A cool respite in N.H.’s White Mountains

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Glenda Booth

One of New Hampshire’s 54 covered bridges, the Albany Covered Bridge, spans a quiet creek in the White Mountain National Forest.
© Jon Bilous

When my ears started popping, I realized I was gently ascending, easing up into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Rounding a curve, my eyes started popping too, as gigantic granite cliffs and rocky bulges suddenly protruded from the mountainside. 

A region of dramatic peaks and passes, the White Mountains cover one quarter of the Granite State and are home to the east coast’s highest point — Mount Washington (6,288 feet). The area is known as the “Swiss Alps of the Americas.”

At almost 800,000 acres, White Mountains National Forest is a vast expanse of rugged terrain, clear streams, forests, ravines, over 100 waterfalls and “notches” — New Hampshire-speak for mountain passes. Cascades (translation: waterfalls) tumble down over bulging boulders. An old Yankee proverb: “The crop that grows best here is rocks.”

It’s also moose country. It seems like there’s a sign every five miles or so warning that unlucky drivers can experience a moose meander. Game officials warn that when these 1,500-pound animals are upset, their back hairs stand up straight.

There are bears, too. A flyer announces, “You’re in bear country. If you find yourself close to a bear, talk to it in a calm voice and slowly back away.”

Welcome to “the whites” — the White Mountains. Since the 1800s, people have swarmed to this mountain landscape to escape the summer heat. In the cold months, winter sports enthusiasts descend. The wild terrain, rippling streams and clean air rejuvenate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of these, saying, “The good of going into the mountains is that life is reconsidered.” Poet Robert Frost had his “mountain interval” in the tiny town of Franconia, N.H. from 1915 to 1920. He roamed the woods and, sitting on his farmhouse porch, became a “fugitive from the world.” He went to these mountains “to fix myself,” he wrote.

Whether it’s fishing for horn pout, enjoying a cool sprinkle under a waterfall, chugging up a mountain on a cogwheel train, or sipping Chardonnay on the longest veranda in New England, it’s all here in the Granite State — “friendly, laid back and peaceful,” as the clerk at Fosters Crossroads General Store in the tiny village of Carroll puts it.

Towns, trails and more

In poking around New Hampshire in the coming months, visitors are likely to happen upon some political hoopla. New Hampshire is front and center these days as U.S. Presidential candidates pop into towns to woo voters, as the state is the second to hold a primary next year (Feb. 9). The village of Dixville Notch is famous because people vote at the stroke of midnight on Election Day.

The maple museum at Rocks Estate features the history and crafting of maple syrup in a working sugarhouse, as well as a virtual tour of the sugaring process. Not virtual is a syrup tasting complemented by the traditional sour pickle.

Franconia is best known for its “notch,” but tucked away one mile off the interstate is “The Frost Place” — Robert Frost’s homestead and now a center for poetry and the arts on the National Register of Historic Places. You can see a video about his life and explore the home, a small museum, and a nature trail with Frost’s poems posted on plaques along the way.

The town of Jackson has an iconic, red covered bridge, right out of a storybook. For materialistic adventures, North Conway booms with tax-free shopping at hundreds of outlets. More relaxing is the Conway Scenic Railroad, offering several excursions powered by a 1921 steam engine.

At the Littleton Diner, a target of candidates, locals’ conversations about moose sightings, moose-car crashes and back porch black bear visits might be more interesting than candidates’ pitches.

In the spot on the map called Carroll on Route 3, Fosters Crossroads General Store hawks a little bit of anything and everything, from Skittles to skillets, plus moose hats, plates and bowls and moose ear candy. The front porch is often loaded with firewood and geraniums. It’s a good place to get a fishing license.

The Appalachian Trail, which snakes along on the mountains’ spine, is popular in summer and fall for both day and longer hikes. Do your research on the strenuousness of the trails, assemble appropriate gear and supplies, and choose your hike. Staff at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Information Center at Crawford Notch, in a former train depot built in 1891 and restored in 1985, give information and tips.

Geologically speaking, the White Mountains represent 400 million years of change, explains a film in Franconia Notch State Park’s Flume Gorge Visitor Center. Here you can learn about glacial erratics and potholes, pesky black flies of May and June, and summer’s delicate pink lady slippers, the state’s wildflower.

And for another lesson in New Hampshire-speak, explore the flume, a narrow gorge with flowing water. A gravel path takes you to 90-foot granite walls, tumbling waterfalls, fern-covered ground, a covered bridge and more.

Chugging up and down

The sprawling 113-year-old Omni Mount Washington Hotel is the only hotel in the U.S. with its own ZIP code. It has a 906-foot veranda, and the hotel’s Great Hall has 23-foot-high ceilings.
Photo courtesy of Omni Mount Washington Hotel

Mountains are there to be conquered, of course, and today’s version of a “conquest” is a climb via cog railroad or vehicle.

Built in 1866 and dubbed “Railway to the Moon” by its skeptics, the Mount Washington Cog Railroad (www.thecog.com) is powered by 600 horsepower engines that push the coach up at three miles an hour and pull it down at six. At the steepest grade, the front seats are 40 feet higher than the back seats.

In the hour-long trip, riders can see ravines, wildflowers, evidence of snow avalanches, cairns and a few gutsy hikers. The crooked Krummolz dwarf balsam and black spruce are shaped by the mountain’s harsh wind and ice. Lucky riders might see ravens, bobcats, weasels, foxes or the varying hare.

P.T. Barnum called the 360-degree views from the top, “The second greatest show on earth!” Visitors go from short-sleeve, balmy weather at the foot to the chilly, windy summit at 6,288 feet, shrouded in clouds 70 percent of the time.

Here it can snow any day of the year. The mountaintop gets 175 to 250 inches of snow a year, and the weather changes quickly. The highest wind speed recorded here was 231 mph on April 12, 1934.

Best sellers at the summit’s restaurant are clam chowder and chili. While thawing out inside, visitors can tour the Extreme Weather Museum or try the snowcat simulator. Visit www.mountwashington.org.

You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “This car climbed Mount Washington.” Some do take the white-knuckle drive, weather permitting (www.MtWashingtonAutoRoad.com). The Mount Washington Stage Line, a van, is another option (http://mtwashingtonautoroad.com/guided-tours).

A grand hotel

Once, up to 50 trains a day took vacationers to the Omni Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods, a “queen” in the Golden Era of Grand Hotels, from the late 1800s to the 1920s.

Wealthy tourists descended for the summer — with their entourage of servants, nannies and tutors — to hobnob, take high tea, and spruce up in formal dinner attire.

The hotel sits in a “bowl” at 1,000 feet, encircled by high mountains. From a distance, it rises like a white castle topped with cherry red roofs.

It is famous as the site of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, where 700 delegates from 44 nations set the gold standard, which tied world currency to the U.S. dollar. They also created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, efforts to help Japan and Europe rebuild. The hotel was secure then because people could get there easily only by train.

On the National Register of Historic Places, its founder spared no expense when it opened in 1902. Then, each room had electricity and running water, services unheard of at the time.

The hotel has a grand lobby, Tiffany glass, hand plaster and lamp chords covered in silky fabric. Rooms recall a bygone era with tall ceilings and windows you can open. Corner rooms have gas fireplaces.

The resort also has 65 town homes, the Bretton Arms Inn (with 34 rooms geared to couples), and the Lodge, a more modest motel of 50 reasonably-priced rooms, with access to all the amenities.

What’s to do here? The ski lift is free in summer (until Columbus Day) up to the Latitude 44 Restaurant with terrific views. There’s 27 holes of golf, red clay tennis courts, three swimming pools, archery, horseback rides, hiking, ATV rides up a mountain, indoor climbing walls, fly fishing catch-and-release on the Anamoosic river, casting clinics, horse and carriage rides, a spa and, in summer, nightly entertainment.

Rooms start at $179 a night. For more information, see www.omnihotels.com/hotels/bretton-woods-mount-washington or call (603) 278-1000.

If you go

The White Mountains are popular in summer because temperatures are usually in the low 80s. Mount Washington’s cog railroad is huffing and puffing daily, and ski lifts offer top-of-the-mountain views.

On the other hand, the mountains turn crimson and gold starting mid-September and traffic dies down.

Winter is snowy but popular for winter sports, from skiing to dog sled rides. Many resorts make their own snow as well.

The nearest airport is in Manchester, a two-hour drive. U.S. Airways is offering a roundtrip fare there from Washington Reagan National Airport for $260. Southwest Airline has several flights that start at $94 each way from BWI.

Boston is 2.5 hours away. The Concord bus runs from Boston’s Logan Airport and South Station to several New Hampshire towns (www.concordcoachlines.com).

In addition to the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, North Conway has many chain motels. Or find a B&B at http://www.nhbba.com.

For visitor information:

• White Mountains Visitors Bureau, www.visitwhitemountains.com

White Mountain National Forest, www.fs.usda.gov/whitemountain

• Jackson, N.H. Chamber of Commerce, www.jacksonnh.com