As a Wisconsinite, I am continuously awed by the number of rolling hills and Toyota Tacomas that New Hampshire has to offer. The hills are a bit more charming. Well, more than a bit. I spent last week exploring the Dartmouth/Sunapee Region of the New Hampshire State Parks System, and hopefully, by the time you are done reading this, you will be convinced to do the same.
Winslow State Park
Mt. Kearsarge was my first stop – and it did not disappoint. Winslow and Rollins State Park share the mountain, and I was pleasantly surprised to have it all to myself; not a single car lingered in the parking lot. At the base of the mountain, a large picnic area offers views of the surrounding valley. While you’re munching on your pre-hike lunch, you can watch the nestled towns and lakes stretch out before you. I headed up the north side of the mountain on Barlow Loop Trail; the northern route is a steeper climb, but it meant I didn’t have to slide down wet granite on my return.
I would recommend checking the weather before your hike – something so obvious I completely overlooked. I found myself enveloped in a cloud as I reached the summit, and only saw a sliver of the view before it disappeared into the fog. Yet, the hike down the southern side made up for it. I walked through misty swaths of conifers and passed an Alpine Bog before slipping below the treeline.
If you are looking for a little peace and quiet, Winslow State Park is an incredible afternoon outing. The Barlow Loop is just under three miles, but you may never want to leave the little wonderland of spruce and granite that sits atop Kearsarge.
Wadleigh State Park
Maybe hiking isn’t your thing. Luckily, the Dartmouth Sunapee region is teeming with places ready for you to launch your kayak or canoe. Wadleigh State Park boasts one of these: Kezar Lake.
The lake is tucked into the hills of Sutton, New Hampshire. It’s 25 minutes away from Mt. Kearsarge, and I visited both on the same day. Wadleigh has picnic tables and a sizable beach, but the most special attraction sits in the middle of the lake: a small island you can paddle to and explore.
As I approached in a kayak, the swallows made it very clear which parts of the island to avoid. They flung themselves in my direction in flashes of blue and white. I’m no birdwatcher, but Wadleigh did convince me to buy a bird identification guide on my way home. So, I am only 85% sure they were swallows… An entire side of the island is dedicated as a loon nesting sanctuary. While I didn’t see any swimming around, if you are quiet and patient they might just appear.
Pillsbury State Park
I had my first overnight in Pillsbury State Park. Even though it poured—really poured—it has become my favorite park in the region. Pillsbury is in Sullivan County, but once you’re there, it feels like you have stepped into an enclosed piece of the forest, special and separate from the bustling world outside. It is the ultimate camping experience: quiet waterfront campsites, sparkling green ponds, and too many trails to count.
I spent most of my day in a kayak, which are available for rent at the park office! I saw ambitious dogs on paddle boards, sleepy fishermen, and the biggest duck family I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
Lichen creeps across stones that jut out from the depths. Little islands dance across the horizon. The water, glassy and brilliant, reflects Pillsbury’s wonders, making sure you don’t miss a single one.
Mount Sunapee State Park
Mount Sunapee State Park has beaches, boating, and some of the best trails in the region. I didn’t swim, but the crowded beach speaks for itself. Instead, I peeked around the main entrance and then headed towards the Andrew Brook trailhead.
It was a four-mile hike, out and back. I climbed over rocks and through a dried stream until I reached Lake Solitude, an isolated mountain lake perched on the side of Sunapee. A peninsula protrudes from the eastern shore, and it’s evident from the commotion that the ducks are content with this slice of paradise. The trail kept rising, and eventually, I found myself overlooking the lake, the park, and the bumpy landscape of southern New Hampshire.
Lake Sunapee might be where you are headed to find some beach time, but while you’re there, make sure to check out the trails. The Andrew Brook route isn’t the only way to the view. If you start on the Rim Trail and turn right on Newbury Trail or take the Summit Trail, you will eventually find yourself at Lake Solitude. These trails are less crowded than those at Cardigan Mountain State Park, and they offer an unforgettable glimpse into the valley below.