The White Mountains Region is slightly different from the areas I have explored over the past ten weeks. Various organizations manage the land, and sometimes the jurisdictions can get a little confusing. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you will have a clearer understanding of how some of the state park properties fit in.
Most of the public land in this region is designated as part of the White Mountain National Forest which is managed by the US Forest Service. While not as popular as national parks, our national forests hold their own sort of charm. Random back roads within this protected landscape can lead to seldom visited campgrounds and views that you can’t find online. There are also several state parks sprinkled into this national forest; every single one is worth a visit.
Franconia Notch State Park
Franconia Notch is famous for a reason. The Franconia Ridge Trail is one of the most popular hikes in New England and then there’s Flume Gorge, Cannon Mountain, Echo Lake Beach, Lafayette Place Campground, and surrounding trails which allure crowds from all over the country. During my own visit, I had planned on kayaking across Echo Lake, but strong winds had shut down the rental fleet. Instead, I headed up Artist’s Bluff Trail and met a few other hikers (and climbers) along the way. For a fairly short hike – the view looking down the notch is really spectacular.
Echo Lake State Park
Echo Lake State Park in North Conway isn’t as crowded as many other White Mountains attractions, but the views are just as incredible. There is plenty to do at this park for the whole family: hiking, climbing, kayaking, and swimming.
Just a short walk from the parking area, a thin beach wraps halfway around Echo Lake and families mill about in the water and picnic areas. I met some kayakers, sunbathers, and two ambitious toddlers wading towards the deep. From the right side of the beach I picked up the trail that leads to Cathedral Ledge, and atop, views of the Saco River Valley stretch out for miles. You can also drive to the top via the auto road at Cathedral Ledge State Park, picnic on the granite, and head back to the beach.
Mt. Washington State Park
Most of the land around Mount Washington is part of the White Mountain National Forest, however, the 60-acre plot of land at the summit is New Hampshire’s highest state park and home to the Sherman Adams Visitors Center. There are a few options for getting to the top of this 6,288 ft mountain: hike, drive the Mt Washington Auto Road, or ride the Cog Railway. If you choose to hike, the park staff stresses the importance of packing well and planning ahead. The hike isn’t easy, and the temperature disparity from the valley to the summit might surprise you. So bring layers, start early, and wear wool socks if you want to avoid blisters.
The Cog Railway and the Auto Road are two privately owned operations that can also get you into the park if you can’t make the trek on foot. If you want to take a shuttle or the railway to get back down after hiking up, make sure you book tickets in advance! These two transportation methods probably would not have been built today, but they serve a purpose in the park, helping folks who may have otherwise not been able to reach the summit. If helping people cultivate a connection to the outdoors is the goal, these two organizations help to accomplish that.
The Mount Washington Observatory, located in the Sherman Adams Visitors Center, maintains a weather station on the summit in order to study the extreme conditions and perform climate research. The observatory also has a tradition of housing cats, the current resident is a gray shorthair named Nimbus.
On a clear summer day Mt. Washington is as busy as it gets, but the crowds, fortunately, don’t diminish the experience. The views are sublime, and I think there is a reason most hikers I talked to make the trek year after year.
Crawford Notch State Park
Crawford Notch is brimming with with waterfalls, trailheads and mountain views along a small strip of highway. The Willey House Historic Site is a big draw for visitors passing through, and, so is nearby Mt. Willard. I hiked up Mt. Willard and Elephant Head Spur, meeting so many cheery hikers along the way. I would also recommend the trail up to Arethusa Falls – which is the state’s highest waterfall!