Located right in the center of the White Mountain National Forest, Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire is 6,692 wild acres of amazing outdoor fun and recreation. Truly a park of all seasons, whether it is skiing on Cannon Mountain, canoeing Echo Lake, hiking the Appalachian Trail, taking a leisurely auto tour, camping in the backcountry, or climbing one of several very challenging and rewarding mountains, it is all found here.
Like so many other scenic wonders in the northern half of the United States the Wisconsin Glacier created the terrain that is Franconia Notch State Park approximately 15,000 years ago. The scouring powers of the ice in the glacier removed the soil and left the red Conway Granite behind, sculpting this narrow valley and leaving some of the highest peaks in New England.
The original draw to this region goes back to 1850 when writer Nathaniel Hawthorne immortalized the Old Man of the Mountain, a unique geological feature that is world famous. The Old Man is actually a rock shoulder that sticks out of Profile Mountain. Five layers of granite ledge, one on top of each other form what appears to be the face of an old man, gazing eastward from the side of the mountain. The ancient formation is over forty feet tall, and receives annual maintenance to seal cracks formed by the endless cycle of freezing and thawing in the New Hampshire winters. The Old Man is now the state symbol, sits on the state seal, and is viewed by the millions of people who drive down Interstate 93 that cuts through the heart of the park.
A booming tourist industry was built around the Old Man including stagecoach routes that led to the posh Profile Inn that brought wealthy visitors from around the US to this bucolic setting. In 1923 the Inn burned down and the owners put all 6,000 acres they owned up for sale to be cut as timber. A nationwide campaign to save the area raised over $200,000 and with the state of New Hampshire matching funds, Franconia Notch State Park was born in 1928.
The Flume Gorge at the southern tip of Franconia Notch State Park is a very popular attraction. Discovered in 1808, the narrow natural gorge is only 10 to 20 feet wide and has granite cliffs rising 70 to 90 feet upward. The narrow rocky gorge has Flume Creek rushing through the granite boulders at its base. From the Flume Gorge Visitor Center you can walk or take a shuttle bus to hike the gorge. A boardwalk allows visitors to walk through the claustrophobic, cool, damp crevasse and see the lush plant life that flourishes in this sheltered area.
If you are in good shape, you can climb what seems like an endless series of stairs at the north end of the Flume out of the chasm into old growth forest. The trail then descends downhill to the Sentinel Pine Bridge. This covered bridge was built in 1939 over the Pemigewasset River out of a single pine tree that was felled in a severe storm. While on the bridge be sure to look down at the natural stone pool it crosses below. The trail then loops back to the Visitor Center and is a little more than a mile to complete.
Continuing north along the Franconia Notch Highway the next major feature is The Basin. For the last 15,000 years the Pemigewasset River has been cascading down into a natural pool made of solid granite. Through the forces of time, water, sand and small stones have carved a pothole at the falls base that has grown to over 20 feet in diameter. A short gravel trail leads to The Basin and it is easily accessed from the highway.
If you are looking for a scenic day hike that offers lakes, forests, and bragging rights of walking a bit of the Appalachian Trail, The Basin offers an excellent jumping off point for a six-mile trek. From the Basin you can take the trail north along the west bank of the Pemigewasset River northward to the Lafayette Campground. You then turn west toward Lonesome Lake and walk southward along its wooded eastern bank. If you take the trip in the early morning on before sunset you may here the cry and laughter of loons echoing across the water and be sure to take a look at the beaver lodge display. At the southern tip of Lonesome Lake you leave Franconia Notch State Park and enter the White Mountains National Forest and start heading southward on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Just before you reach Cascade Brook, just a bit more than a mile on the AT, you turn east again and follow the brook back to The Basin and the parking lot.
Continuing deeper into Franconia Notch State Park your next stop is at Lafayette Campground. Flanked by mountains on both sides, including 5,260 feet high Mount Lafayette to the east, Lafayette Campground offers 97 improved and heavily wooded campsites for park visitors. Hot showers, firewood, ice, and camping supplies are available at the lodge. Reservations are accepted, but more than half the sites are left open to be taken on a first come first serve basis.
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