White Mountains marvel Franconia Notch packs a lot of New Hampshire scenery into a narrow, seven-mile-long valley. Concentrated within the notch are unusual rock formations, covered bridges, waterfalls, and many picnic spots and hiking trails.
Franconia Notch is essentially a mountain pass between the Kinsman and Franconia ranges of the westernmost White Mountains. The Franconia range's cone-shaped peaks reach to 5,000 feet and are particularly pretty.
Scenic Franconia Notch Parkway traverses the length of the notch and offers the traveler easy access to trails and attractions. The area is preserved within Franconia State Park, which has half a dozen family-friendly hikes and is a superb introduction to the White Mountains.
"One of the 12 best state parks in the entire country," is how Money magazine rated Franconia Notch a few years back. The magazine is right on the mark.
Franconia's most famous feature is the Old Man of the Mountains, a nature-sculpted rock that resembles a sharp-nosed, square-jawed taciturn fellow; in short, your basic New England Yankee. Five granite ledges combine to form the man's profile. Discovered in 1805, immortalized in prose as "The Great Stone Face" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Old Man of the Mountains is now New Hampshire's state symbol.
The notch's most popular nature trails explore the Flume, a narrow natural gorge at the base of Mt. Liberty. A wooden boardwalk and some easy loop trails lead across two covered bridges, past waterfalls and a giant pothole.
The Flume's granite walls thrust perpendicularly 90 feet and are only 12 to 20 feet apart. Hikers walk atop a narrow boardwalk beside the rushing waters coursing through the narrow flume.
Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway offers a quick 2,000-foot ascent to the top of Franconia Notch. The five-minute cable car ride whisks hikers to the 4,200-foot summit. This modern tram's predecessor was built in 1918 and was the first passenger aerial tramway in North America. Trails lead from the tram station atop Cannon Mountain to Lonesome Lake and other Franconia Notch destinations.
Lonesome Lake Trail (3.2 miles round trip with 900-foot elevation gain) leads to a lovely lake perched on the west side of Franconia Notch. The path meanders through a fairy tale forest of red spruce, balsam fir and abundant mosses.
Swimming is great at Lonesome Lake. Float on your back and contemplate the handsome peaks of the Franconia Range rising above the shore. The Appalachian Mountain Club's Lonesome Lake Hut offers food and accommodations.
Waterfall fanciers should hike the Basin-Cascade Trail (2.4 miles round trip) for a look at Kinsman and Rocky Glen falls. The path follows frisky Cascade Brook, which boasts many cascades, rapids and potholes, as well as flat rocks for sunbathing and picnicking.
Largest and most impressive of the many potholes in these parts is the Basin, located at a bend in the Pemigawasset River near the trail head. After his 1858 visit, the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau proclaimed: "This pothole is the most remarkable of its kind in New England."
Ambitious hikers can link several of Franconia Notch's shorter trails into six-, eight- or 10-mile loops. If a car shuttle is arranged, hikers can also enjoy one-way jaunts through Franconia Notch.
Franconia Notch State Park is located along Interstate 93 in the heart of White Mountain National Forest, about 60 miles north of Concord, N.H.
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Flume, Lonesome Lake, Basin-Cascade Trails
WHERE: Franconia Notch State Park.
DISTANCE: 2 to 3 miles or more.
TERRAIN: Westernmost White Mountains.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Flume, Old Man of the Mountains.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy-moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Franconia Notch State Park, Franconia, NH 03580; tel. (603) 823-5563.