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Falling for the colors of ‘The Kanc’

New Hampshire's famed foliage route, the Kancamagus Highway, is celebrating its 50th birthday, so it's about time everyone learned how to pronounce it correctly.
Image: Foliage, Albany, N.H.
The Swift River is part of the spectacular views along the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.Jim Cole / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

New Hampshire's famed foliage route, the Kancamagus Highway, is celebrating its 50th birthday, so it's about time everyone learned how to pronounce it correctly.

Massachusetts residents: Think "Kanc'-ah-MAU'-gus rhymes with Saugus."

Everyone else: Pretend you're a local and call it "The Kanc."

Whatever you do, don't put an extra 'n' in there, as in Kanca-mangus. The highway is named after an American Indian chief whose name means "The One." As in, just one 'n'.

With that out of the way, you can enjoy the 34.5-mile road that winds through the White Mountains between the towns of Lincoln and Conway and the stunning scenery that once was known only to loggers, forest rangers, homesteaders and the hardiest of hikers.

Construction on the two-lane highway began from both ends in the 1930s and, after being halted by World War II in the 1940s, continued until 1956 when there was just a one-mile gap between the two roads. Crews saved the most difficult stretch for last, however, and it took another three years to finish the job.

The road opened some time in the summer of 1959 without fanfare, but it didn't take long for it to attract visitors, particularly during in the fall.

'Best fall foliage route'
"It was something an awful lot of people had wanted for years and years and years. Even though there was no public announcement, word spread by word of mouth," said Dick Hamilton, who spent more than three decades promoting tourist spots in the area as president of White Mountain Attractions. "That fall was really the kickoff of it becoming the best fall foliage route in New England."

Hamilton, who was working at a hotel in North Conway at the time, remembers being so eager for the road to open that he tried to drive its length before it was finished, only to be stopped by a line of boulders across the road. Initially, the road was open only during the day, from spring to the first snow. Year-round opening coincided with the development of the Loon Mountain ski area in Lincoln in 1968.

Norman Stevens, 83, worked on three sections of the road, starting in 1949. He lives in York, Maine, but has returned to the highway over the years with his wife.

East or West, whose colors are best?

'It's God's country, really'
"It's a beautiful place with all the foliage and all the spots along to see it. I enjoy probably more than a lot of people because there's so many things that I recognize and are familiar to me," he said.

Jean Stevens recalled the three summers she and the couple's children spent in the area while her husband worked on the road.

"It's God's country, really," she said. "When we came up here and stayed for the kids' vacation, it was just magic for all of us."

Today, the traffic often is bumper-to-bumper during autumn weekends, with an estimated 1 million visitors a year passing through.

Hamilton admits that the traffic approaches "impossible" levels, but said it largely regulates itself as drivers pull over to snap pictures.

"And they go slow enough because the scenery is so gorgeous, you don't want to go faster," he said.

Though there are several ski areas close to the Kanc, along with a number of hotels and family-friendly attractions at either end, there's no development along the highway. The Kanc itself is all about the region's natural beauty: Numerous signs remind drivers that there are no gas stations along the route and call attention to hiking trails, campgrounds and scenic overlooks.

Take a dip at Lower Falls
Waterfalls include Rocky Gorge, Sabbaday Falls and Lower Falls. Swimming is prohibited at the first two, but the third is a popular swimming spot in the summer and has picnic tables, parking and restrooms.

Though the views are lovely year-round, autumn brings out the best along the Kanc, and New Hampshire takes its fall foliage seriously. The state Division of Travel and Tourism issues "leaf peeper" reports along with text message alerts, and will be using Twitter and Facebook to post foliage updates and pictures.

Karen Bennett, a forestry specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said the early summer's heavy rain is good news for foliage fans.

"Trees need water and they do very well with a lot of rain. So it's all good as far as I'm concerned," she said.

Maple makes for memories
What makes the Kanc's colors so memorable? Maples, Bennett said.

"All our hardwoods turn a pretty color, but it's probably the maples that give it that kiss of brightness. They bring in the reds and the brighter oranges," she said.

For Hamilton, the magic of driving the Kanc never wears off.

"I have to do it at least 10 times a year. All seasons," he said. "It just takes my breath away, every time I do it. I see something new every time."