Pros: Beautiful, Mostly free, Many attractions, Spectacular
Cons: Crowded on weekends
While almost everyone who visits northern New Hampshire drives through Franconia Notch State Park, to really appreciate this area youve got to get out of your car and explore all of the interesting (and really scenic) opportunities that this area offers you.
Youll have a chance to explore glacial potholes, travel through a streams chasm, ride a tram to the top of Cannon Mountain, get to see the cliffs of Cannon up close and even have a chance to see where the Old Man of the Mountain used to be before he collapsed in a rock fall.
Id recommend almost a full day for Franconia Notch State Park, itll give you a chance to stop and enjoy each area in the park. For some, they might need even more time considering all there is to do in the park.
Where is Franconia Notch State Park?
Located along Interstate 93, Franconia Notch State Park runs the length of Franconia Notch a roughly north/south notch that cleaves the White Mountains and separates the Franconia Range to the east from the Cannon Range to the west.
There are a number of parking areas, sites and visitor services throughout the notch. Most of the sites are free, as is the parking, though you will have to pay to go through The Flume and to take the Tram to the summit of Cannon Mountain.
Basic food is available in a snack bar at The Flume visitor center along with a snackbar at Cannon Mountain.
The park is open year round as are the free attractions. However The Flume and the Tram are only open from May through October.
What is there to do in Franconia Notch State Park?
I guess the first thing to get out of the way is that you have to really like the outdoors to fully enjoy Franconia Notch State Park. The majority of the sites and activities have something to do with the outdoors and require that you at least make a short walk. If you dont like to walk, driving through the notch and enjoying the views might be your best bet.
For those who do want to get out and explore though, the park is home to a number of different attractions. Ill start from the south and work my way up through the notch.
Located on the slopes of Mount Flume, the water has carved a deep gorge where the water rushes down the mountain. The trails at The Flume allow you to climb up through the gorge and make your way around the area, getting a great look at this natural wonder, the surrounding forest and the other streams and rivers in the area.
There can be a lot of walking at The Flume, though buses can take you the majority of the distance from the Visitors Center to the base of the Flume. From there, the trail makes its way through the gorge on wooden walkways and stairs. Theres nothing really hard about walking this loop (which totals a couple of miles), but it can be quite the walk for the uninitiated and it isnt handicapped accessible.
The Flume is only open from May through October. In the wintertime the area (and the Visitors Center) is closed, though you can use the parking area for access to nearby trails. There is a fee during the summer season to access the Flume.
The Visitors Center for The Flume also doubles as a welcome center for Franconia Notch State Park. Here you can speak to the staff to find out more about any part of the park and get brochures and other information the various nearby attractions.
Continuing north from The Flume the next major stop youll come to is the Basin. The Basin is a naturally formed pot hole in the river that was formed during the end of the last ice age when lots of water was running through Franconia Notch. The action of the water and the stones in the water ended up wearing down a hole into the rock and today you have a waterfall plunging into the pothole, which is an almost circular pool about 20 feet in diameter.
From the parking lots, two improved trails make their way around the area of The Basin. The parking lots are located about 200 yards or so to the north of the actual Basin. The first trail crosses the river and makes its way down to the Basin and the other makes its way more gently along the river and provides a viewpoint of The Basin. This second trail is also the handicapped access route to the Basin.
Beyond the Basin, which is located at the end of the two trails, there are some other rock formations in the stream that are interesting to look at. You can take your time hiking down to the Basin to look at these.
There are no services at the Basin besides some outhouses. This area is open in the wintertime, though it often gets quite icy so it can be hard to get down (and then back up) to the Basin.
Located about halfway through the notch, Lafayette Campground offers 97 tent sites for camping from May through October. These are basic camp sites without any utilities. There is water available at central locations and there are showers along with a small general store in the lodge house.
Reservations are almost always needed for this campground, especially on weekends. If you do get reservations though, you are centrally located in the notch and you can easily access the many hiking trails and the various areas of interest in the park.
Old Man in the Mountain
If you had visited several years ago you would have been able to see the Old Man in the Mountain, but sadly it collapsed in a rock fall back in 2003. Today there is interpretive information about the Old Man in the Mountain and Profile Lake where the viewing area was located. While the Old Man is gone, its still a nice area to stop at and walk around. You get great views of the narrow portion of the notch, with the cliffs of Cannon Mountain almost directly in front of you and the higher peaks of the Lafayette Range on the other side of the notch to the east.
Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway
I have to admit that next to the Flume this is probably the place in the notch where Ive spent the most time. I make sure that everyone I take to NH whos never been to Franconia Notch goes up this tram, especially if its good weather. You get a tremendous view of Franconia Notch and the surrounding areas from the top of Cannon Mountain. Not only that, the ride up is spectacular.
The Tram is open from May through October and is run out of one of the Cannon Mountain Lodges. You can generally walk in and get tickets fairly quickly for the Tram as each ride can carry up to like 70 or so people. Only the most busy weekends will you really have to wait a long time to get up to the top of the mountain.
Up top you can relax in the summit building or take a walk around the summit of Cannon. I really suggest you do there are some amazing views and since the summit almost reaches treeline, its an ecosystem that not everyone gets to see up close.
Echo Lake, which is located roughly in front of the Cannon Mountain Ski area has a beach thats open to the public during the summer months.
While there isnt too much to see of this ski area in the summertime (beside their tram), in the wintertime this is a great skiing mountain that offers some of the most intense ski runs in the area. Its often cold and windy, but if you can hit the mountain on a winter day with some good weather, youll be loving it.
There are a couple of other small pull-offs along the highway as it makes its way through the notch. These include Boise Rock and the old highway bridge across Lafayette Brook which gives you great views of the Mount Lafayette.
Even if you dont really want to get out of your car, theres plenty to just look at as you drive through the notch. However at the very least you should stop in the various parking areas and get out and at least enjoy the scenery you can see from the car. Even better, get out and walk around a bit.
There are tons of hiking trails in the park that extend up into the White Mountain National Forest beyond. These trails are anywhere from easy walks to really tough mountain climbs. Some of the shortest and most rewarding include a walk out to Bald Mountain and Artist Bluffs at the northern end of the notch and in the south a climb up Indian Head gives you a view of the southern end of the notch.
Your best bet for hiking in the area is to get a copy of the Appalachian Mountain Clubs White Mountain Guide. It provides extensive trail descriptions and maps of the area and makes it easy to plan almost any hike.
A bike trail runs the length of the park roughly following the highway as it makes its way through the notch. This isnt a challenging bike ride, but it does involve plenty of ups and downs and you should be prepared for a fairly long bike ride if youre going to do the whole thing.
In the wintertime you can go skiing at Cannon Mountain if you like downhill skiing. For cross-country skiers, the various trails are open to skiing depending upon your ability level. You can also ski along the bike trail, but that is also open to snowmobiles, which can make it hard to ski.
In the wintertime, the bike path is open to snowmobiles.
As you can see, theres a lot to do in the park. While a day will give you a good chance to explore most of the major areas, youll need a number of different visits to really explore the park and the surrounding area.
When I think of New Hampshire my first thought is almost always the view of the Cannon Mountain cliffs and Franconia Notch. This is just a spectacular place and in my mind at least, its the gateway to the White Mountains.
It was also my playground when I went to college as it was less than an hour away. I was able to get over there and explore away and each time I went I found something new. Not only that, it was my classroom too. I spent untold hours there with my geology professor learning about the geology of the region and the notch itself.
I still love visiting the notch and the various attractions scattered throughout it. Not only that, I still love the hiking opportunities that the park offers and the access that it gives you to the surrounding White Mountain National Forest.
Its always a stop for me when I have someone new to New Hampshire. Its just got so much to offer that its like a one-stop introduction to New Hampshire and the White Mountains.
I dont know how anyone could be disappointed by this park, even if they just drive through it on Interstate 93. Its spectacular from the car, on foot, on bike or on skis. You can explore as much or as little of it as you want. Its ever changing with rock slides, changing seasons and more. Not only that, its home to some great attractions including the Cannon Tram, the Basin and the Flume.
A hiker? Youll find access to so many different trails from Franconia Notch that you could go on a different hike every day for probably a month.
Biker? Cruise through the notch of the bike path.
Just exploring? Give yourself some time and stop at the various attractions throughout the park and really get to know it. Youll be glad you did.
Honestly, Franconia Notch State Park is one beautiful place that I never grow tired of and I bet you wont either.
More nearby NH Attractions & Resources
White Mountain National Forest
White Mountain Trail Guide
The Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves
Mount Washington Cog Railway
Mount Washington Auto Road
Mount Washington State Park