Adventurous Autumn in New Hampshire’s White Mountains
This Region is Packed with Exhilarating Recreation, Historical Charm and Stunning Scenery
As I traveled across the sky, the red and orange landscape rushed by in a blur as if Monet had brushed the color from his painter’s palette. Paul, one of my two guides, stood on the platform suspended in an impossibly tall hemlock, pumping his palms in a downward motion, the “slow down” signal. I touched my leather-gloved hand to the cable above my head and felt myself decelerate. The harder I pressed, the more my speed dropped. With surprising control, I coasted onto the platform. Paul quickly unclipped my harness from the cable, clipped me to a safety line then turned his attention to the next zip-liner, a 50-something mom from Wisconsin touring New Hampshire with her 20-something daughter. Our adventuresome group of 10 also included my son Parker (age 16), two middle-aged couples from Australia and Rhode Island, and our guides Paul and Neal.
I relaxed and looked around from my treetop perch. The oranges, reds and yellows came into focus, the myriad leaves of maple, birch, oak and beech at the peak of their autumn show. A canopy tour at Bretton Woods was certainly a unique way to see the fall foliage in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Instead of looking at the trees from a roadside pullout or a hiker’s overlook, I was in them!
Zip lines are well named. You literally zip visually and audibly from one platform to the next. I was held aloft by a harness and roller system that traveled along a cable and made a loud zipping sound as I accelerated. When the guide gave the word, I rested my hands over the rollers above my head, picked up my feet and left the rest to gravity.
While many destinations have zip lines, most are set up as parallel cables in which two people zip side-by-side. Bretton Woods has that, too, but the bigger draw is its canopy tour. Patterned after the rainforest tours in Costa Rica, Bretton Woods’ arbor-top attraction is a succession of a dozen progressively longer and faster cables that zigzag almost a mile down the side of the mountain.
It was a thrill to fly from tree to tree. At first, I felt like a Bond girl escaping evil henchmen. Then, on one of the higher cables which crossed a broad ravine, I felt like an eagle soaring over the forest. I glanced to my right and got an expansive view of the Presidential Range towering above the historic Omni Mount Washington Hotel. In 1944, diplomats from around the world gathered at this massive, white, palace-like landmark to establish the International Monetary Fund.
One of my goals for this trip was to get to the top of the Mount Washington, the high point in the Presidential Range, elevation 6,266 feet, the tallest peak in the northeastern United States. With the leaves at their peak color, the view from atop Washington sounded particularly
appealing. However, my son was more interested in things we could do rather than see, which is why we were touring New Hampshire. The Granite State offered endless options for both of us beginning with its marquee mountain.
You can reach the summit of Mount Washington by hiking, driving up the 7.6-mile-long Mount Washington Auto Road or riding the Mount Washington Cog Railway, an old-fashioned steam engine that slowly, deliberately chugs upward on a narrow-gauge track. A frequent visitor to, and former resident of New Hampshire, I’ve been to the top of Mount Washington all three ways. (Note: Some vehicles, including RVs, are not permitted on the Mount Washington Auto Road due to the steep, winding climb.) Regardless of how you get there, on a clear day, the top of Mount Washington is worth putting on your to-do list. The journey takes you through the most expansive Alpine zone in the northeastern United States, which is surprisingly colorful during the fall, its rare sedges, alpine cranberries and ground covers turning the terrain a patchwork of blond, cerise and deep purple. The summit has a cafeteria, gift shop and several historic buildings, not to mention the weather observatory where, in 1934, the wind was clocked at 231 mph, the highest surface wind speed ever recorded in the world.
On this clear fall day from the zip lines across the valley, it was hard to imagine such a tempest. All seemed calm, except for my heart rate, which raced from the excitement of zipping down a mountainside. As each person in our group rappelled down from the last platform, I glanced at my watch. The morning had melted away. We would need to hurry to make our 1:00 p.m. appointment to go rock climbing, another outdoor adventure offered at Bretton Woods, no experience necessary. Personally, I would rather examine small rocks in a rock shop than climb oversize ones on the side of a mountain, but John, our instructor, assured me it would be easy and enjoyable. The things we do for our kids!
Tethered to John by a red nylon rope, he patiently coached me up the rock face. The ascent required primarily a “go for it” attitude and a sense of balance rather than arm and leg strength. Upon reaching the top, Parker claimed it the most fun he had ever had. I was pleased, not only at his delight but also by the view, another cascade of color. Even better, we didn’t have to down-climb. We simply hiked a short way to a chairlift then rode to the base area while ogling yet another view of crimson and gold-washed hills and valleys below stunning 4,000-foot peaks.
As a lifelong skier, I have gratefully taken chairlift rides to the top of ski areas in the winter, but during my autumn visit to New Hampshire, I gained an entirely different appreciation of them when the ground is bare rather than white. I was also impressed by how many things you can do at the various ski resorts in the Granite State when there’s no skiing. The ski areas are all relatively close to each other, an hour or less from most campgrounds and easily accessible from Interstate 93. Even better, most of the offerings are beginner-friendly for those who want a taste of adventure as an appetizer to a delicious dinner, a sip of fine wine and other accoutrements of civilization.
As another example, prior to arriving at Bretton Woods, Parker and I explored the Waterville Valley Resort an hour to the south. Waterville Valley was the brainchild of Tom Corcoran, an Olympic skier during the 1950s. Though Corcoran was one of top winter athletes of his era, he believed the key to a ski area’s success was offering lots of user-friendly terrain, as the bulk of the skiing population was at the beginner to intermediate level. The philosophy has carried over to the resort’s off-season offerings, including paddle-boarding on Corcoran Lake in the middle of the resort and mountain biking on its ski trails.
My son and I were neophytes at mountain biking. With much encouragement from Waterville’s bike rental shop, we decided to give it a try. As instructed, we followed the resort bike path to the bottom of a chairlift on Snows Mountain near the resort’s public golf course. I got on the chairlift first, then a helpful lift attendant loaded my bike onto the chair just behind me. Parker and his bike road a couple of chairs back. With no one to talk to, I relaxed, letting my feet dangle, and took a few photographs.
Once at the top, we weren’t sure where to go. We turned to the lift attendant for advice.
“Take the Upper Snows Mountain Trail,” she coached us, “It’s a wide, gentle descent and there’s a great waterfall at the first bridge.”
The trail was indeed gentle, a dirt road really and not intimidating. We coasted down the path winding around its elongated curves. The dense hardwood forest on either side of us seemed aglow in the speckled rays of sunshine, the leaves dripping rich red and ochre.
As instructed, we parked our bikes at the bridge. The cascade was pretty, but underwhelming. There had to be more. I spotted a trail to our left and proposed we follow it, leaving our bikes at the bridge. Within a few steps, we came to a lovely waterfall that spilled into a deep clear pool. We followed the trail a little farther and discovered a series of beautiful waterfalls. We had wandered into a hidden Eden. It was so peaceful and pretty that we didn’t want to leave.
Eventually, we returned to our bikes and finished our ride, which meandered a mile or so farther through the woods then curved back toward the base of Snows Mountain along a rock-speckled river. Maple leaves drifted in the water, fell like random red feathers through the air and adorned the shoreline giving the path a rosy glow. I stopped to take another photo.
“What shall we do tomorrow?” asked Parker, pulling up beside me.
We had lots of options, horseback riding at Black Mountain, visiting the New England Ski Museum at the base of Cannon Mountain and then taking the tram to the summit of Cannon appealed to me, not to mention my goal of reaching the top of Mount Washington. New Hampshire’s White Mountains offer so many possibilities for adventure, I wanted to experience it all.
For More Information
Living Water Campground | 603-846-5513 | www.livingwatercampground.com
Mount Washington Auto Road | www.mtwashingtonautoroad.com
Mount Washington Cog Railway | 603-278-5404 | www.thecog.com
Mount Washington Resort-Bretton Woods | 800-314-1752 | www.brettonwoods.com
Tarry Ho Campground | 603-846-1026 | www.tarryho.com
Timberland Campground | 603-466-3872 | www.timberlandcampgroundnh.com
Twin Mountain KOA | 800-562-9117 | www.koa.com/campgrounds/ twin-mountain
Waterville Valley Resort | 800-468-2553 | www.waterville.com