White Mountain Sights:
A. On Interstate 93 and Route 3:
Franconia Notch State Park, located in the deep rift formed between the craggy cliffs of the Kinsman and Franconia mountains, is sliced by an eight-mile section of Interstate 93, whose three brown-colored sub-exits of 34A, B, and C, access different attractions, from the Flume Gorge in the south to Echo Lake Beach in the north.
The Gilman Visitor Center, located at the first exit and framed by mounts Liberty and Flume, offers a good introduction.
Developing into a social and recreational destination because of its Old Man in the Mountain rock formation, the park itself had sported two different “Profile House” hotels in order to accommodate the influx of tourists who had initially arrived by horse-drawn stage coach. This transportation method was changed after the 1870s when a spur track from Bethlehem linked the Profile House’s own railroad station.
Demand created by wealthy tourists, most of whom would travel with their servants and spend at least a summer month at the resort, necessitated the demolishing of the original hostelry in 1905 and the replacement of it with what became New England’s largest hotel.
A Concord Coach is displayed in the Gilman Visitor Center. Built in Concord, New Hampshire, by Abbott, Downing, and Company between 1828 and 1900, the type became the country’s most famous stage, which ultimately saw worldwide service. A single shipment, entailing 30 coaches and 60 four-horse harnesses, was made to Omaha, Nebraska.
The Visitor Center’s elaborately-painted example, coach #431, was assembled in 1874 and features two padded, forward-facing, roof-installed benches and two internal facing ones, having carried passengers and mail between Plymouth, New Hampshire, and the Profile House in Franconia Notch until 1911. Discovered in Vermont 22 years later, it was returned to the area and restored.
Aside from the center’s gift shop and cafeteria, the continuously run “Franconia Notch” film provides an excellent introduction to the park.
A shuttle transports sightseers from the Gilman Visitor Center to a point 500 yards from one of Franconia Notch State Park’s most impressive attractions, the Flume Gorge, and a boardwalk path leads to it.
Discovered in 1808 by 93-year-old Jess Guernsey, the gorge itself, a natural, 800-foot-long chasm at the base of Mount Liberty, features narrow walls of Conway granite which rise to heights of 70 to 90 feet and are spaced 12 to 20 feet apart. A ten-foot-high by 12-foot-long, egg-shaped boulder had once hung between its walls, but was swept away in 1883 by a rainstorm-created landslide.
Walking trails lead to the Pool and the Sentinel Pine Bridge, as well as to waterfalls.
Another of Franconia Notch State Park’s glittering jewels is Cannon Mountain. Rising to 4,180 feet, it offers 72 trails and glades totaling 23 miles and 264 acres, with a 2,180-foot vertical drop. Its ten lifts range from the 600-foot Huckerbrook Handle Tow to the 5,139-foot aerial tramway.
The mountain itself played a significant role in New Hampshire’s skiing history. Joan Hannah of Franconia, for example, grew up skiing here and became a member of the US Olympic Team in 1960 and 1964, winning the bronze medal in the Grand Slalom event in the FIS World Championships held in Chamonix, France, in 1962.
Jean Claude Killy won all three men’s events in the 1967 World Cup here while on his way to prevailing as the overall champion in the first year of the World Cup Competition.
Visitors can ride the two enclosed, 80-assenger (70 skier) Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway gondolas, traversing the 2,022-foot vertical rise to the 4,180-foot summit in eight minutes, enjoying views of Echo Lake, Artists Bluff, Bald Knob, and Mount Lafayette, the highest peak in the Franconia Range.
Its predecessor, North America’s first aerial tramway, had commenced operations in 1938 with its 27-passenger wooden cars and had elevated Cannon to the top of its class within the northeastern ski resort system, carrying 6.5 million passengers by the time it had been retired 42 years later. The current version, dedicated on May 24, 1980, elevated it even higher–in this case, to European resort standards.
The Summit Café, a bar, the Cannon Mountain Rim Trail, and an observation platform enable visitors to enjoy the ride, the view, a drink, a meal, and a hike.
One of the original, 1938 tram cars, along with a Mount Cranmore skimobile, are displayed outside of the New England Ski Museum, located at the base of Cannon Mountain.
Established for the purpose of collecting, conserving, and exhibiting elements from a broad spectrum of ski history, the museum itself houses the most extensive collection of vintage equipment, clothing, historical files, photographs, literature, posters, and artwork in the country.
The earliest evidence of human ski use, according to the museum, was unearthed from a Russian bog in the form of 8,000-year-old ski fragments. Initial Asian and European examples were handmade, utilitarian, and principally used for traveling, hunting, and fighting. Today’s counterparts are contrastively employed for competition and recreational purposes.
Modern machinery sparked the ski boom during the 1930s. Rope tows, tramways, and ski lifts facilitated the ascents of winter sports enthusiasts, who traveled to New England slopes from Boston by snow trains.
A path leads from the base of Cannon Mountain to the Old Man of the Mountain Historic Site.
Geologically formed some two million years ago, the 40.5-foot profile itself, comprised of five granite ledges located 1,200 feet about Profile Lake in the mountainside and appearing like the silhouette of a man’s face, was a massive, natural sculpture. The forehead boulder alone, for example, measured 20 by four by four feet and weighed 20 tons. The forehead ledge measured 45 by ten feet and weighed 30 tons, while the remainder of its components included the 11-foot brow, ten-foot nose, seven-foot upper lip, and 12-foot chin.
But even a seemingly permanent rock formation such as this proved impermanent when slow, silent erosion finally weakened the rock ledges and caused them to collapse during the night of May 3, 2003. Although subsequent support for its reconstruction was strong, the mountainside’s support was not, according to State of New Hampshire geologist analyses and a government-appointed task force decreed that the profile, like so much in the physical world, would be forced to retreat into memory.
The image, however, was restored in 2011 when the granite Old Man of the Mountain Profiler Plaza, located on the shore of Profile Lake, was dedicated, enabling viewers to peer through a device whose steel rods, or “profiles,” reproduced the image when pointed at the cliff where the original had taken root.
A small, Old Man of the Mountain Museum was recently relocated to the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway base lodge and features displays pertaining to its Profile House hotel era.
There are several other natural sights in Franconia Notch State Park. The Basin, for instance, is a 15-foot-deep, 30-foot-diameter pothole in the Pemigewasset River that was created 25,000 years ago when melting glacial waters eroded its bedrock, while the river itself flows from Profile Lake at a 1,900-foot elevation and drains the notch. Boise rock, a glacial erratic, once served as overnight protection for Thomas Boise, who had been caught in a fierce snowstorm while sledding and was forced to seek refuge beneath its overhang. Boise Woods represents the low-elevation forest environment typical of Franconia Notch. And 1,500-foot-high Eagle Cliff often serves as a Peregrine falcon nesting spot.
Emphasizing the man-made, as opposed to the natural, Clark Trading Post, another family-oriented theme park accessed by Route 3 and open from May to October, features live Black Bear shows, as well as rides on its steam-powered White Mountain Central Railroad. Rounding out the attractions are the Old Man of the Mountain Climbing Tower, Old Mill Pond Water Blaster Boats, Segway rides, and the American Museum and 1884 Fire Station. Meals and snacks can be eaten in the Whistle Stop Snack Bar, Pullman’s Pizza and Subs, and the Peppermint Saloon, and gifts can be purchased in the Candle Shop and the Maple Cabin.
B. On Route 112:
Both a road and a sight in and of itself, 34.5-mile-long Route 112, also known as the Kancamagus Highway National Scenic Byway, provides southern White Mountain access from Lincoln, where it reaches its highest, 3,000-foot elevation, and Conway. The northeast’s first designated National Scenic Byway, which reflects the namesaked Mount Kancamagus it crosses, it traces its origins to the Passaconaway-destined town road of 1837, which had subsequently been extended eastward from that point and westward from Lincoln, mostly as a result of Civilian Conservation Corps construction work and, after the Second World War, the State Highway Department. When the two sections were linked in 1959, it opened to traffic.
A White Mountains Visitor Center is located on the road’s west side, beyond Lincoln.
Because of the narrow cleft worn in the solid rock over the millennia by the Swift River, there are numerous scenic areas along it, including Falls Pond, Sawyer Pond, Greeley Ponds, and Lower Falls. Rustic campgrounds facilitate those wishing to combine an overnight stay with one or more area activities, such as picnicking, hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, or snow shoeing.
The area’s natural scenery can also be explored at the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves, located six miles west of North Woodstock on Route 112 in Kinsman Notch.
Formed 300 million years ago, the notch itself was sculpted by a more than mile thick glacier during the Ice Age, creating the present-day mountains and passes that provide access through them. The only remaining glacial aspect is the pace with which erosion continues to exert its effects on Lost River Gorge, whose “intricate, (lantern-lit) boardwalks twist, turn, rise, and descend,” according to the attraction, leading to granite rock walls, “gigantic boulders stacked like blocks,” glacial caves, and waterfalls.
Visible from Route 112 further east in North Woodstock, just before the Interstate 93 overpass, is the Café Lafayette Dinner Train.
Ceded the dream of operating a dinner train, of which there are only a handful in the country, by an ailing friend, owners Lance Burak and Leslie Holloway virtually adopted his hands, restoring three Pullman cars to bygone-era splendor, before initiating their New Hampshire version of the concept in 1989. Promising five courses served in the Grand European manner, and artfully prepared by Chef Doug Trulson, the two-hour, 20-minute round trip from and to North Woodstock is toted as the “restaurant with the constantly changing view,” and diners/riders can reserve either main or dome level tables (for four).
Of its three coaches, the blue and white “Granite Eagle” was the first such dome car to enter the state in 1995 after its transport from Kansas and was restored the following year in the Engine House of the Hobo Railroad, itself located only a stone’s throw in Lincoln. A Pullman Planetarium car first built in 1952, it sports a unique, tri-level arrangement with a dome, a sunken lounge below it, and main level, fore and aft accommodation.
The “Algonquin,” a Canadian National Railroad café coach from 1953, and the “Indian Waters,” a 1924 Pullman Standard Victorian coach replete with era-indicative brass, stained glass, and polished woods, completes the fleet.
Ducking into the tunnel of forest green, the gently moving train follows track laid by the Pemigewasset Valley Railroad in the late-1800s to serve the area’s once-grand hotels, crossing the shallow, rocky mosaic of the Pemigewasset River by means of the rust-red, dual-spanned trestle bridge. Enroute to the Jack O’ Lantern resort, the train’s turn-around point, diners enjoy a five-course dinner at formally set tables of appetizers, organically grown salads, palette cleansing sorbets, entrees, desserts, and coffee or tea. Separately priced alcoholic beverages are available.
Stressing scenery instead of cuisine, the Hobo Railroad, located a short distance east in Lincoln, uses the same Pemigewasset River track to the Jack O’ Lantern Resort on its 80-minute round-trip runs from Hobo Junction Train Station between May and October, with up to three daily frequencies during the peak summer months.
Tracing its roots to the 1986 Plymouth and Lincoln Railroad, which had operated seven-mile excursions to Woodstock with three Also diesel-electric locomotives, it also operated the route and subsequently secured trackage rights from the State of New Hampshire, paving the 54-mile way for the establishment of its Lake Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad division and Meredith-Weirs Beach-Laconia service.
In Lincoln, passengers can purchase drinks and snacks on board or pre-order a Hobo lunch of sandwiches, chips, cookies, beverages, and a hobo stick or pouch. Fall foliage and Polar Express theme runs are offered on weekends at the end of the year.
Loon Mountain, just east of Lincoln on Route 112, is another of the White Mountains’ many ski resorts. Comprised of three peaks-North, South, and Loon itself-it offers 12 lifts, 370 skiable acres, and 61 trails. Its summit elevation is 3,050 feet.
With three peaks, there are numerous dining options, including Camp III at the base of the North Peak, The Octagon Lodge and the Governor Adams Lodge at the base of Loon Peak, the Pemigewasset Base Camp at the South Peak, and the Summit Café at the top of Loon Mountain.
Like other area resorts, Loon offers several summer activities, such as scenic gondola skyrides, horseback riding, mountain biking, a climbing wall, a bungee trampoline, Segway tours, and a zipline, with individual and combination tickets.