My winter ski column, titled “Skiing in Maine,” puts a bit of a geographic limit on topics for columns. With a name like that, how could I in good conscience write about the Swiss Alps or the Colorado Rockies? It puts my mind in a certain place that has carried over to these summer outdoors columns. While “It’s Worth the Trip” is open-ended, most everything I’ve covered in the last three years has been restricted to Maine.
It took a few short hiking trips to remind me of the wealth of hiking opportunities available to us just across New Hampshire state line. Many of these trails are closer than those in Maine’s western mountains.
Less than two hours from Portland, Crawford Notch is a deep scar in New Hampshire’s midsection. The deep gorge, cut into granite by the Saco River, stretches from Hart’s Location on its south end to Carroll on its north. Much of the notch and its surrounding environs are within the boundaries of the Crawford Notch State Park. The whole thing is bisected by Route 302, which runs from downtown Portland straight through Conway and into the state park.
The park boasts hikes to some of the most impressive views and peaks in New England. However, my recent trips have been of the lighter day trip variety, tackling Arethusa Falls and Mount Willard. That doesn’t make them any less worthwhile – in fact, they’re a great introduction into hiking in the Notch.
At nearly 200 feet, Arethusa Falls is the second-highest waterfall in New Hampshire (though many, including New Hampshire’s own state park hiking guides, refer to it as the highest). Along with being a spectacular waterfall, Arethusa empties into pools and streams that are perfect for a brief respite from the hot weather.
The trailhead for Arethusa is about 10 miles northwest of Attitash, on a short spur off 302 called (appropriately) Arethusa Falls Road. The trail takes off from the upper parking lot off the road, with the Arethusa Falls Trail climbing gently for about a mile and a half. A fork in the trail leads hikers to the base of the falls, and grants them a downward trek after the consistent climb.
Another option for hikers is the Bemis Brook trail, which separates from the Arethusa Falls Trail just after the trailhead and follows Bemis Brook. The trail, which adds about a third of a mile to the total hike, affords visitors views of additional waterfalls Bemis Brook Falls and Coliseum Falls.
However, it comes with a price – while the grade of the Arethusa trail is consistent, Bemis is mostly flat before steeply climbing about 200 feet in 200 yards to rejoin Arethusa, a steep pitch that practically requires hand over hand climbing.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, you can jump on the Frankenstein Cliff trail in the Arethusa parking lot. The 1.2-mile climb takes hikers to the titular cliff overlooking Crawford Notch, as well as a view from Falcon Cliffs (so many cliffs!).
It’s a little less than 2 miles from Falcon Cliffs over to Arethusa Falls, and then the Arethusa or Bemis trails can be taken back to the trailhead. Voilà – like that, you’ve turned a 3-mile in-and-back hike into a 5-mile loop.
About five miles up 302 from the Arethusa Falls trailhead, the Mount Willard trail beckons. A mile and a half hike through hardwood forest, the popular trail ends with a panoramic view down Crawford Notch. Like Arethusa, it’s among the best time/reward propositions in New Hampshire.
From the parking lots at the AMC’s Highland Trails Center, it’s a short walk south to the Mt. Willard trailhead at the Crawford Depot train station. The trail shortly crooks left while the Avalon trail continues straight. After a quick ford over a shallow brook, the trail is a fairly straight shot of a mile and a half up to Willard’s summit. The most surprising (and pleasant) thing about the trail is how consistent the climb is.
The summit of Willard treats hikers to a view of miles of Crawford Notch. It’s a wide, flat ledge, nearly 100 yards across, which is a blessing for such a popular hike.
Unlike many hikes in Maine’s mountains, the hikes of Crawford Notch are notable for their easy access, particularly from population centers like Conway and Littleton (and, further, Boston and Portland). If you’re looking to hike Arethusa or Willard, I suggest an early start if you’d like the trail to yourself.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be contacted at: