Location: Franconia, New Hampshire
Webpage: New Hampshire State Park
General Description: Franconia Notch State Park is the crown jewel of the state parks in New Hampshire with something for everyone. Located in the heart of the White Mountains the notch is a spectacular mountain pass between the Kinsman and Franconia Range. The parks straddles I-93 which provides the only access to many locations in the park. The Interstate narrows down to two lanes and speeds set at 45 mph as it winds through the pass, one of only two substandard interstates in the country. Franconia Notch was the location of the famous Old Man of the Mountain, immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the “Great Stone Face” and is still the seal for the state, even though it collapsed in 2003 after over 50 years of attempts to stabilize it. The most famous hiking trail in the park is the Flume Gorge which is a boardwalk that goes up beside the stream between 80 foot granite walls. Visitors can also ride the aerial tramway up to the peak of Cannon Mountain where a short walk up to an observation tower gives spectacular 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys and peaks. The state park also has two campgrounds, Lafayette Place Campground for tents and Cannon Mountain RV Park, an 8 mile bike trail, two crystal clear lakes, and miles of hiking trails. In the winter, the ski slopes on Cannon Mountain are some of the best in the area.
1) The Flame Gorge Visitor Center at the south end of the park is the main location for tourists to the state park. From the size of the parking lot and the fact that you can’t find parking during the week in August speaks to the popularity of the park. The Visitor Center is where you buy tickets for either the hiking trail up Flame Gorge, the tramway up Cannon Mountain, or both. There is also a 20 minute video that gives the history and beauty to be found in the park.
2) The hiking path up through Flame Gorge is so popular that they restrict access through the Visitor Center where you have to pay $17 a person. While this may seem expensive for a hiking trial, it is well worth the expense! The first quarter mile is fairly steep so they provide a van as an option for this section. Either way you pass through the Flume Covered Bridge across the Pemigewasset (or Pemi for short) River. This covered bridge is one of the oldest in the state, even though it has been rebuilt multiple times.
3) The path from the Boulder Cabin which has a few exhibits about the wildlife, plants, and history of the gorge, to the Flume Gorge passes alongside Table Rock. Over time, the rushing waters of Flume Brook has exposed a large outcropping of granite which it has worn smooth for a length of 500 feet and 75 feet wide.
4) The Flume Gorge is a natural gorge extending 800 feet at the base of Mt. Liberty. The Conway granite walls extend perpendicular to a height of 70-90 feet and vary in width from 12-20 feet. They have constructed a wooden boardwalk with steps and interpretive signs to provide access to the many wonders in the gorge. Before a heavy rainstorm in 1883 there was a huge egg-shaped bolder stuck between the walls. However, the rainstorm caused a flood that dammed up the gorge behind the rock until the water pressure forced the rock loose to tumble down the hillside. While this rock is no longer there, the flood also changed the water course of the brook so there is now a 45 foot waterfall, known as Avalanche Falls, at the head of the gorge.
5) From the top of the gorge you can either return to Boulder Cabin by a trail along the rim or continue 1.7 miles in a loop back to the Visitor Center. Most of this trail is downhill along a gravel carriage road, so we took advantage of it. Along the trail your come to Liberty Gorge, which is another series of waterfalls and cascades of another brook racing down the mountain. Very picturesque.
6) You also come upon “The Pool” and the “Sentinel Pine Covered Bridge” where the Pemigewasset River crosses the trail. The pool at the bottom of a cascade in the river is a deep basin (40 feet) that is 150 feet wide formed at the end of the Ice Age. Up until the hurricane in 1938 there was a large “Sentinel Pine” up above The Pool. This large white pine had been marked during colonial days by the British to be cut for a ship mast. It had a circumference of 16 feet (over 60 inches in diameter) and height of nearly 175 feet. The hurricane uprooted the pine which fell across the river. It’s truck along with rough hewn timbers were used to build a covered bridge over the river for hikers. You can still see the truck of the tree below the bridge, although they have added steel supports to stabilize it.
7) The trail then winds it way down through some impressive glacial boulders, some of which weigh over 300 tons.
8) The Cannon Mountain tramway is about 6 miles from the Visitor Center and provides access to the top of the 4,080 foot mountain. The tram ride is only about 8 minutes long, but runs every 15 minutes all day long and is itself an experience as a great way to make the climb. On top there is a half mile trail around the summit through dwarf fir and spruce trees and an observatory that gives 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. You can also get a snack in the cafeteria or try the local Cannon Ale in the bar while looking at the view.
9) Another stop along the Interstate that you should not miss is The Basin. A short walk down along the stream brings two different sites of wonder. The stream splits into two branches part way down the trail with a bridge over to the island. One fork of the stream has carved a curve in the granite that is so smooth that it looks like something created by Disney using concrete. The other fork takes a sharp turn and falls into the basin which is a fairly large circular granite pool that partly overhangs the basin. Very spectacular!!