PEAK EXPERIENCES IN NEW HAMPSHIRE
by Linda Ballou
Eighteen hikers headed out swift and strong on the shakedown run to the top of Black Cap Mountain. A scramble up boulders the size of boxcars brought us to a 360-degree view that would make anyone’s head spin: Maine dotted with lakes to the northeast, the bustling town of North Conway below, and, in the distance, Mt. Washington, the reigning monarch of New England. Exploring the mountains tufted with tangelo, amber and lime would be our goal for the next five days. Our guides, Nichol and Graham, swiftly sized us up. Fitness levels ranged from recovering couch potato to personal-trainer buff.
“Has anyone here never hiked before?” Graham asked.
A suntanned lady from Texas admitted she was wearing new hiking boots.
“I just completed a ten-day, coast-to-coast walk of England,” replied a gentleman who resides in the Lake District and treks regularly.
I often hike four to six miles at home in California and signed up with New England Hiking Holidays not just to see the fabled fall foliage, but to witness firsthand the granite peaks, notches and gorges painted so passionately by the White Mountain artists of the early 19th century. This forest of maple, birch and pine laced with rivers and over a hundred spark-ling waterfalls has long provided inspiration to painters and poets as well as solace for the urban dweller.
Graham detailed hike options each morning. We were then shuttled to our appropriate trailheads for the day. The slower group stuck to lower elevations and took time to examine trillium, star moss and princess pine along the path. The hardy ones attacked rocky, root-strewn trails up to grand vistas. Though tracks are well-marked, it is easy to get lost on the over 600 miles of trail network, which includes segments of the Appalachian Trail, in the 768,000-acre National Forest. What’s more, the unpredictable weather can turn quickly. Hikers lose their way so often that New Hampshire now requires people to pay for the cost of their rescue.
Native Americans called Mt. Washington “The Place of the Storm Spirit.” The mountain was never scaled by the Indians since they considered it the sacred home of the Great Spirit. At 6,288 feet it is the highest peak east of the Mississippi. The combination of funneling gales — once recorded at 231 mph — and extreme cold gives it the distinction of having some of the worst recorded weather on earth.
The moody monarch cloaked in dark, threatening clouds was a favorite subject of the landscape artists who painted the White Mountains. Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty and Benjamin Champney are among the notable painters who attempted to capture the sublimity and awful power of nature. America’s first artist colony, dubbed the “Cult of the American Wilderness,” was headquartered in North Conway. So many artists sat under bright-colored umbrellas in the Mt. Washington Valley in 1868 that Winslow Homer painted them at work (Artists Sketching the White Mountains).
A favorite subject of the artists was Crawford Notch, where the Willey family was buried beneath a mudslide in 1826. Coles’ The Notch of the White Mountains is considered the finest of all of these depictions. In 1828 Ethan Allan Crawford built the first hospitality house in the notch for travelers escaping the pollution of the industrial age. He also blazed a trail from the notch to the top of Mt. Washington — a route that is now the oldest trail in continuous use in the nation. Our fit hikers did a segment of the trail and found it quite rocky and steep. One of the most famous paintings of the landscape artists, called A Bridle Path, proves this point.
We capped off our day at Crawford Notch with a seductive stroll through a sun-shot tree tunnel tracing an energetic river to the back door of the Mt. Washington Hotel. The grand dame of the White Mountains, this is the last of the remaining elegant hotels built for wealthy turn-of-the-century travelers who arrived by train and stayed for the summer. All of the other elaborate hotels built for them have since burned to the ground. From the vantage of the graceful veranda of the hotel, I sipped a cool drink and watched the cog train, built in 1869, which chugs visitors to the top of Mt. Washington in Victorian-era coaches.
“Extraordinary,” Graham exclaimed, as we drove to the higher elevations of Pinkum Notch. “I’ve never seen it this clear at this time of year. It just doesn’t get better than this.” Fall in the Whites is noted for misty rains, even squalls, so the 75-degree temperatures and endless blue skies that greeted us were exceptional. Tuckerman’s Ravine, an immense glacier cirque — another popular subject for artists — was clearly visible. We took a spur off the Tuckerman track to see Crystal Cascade, an 80-foot plunge of liquid silver.
No trip to the mountains is complete without a stop at the Flume Gorge. Wet walls of rock laden with lichen line the 90-foot gash carved by the charging Avalanche Falls. The flume extends 800 feet through pure granite. The two-mile gorge-walk also features a covered bridge built upon a white pine that stretches across a chasm.
Outdoor days filled with eye-opening vibrancy ended at our own gracious quarters at the Inn at Thorn Hill & Spa. The original inn, built in 1895, burned down in 2001. Its successor continues the traditional luxury of the great hotels, but is blessed with modern amenities. I looked forward to a spa under the stars at the end of each hiking day. The inn boasts over 10,000 bottles of divine wine in the cellar and a four-star restaurant. Typical dinner choices included locally foraged mushrooms, seared ahi tuna and baked cobbler with freshly picked berries for dessert. It’s hard to top breakfasting on the wrap-around porch overlooking the Presidential Range with the morning mist rising off a meadow framed in crimson and copper foliage.
Two nights were spent at the lovingly restored Sunset House built in 1882. The dining hall of the inn faces a russet meadow where wild turkeys roam. Gentle conversation with my fellow hikers over hunters’ stew made of venison and wild boar gave me the sense of living in a time gone by.
Next day, we passed by what remains of the “Old Man” in the Mountain. Carved by nature thousands of years ago, the jagged granite face was so loved, it adorned state license plates. The “Old Man,” credited with being the guardian of the mountains, was held together for years with cables. Despite efforts to save him, he tumbled down in 2003. Now, he is affectionately referred to by locals as “Cliff.”
Our last hike off the Kancamagus Highway, a 34-mile stretch considered by many to be the top fall-foliage route in the world, was a brisk romp to Greeley Pond. Burgundy and bronze leaves fell like confetti in a light breeze. The path was lined with the parchment-white trunks of birch and evergreen boughs sprinkled with red maple leaf baubles. Between navigating rocks, roots and bubbling brooks we chanced to look up at skies trembling with tangerine and lemon leaves spinning in the sun. Once at the pond, we shed our hiking boots and cooled our feet in the crystalline water.
It just doesn’t get better than this.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: New England Hiking Holidays features all-inclusive, five-day trips from late June to early October: $1,645–$1,745. In July and August they offer a gentle New England exploration that covers much of the same terrain, but focuses more on the rich history of the region. They also have two- and three-day trips available from May through October from $695 to $1,095. For reservations or more information about the other hikes they offer about the globe: Tel: 1-800-869-0949; E-mail: NEHH@aol.com; Website: www.nehikingholidays.com.
NEW ENGLAND HIKING — Travel Tips
• Fall is the favored time to visit the White Mountains. Travelers who want autumn dates must book early. Late spring, in between the mud of winter and the bugs of summer, is also a wonderful time to explore, with meadows carpeted in wildflowers.
• Travelers unable to reach higher elevations on their own steam can catch the scenic rail trip out of North Conway to the depot in Crawford Notch. For details, visit www.conwayscenic.com.
• The Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway in Franconia Notch runs daily, weather permitting (www.cannonmt.com).
• The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire (www.currier.org) offers revolving displays in their American gallery. Check their site for current exhibits.
• Reading Gods in Granite, by Robert L. McGrath, will deeply enrich visitor experiences. A comprehensive collection of the art of the White Mountains, this book is loaded with color plates.