Take the kids to New England for hikes, waterfalls, caves, moose and riding the Cog railway on this budget road trip.
By Valentine J. Brkich
Each August, just before the school year begins, my wife, kids, and I pack ourselves (and way too much stuff) into our Hyundai and head 12 hours north to the scenic and serene White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mountains in New Hampshire, you ask? Yep. Big, beautiful ones too—the kind that reach into the clouds and seem to call out to you to come and explore their secret, lofty heights.
The town we stay in is Lincoln, N.H., known for its challenging ski slopes, quaint main drag, and proximity to some of the area’s most stunning natural wonders. Lincoln has everything from Airbnbs to four-star resorts, depending on your preference. And whether we’re in the mood to hike a mountain, swim in an icy-cold stream, or maybe do a little shopping, this area gives us the opportunity to do it all.
Lincoln is situated along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway (Rt. 112), aka “The Kanc”— a 34.5-mile, winding, two-lane highway that snakes its way through the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. Known for its scenic vistas and stunning fall foliage, its one of the most peaceful, memorable drives you’ll ever take.
So what can one do whilst visiting the White Mountains? Well, besides a whole lotta nothing (which, personally, is what I like to do), there are innumerable outdoor activities and adventures to choose from. Make a point to visit this little slice of heaven in upper New England – and don’t miss our family’s Top 5…
Top 5 Countdown: White Mountains
#5 Take a Hike
With over 1,200 miles of scenic, well-maintained hiking trails, including 160 miles along the legendary Appalachian Trail, the White Mountains are a hiking enthusiast’s dream. From lazy day hikes to uber-challenging multi-day jaunts, there’s a trail for just about every level of hiker up in them thar hills.
During our first visit, my wife and I hiked 1.5 miles to the top of Mount Pemigewasset aka Indian Head. This moderate, yet in parts challenging, hike takes you up 2,500 feet in the heart of the Franconia Notch region. For most of the hike you’re under the cover of a thick canopy of trees as you traverse the stone-riddled trail. Then, at the summit, you step out into the light and find yourself on a smooth, granite slab overlooking New Hampshire forest as far as the eye can see. It’s more than enough reward for your 1.5-hour uphill effort. (Just don’t get too close to the edge—yikes!)
This year we brought the kiddos along for the adventure and hiked up Mt. Willard. This moderate, 3.2-mile round-trip hike actually follows an old carriage trail up most of the mountain and makes for a family-friendly adventure. The trailhead is just over the railroad tracks at Crawford Notch Railroad Station, and gradually winds its way up 2,815 feet to the summit. Along the way, you can stop for a photo or to cool off in the lovely Centennial Falls just off the trail. When you emerge from the trail at the top of the mountain, the effect is simply breathtaking as you enjoy a panoramic view of Crawford Notch, with the cars along Rt. 302 way down below looking like so many ants. Although I enjoyed the view, I spent most of my time herding my thrill-seeking wife and kids away from the edge of the cliff.
#4 Make a Splash
One of the things we wanted to do for sure this year was find a secluded spot where we might dip our toes (and possibly a whole lot more) in the icy yet invigorating mountain waters of New Hampshire. Luckily we were able to find two such spots for some wet-and-wild fun.
The first was Diana’s Baths near Bartlett. After a super-easy 0.6-mile hike (more like a stroll) along a wide, packed-gravel path, we arrived at the “baths,” which is actually a series of huge rocks, ledges, pools, and cascading falls smack dab in the middle of the woods. Immediately the kiddos — ages 10 and 8 — took off to climb amongst the rocks and splash in the frigid yet oh-so-refreshing streams. There were about 20 or so other adventurers out there along with us, but the baths offer plenty of space for everyone.
This small section of the Pemigewasset River gave us the perfect, natural place to cool off in the late-summer heat. You can even rent inflatable tubes just up in town for $5 and brave the rapids if you have the courage. (I did not.) I did, however, decide to take the plunge and jump in, fully clothed, into one of the park’s icy pools. Talk about a shock to the system! Yikes. I don’t even go swimming in the pool unless the water’s at least 85 degrees. But as they say, when in Rome!
#3 Moose Spotting
Yes, there are moose in New Hampshire—approximately, 3,000-4,000 at last count, according to the Fish and Game Commission. There are actually moose-crossing signs all along The Kanc and surrounding highways warning drivers to be on the lookout for these enormous creatures. (A full-grown adult can reach 6-feet-high at the shoulder and way in excess of 1,000 pounds!)
That said, sadly, I have yet to come across one of these majestic and elusive beasts during my time in the White Mountains. My eyes have been peeled, believe me. But, alas, I still haven’t been lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time. At least not yet. And it’s not for lack of trying. Nearly every evening my wife’s cousin takes us moose hunting (albeit with a camera rather than a rifle) along The Kanc, hitting up his “secret spots” where he’s always sure we’ll come across one of these elusive beasts of the North. And, of course, we never do. (The only moose we encountered? This fake one on the way up Mt. Washington.)
Apparently, there really are moose out there, though. Right in downtown Lincoln, after all, you’ll find Pemi Valley Moose Tours, which offers nightly bus tours and boasts a “97% success rate.” Personally, I find that a little hard to believe. But, hey, maybe they have their own “secret spots” that we don’t know about. (Secret salt-licks, is probably more like it.)
#2 Ride the Cog
In Pittsburgh, we have the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline—two 1870s-era, inclined or funicular railways that take riders up and down the city’s Mt. Washington (or as we Yinzers call it, “Mt. Warsh-ington.” At 1,200 feet, the summit gives visitors a stunning view of downtown and the three rivers below.
In New Hampshire they have a Mt. Washington, too, only it’s 6,288 feet high—that’s more than five times higher than The Burgh’s mountain of the same name, for you math nerds out there. And instead of an incline, they have the Mount Washington Cog Railway, aka “The Cog.”
The Cog is the world’s first mountain-climbing cog (or rack-and-pinion) railway. Each day two steam locomotives and six biodiesel-powered locomotives carry thrill-seekers to the top of the mountain along a narrow-gauge, 3-mile track that straddles heart-stopping, 1,000-foot-plus ledges and at times reaches a maximum grade of 37.41 percent. Luckily it only moves at a leisurely, tortoise-like pace of 2.8 mph. The ride up takes a little over an hour and gives tourists stunning views of the Presidential Range and beyond.
Although I’m deathly afraid of heights (see above), I can tell you this is an absolute must-do if you’re visiting the White Mountains. Just be sure to bring a coat. Even though it was around 70 degrees at the bottom, at the summit the winds were whipping over 50 mph and the temperature was a balmy 25. And this was late August! Heaven knows how cold it must be up there in mid-December. (The coldest-ever temperature at the summit was -47 degrees in 1934. Yikes!)
#1 Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves
On our first trip to New Hampshire, some good friends who regularly visit the Granite State recommended we visit Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves. And, boy, were we glad we did. This natural wonder is definitely our favorite part of our annual visit.
Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves gives visitors the chance to explore more than 20 caves and natural formations in Kinsman Notch, a breathtaking wonder of rock and boulder formations formed over eons by water, wind, and weather. Starting at the gift shop/ticket office, visitors descend 300 feet down into the gorge before following a 1-mile boardwalk (which is an engineering wonder in itself) through a labyrinth of massive granite boulders and stunning waterfalls back up to the top.
Lost River’s caves are a blast to crawl through as you gradually make your way back to the top of the gorge. Each one has a different name — Cave of Silence, Bear Crawl, Shadow Cave, etc. — and each offers a new and exciting challenge. Many of the caves require you to crawl on your hands and knees (or even your belly) through the darkness as you make your way toward the light of the exit. The only cave I couldn’t conquer was the infamous “Lemon Squeezer.” (I wasn’t flexible enough to make it through the opening! Not surprising considering I can’t touch my toes.) If you’re the claustrophobic type—no problem! The boardwalk allows you to bypass all the caves while still taking in all the amazing natural beauty.
Back up top at the gift shop, we always buy a bag of sand and gems and let the kids do a little sluicing for treasure before hitting the road for the long drive home. We find it keeps them happy and quiet. At least for a little while…
by Valentine J. Brkich, September 2018
Hailing from the charming town of Beaver, Pa., Val and his wife enjoy discovering other small towns and dragging their two young children along for the ride (sometimes literally). Read his blog SmallTownDad.com and follow him on Twitter @valentinebrkich.