a covered bridge?

PICNIC SPOT

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The Kanc: With rippling falls surrounded by hardwood trees, Lower Falls Scenic Area (31 miles east of Lincoln) is a popular warm weather swimming hole and fall foliage photo op. Picnic tables under a canopy survey the boulder-strewn Swift River.

The Trail: At the low-key TransCanada Rest Area (11.8 miles from Greenfield) in Charlemont, massive picnic tables overlook the rapids on the flats of the Deerfield River and the higher hills of the Berkshires.

Advantage: The Kanc. Lower Falls is as much a social scene as picnic stop. Both sites have impressive views, but Lower Falls has the more interesting geology.

LEG-STRETCHING WALK

The Kanc: The Sabbaday Brook Trail is only 0.4 mile round trip and the elevation rise is only 40 feet — about like climbing four flights of stairs. The wooded path follows the brook to Sabbaday Falls, a vigorous chute-style waterfall with a 35-foot drop into a placid pool where visitors often ignore the “No Swimming” signs.

The Trail: Savoy Mountain State Forest (260 Central Shaft Road, Florida, 413-663-8469, mass.gov/dcr/parks/western/svym.htm)

also has falls but hiking to them from the Mohawk Trail is more than a short diversion. For an easy one-hour round trip, take Haskins Trail to Bog Pond Trail, circle back on State Road to Haskins. Highlights include the quaking bog, carnivorous vegetation (pitcher plants, sundews), and many herons and kingfishers. Moose and deer tracks are often reported, but the beasts remain elusive.

Advantage: The Kanc. Who can resist a waterfall?

CAMPGROUND

The Kanc: With 76 woode sites doled out on first-come, first-served basis, there’s usually a good chance of getting a spot at the Jigger Johnson Campground (about 22 miles east of Lincoln, Saco Ranger Station, 603-447-5448, fs.usda.gov/whitemountain). It’s conveniently located more or less at the highway midpoint and features flush toilets and coin-operated showers.

The Trail: Campers at Mohawk Trail State Forest (175 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont, 877-422-6762, reserveamerica.com) can choose among 56 sites that range from secluded wooded spots to streambank camping on the Cold River. There are also six log cabins for rent.

Lower Falls on the Kancamagus Highway.

Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe

Lower Falls on the Kancamagus Highway.

Advantage: Mohawk Trail. Being able to reserve makes planning easier, and we like the cabin amenities of electricity, beds with mattresses, and a wood stove to warm a chilly fall night.

SOUVENIR

The Kanc:Kancamagus Collectables (40 Route 112, North Woodstock, N.H., 603-745-0915) features a lot of bear and moose-themed merchandise, and some tasteful T-shirts emblazoned “Property of Kancamagus Highway. Established 1959.”

The Trail: Native Views (2217 Mohawk Trail, Shelburne Falls,

413-625-2333) has taken over the old-time motoring souvenir shop that everyone still calls the Big Indian. New management is much more sensitive to Native American sensibilities, though you can still buy Minnetonka moccasins and other Native American merchandise unrelated to the Mohawks and Mahicans. Among the classic mementos are Mohawk Trail pennants and souvenir plates.

Advantage: Mohawk Trail. The best souvenir of all is a photo of the Big Indian statue.

PICNIC FIXINGS

The boulders of Lower Falls off the Kancamagus Highway.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

The boulders of Lower Falls off the Kancamagus Highway.

The Kanc: At the end of Lincoln’s commercial strip, Fully Brewed (187 Main St., Lincoln, 603-745-8811) has great sandwich and snack choices, including a number of vegetarian options. All sandwiches can be ordered on gluten-free bread as well as a range of artisanal bakery breads and wraps. The wraps, which are sealed closed by grilling, are particularly neat for picnicking.

The Trail: Playing to Franklin County’s alternative ambience, the sandwich board at Green Fields Market (144 Main St., Greenfield, 413-773-9567, franklincommunity.coop) divides its listings between choices for vegetarians and omnivores. (Vegetarians have more.) Diners can also design their own from an exhaustive list of breads, fillings, cheeses, spreads, meats, and veggies. Gluten-free bread is available.camper

Advantage: The Kanc. Fully Brewed’s double peanut butter chip cookies are the best we’ve tasted of their kind.

DRIVING RUSH

The Hairpin Turn on the Mohawk Trail is aptly named.

Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe

The Hairpin Turn on the Mohawk Trail is aptly named.

The Kanc: Just below the Kancamagus Pass, the highway drops quickly down the eastern divide, snaking along in broad turns. The mostly deciduous forest — acid-yellow beeches and birches, flame-colored maples, purplish black gums — closes in on both sides, creating a near-corridor of kaleidoscopic foliage for about a three-mile drop to the Sugar Hill Overlook.

The Trail: Heading east to west saves the best for last: the infamous Hairpin Turn where the trail suddenly drops out of the Hoosac Range down to North Adams. The turn itself has broad vistas, but the highway otherwise hurdles down through deciduous forest.

Advantage: Mohawk Trail. The abrupt turn in the middle of the descent means downshifting and careful cornering — always more fun than mere freewheeling.

LAY OF THE LAND

The Kanc: Because most of the route passes through the White Mountain National Forest, it has a wilderness feel. You’re on your own with no gas stations. Bring your own food, and three $1 bills for the parking fee envelope. National forest signage at overlooks and recreation areas provides complete captioning for the experience.

The Trail: This long-settled landscape has all the welcome (and unwelcome) signs of civilization. There are gas stations, barbecue joints, bait and tackle shops, even a dog groomer. But there are also hokey old signs and tourist stops that recall the advent of auto touring. Both routes rise about 2,000 feet, but the road is so steep on each end of the Mohawk Trail that your ears will probably pop going up and coming down.

Advantage: The Kancamagus Highway. There are few places left where you can escape into the woods (along with all those other leaf-peepers).

EATING PLACE

The Kanc: Set in a lovely high meadow up a steep road from the Kanc, the Darby Field Inn & Restaurant (185 Chase Hill Road, Albany, N.H., 603-447-2181, darbyfield.com) sits just outside the national forest. The romantic dining room offers a well-conceived New American menu at candlelit tables.

The Trail: Built into the elbow of the Hairpin Turn, the Golden Eagle Restaurant (1935 Mohawk Trail, Clarksburg, 413-663-9834, thegoldeneaglerestaurant.com) serves lunch and dinner. Big windows look across the valley over North Adams all the way to New York’s Taconic Range.

Advantage: Mohawk Trail. Location, location, location. You can’t beat the view.

Patricia Harris and David
Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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