Pros: Excellent collection of natural wonders, beautiful scenery
Cons: Flume Gorge physically demanding, hard to see Old Man in the Mountain
Franconia Notch is a spectacular mountain pass in the heart of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The natural phenomenon in the area have been incorporated into Franconia Notch State Park. Instead of one large park area like most national and state parks, the park actually consists of several smaller individual attractions and park areas. Most of the attractions in Franconia Notch State Park are accessible from Interstate 93. For eight miles, I-93 becomes the one lane Franconia Notch Highway. Exits are clearly marked not with street names, but with names of the natural phenomenon or campgrounds of the region. The southern point of Franconia Notch Highway leads to Flume Gorge and the Franconia Notch State Park Visitor?s Center. Traveling north, you reach the Basin, then the Old Man of the Mountain and Profile Lake, and finally Cannon Mountain and its tram.
Flume Gorge is the main attraction, and something I recommend everyone visit once if you can handle the physical challenge. It is an 800 foot-long gorge with 90 foot-high sheer walls at the base of Mount Liberty. The Park offers bus service to a lodge approximately 500 yards from the gorge or, if you prefer, you can walk from the Visitor?s Center to the lodge. From the lodge you can walk on a dirt path beside Table Rock, a series of rocks that have been flattened by water over the course of time so they resemble a long flat table. As you approach the gorge, wooden boardwalks with railings replace the dirt path. The walkways are built into the side of the gorge and vary in width. Near the bottom of the gorge the walkways are wide enough to handle two people side-by-side. Later on, the walkways become a bit narrower and can be a tight fit at times even for one person. Most of the walkway is flat - short series of steps climb up the mountain gradually, maintaining close proximity to the gorge itself. There is one long series of approximately 40 steps as the gorge climbs steadily. The walk through the gorge ends at a large waterfall. At the top you can choose to walk back to the lodge or to the Visitor's Center. The walk from the top of the gorge to the lodge is approximately one third of a mile, while the walk to the Visitor's Center is a little longer than a mile. Flume Gorge is not for the faint-hearted or those afraid of heights (like me). I was terrified that some of the rickety steps were going to break, and definitely had the adrenaline flowing while in the gorge itself. Now that it's over I can say it was well worth the scare, as the walk offers some of the most unusual water views I've ever seen. Flume Gorge costs $7 for adults and $4 for children. It offers no discounts but allows people with a federal Golden Access Pass to visit free of charge.
The Basin is a pothole 20 feet in diameter at the base of a small waterfall. The wall of rock behind it has been smoothed into a semicircle by the water. Experts believe the Basin formed when the North American ice age ended and the ice began to melt. The Basin is a short walk from its parking lot just off of I-93. When we went, in the middle of the day on a Saturday afternoon, the Basin was very busy and you had to wait a few minutes to get close. It was worth the wait, though, as you can get right up to the water. Even with the wait, the entire stop at the Basin took 30 minutes. Even if you don't have much time in the area, stop by for a quick peek. The Basin is free.
In the 19th Century Profile Lake was the entertainment center of the region, housing concerts and other events throughout each summer as New England society flocked to the White Mountains. Today it is a quiet place, generally used only for fishing.
The Old Man of the Mountain, also called the Great Stone Face and the Profile, overlooks Profile Lake. The Old Man of the Mountain is a rock formation comprised of five separate granite ledges approximately 1200 feet above the lake. There are two different sanctioned areas that provide views of the Old Man. One is just off of I-93 while the other is at the edge of Profile Lake. This second viewing area is accessible after walking 1800 feet from a small parking lot at the Cannon Mountain exit of I-93. It is much larger and has some seating on stone ledges surrounding landscaped areas. It is difficult to get a good look at the rock formation without binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, but the viewing area is nice and peaceful and definitely worth the short walk. There are also a few small cabins with exhibits about the area and its wildlife on the walk. These areas are all free.
Cannon Mountain is home to a ski area and the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway. It also houses the New England Ski Museum which I didn't visit. Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway opened in 1938 and was the first tram in America to transport passengers. It travels 2,022 feet to the top of Cannon Mountain while traversing more than a mile horizontally in large cars holding 80 people at a time. More than 7 million people rode in the original tram car, operational from 1938 through 1980. The Tram offers the best view of the Old Man in the Mountain on its 5 minute ride to the summit. The tram was closed for repairs during my last visit, but I remember it from my trip to Franconia as a child. It definitely offers spectacular scenery and a nice view of the Profile. Round trip tram rides cost $9.50.
Echo Lake is also accessible from the Cannon Mountain exit of the Franconia Notch Highway, the last exit before I-93 reverts to a normal multi-laned interstate highway. Echo Lake offers swimming, fishing, and boating as well as a picnic area. I didn't visit Echo Lake, so I don't have much to say about it.
Franconia Notch also houses Lafayette Campgrounds with 97 wooden tent sites, showers, and an RV park. Motels and inns are plentiful in Lincoln, New Hampshire along Route 3 just south of the state park area and on State Road 112, the Kancamagus Highway. There are also several Bed and Breakfast establishments in Franconia, Lincoln, and other neighboring towns.
I don't know that I'd brave the gorge again but I'm glad I forced myself to do it once. Some of the views are breathtaking and it is definitely the highlight of a trip to Franconia. Even if you are unable to handle the walking or the stairs of the gorge, the Basin and the Old Man in the Mountain are worth seeing. If you want to fish or ski or take advantage of the other facilities of that sort, you should stay for a few days. If you just want to visit the major attractions, they can all be nicely enjoyed in a single day.