The White Mountains of New Hampshire:
Family Fun at 6,288 Feet
Living in New England, I have long heard of the White Mountains from friends and acquaintances as being a popular spot for tourists during ski season. Seeing as how I have never put on a pair of skis, I thought it would be more appropriate to visit these higher elevations during a blistering heat wave in the summer.
This summer had turned out to be downright tropical here in Western Massachusetts, with temperatures climbing into the high 90s every day and the humidity soaking you to the core upon rising. So I packed up the minivan with my three kids (ages 13, 5, and 1) and my younger brother Sam, and I set my sights just three hours north of us on the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire.
The 2,179 mile-long Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine is a rugged destination for hikers in the summer months that cuts through the White Mountains, which comprise about a quarter of this narrow eastern state.
Among the many peaks is Mount Washington, the highest mountain in New England, soaring into the clouds a whopping 6,288 feet and holding the world record for the highest wind speed ever recorded at the Earth’s surface, 231 mph in April of 1934.
Mount Washington is one of a line of summits known as the Presidential Range, as many are named after U.S. presidents. The White Mountains get their name for their tendency to be snow-topped, although not necessarily in July. It seemed as though if there were some place to go to cool off and get back to nature, the White Mountains was the way to go.
New Hampshire’s Natural Beauty
While approaching the White Mountains, I was struck by the looming peaks covered in lush green foliage. Our car wound up Interstate 93 curving deeper into the mountain range, climbing out of the oppressive heat and into the fresh mountain air, at least 10-15 degrees cooler than what we had been experiencing all summer.
Blue sky peered above the rocky cliffs while marshmallow clouds drifted by in the cool afternoon breeze; natural perfection. This idyllic northern New Hampshire landscape was what I’d been missing; only I had no idea until I arrived.
The kids perked up from their car snoozes to oooh and aaah at the scenery. This was their first trip to a large mountainous region and they too were impressed by the natural surroundings.
The Flume Gorge
Our first stop was the Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park off of Route 3 north of Lincoln. The Flume is a natural gorge at the base of Mount Liberty, topped by a 45-foot waterfall, with walls rising up to 90 feet high on either side.
The beginning of the two-mile hike around the Flume is slightly uphill (although very easy) and scenic, but nonetheless Nathan (age five) could not contain the whining, “Why do we have to waaaalk? Are we going to be there soon?” until we reached the stairs up through the gorge.
The wooden walkways led us up through the narrow entrance and the only sound we could hear was the rushing of Avalanche Falls as water cascaded down around us, truly a magnificent experience, definitely a must-see for anyone wanting an easy hike in a gorgeous natural setting.
Coming down was easy and fun as we completed the hike passing over covered bridges, the “Wolf’s Den,” a narrow cave the kids could squeeze through (Sam and I opted to take the path around), and several giant boulders (some weigh over 300 tons, yikes!). The Flume Gorge was a great way to start our trip, and the exercise was a welcome treat after all that time in the car.
Bunking Down in Waterville Valley
On to our hotel, The Snowy Owl Inn in the quiet resort village of Waterville Valley (pop. 327). Built around a popular skiing spot, this village is home to many condos and rentals for those who enjoy the outdoors and winter sports, but not to be forgotten in the summer. The town square, a small collection of shops, restaurants, markets, and other essentials is settled on Corcoran Pond, an ideal spot for swimming and boating.
Waterville Valley also has an athletic club and the Nordic Shop, the place to rent bicycles to enjoy the many bike trails located around the area. Waterville Valley is a self-contained vacation haven for those who want to get outdoors on their vacation but who might not want to have to drive far away to do it
I was surprised to find that they even offer a day and overnight sports camp for kids, held right at the Snowy Owl, where parents can go on vacation and send the kids to camp at the same time.
You could easily spend your whole visit to the White Mountains in this outdoor lovers’ paradise and not run out of things to do. We had other plans for this vacation, but maybe next time we’ll do just that.
The Snowy Owl Inn is a small hotel in the heart of Waterville Valley with lodge style accommodations and a friendly and helpful staff. They offer several different styles of rooms for families, including some with kitchens or kitchenettes, loft rooms with an upper level for the kids, and adjoining rooms for larger families.
Our windows opened to the sounds of the rushing creek nearby and the birds calling to wake us in the morning, definitely a true mountain experience. We dined at the local pub for about $55, and went to bed early after a dip in the surprisingly refreshing indoor pool.
Good Times for all at Storyland
The next morning we woke early to head out for Storyland, a storybook based amusement park in Glen, about an hour and a half northeast of our hotel up and down the curvy Kancamagus Highway.
The ride to Storyland was nothing short of spectacular as we twisted and turned through the narrow mountain passes and over more than one “seasonal” road (closed from October to May).
Someone had suggested that my 13-year old son Carlos might be bored visiting Storyland, clearly this was someone who has never visited this magical place. It was hands-down a hit with each and every one of us, including Carlos and even Sofie (18 months). We all rode the roller coaster more than once, and spun around on the teacups until we were dizzy. If you want to remember how to be a kid again, all you have to do is visit Storyland.
Cruising Lake Winnipesaukee
After a couple of fun-filled hours on the rides it was time to head back to our hotel to shower and change before our next adventure, a dinner and dance cruise aboard the M/S Mt. Washington on Lake Winnipesauke.
Mount Washington Cruises runs these evening cruises, along with shorter daytime trips, and Sunday brunch cruises most of which are perfect for families, even with kids as young as Sofie.
Their fleet includes three vessels; along with the M/S Mt. Washington there is also the M/V Doris E, and the U.S. Mail Boat Sophie C. Daytime cruises run about $25 for adults and $12 for children (under 5 are free), where the dinner and dance cruises cost $45 per adult for over three hours of watery fun.
Our cruise was a hit from the moment of embarkation for the little ones. The live entertainment “Destiny,” an older couple with a synthesized keyboard and a boatload of energy got the party going before we had even set sail.
This dynamic duo provided an arsenal of kid friendly songs, games, prizes, and jokes. Nathan could barely bring himself back to the table long enough to scarf down his turkey dinner before he was back in the front row watching the show.
Up in the galley there was dance music playing all cruise long, and a beautiful sunset to enjoy over the lake.
Although the M/S Mt. Washington did remind me somewhat of dining on a ferry boat headed between islands, it was still a treat to have the kids enjoy the music while I enjoyed the surroundings (and a cocktail).
The Cog in the Fog
The next morning we were up with the birds once again to venture the 75 minutes up to Bretton Woods, home of the Cog Railway. The Cog was the first mountain-climbing train in the world, built in 1866 to take passengers to the summit of Mount Washington.
The distances between attractions in the White Mountains made my brother and I reminiscent of visiting New Mexico and Arizona, where you feel as though it takes an hour just to find a gas station, especially early in the morning.
Nonetheless we made it to the station, only to find out that we had missed our 10am train, and that the 11:00 was sold out. So we waited and waited and finally boarded the bio-diesel engine that would slowly crawl us up the wooden track to the top of the Mount.
The Cog is not something I would recommend for those who are afraid of heights or the faint of heart. As I looked down the cliff upon the vast green valleys below I felt as though we were climbing to the top of the world.
The train moved slowly, and occasionally stopped for several minutes at a time so that other trains could come down the single track.
The kids were fidgety, and Nathan was able to walk up the aisle to look up at the approaching summit as Sofie stood up on my lap to try and spy a moose on our ascent. I thought for a few minutes that Sam was going to pass out, being unaware of his overwhelming fear of heights, but he made it successfully white knuckles and all, although I think he missed the view altogether.
The Cog offers an experience that is truly unique, and a view of the mountains that was unquestionably the most astounding I’ve seen in this part of the world. The round-trip journey took about three hours, with an hour spent at the summit, and cost $202 for a family of four ($62 per adult, $39 for kids, under four are free).
The Cog was worth the money for an experience you can’t get elsewhere in New England, but be sure the skies are going to be clear or you may have just paid to look at the inside of a cloud.
Upon reaching the summit, we realized that this was one of those days, as the top of the mountain was tucked neatly inside a dense fog. I could barely see three feet in front of my own face, let alone anywhere off the mountain.
It wasn’t until we ventured below the tree line that the sky became clear again and the gorgeous views returned. Mount Washington has famously unpredictable weather, (just a few weeks before our arrival in mid-July there had been a snowfall at the summit and the average summer temperature is in the mid-50’s) so be sure if you are riding to bring your layers.
Wrapping It Up at the Lost River
The next morning it was time for check out, and one more sight to see before heading back home to Western Mass. Our choice was the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves on Route 112 just past North Woodstock.
The Lost River offers a ¾ mile hike down into the Gorge on a wooden walkway, surrounded by the rushing river and flowing waterfalls, followed by a series of natural glacier caves that formed at the end of the Ice Age and are now perfect for kids and adults to climb through.
Lit by lanterns, these caves have names like the “Lemon Squeezer” and “Devil’s Kitchen” and require a certain dexterity and lack of claustrophobia that I certainly do not possess.
Fortunately for me, I could walk along the wooden boardwalk with Sofie on my back while the boys dived through the narrow openings and felt their way through the dark damp spaces, loving every minute of it. The Lost River Gorge was a perfect end to our fun filled trip.
For more information on the many family-friendly attractions in the White Mountains go to visitwhitemountains.com or stop by the White Mountain Visitors Center in North Woodstock.
For more information on accommodations and attractions in Waterville Valley visit visitwatervillevalley.com.
The views are beautiful, the air is clean, and there is never an end to the fun your family can have when you visit the White Mountains, so if you’re looking for a different kind of New England vacation then start planning, this one might be for you.
Kate Hartshorne writes about family travel for GoNOMAD and lives in South Deerfield Massachusetts. She is a labor and delivery nurse with three kids ages 2, 5 & 13. Visit our Kate Hartshorne Page with links to all her stories.
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