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NH waterfalls: Rushing water, picnics and peace

By GARY DENNIS, Union Leader Staff

Sunday, 8/31/2003

In Purgatory, you'll find some heaven.

There's a pit on the Mont Vernon-Lyndeborough line where many have thought the same thing. It's where Purgatory Falls courses through a canyon of thick granite ledge and plunges 10 feet to a deep, dark pool below.

And while you may feel like you're in the middle of nowhere (you are) and about 1,000 feet below sea level (you're not), there something peculiarly relaxing about the place.

The sound of rushing water is a blank backdrop where the mind has all kinds of room to work and be creative. No secret here why photographers and artists find the stuff in waterfalls that make great pictures and paintings.

But the rumbling din of water dropping from one elevation to another has also drawn families for generations who use the peaceful setting as a backdrop for picnicking, swimming or just lying around.

New Hampshire offers up many to see. And as you would guess, most are in the White Mountains. But there are a couple below the real "north country" line, including a few around Plymouth and one even just 25 minutes outside of Manchester to the west.

Below, a sample of trips that could be made in a long day ending at falls that are roadside or require a short hike. For more, including falls that include hikes of an hour or more, read through the Granite State section of "New England Waterfalls," by Greg Parsons and Kate B. Watson.

Both Watson and Parsons are about to embark on careers in Boston-area accounting firms. But first, they opted to see the falls — about 200 in all. They put their adventures in a book for all New England hikers and water lovers to see.

Watson, a senior at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and an Ossipee native, teamed up with fellow Babson classmate Parsons and hit each and every one of the falls mentioned in their book put out by the Countryman Press.

The result: a tantalizing tour of some beautiful backwoods country in all of the six New England states. And more important, directions and need-to-know details should you want to set up your own waterfall tour.

"There are books out on how to use duct tape," Watson said as a reason why she thought such a book could work. "There were guide books on waterfalls in the White Mountains, but none of New England as a whole."

The two students spent every weekend and about every summer vacation day from April to November in 2002 hitting waterfalls throughout the six states. Without a published guide, they cruised the Internet, where a lot of waterfalls lovers had started Web sites on some of the more popular ones.

Were some of them duds? Sure, she said.

"But we rated them on the whole experience. The trails, the views — whether it was gratifying," she said. "There were some 5-foot waterfalls, some 200-foot . . . we found them equally beautiful."

The next project for Watson and Parsons: to successfully hike the 48 4,000-foot peaks in New England — a milestone for hikers in the region.

A sampling of New Hampshire waterfalls

Campton Falls

Town: Campton

Hike: Roadside

Rating: A classic block-style waterfall with multi-levels. Very pleasing to the eye and very photogenic.

Directions: Just north of Plymouth, take Interstate 93 exit 28. Turn on to Routes 49 and 175. Take a right where Route 175 breaks off to the south and look for parking area about three miles on the left.

·  You'll hear the roar of this falls as soon as you shut the car off.

The parking area is more of an enlarged pull-off and is pretty rough, as is the trail down to the falls. At times, it's downright thin and treacherous.

It's a tough one to call for kids. It's a short walk — we're talking a minute or two here — but you may wind up carrying them down some of the steep and narrow goat trails. And while the cascading falls here are nice to see and fun for the camera, there isn't a lot of room left here to do anything else.

But the classic beauty of the Campton Falls is reason enough to make time for it.

Georgiana Falls

Town: Lincoln

Hike: A mile; about 25 minutes of sometimes rough walking

Rating: Neat for the very ambulatory. To truly enjoy these falls, you have to be willing to do a little amateur rock climbing once you get there.

Directions: Interstate 93 to Lincoln, take exit 33. Take Route 3 north for a half mile and take a left on to Hanson Farm Road. Follow that for a stone's throw to Georgiana Falls Road and park at the end.

·  When you get to the first falls here, you're tired. And you're disappointed. It looks like you just hoofed almost a half hour over stones and tree roots to look at a bunch of jumbled rocks with small wisps of water running through.

Don't fear. Your knees aren't sore for nothing. If you made it this far you should have enough juice left to get low and climb up the stream bed a bit.

That's where the real jewels are. Small cascades, plunges and sheeting fan-type falls await with each level you climb up. Deep dark pools also live here along with narrow, fast runs of Harvard Brook that have carved little channels into the rock.

The more you're willing to climb, the more treasure you'll find. And the multi- levels and flat spots between falls make this a great place to hike to and sit out in the sun.

Kids will make the first 20 minutes of the hike on a trail wide enough to drive a car. The last 10 minutes are rougher with some thin spots and tree roots. And of course, the climb up the stream bed is for those more physically fit and healthy of knee.

Overall, this one probably isn't the best for kids not entirely sure on their feet yet.

Sculptured Rock Falls

Town: Groton

Hike: Roadside

Rating: Not a lot of curbside appeal here. Neat gouges in the underlying bedrock and a few small drops here and there. But it ain't Niagara.

Directions: Interstate 93 to Plymouth. Take Route 3A south into Hebron and drive five miles past the intersection of Route 25. Take a right on North Shore Road, drive 2.4 miles onto Groton Road. Drive about 1.7 miles on that road and fork left on to Sculptured Rocks Road. A parking area will be another mile or so up on the left.

·  For my full day of waterfalling, this small falls just west of Newfound Lake happened to be my starting point. And a good one at that.

Sculptured Rock is the result of glacial melt water that ran its sediment load over seemingly impermeable granite ledge for more than 12,000 years. The result: deep and dark pools with narrow rock cuts and cool curves.

No real impressive verticals here. As far as falls go, it's more of a very narrow part of Cockermouth River with the short drops of a few feet here and there. But it's easy to get to and acts as a sort of primer if you're making a day of waterfall sightseeing.

And it's only a few hundred feet from your car door to the water. A small bridge gives you a great view and is a nice spot to set up the camera.

For kids, this one is great. Keep an eye on them, though — there are some drops with no fencing around.

Sabbaday Falls

Town: Waterville Valley, White Mountain National Forest

Hike: A little less than a half mile; about 15 minutes on a well-maintained trail.

Rating: A must-see in the White Mountains area. Easy access and several classic falls with great viewing stations.

Directions: From Interstate 93 in Lincoln, take exit 32 and follow Route 112 east (Kancamagus Highway) for 20 miles. Parking and a picnic area is on the south side of the road. It costs $3 to stop here.

·  Here, we've gone from little trails and out-of-the-way roadside stops to a major waterfall viewing area. You won't have much private time here — tourists and hikers come from far and near to see these falls.

National park workers keep the trail to Sabbaday very well maintained. Post and rail fencing edges several spots — fine gravel cushions your step and avoids twisted ankles or trips over tree roots.

Several plunge-type falls await. But most will be taken by the first pool encountered below the lower falls. It's as clear as clear can be and sits at the foot of a 10-foot fall.

Above that, a 22-foot fall and a perfect example of a "punchbowl" fall where a wide path of water converges to a narrow fall.

The falls: beautiful. The experience of passing by countless groups of people and not having the falls to yourself: not so good.

For kids, this is perfect. An easy, 10-minute walk with lots to see at the end as a reward.

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