A Polar Caves Adventure
By Mark Okrant
Photos courtesy Polar Caves
Driving into the parking lot and spying the momma polar bear and her cub on the sign at the Polar Caves, I flashed back to my first visit as a pre-teen, during the mid-1950s. My parents, older brother, and I made the trip from Connecticut to Plymouth, New Hampshire in my father’s green Henry J automobile. Mom and Pop convinced us to suppress our boundless energy by promising we would do something special when the car stopped. The Polar Caves did not disappoint.
What makes this place so exceptional? The Polar Caves is actually what geologists and physical geographers would describe as the natural byproduct of an advancing continental glacier where it flowed over a mountain or hill. As the glacier advanced, it wasn’t able to sustain its enormous load of boulders, rocks, and smaller materials. While passing over what today is called Hawk’s Cliff in Rumney, the glacier deposited granite boulders, or erratics, in an enormous pile.
Jump ahead thousands of years. The caves were discovered in 1900 by a group of local teenagers who were playing among the boulders. Years passed before automobiles were beginning to carry travelers into the White Mountains. An entrepreneurial individual named Edwin Collishaw determined that this impressive collection of rocks and caves would be of interest to people touring in the region; in 1922, the Polar Caves Park was opened for public viewing.
The massive rocks that form the Polar Caves are evidence of the amazing power of the continental glacier that covered New Hampshire until approximately 15,000 years ago. This is the difference between cavesformed by glacial deposition on a massive scale versus limestone caverns. As a kid, I saw something more spectacular and unusual than a cavern.
Now, more than 60 years later, this summer I returned to Polar Caves. The gateway into Polar Caves is its Main Lodge building, a single story, log structure. Once inside the Main Lodge, visitors can purchase tickets, choose from a selection of t-shirts and interesting items and buy snacks to fortify themselves for the adventure ahead.
The main feature of Polar Caves is a series of nine granite caves: Polar Pinch, Ice Cave, King Tut’s, Fat Man’s Misery, Indian Council Chamber, Bear’s Den, Devil’s Turnpike, Orange Crush, and the Lemon Squeeze. Each of these necessitates that visitors duck, squeeze, and shimmy their way through passageways that are alternatingly low, narrow, or both.
During this season’s visit, I received my blue wristband, and then proceeded along gravel walkways, boardwalks, and steep stairs where I met four delightful people from Massachusetts, the Weiss family. Their story was common to the Polar Caves—repeat visits. Mare, the mom in the family, told me they visit every year, sometimes twice per season. Both parents said they use a trip through Orange Crush and Lemon Squeeze to test their fitness while proving they’re not getting old too quickly!
While we were exploring the caves, other visitors were taking advantage of the park’s six additional attractions:
· Glacial Wall is a rock climbing experience that provides five routes of varying difficulty.
· Polar Ascent is a 172-foot-long iron way. Here iron bars have been hammered into the rock face to make steps. At the conclusion, visitors repel back to a base camp.
· Maple Lodge provides a maple sugaring exhibit and offers fudge, Bavarian nuts, and other snacks for sale.
· Animal Park is a small zoo that features three species of animals—Fallow Deer, pheasants, and ducks. Feed may be purchased and given to the animals.
· Baker River Mining Sluice is an excellent educational opportunity for visitors of all ages. With signage that identifies the region’s geology, this attraction provides an opportunity to mine for gemstones using a sluice provided by the park. Fees are charged to purchase mining rough.
· Rocky Ridge Way is a series of nature trails, including a wooden walkway that wind around the caves while offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and woodland.
As a retired university professor, I continue to be impressed by the educational quality of the experience offered at Polar Caves. Excellent signage provides a primer about the region’s geology, geomorphology, flora, and fauna; small wonder that the park attracts 50-55,000 visitors per year.
If you take my advice, you’ll give this place a try. It is situated along New Hampshire Route 25, approximately five miles west of Exit 26 from I-93. During the 2019 season, the park is open seven days per week from May 11 to October 15. Hours of operation are 9 am to 6 pm until Labor Day, then from 10 am to 5 pm.