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A Lot To See And Do In Franconia Notch

Christine Randall - August 12, 2013





The Flume

The Flume

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since New Hampshire’s iconic state symbol, the Old Man of the Mountain, fell from his perch high above Profile Lake. The Old Man was one of the biggest draws to Franconia Notch for years, but there’s still plenty to do and see on a tour of the Franconia Notch Parkway, and I recently decided on a hot July day that it was high time to revisit one of my favorite places in New Hampshire.

Franconia Notch State Park has a lot to offer visitors along its eight-mile stretch: scenic waterfalls and mountain vistas, unique water-carved gorges and potholes, hikes of varying difficulty, a challenging but fun recreational bike path, camping, an aerial tramway ride, historic sites, two museums, and lakes for swimming, boating, and fishing.

Just a few miles north of Lincoln, Interstate 93 turns into the Franconia Notch Parkway between Exits 34A and 34C. The first stop for most people heading north is the Gilman Visitor Center at Exit 34A, which is also where you would want to stop for a tour of one of New Hampshire’s most scenic natural wonders, the Flume Gorge.

The parking lot was rapidly filling up when I arrived at mid-morning, so I parked in a spot near the Nature Trail. I had never noticed the Nature Trail before, which is a .3-mile loop through the woods, and although the trail guides were missing at the kiosk, I decided to walk around it anyway. The path goes near the Pemigewasset River and there is a nice gazebo about half-way around where you can either rest or enjoy a picnic lunch.

Of course, the real attraction here is the Flume itself, a very popular destination during the summer and fall seasons. The Flume was formed several million years ago as a result of volcanic activity, glacial erosion, and stream erosion. The end result was a deep, granite gorge with walls as much as 90 feet high and 20 feet wide.

The Flume was discovered by accident 200 years ago in 1808 by a 93-year-old fisherwoman, “Aunt” Jess Guernsey. One of the most unusual features of the Flume at that time was a giant hanging boulder caught between the walls above the gorge. Unfortunately, the boulder was dislodged by a storm in 1883 and it completely disappeared. Old photos of the suspended boulder are on display in the Visitor Center.

While it took away the boulder, that same storm created the beautiful, 45-foot-high Avalanche Falls, located at the top of the gorge. Over the years, a boardwalk and steps were built through the gorge, ending at Avalanche Falls. Several hundred feet of the boardwalk have to be removed every fall and re-installed every spring due to the ice that forms on the walls of the gorge every winter.

The Visitor Center features a café, gift shop, restrooms, interesting historical displays including a restored Concord Coach, and old photographs of the Flume, as well as lots of free information for visitors about the attractions and services in the area. A 20-minute video about the Flume runs periodically throughout the day in the small auditorium.

At the ticket counter, you can pick up your trail pass and an informative trail guide for a self-guided tour of the Flume. Ticket prices are reduced for children ages 6-12 and admission is free for those ages 5 and under (with a paid adult admission). The Flume is open daily from early May (weather permitting) through the end of October, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A visit to the Flume can vary in time and distance. If you walk the entire loop of the Flume to and from the Visitor Center and then opt to visit the historic Sentinel Pine Bridge and the Pool, (a 40-foot-deep basin in the Pemigewasset River about 150 feet wide), the distance is about two miles, taking just over an hour to complete.

You can shorten your visit by riding one of the shuttle buses to Boulder Cabin, walking the .3  mile to the top of the gorge, and then returning by way of the shorter Rim Path, bypassing the Sentinel Pine Bridge and the Pool, back to Boulder Cabin, to catch the shuttle bus back to the Center. The abbreviated excursion is about .7 mile, and it takes between 30 and 40 minutes to complete. The shuttle buses run every 10 minutes from the Visitor Center and are free.

Both options include the opportunity to walk (or ride) through the Flume Covered Bridge across the Pemi on the way to the gorge. The Flume Bridge, built in 1886, is one of the oldest covered bridges in the state.

The Visitor Center parking lot also is the start/end of the Recreation Path, which runs from the Visitor Center to the Hugh Gallen Memorial site, just north of Echo Lake, a distance of almost nine miles. If you would rather hike or bicycle through the Parkway instead of driving, the Recreation Path is a fun alternative, and all of the attractions and facilities in the Parkway are easily accessible. From my own experience, I have always found it to be much easier to start at the Hugh Gallen Memorial Site and head south on the path, as it is mostly downhill in that direction. If you don’t have your own bike, bike rentals and shuttle services to and from the Flume are available at Cannon Mountain.

The Basin

The Basin

Just about two miles north of the Visitor Center, you find one of two exits for the popular Basin (the other is located on the southbound side of the Parkway). At the northbound exit on the east side of the Parkway, you end up walking a short distance to the Basin on a path that goes through a very short tunnel under the road. The path takes you past the clear, swift water of the Pemigewasset River which, at that point, looks more like a stream than a river. The Pemi flows all the way from its headwaters at Profile Lake, just north of the Basin, to Franklin, where it joins the Winnipesaukee River to become the Merrimack River.

The swift, cutting action of the Pemi helped to create the Basin, a 30-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep granite pothole at the base of a scenic waterfall. The Basin formed more than 25,000 years ago during the retreat of the glacial ice covering Franconia Notch. The scouring action of rocks and sand helped to create its unique, smooth bowl shape.

Although it is tempting on a warm summer day, no swimming is allowed in the Basin, but I did see a large number of people wading in the cold waters of the Pemi above the Basin. The Basin has historically been referred to as “the Old Man’s Footbath”.

There are several hiking trails near the Basin which lead to other scenic spots, including the Pemi Trail, which is a four-mile hike leading to Profile Lake, and the Basin-Cascade Trail, which takes you to both Kinsman Falls after a short half-mile hike, and Rocky Glen Falls, located about one mile from the Basin. The Kinsman Falls are fun to climb and offer a great view of the surrounding area. You can connect to the Appalachian Trail if you continue on the Basin-Cascade Trail, as well as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lonesome Lake Hut.

There also is a “mini-flume” adjacent to the Basin that is fun to explore, and there are plenty of picnic areas and rustic facilities at the Basin on both sides of the Parkway.  In addition, there is a special handicapped viewing area just above the Basin, offering a different perspective of the famous pothole. Best of all for the frugally minded, there is no admission fee to the Basin.

Slightly more than two miles from the northbound exit for the Basin, there is an exit for the Boise Rock Historic Site which, according to an informational sign, was named for Thomas Boise, a teamster from nearby Woodstock who was caught in a blizzard while traveling through the Notch in the early 1800s. He apparently decided he had to kill his horse and wrap himself in the hide in order to survive, and he took shelter under an enormous, erratic boulder. Surprisingly, he was found alive the next day. At the site, there are picnic tables and a nice view of Cannon Cliffs.

Parkway Exit 34B takes you to both the popular Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway and the Old Man of the Mountain Historic Site and Museum. I opted first to continue north a couple more miles to Exit 34C to the Hugh Gallen Memorial. There is a circular pull-off parking area featuring a memorial to the late Governor Hugh Gallen who served two terms as governor of New Hampshire, from 1979 until 1982, dying just after being defeated in a run for a third term. A bridge which is closed to motorized traffic offers terrific panoramic views on both sides of the bridge of the mountains, cliffs, and the surrounding landscape. A viewer is provided to give visitors better close-up views. The spot also is a start/end point for the Franconia Notch Recreation Path.

In addition, Exit 34C is the exit to take for Echo Lake Beach and Artist’s Bluff. Echo Lake is a great place to stop for a swim, picnic, or a fishing expedition. The facility at the lake also offers canoe and kayak rentals. There is a small admission fee to the beach.

Artist’s Bluff is a popular hike with a steep, short climb that offers great views of Franconia Notch.

Heading back south on the Parkway, I took Exit 34B to Cannon Mountain and the Old Man Memorial Park and Museum. The Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway is the oldest passenger tramway in the country, offering visitors spectacular views of the Notch, as well as views of the mountains of Maine, Vermont, New York, and Canada on clear days. It can carry up to about 80 people from the base lodge to the 4,180-foot summit of Cannon Mountain in about eight minutes. There you can find walking paths, a 360-degree observation deck, a cafeteria and bar, and restrooms.

For summer and fall visitors, the Tramway is open daily from Memorial Day Weekend until late October, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are discounts for children ages 6-12 and children under the age of six ride for free when accompanied by an adult. If you want to hike down, one-way tickets also are available.

At the base of the Tramway, you can visit the New England Ski Museum which celebrates the long history of skiing in New Hampshire. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; admission is free.

Near the parking lot for the Tram and the Ski Museum, there is an access road to the parking area for the Old Man of the Mountain Museum and Historical Site. The museum houses a display of historic artifacts and photographs, from the Old Man’s discovery in 1805 to the present, illustrating the tremendous efforts made through the years to preserve the famous Profile. The museum is dedicated to the memory of Niels Nielsen, who served as the first official caretaker of the Old Man for almost 30 years before passing the job over to his son.

A path from the museum leads down to Profile Lake and the Old Man of the Mountain Memorial Park and plaza. After the fall of the Old Man in 2003, a group formed the Old Man Legacy Fund to raise money to create a suitable memorial for the fallen state symbol. The group planned to build a two-phase project; recently, Phase One was completed. Phase One involved creating a plaza with granite paving stones engraved with the names of donors and their memories of the Old Man, as well as installing seven steel “profilers” which, when viewed from a certain angle, create an image of the Old Man set on top of his former perch above Profile Lake.

A dedication ceremony for the newly completed Old Man of the Mountain Profile Plaza took place in June 2011 and, just recently, the group announced that, due to a shortage of funding, it would not continue with the more ambitious “Phase II” part of the memorial, which involved arranging five large granite monoliths to create a composite that would resemble the Old Man when viewed from a raised viewing platform.

While the Memorial and the Plaza are a nice tribute, I guess I can feel lucky to be among the people who were able to view and enjoy the original Old Man of the Mountain before he fell. I don’t think anything will ever be able to replace it.

Franconia Notch State Park is a wonderful place to visit year-round, with lots of great scenery and fun things to see and do, particularly during the summer and fall seasons. Skiers, of course, also enjoy the winter months at Cannon.

For more information about Franconia Notch State Park, call 603-823-8800 or log onto www.nhstateparks.org

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