Since the Civil War, the White Mountains of New Hampshire have been a major tourist destination. By the turn of the century it attracted wealthy visitors from all the major cities in New England and today it continues to attract visitors from all over the world. While there was a long period of luxury hotels in the area, most of these are now long gone, but there are a large number of hotels and campgrounds for today’s visitors. Our trip to the White Mountains from Maine was along US 2 which winds it way through the valleys and had surprisingly few steep ascents or descents. Even though the highway was for the most part in good condition, the many curves and small towns kept our speed below 50 for the most part, but the drive was scenic. We pulled into Apple Hill Campground in Bethlehem, New Hampshire soon after lunch and got set up. Apple Hill is an old campground run by a family that live on the property in the house on the highway. It has more the feel of a state park, rather than a commercial RV park, which we liked. There were a lot of trees with the pull through sites cut through then and it was easy to get into the site with our rig. The bathrooms are old and rustic, although they did put in an effort to keep them clean, and the washing machines had been placed on the porch which exposed them to the weather. Consequently they were showing a lot of rust and we weren’t sure they even worked. There are also a lot of seasonal RVs around the fringes that were old and in some cases looked abandoned. However, our site was nice and we were well satisfied.
Except for knowing that the White Mountains were a tourist attraction, especially Mount Washington which is the tallest mountain in New England, we did not know what we were going to do for the week. So we stopped into the office to talk with the owner about some good hiking trails. Along with Franconia State Park, that he assumed we already knew about, he really liked the trails in Crawford Notch State Park and the scenic drive that forms a loop through the White Mountains. He suggested a couple of good trails that were not too difficult or long starting with the trail up to the summit of Mount Willard where there were some spectacular views. The trail is less than 2 miles and one that he liked to take his five year old son. This sounded like a good place to start, so after stopping off to check on the COG railway up Mount Washington that we would take later in the week, we proceeded to the parking area at the Crawford Notch Depot. As we were to find out, all of the hiking trails in the state parks and the White Mountain National Forest are heavily used by hikers, even during the middle of the week. We passed many hikers coming down the trail and were passed by quite a few going up the trail. The trail started out with an easy climb over a couple of small streams and alongside a mountain brook where there were a couple of nice spots to watch the water tumbling over the rocks. However, after about a quarter of a mile, the trail got serious. I don’t doubt the park manager brought his five year old on this trail, since we saw a number of families with children of all ages, however, it was proving to be too steep for our 60 year old knees and hips. After another mile of walking up the side of the stream where it became steep enough in a couple of places to need our hands to climb, we were not sure we would reach the summit. Once the trail diverged from the stream to begin its circle to the top with no easing of the grade, we knew we were beat. Under the belief that we would be able to make this 1.7 mile hike before lunch, we both realized we were in trouble. Kal had some snacks in her camera vest which we shared along with some water I had brought and took a long rest. However, after another 50 feet up the trail, Kal simply gave out and we turned around and went back downhill to the truck. On the way down I was amazed how steep the trail was and was impressed we had done as well as we did. It is obvious that we are not or ever were mountain climbers and we would have to think twice about taking trails that a five year old enjoys doing!! In any case, it was still a nice time in the woods. By now it was after 2:00 in the afternoon, so we decided to make an early dinner and stopped in a local restaurant for lunch/dinner. I enjoyed a local brown ale called Pigs Ear that was very good and felt recovered after our long (at least for us) hike.
Wednesday was stormy, especially in the afternoon and evening, so we stayed in the campgrounds. Kal took the laundry to a laundromat in town and I cleaned the RV.
We had an early start on Thursday since we had made reservations for the 9:30 trip up Mount Washington on the Cog Railway. Since it was a half hour drive and they wanted you there 45 minutes ahead, we had to quickly get up and out that morning. Unfortunately, the clouds from the day before were still lingering around, especially around Mount Washington and we were both regretting that we opted to wait until Thursday instead of taking the trip on Tuesday when we could see the top of the mountain. This morning the top was shrouded in clouds and there did not look there was much chance for any clearing before we ascended the mountain. After getting our tickets and spending about 20 minutes in their nice museum about the history we boarded our train. Before describing our trip, I should mention a couple of things about this Cog Railway. It is the oldest Cog Railway in the US and the second steepest in the world. At one point along Jacob’s Ladder, the grade is over 37% which is difficult to stand on, much less push a rail car up. The engines sit behind the single passenger car and pushes the car up the mountain. On the way down the engines provide a break to the passenger car, which also has its own independent breaking system, and the two are not physically connected! This is for safety reasons since it anything goes wrong with the engine, it will not pull the passenger car with it. It is known as a Cog Railway, since the propulsion is not from the wheels pushing against the rails, which would not work on these grades which average 25%. Instead there is a cog in between the two rails that looks nothing more than the chain of a bicycle laid on the ground. The engine and passenger cars have sprockets that fit into the cogs and pushing against these cogs is how the train climbs up the mountain. The train moves at only 3 mph to it took over an hour to make the trip. It should also be noted that the seats in the passenger car are tilted as well so for the most part you feel like you are traveling up a very slow elevator. It does give a strange view of the trees, water tower, and half way house, that look like they are sitting at an extreme angle! Unfortunately the view going up the mountain was not what it could have been as we were into the clouds by the time the train had ascended to the point the trees were short enough to see over them.
Mount Washington is 6288 feet and literally creates its own weather and it did a great job demonstrating this fact. While at the base it was in the low 70s with threatening clouds, at the summit it was in the low 40s with winds over 50 mph and 70 mph gusts giving a wind chill factor in the low 20s. The blowing mist or fog made the visibility less than 50 feet! So while we saw panoramic pictures of the view you could see from the summit, extending 130 miles in all directions including the Atlantic Ocean, all we could see was fog. Even the Tip-Top House, the first “hotel” on the mountain, which is only 100 feet from the Visitor Center, was not visible. I did brave the winds up to the Tip-Top House which is now a small museum. It is a stone structure which is the only reason it has survived and is little more than a bunkhouse with a bank of eight bunks along with a dining room and kitchen. Mount Washington is toted as having the worst weather in the world and after seeing the museum devoted to the winters on the mountain, I can believe it. The weather observatory, that is manned all year, had recorded the second highest wind speeds on earth in April, 1934 of 231 mph!!! It was still an amazing experience, although I wished we would have researched it a bit more and brought more than a light jacket. We had less than an hour at the summit, which was more than enough since you could not see anything anyway, and another hour trip back down the mountain on the railway. I should mention that you can also drive up to the summit from the other side of the mountain, which we had considered doing. After our experience, we are both very glad we did not. Besides the ride up the Cog Railway was a lot more fun than trying to drive a mountain road in that weather.
On Friday it was back to Crawford Notch State Park for some more hikes, hopefully not as strenuous as the hike up Mt. Willey. We began at the site of the Willard House, about mid-way through the notch. Although the Willey House burned down years ago, it is the site of the small hotel the Samuel Willey opened in 1825. A year later a torrential rainstorm caused a landslide that killed the entire family although the house was undamaged since the slide split and went on either side of it. It is not known for sure why the family left the house, but it is conjectured that they were attempting to escape the flood waters from the Saco River. Today there is a marker to the family, a gift shop, and a small pond. We hiked the short trail at the pond and extended it along the Saco River. There is not much water in the river during August, but we saw a number of places that beavers had started creating some dams. The walk was very easy and level along the river and made for a nice morning hike before lunch at the pond.
After lunch we traveled about a mile further into the notch to the parking area for the Ripley Falls. This was suppose to be a moderate hike of about a half mile to the falls. The trail started out pretty steep once it crossed the railroad tracks but after less than a quarter of a mile it leveled off along a ridge to the falls. In comparison, this was a moderate hike and much more to our liking. Ripley Falls sure made the hike worthwhile as it is a 100 foot series of cascades where the stream quickly descends the hill to a small pool at the base. The mountain stream below the falls was also worth spending some time at as well. Once again the trail was well traveled with over 20 people at the falls while we visited.
Saturday was our day for the scenic drive looping through the White Mountains. The trip began by going all the way through the Crawford Notch to Bartlett where we took the Bear Notch Road south. This road is a US Forest Service road that is closed during the winter and provided some great views across the valley. Our trip then continued west along the Kancamagus highway (State Road 112) to the pass of the same name. Along the way we came across a USFS Historic Site, the Russell-Colbath Homestead. This homestead is the last surviving home of the Passaconaway Village that was a prosperous town in the 1850s when the valley was being logged by the Swift River Lumber Company. Trees would be cut and stacked in the summer and then skidded out by horse drawn sleds in the winter to be loaded on the train. There were also a number of small sawmills in the area. The Forest Service has restored the homestead and turned it into a museum that is open on the weekends. We met a descendent of the family in the house who told a number of stories about the family and small community. Most of the furnishings in the house are original, although some are reproductions, and there are many artifacts from the time period. For instance, I saw a unique set of scissors that would be used to trim the wicks on the lamps that included a small metal box to catch the cut wick. There is also a short trail that leads down to the Swift River where you can still see the moorings of the railroad bridge that crossed the river. The Forest Service has put up a number of interpretive signs that give the history of logging in the area which started back in colonial times with the cutting of large white pine for ship masts.
After lunch at the homestead, we continued our drive up to the Kancamagus Pass which is around 4000 feet and is high enough to get into the spruce-fir forest. There are a number of very nice pull outs to enjoy the scenic views on both sides of the pass. Once we got to the Interstate 93 we choose to go north on US 3 instead, which led us directly to the Visitor Center in Franconia Notch State Park. Even though the Apple Hill manager assumed we knew about this park, we did not have a clue, so we were surprised to find this large Visitor Center and huge parking lot packed with cars. It was already mid-afternoon, so we decided to find out what it was all about and return on Sunday. Come to find out this state park is considered to be the crown jewel of New Hampshire state parks that extends for 8 miles up the Franconia Notch. Unlike the trails in Crawford Notch, the trail from the Visitor Center up to Flume Gorge cost money and they control the access to the trail. Therefore we picked up information and headed back to the campground for the rest of the afternoon.
Whereas, we have learned to like taking it easy on Sundays as it is our last day in the campgrounds, however, this time we had a destination that we were excited to check out. After reading the material we got on Saturday, we knew we wanted to start with the Flume Gorge hike, taking in the tramway to the summit of Cannon Mountain, and the Old Man of the Mountain State Historic Site. It was going to be a full day, so we got an early start and arrived at the Visitor Center by 9:30, 30 minutes after they opened. We were some of the first to arrive so parking was no problem and we had the trail pretty much to ourselves. We decided to take their van up the first quarter mile of the trail, both for the sake of time and to save our knees the uphill climb, which did not look very bad. On the ride up you cross through the Pemigewasset Covered Bridge, which is one of the oldest in the state and the driver was kind enough to stop and let us take a couple of pictures before proceeding to Boulder Cabin. This cabin is now a museum for visitors to provide a little history about Flume Gorge and information about the wildlife and plants you will see along the trail. After leaving the cabin it is a short uphill walk to Table Rock where Flume Creek has polished a large slab of granite rock as it sluices over it. Quite impressive, but also quite slippery (or so the signs said)!! A short distance beyond Table Rock is the beginning of the Flume Gorge, which is a natural gorge extending 800 feet with 70-90 foot sheer granite walls that are 12-20 feet apart. They have built a wooden walkway with steps so you can travel right up the gorge alongside the creek. It is an absolutely amazing trail up through the gorge and one that has been enjoyed for over 150 years by tourists from around the world. Prior to 1883 there was a huge egg-shaped boulder (10X12 feet) wedged above the creek that people would actually stand on. They have pictures of this boulder in Boulder Cabin. In 1883 a heavy rainstorm caused logs and other debris to lodge against the rock, effectively damming the creek. After a few days the water pressure was too much and the rock was pushed out never to be found. It’s unfortunate that the rock is no longer there, however, this same event deepened the gorge and diverted the water entering the gorge so it now begins with a 45 foot waterfall known as Avalanche Falls. So you gain some and you loose some.
Once you get to the top of the Gorge you have two choices. You can either return along a rim trail back to Boulder Cabin or you can continue on the trail the loops for another 1.3 miles before returning to the Visitor Center. Since the trail is mostly downhill, we had no problem with the distance and I am glad we continued on. The trail is actually a gravel carriage road and descends through the forest with many of the plants identified along the trail with small signs at ground level. You do have to watch for them, but they were very informative. At about 0.5 miles you come to Liberty Gorge, which is a much smaller, but pretty gorge, where a stream cascades down the hillside. At 0.7 miles you come to The Pool and Sentinel Pine Covered Bridge, which should not be missed!! The Pool is a large glacial basin at the base of a set of cascades on the Pemigewasset River. This pool is 40 feet deep and 150 feet in diameter and looks to be a perfect circle. Very beautiful from above. You cross the river on the Sentinel Pine Covered Bridge, which was built of rough hewn boards from the Sentinel Pine that grew along the river above the pool. The Sentinel Pine was another landmark of the area as it was over 60 inches in diameter and over 175 feet tall white pine that had been marked by the British to be cut for a ship mast. At the time it blew over during the hurricane in 1938, it was one of the largest white pines in the state. Since it fell over the river they decided to use the trunk as the base for a bridge, cutting up the rest of the tree to provide the building materials. You can still see the trunk of the tree underneath the bridge, although they have added additional steel supports to help stabilize it. There is also a cave known as Wolf Den that you can crawl through to exit further up the hillside. As it involved tight spaces and a lot of crawling over rocks we decided not to partake! The rest of the trail descends down through a large glacial boulder field with some truly impressive specimens of the debris left by the glaciers 150,000 years ago.
After lunch we drove six miles north in the park to the Cannon Mountain Tramway. I should note that most of the access to this park is only by the Interstate, There are no other roads through the notch. In addition, the Interstate is narrowed to a 2 lane divided road with speeds of 45 mph through the notch, making it one of only two substandard interstates in the country. You might think this was due to the width of the notch, but that is certainly not the case as there is plenty of room for a 4 lane highway. It was done as a compromise at the time in order to try and protect the Old Man of the Mountain from the vibrations of road construction and subsequent traffic. As with most tramways, the one ascending Cannon Mountain is the summer version of a winter ski lift for the many ski slopes on the Mountain. During the winter this is the second most popular skiing locations in the White Mountains. The ride up to the summit only takes 8 minutes, but it is certainly the best, smoothest, and fastest way to climb 2500 feet up the side of a mountain. Once again, our choice of days was not the best, as clouds had moved in by the afternoon and visibility at summit was not as good as it could have been. Thankfully the summit itself was not in the clouds, so we did get some great vistas of the surrounding valleys and mountains. There is a short walking trail around the summit that provides access to some dangerous ledges where you can get some great views. There is also an observation tower that gets you way above the tree tops to see in all directions. After the walk around the summit we headed to the bar and sampled their Cannon Ale, which is brewed locally especially for their use on the mountain. While I prefer a brown or red ale, this pale ale was not bad and the view we had out the window made it worthwhile.
After we descended back to the parking lot we drove the short distance to the Old Man in the Mountain State Historic Site at the base of Cannon Mountain along Profile Lake. Along with a small museum, there is a short walk along the banks of Profile Lake to where you can view this unique landmark. If you have ever seen a New Hampshire license plate or the state emblem, then you know something about it. The Old Man in the Mountain was a granite outcropping consisting of five horizontal slabs cantilevered out over the side of Cannon Mountain that took on the likeness of an old man when viewed from the proper angle. It was even visible from the interstate as you drove past. I say “was” because in 2003 it came crashing down after years of trying to stabilize it. Today there is a memorial at the site where they have constructed some steel poles. When you stand the correct distance from the pole based on your height and sight up along the top of the pole, the ends of the poles will add the missing pieces. Very cool.
From there we looped back into the park for one final location we had read about, The Basin. This is a short walk along a stream that divides into two forks with a bridge crossing over to the island. The right fork descends through a neat cascade where it has eroded a channel through the granite that takes the stream on a wild ride in a circular path. The granite has been worn so smooth that it looks like a Disney attraction made of cement! The other fork though is where the money is. It quickly cascades into the side of a large granite basin which has been smoothed over time to form a perfect hemisphere with the water entering along a circular path into the bowl. Very beautiful and unique. So ended a very eventful day in New Hampshire where we obtained a great appreciation for the beauties and rarities this place has to offer. I am very glad we made this trip and spent at least a week in the area.