Granite, some say, is New Hampshire’s most abundant crop, with the hard rock visible nearly everywhere. The farmer’s curse, however, is the sightseer’s blessing, giving form to the state’s imposing cliffs and peaks—a ruggedness that is offset by the gentle grace of mixed forests and rushing streams.
“It is … a small college, and yet there are those who love it,” proclaimed Daniel Webster, one of Dartmouth College’s most famous graduates. The same could be said of the school’s home, Hanover, where town and gown seem intimately bound. Coffeehouses, bookstores, and other shops are signs of the school’s influence. The College Green, the grassy heart of the campus, is flanked on one side by Dartmouth Row, a quartet of white Georgian-style buildings. Other notable sites include the Hood Museum of Art and the Baker Library, whose belfry rises even higher than the institution’s towering elms and maples.
Leaving college life behind, Rte. 10 leads northward to Lyme—one of those pretty towns that everyone associates with New England. Here the drive mirrors the meandering curves of the Connecticut River, the natural causeway that brought commerce and culture to the area. Settlers blazed trails beside its banks, drawn by the fertile land of its floodplain and the virgin forests on the surrounding hills.
Even the rushing water was a resource to early settlers, a force able to set massive machinery in motion. Mills were erected at intervals all along the river. Today many of these brick structures have been renovated into inviting shops and restaurants, and the houses that the factory owners built still grace the towns.
One such community is Orford, where early mansions—some date back to the late 1700s—crown a ridge above the Connecticut River. Impressive too are the views, which take in 600-foot cliffs—the Palisades—that protrude along the Vermont side of the river in Fairlee, just a bridge crossing away.
The drive continues to parallel the Connecticut River as far north as Woodsville, where it veers northeastward on Rte. 302. A much smaller waterway, the Ammonoosuc River, now tumbles merrily beside the road, which soon enters Bath, also the site of an early mill. In town you can rattle across a covered bridge that is more than 370 feet long and was built in 1832. (In the days before iron and steel were used in bridge construction, wooden spans such as this one were roofed and sided with wood in order to protect their planked roadbeds and supporting timbers from the elements.)
Farther on, Rte. 302 ripples past hayfields and rolling pasturelands. Here you’ll find that the Ammonoosuc River deepens into swimming and fishing holes. One of the largest of these pools, Salmon Hole, lies a few miles to the north in the town of Lisbon, where Rtes. 302 and 117 intersect.
Though you won’t see any skyscrapers, Littleton has been this region’s “big city” since the early 1800s. Back then the factories kept people warm by producing buckskin mittens and gloves and woolen cloth—absolute necessities during a New Hampshire winter. An early settler could also purchase an axe, then get on with the never-ending chore of chopping firewood. Today the mills are gone, but Littleton’s historical society (located at 2 Cottage Street) and several examples of early architecture help recall the bygone era.
The drive soon begins to climb in earnest as Rte. 302 heads into the foothills of the White Mountains. On the way, be sure to tour Bethlehem, a longtime resort area that lies halfway up the granite shoulder of Mt. Agassiz. It was to this town at the turn of the century that many people suffering from hay fever—presidents and poets among them—came by the hundreds to escape the ill effects of summertime pollen. A walk through the thick stands of evergreens here—which drop their pollen in springtime and are free of it by summer—will quickly confirm the opinion of those earlier visitors: the fresh air truly is invigorating.
The terrain turns wonderfully wild and rugged as the drive rolls onward and upward to the Presidential Range, the tallest peaks of the White Mountains. Rocky and bruised by the often brutal climate, the summits slice the sky all along the eastern horizon. The seemingly endless woodlands in this region are protected as part of the White Mountain National Forest, a vast tract that stretches into Maine. The Trestle Trail, one of the first places to sample the forest on foot, begins near the town of Twin Mountains. Though fairly short, the pathway wends past a surprisingly varied array of plant life: patches of wild sarsaparillas, ferns, Canada mayflowers, and stands of red maple, birch, and balsam trees.
6. Bretton Woods
“The second-greatest show on earth” was P. T. Barnum’s assessment of the view from atop Mt. Washington. To decide for yourself, take a ride on the historic Cog Railway. It departs from Bretton Woods and huffs and puffs as it inches all the way up to Mt. Washington’s lofty 6,288-foot peak. Mixed forests yield to stunted evergreens along the way, until above the timberline only tundra plants can survive. Hardy well-equipped hikers can descend via the Jewell Trail, which skirts the 1,600-foot cliffs of the Great Gulf on the way back to Bretton Woods, where the tired can unwind at the Mt. Washington Hotel, a white palace of a place that sits in the shadows of the great peak.
7. Crawford Notch State Park
Hot on the trail of an elusive moose in 1771, a hunter by the name of Timothy Nash stumbled upon a gap in the mountains that no white man had ever seen. Today that steep-sided cleft is known as Crawford Notch, a rugged pass where the Saco River scoots between rocky ramparts washed by water racing down from the uplands. Silver Cascade can be seen from the road, while Arethusa Falls, the highest waterfall in the state, can be reached by a hike that passes Frankenstein Cliff, whose monstrous wall—covered with a glistening sheath of ice in winter—rises to an elevation of 2,451 feet.
8. Mt. Attitash
The familiar sight of rushing water accompanies the road as it snakes beside the Saco River. Just a little east of Bartlett, the trails of the ski area on Mt. Attitash trace thin lines among the trees—streamers of white in winter and ribbons of green in summer. Visitors can ride a chairlift to the 2,300-foot summit. In service year-round, it whisks passengers to an observation tower for a last glimpse of the Presidential Range, its peaks perhaps gilded by the setting sun.
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