by Lee Foster
Many of the enjoyable outdoor adventures I have experienced have been inaccessible to large numbers of readers. An exception, however, is the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
You would have needed to backpack a 50-pound pack for three days to enjoy the scenic view that I savored on Mokelumne Peak in the California Sierra. You would have had to helicopter in with me to the Bugaboo Mountains in the Canadian Rockies to hike in that pristine wilderness. You would have had to fly in a small Cessna to the remote Salmon River in Idaho to appreciate the wild trout that I caught at the Shepp Ranch. These adventures have been satisfying, except that my egalitarian sensibilities have been suppressed. Relatively few travelers, because of the physical rigors or the cash outlays, could duplicate these elitist moments.
What I particularly enjoyed about an excursion into the White Mountains of New Hampshire is that this exceptional outdoor terrain is accessible to everyone. These extraordinary 768,000 acres of National Forest provide stunning vistas (The view from Crawford Notch rivals the grandeur of Yosemite). The entire forest is maintained largely with tourism and a strong conservation ethic in mind (Clearcuts of the forest are never larger than 40-acre parcels). The area boasts the tallest peak in the Northeast U.S. (Mt. Washington at 6,228 feet) and enough of the state’s estimated 2,500 moose that you should drive carefully to avoid a collision.
AN OUTDOORS FOR ALL
If your approach to the outdoors connotes a meditative and distinctly non-aerobic style, the White Mountains can accommodate you. Scenic Drives, Appealing Vistas, Tourist Railroads (including the first cog railway ever built to climb a mountain), and Excursion Boats offer ways to enjoy the outdoors without strain.
Scenic Drives abound in the region, whether you are a summer traveler enjoying the bright green leaf of June or an autumn explorer immersing yourself in brilliant fall colors (around September 20-October 10). In all seasons, even winter, with its clear skies and glistening snow, the countryside is appealing. The first drive to make is the famous Kancamagus Highway (112) from Lincoln to Conway, justifiably considered one of the most scenic drives in the country. Several choice turnouts, such as the one at Kancamagus Pass, allow you to commune with this landscape of sweeping hardwood and softwood forests. Then, with information from the local tourism authority, the White Mountains Attractions Association, you can peruse maps and perhaps choose a quiet drive into Waterville Valley, following a narrow road covered by a canopy of trees. You can devote several days to backroads exploring here without backtracking. Locals have an affectionate term, the “shunroad,” to describe these backroads. You shun the main road to immerse yourself in the aesthetic pleasures of the small roads.
Appealing Vistas are numerous. One favorite is the human-like stone profile of a face on the mountain at Franconia Notch, called the Old Man of the Mountain, viewed from a road turnoff accessible to all. The local term “notch” describes these vistas. Notches are the glacial gouges made in these north-south oriented mountains as the huge masses of ice moved from west to east. Some vistas include several elements, such as the river, forest, and mountain panorama available from Pine Hill, as you gaze at Mt. Washington across the Saco River. If you can choose the time of year for a visit, the fall color period would be my recommendation. Then the various bright pigments of the maple, birch, and oak leaves, no longer masked by the green pigment of chlorophyll, show brilliantly, especially after a hard frost.
Tourist Railroads have been a marked element of the White Mountains since the 1870s. An opulent fin-de-siecle period in American tourism occurred here when the new invention, the railroad, brought the swells in huge numbers from New York to the many posh hotels that sprung up (there were an incredible 24 “grand hotels” in the White Mountains in the 1890s). However, the rail phenomenon wasn’t just the swift trains that could bring you overnight from New York nonstop to the White Mountains. No, the special regional contribution to the history of rail tourism was the world’s first cog railway, climbing the steepest mountain, Mt. Washington, with its 37-degree grade. The cog strategy was invented in 1869. You can take this same trip in the cog railway today and think about the later Swiss or Pike’s Peak imitations of this sure mode of ascent. A second tourist railroad to consider is the Conway Scenic Railroad, which winds along the Saco River. Anyone who appreciates the mystique of the railroad in American culture will enjoy these trips, but the rail buff, who gets absolutely glandular at the sight of steam puffing from an engine, will need to be restrained.
An especially genial Excursion Boat trip is possible aboard the steamer Mt. Washington (the name Washington is ubiquitous here) on Lake Winnipesaukee, the second-largest lake in New England. If the pronunciation of the lake gives you pause, think only about the word’s Indian meaning, “high water in a beautiful place.” As this large, former Lake Champlain steamer approaches your dock, you drift back into a 19th-century mood, wondering if perhaps an elder Mark Twain or a younger Joseph Conrad might man the helm. The lake boasts a visually interesting bank with trees, inlets, and islands. The view looks much like the scenery in the movie ON GOLDEN POND, filmed at adjacent Squam Lake.
AN OUTDOORS FOR THE ENERGETIC
Though the White Mountains outdoors is accessible to everyone, don’t assume that your experience of travel here will be limited if you are an energetic explorer. On the contrary, Hiking, Biking, Skiing, Canoeing, Horseback Riding, and Fishing are major pursuits here.
Hiking is guided by the Appalachian Mountain Club from their headquarters at Pinkham Notch. Over 1,400 miles of maintained trails can take you through the forests. Included are miles on the official Appalachian Trail. As a start, try the walk out to the crest at Crawford Notch for its magnificent view.
Biking is popular on the shunroads and on special paved bike trails, including a nine-mile trail through the most scenic locale, Franconia Notch. You may want to stop pedaling for a few minutes to walk up The Flume, a granite gorge with steep and narrow vertical walls restraining the stream rushing past below. Bike trails at the tops of the mountain are maintained on Loon Mountain and can be accessed by gondola. Bikes can be rented at Loon Center, near Lincoln.
Skiing, both cross-country and alpine, is available at four main locations (Loon Mountain, Waterville Valley, Attitash, and The Balsams). The summer hiking trails become winter cross-country outings. The downhill runs, accessible by gondolas and tows (which were invented in the White Mountains in the 1930s), all have assured snow-making to compensate for any faltering in the winter precipitation.
Canoeing on the Saco River (guided by the Saco Bound outfitters), Horseback Riding at Waterville Valley, and Fishing for trout at The Balsams would be other good prospects for the focused outdoor enthusiast.
INSIGHTS INTO THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
Whichever approach to the region meets your style, certain insights may amuse or inform you. Here are a few such observations:
*Ironically, the clear-cutting of the forests in the late 1800s by the lumber barons allowed the aggressive hardwoods to dominate over the slower-growing softwoods. This unnatural preponderance of deciduous maples, beeches, and oaks creates the fall foliage spectacle that is now synonymous with New England.
*Also ironically, it was the protest of the carriage-trade tourists over the clear-cutting of early forests here that helped create the National Forest system of managed lumber terrain. These wealthy citizen tourists, the type who were on a first-name basis with their Congressmen and Senators, let it be known that they were displeased with this devastation of their summer playground. Thus was born the National Forest concept, with the White Mountains one of the first units.
*Travel here is seasonal, with February the best ski month, June-August busy summer traffic, September for empty nesters, and September 20-October 10 for a national and international clientele appreciating the fall foliage. April and November are the slowest months, called the “mud months” locally. Some resorts and many stores close during the slow periods. Truth in advertising requires that travelers be alerted to a local nuisance, the black fly, which flourishes here in June, and causes the sale of copious amounts of bug juice and netting. The flies reach peak numbers in their 18-year cycle, unfortunately, in these years.
*New Hampshire is a rugged-individualist state of conservative Republicans, who favor personal and local control rather than remote government services. Don’t come here expecting womb-to-tomb socialism. The state is 50th in state expense for schools, for example, believing this should be left to local financing. The people are not overly outgoing and tend to be reserved. Survival can be demanding. For example, the corporate dropout who comes up to New Hampshire, with visions of starting a B&B, tends to look back nostalgically, a few years later, on how relatively undemanding corporate life was.
*The weather atop Mt. Washington can be severe. Much of the soil at the top remains permanently frozen. The highest wind velocity ever recorded anywhere occurred here, at 231 MPH. A team of meteorologists constantly attends the weather station at this remote mountaintop.
*For fall foliage fans, there is a phone line indicating when the peak time for viewing will occur (call 800/258-3608 nationally or 224-2525 within the state). This visual judgment is discerned from 20 official Leaf Peepers distributed over the state. They phone in their observations on the color of the maple, birch, and oak leaves each Monday and Thursday during September-October.
*Covered bridges are a picturesque amenity here. You can scout out 27 such bridges in the area, built with tops to protect the bridge beams from weather and to provide a safe, enclosed space for skittish horses traversing cascading streams. One of the most photogenic bridges can be seen at The Flume in Franconia Notch State Park. Other icons of the region are the white-steepled churches, such as those at Compton and Sandwich.
*The ski gondolas of winter become sightseeing gondolas in summer, transporting visitors to alpine heights for picnics and hiking. Cannon and Loon are two of the scenic gondola possibilities.
*The grand hotels of yesteryear, except for The Balsams, have gone bankrupt or are in deep trouble. Yet the new major properties, such as Loon Mountain in Lincoln and the Golden Eagle in Waterville Valley, are recreating the grand hotel ambiance in a modern setting. A look at the bankrupt grand hotels, such as the Mountain View, gives the traveler a glimpse at the legends of America’s first major tourism phase, which occurred here, circa 1860-1900. The wealthy came here both for scenic beauty and for health reasons. Pollen-free high-altitude air was much appreciated by asthma sufferers of the time. Some of the painters associated with The Hudson River School evolved into a “White Mountains School”, which produced scenics for the art-buying patrons who vacationed here.
*The area was called the “white” mountains both because of the snow on the peaks and because, when there is no snow, the mica schist on the peaks glistens white. Major peaks are named after presidents (Washington, Lincoln), ideals (Liberty), and power symbols (Cannon). Rivers of the region are named after Indians.
*New Hampshire humor is laconic and sharp, as in, “Those winter winds on Mt. Washington, they sure can blow. Hear say they can even blow your jackknife open in your pants pocket.” Or, Surveyor to Farmer in Vermont along the river separating Vermont from New Hampshire: “Sir, we’ve just surveyed your land and found that, with the change in the riverbed over the years, your property is actually now in New Hampshire, not Vermont.” Farmer: “That’s a relief. Don’t know if I could stand another Vermont winter.”
*New Hampshire, holder of the nation’s first presidential primary each national election year, has correctly picked the presidential winner since 1952. Historically, you must win your party’s nomination in New Hampshire to win the national office. The state’s small size and curious population has encouraged a thorough one-on-one assessment of candidates by the voters.
PLANNING A WHITE MOUNTAINS ADVENTURES
The best way to see the region is to fly into Manchester (USAir and United serve this city, the state’s largest, with 100,000 of the state’s million residents).
Rent a car for touring rather than depend on public transportation, which is minimal. The major car rental companies have offices at the Manchester airport.
For lodging, you have a choice of major new-style hotels, grand old hotels, or small inns. Among the new-style lodges with all expected amenities, Loon Mountain is a good choice, both for its facilities, skiing, and central location for summer touring. At the other end of the spectrum, for a glimpse of life in a grand older lodging, try The Balsams at the north end of the region. If you want a more intimate B&B, a dependable choice would be the Woodstock Inn in Lincoln.
When dining, be sure to try the New England fish, cod and haddock, grilled or baked. Restaurants to consider include Loon Mountain’s dining room, named Rachel’s, after the wife of celebrated local politician, Sherman Adams, who assisted Eisenhower. Jay’s Diner in Lincoln can provide a fast breakfast in a friendly setting. The Woodstock Inn in Lincoln serves immense omelets in a rambling B&B. Gordi’s in Lincoln is good for seafood, such as lobster. The elegance of dining at The Balsams is a culinary adventure. Some national notoriety has fallen on the pancake house and maple sugar seller, appropriately in the town of Sugar Hill, known as Polly’s Pancake Parlor.
Though some outdoor areas restrict the audience, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which is within a day’s drive of 65 million Americans, is accessible to a wide spectrum of travel styles.
NEW HAMPSHIRE’S WHITE MOUNTAINS: IF YOU GO
The main tourism information source is the White Mountains Attractions Association, Box 10, North Woodstock, NH 03262, 603/745-8720.
The overall state tourism office is New Hampshire Office of Travel and Tourism, PO Box 1856, Concord, NH 03302, 603/271-2666, 800/FUN-IN-NH, www.visitnh.com.
When flying into the region, the main airport is Manchester, two hours south of the White Mountains.
A spectrum of representative lodgings includes the newer resorts (The Mountain Club on Loon Mountain, Rte. 112, Lincoln, NH 03251, 800/433-3413), the grand old resorts (The Balsams, Dixville Notch, NH 03576, 800/255-0600), and the B&Bs (Woodstock Inn, PO Box 118, North Woodstock, NH 03262, 603/745-3951). Week-long packages, sometimes with meals, are popular during the winter ski season or for extensive summer exploring. The Balsams operates entirely on an American-plan basis.
Some special-interest outdoor activities and their representative providers are:
Hikers can contact the Appalachian Mountain Club (Pinkham Notch Camp, Box 298, Gorham, NH 03581, 603/466-2727).
Rental Bikes are available at Loon Center (Lincoln, NH 03251, 603/745-8111).
Skiers will find the major sites are Loon Mountain (800/433-3413), Waterville Valley (800/GOV-ALLEY), Attitash (603/374-2368), and The Balsams (800/255-0600).
For Tourist Railroads, try the Cog Railway (Rte. 302, Bretton Woods, NH 03589, 603/846-5404) and the Conway Scenic Railroad (Rte. 16, North Conway, NH 03860, 603/356-5251).
Gondolas to the tops of mountains, winter and summer, operate at Loon Mountain and Cannon Mountain. Extensive hiking trails spread out from the summits.
The stunning scenic experiences are Franconia Notch State Park and the Kancamagus Highway.
Scenic Boat Rides occur aboard the Mt. Washington on Lake Winnipesaukee (Rte. 3, Weirs Beach, NH 03246, 603/366-5531).