Short on time, but rich with the desire to explore, we narrowed our White Mountain explorations down to the Franconia State Park area, and specifically on: the Flume Gorge, the Basin, and the former site of the Old Man of the Mountain. All three areas are very popular for local tourism and have nice parking options. We specifically found RV parking spots in the Flume Gorge and the Old Man of the Mountain sections and came early enough to find plenty of regular angled parking we could back-into for the Basin. There is a lot to see and a lot of mountain to be traversed, but all of these individual areas can easily be covered in a few hours if you are pressed for time. Of the three spots, only the Flume Gorge has an admission fee ($16 per adult, less for children, students, and seniors).
The Flume Gorge is one of the most popular hiking sections of this region, and it gets a lot of foot traffic. This 2-mile loop is more polished with constructed paths, clearly defined trails, and wooden boardwalks, making it much more assessable for all ability levels and families with small children. The pathway winds through forests, up the side of the Gorge and along waterfalls, past the “pool” area of the Pemigewasset River and under a covered walking bridge for pedestrians (a “kissing bridge”). Modeling more of a manicured “nature walk” than a hike, the elevation climbs are gradual and not too strenuous and the whole loop can be completed in 2 hours. Because this area is more trafficked, it is best to visit during the weekdays and in the early morning hours to try to avoid crowds. Also, since you are prohibited from straying off-trail and funneled along a clear course, there can be a bit of a bottleneck effect around popular picture points, particularly when walking the wooden boardwalk along the gorge. There is a fee to hike the Flume, and while it isn’t cheap at $16 per adult, these fees go to help support and maintain the area and given that most parking and the other hiking options within the State Park are free, we feel it was a good deal and investment towards the park’s preservation.
Just a short drive north up 93 from the Flume Gorge is the Basin portion of Franconia State Park. Unlike the set loop path of the Flume Gorge, this section of the park has a few different trail options to help disperse the crowds. The Basin itself is located along the Pemigewasset River and you can continue on up the Pemi Trail which feeds into the Appalachian Trail or turn back to take the Basin Cascade Trail as it feeds into the Cascade Brook Trail up to, and past, the Lonesome Lake, forking off into more trail options. Some of the spokes are more manicured than others. We particularly liked the Basin Cascade/ Cascade Brook Trail, as it winds you along a polished granite rock bed carved by the Cascade Brook. We really enjoyed having the freedom to meander along the smooth rock bed right up to the river, as the trail here is less structured and you aren’t prohibited from straying off the marked path in most areas. This section of the park is a bit more strenuous, as the hike is uphill along muddy banks with raised tree roots (“ankle breakers”), and to continue the hike, you have to cross the river in a plot-your-own-adventure by hopping along whatever rock trajectory you have the most confidence in. Tall sticks help, particularly for the river crossing section. The vistas along the river basin of this area breathtaking and the way the river has carved and smoothed out the rock bed gives it the polished look that only water and time can create. We appreciated that this trail was a bit “messy” and open-ended and especially liked the fact that it was less congested, even on the weekends. But, as always, try to get there early to get a head start on the crowds.
Leading into our trip, the only thing I knew about New Hampshire was that it had an “Old Man of the Mountain” because my grandparents had taken me there when I was a young child. Wanting to share it with Cay, I routed this stop into our New Hampshire stay. The “Old Man” is part of the New Hampshire state identity. It is a symbol of the state and is even depicted on license plates and State highway signs. It never occurred to me to verify that it still existed, because I took for granted that it did. I was wrong. We learned that the Old Man’s facade had sadly crumbled from the mountain back in 2003, living on in photographs and memories. In 2011, a new installation was opened that recreates the profile of the Old Man’s face along the mountainside. In what is called the “Profile Plaza”, a series of seven steel rods, each with a recreation of the Old Man’s profile stands at different heights and angels around the plaza. Foot markers designate which “profiler” to stand at depending on your height, and these profilers line-up the recreated profile to your eye level along the mountainside. A brilliant and simple way to create the effect of the Old Man’s face on his former cliff-side home. The stroll down to this viewing plaza, which is nestled amongst the White Mountains and next to Profile Lake, is a paved walkway and a short distance from the parking area. This is not a hike, but rather, a monument that should not be missed if in the area.
With hundreds of other trails to cover and sites to see and even the first reported alien abduction in the U.S., the White Mountains are home to so many marvels not to be missed if in this region!