Finding Fall Foliage in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch

Fall in Franconia Notch New Hampshire (Stillman Rogers Photo)

Before you can truly claim to have leaf-peeped, you have to see New Hampshire’s fall foliage from on high with a 360-degree view. True, the color isn’t as bright as it is when you can single out each sun-struck leaf on the maple tree overhead, but mile after mile of mixed reds, oranges, yellows and greens painting the landscape below is an unforgettable sight.

In Your Bucket Because…

  •  New Hampshire’s White Mountains offer the perfect combination of glorious fall foliage framing mountain views.
  •  Franconia Notch is filled with natural attractions that can be reached by short hikes through the fall-colored forests.
  •  Good for families and anyone who loves the out-of-doors on crisp autumn days.

Any height of land will do, but for the most sweeping vistas, you can’t beat the top of a mountain. Luckily you don’t always have to climb under your own steam to get to the top. Thanks to skiers, several NH mountains have lifts designed for winter sports that also carry passengers to the top for foliage viewing. Oldest and unique among these is the Aerial Tramway in Franconia Notch.

Fall Colors in Franconia Notch (Stillman Rogers Photo)

A Weekend Foliage Getaway

So we chose a gloriously clear weekend when the White Mountains’ foliage should be at its peak, and headed north on Interstate 93 to Franconia Notch. Notches are passes — breaks in a line of mountains that allow the easiest route through. But notches aren’t just any pass; they were formed by glaciers as they carved out weaker places in mountain chains and ground out circular hollows below them as they moved and melted.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are cut by several, the best known of which is Franconia. In September and October the hardwoods on its lower slopes turn into a blaze of red, orange and gold that contrasts with the gray granite ledges and dark fir trees above. Interstate 93 leads straight to the foot of the notch, then becomes a two-lane road, preserving the wilderness character of the state park that encompasses the entire notch. Within its less-than-10-mile length are packed enough sights to fill a weekend, and enough views of autumn-painted mountains to satisfy avid leaf-peepers like us.

We leave I-93 in North Woodstock to follow the parallel Route 3 in order to reach the trailhead for Georgiana Falls, one of the prettiest cascades in the White Mountains, and one of the least visited. The trail begins off Hanson Farm Road and follows Harvard Brook up the hillside. The lower cascade is less than half a mile from the road and the upper (even more impressive) cascade is not far above it.

The Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch (Stillman Rogers Photo)

The Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch

Our first stop in the notch proper is at The Flume, a deep gorge with vertical sides. It was formed by a thin band of softer rock that filled a crack in the granite bedrock, then was eroded away by the small brook that still runs through its base. We could just go to The Flume and back, but we prefer the longer loop path that takes us past Table Rock, Avalanche Falls, Liberty Gorge Cascade and through a covered footbridge as it winds through the colorful hardwood forest.

The Basin, a round pool carved out of solid rock, is only one of several places we go at our next stop. Downstream from The Basin is a miniature flume, and a trail leads to a cascade over ledges that we scramble up. About half a mile above the cascade is Kinsman Falls, but by now it’s well past noon, and we’re hungry, so we eat our picnic lunch on the ledges beside the cascades before climbing to the falls.

Sunset Alpenglow from Sugar Hill

We decide to save the view from the top of the notch for the next day, which promises to be equally bright and clear, so we drive on around Echo Lake and through the town of Franconia to Sugar Hill. Named for its sugar maples, this town is has some of the state’s best foliage, but its glory comes in the late afternoon as the setting sun bathes the west-facing mountainsides in a golden-red light known as alpenglow. We watch it from our cottage at Sugar Hill Inn, then savor dinner in the inn’s excellent dining room.We begin the next morning with the mile-and-a-half loop trail to Artists’ Bluff, overlooking Echo Lake at the head of the notch. This was a favorite vantage point for the White Mountain Artists, a group of 19th-century painters that included Thomas Cole, Frank Shapleigh, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church, and made the White Mountains one of America’s first tourist destinations.

The Basin in Franconia Notch (Stillman Rogers Photo)

The region’s – and the state’s – most iconic attraction is no longer there. The Old Man of the Mountain slid down the mountainside in May of 2001, despite years of valiant efforts to keep its fragile ledges in place. We learn more about it at the Old Man of the Mountain Museum, then explore the state’s long history of skiing and its connection with the famed 10th Mountain Division at the New England Ski Museum. Both are at the base of Aerial Tramway.

Up Cannon Mountain on the Aerial Tramway

The state’s most venerable mountain-climbing conveyance is the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, the first passenger aerial tramway to operate in North America. It’s been airlifting skiers, hikers and leaf-peepers to the 4,080-foot summit of Cannon Mountain since 1938. We climbed aboard and the giant gondola took off, disclosing an increasingly wide area of views as we rose up the mountainside.

For those who care about the engineering, “The tramway is a funicular, first cousin to an elevator,” explains the car’s operator. “Although they look like giant gondolas, the 7-ton cars are on two stationary track cables. They alternate, going up and down the mountain drawn by a center pull cable on a continuous loop.”

The Rim Trail circles the top, a 15-minute walk along the brink of the precipitous notch, opening to flat ledges where we get heart-stopping straight-down views into the notch straight below us. From here it’s easier to see the circular “scoop” of glacial activity as the mile-thick ice ground out the notch.

At the very top a wooden tower gives a 360-degree panorama of mountains, with Mt. Washington on the east, Vermont’s Green Mountains on the west and Canada to the north. From this height, a light fall haze softens the reds and yellows of the trees on the slopes and valleys below, and the whole world we see is cast in shades of rosy pink and peach, fading to shades of pale blue and lavender that outline the rows of distant mountains.

Maybe it’s the glorious fall day and all the fresh-air exercise we’ve had, but we seem to be seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.

Practicalities

Check http://foliage.visitnh.gov for a map of the state that shows the latest updates on the fall colors. This is the busiest season for visitors, so reserve a room at an inn or B&B early; Sugar Hill Inn is handy to Franconia Notch http://sugarhillinn.com. For more information on the region, visit the White Mountains Attractions website www.visitwhitemountains.com, or call 800-346-3687. To learn more about the Aerial Tramway, visit www.cannonmt.com.

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