I left for the Great North Woods with a full tank of gas and 16 podcast episodes downloaded onto my phone. I can’t lie; it was a long drive. This region of the parks system seems out of reach for many, but the trip is doable if you have a long weekend. Most parks in this region are two to three hours away from Concord, but there are pockets of the wild up in these woods that will make it worth your while.
Weeks State Park
My first stop took me to the very top of Prospect Mountain. Granted, it is a little mountain, but the views are still pristine. You can hike up from the bottom, or as I did, you can drive up the scenic byway. After exploring the flatter landscape of the Dartmouth/Sunapee Region the week before, I wasn’t prepared to see the Presidential Range of the White Mountains stretching out before me (without actually leaving my car).
Weeks State Park offers a glimpse into the past, with preserved structures and guided tours. The museum and stone fire tower are only accessible from Wednesday through Sunday, but you can still see quite a bit if you arrive on an off day.
The land was once used as a summer home by John Wingate Weeks until it was donated to the state in 1941. The Ken Jordan Nature Trail loops the summit, noting points of interest along the way. The nature trail took me to eleven locations, including remnants of a well-loved tennis court and the old caretakers cottage.
The highlight of my short trip was just past stop number seven, the flowering raspberry shrubs. There was a field of fern and lavender with views of the mountains and the stone fire tower, but most notably there were monarch butterflies in abundance.
Forest Lake State Park
Forest Lake is quite literally a little lake nestled into a forest. I wasn’t planning on visiting, but the park is only 15 minutes away from Weeks, so I decided to go and peek around.
It is primarily a place to swim, with a 200 foot beach and plenty of room to grill and hang out. It was probably over 90 degrees but the parking lot wasn’t even half full. So if you like your beach days quiet and scenic, Forest Lake State Park should be on your itinerary.
Milan Hill State Park
Milan Hill offers luxury camping in the form of sizable purple yurts. I stayed overnight in yurt number four, and this was the view from my window:
If that doesn’t convince you to check it out, maybe this will. I was walking down a trail called Hare Pass and came face to face with three separate rabbits. Coincidence? Probably, but still, it invigorated the rest of my hike.
Milan Hill State Park has plenty of trails to choose from, and later that day, I found myself on Evergreen Pass, a walking trail near my campsite. Red spruce, white pine, you name it. The path was tightly lined with evergreen upon evergreen; I felt like I was wandering through a maze. The sun was coming down overhead, and as I headed back towards camp, I couldn’t help but ogle at the baby ferns and tiny pinecones that had fallen from on high.
At sunset, I headed towards the fire tower. It was a little too windy for my taste as I climbed up, and I was more afraid than I like to admit, but it was worth it. There were 360-degree views of the White Mountains, Maine, Vermont, and Canada. I was only there for a night, but Milan Hill is worth a few days in and of itself to explore fully. Aside from trails and yurts, there are primitive campsites.
Mollidgewock State Park
I spent the next two days in and around Mollidgewock State Park, which is nestled into the 13 Mile Woods south of Errol. The Androscoggin River is the star of the show. It runs parallel to Route 16, and every few hundred feet, there are pull-offs for boaters and fishing. The fly fishermen freckle the riverbanks as you wind towards the campground, and it was the only time in my life where I wished I knew how to cast a rod.
I did not go fishing myself, but one couple I met come through this area every few months on extended fishing trips. According to them, when the Androscoggin runs clear, it’s one of the best places in New England to catch brown trout.
Oh, the wildlife! Like I mentioned in my last blog, I am only an aspiring birder. Luckily, I didn’t have to travel far to be wowed. Bluejays teased me relentlessly; I saw so many but couldn’t capture a single one with my camera. I heard the pecking of a pileated woodpecker for over an hour while I was setting up camp and eventually found it on a tree only a few yards away. My favorite sighting was a heron or egret (I’m still learning the difference) who had claimed a log in the Androscoggin. I returned four or five times over the two days, and there he sat, again and again, content with his little slice of the river.
Roughly six or seven miles into the 13 Mile Woods, you’ll find the Mollidgewock campground right on the water. Only a few feet away from the river, my tent was tucked into a shroud of spruce and cedar. I probably spend too much time with my nose in my tree guide, but once you see for yourself, you’ll probably do the same. The trees tower over you, envelop you, and remind you the spirit of the northern forests is alive and well.
Side Trip: Speaking of grandiose forests, if you find yourself in the area, take an hour and drive the Grafton Notch Scenic Byway. It will take you over the border into Maine, but our neighbors to the north have some impressive trees of their own. The tallest evergreens I have ever seen lined the byway, and I felt like I was on the edge of civilization – in a good way…
Umbagog Lake State Park
Umbagog Lake is only 20 minutes north of Errol, and boy, is it the place to visit. There is remote camping, amazing staff, and an atmosphere of adventure. Teeming with islands and inlets, the lake sits on the Maine and New Hampshire border. There is a main campground, but I highly recommend the remote camping experience.
I first met Sue working in the main office. She set me up with a boat ride to my campsite (R10) on Big Island and only teased me a little. Soon I was on a transport boat headed toward Thurston Cove. The men working the boat were so kind, pointing out landmarks and helping me onto the island. You can also kayak or canoe out to the remote spots if you’re feeling adventurous, but some are eight or so miles out, so choose wisely.
Umbagog Lake State Park is so expansive you could spend days exploring the coves, rivers, and islands. It’s a place to get lost in… figuratively and literally, so be careful.
Side trip: Dixville Notch State Park is a smaller park just 25 minutes north of Umbagog Lake. I didn’t spend much time there, but I highly recommend hiking up to Table Rock if you’re in the area. It’s an easy trail with an incredible view of the valley below.
Whoever deemed this region the Great North Woods gave a fair assessment. The woods are dense and enchanting. There is so much untouched beauty up here, miles and miles of it. If you need some time away from the bustle of life to recompose, give one (or five) of these parks a chance to help you out.