Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Rainy Day - Arethusa Falls / Frankenstein Cliffs Loop

My buddy, Alex, and I go for a hike every May. It’s a way for us leave the winter behind and reconnect as our families and work lives don’t leave much time to hang out these days. This year, we both wanted to do something that would give us good views, but wasn’t too strenuous as neither of us had hiked since last August (Mount Crawford). For that reason, we chose a loop hike in the Crawford Notch which would bring us by many waterfalls, including Arethusa Falls and then over the Frankstein Cliffs.

Originally, we were supposed to hike on Friday, May 16th. However, due to rain in the forcast, we moved the date to Monday, May 19th. The weather report was a bit better, in the high 60’s, mostly sunny, with a chance of a midday shower around 2pm. This of course was the weather report for the neighboring town of Bartlett. As I know and have been witness to before, the Crawford Notch is a wildcard. It can be bluebird skies everywhere else in NH, but pouring buckets in the Crawford Notch (here’s a report where this actually happened to us on Mount Jackson and forced us to turn back).

So, Alex picked me up around 8:30am and we stopped in my home town for breakfast at The Big Bean (my favorite breakfast location). The ride up was a little slow with weekday traffic and construction, but the skies looked good. It was blue skies the whole way…until we hit the Crawford Notch! Then the sprinkles started hitting the windshield which quickly turned to steady rain. It was just then, I remembered I forgot my rain jacket.

My wife calls me Mr. Over-Prepared because I try to be ready for anything in the Whites. I’m by no means a “lightweight” packer. My pack is always heavy because I have too much water, too much food, too many extra socks, too many extra layers, too many ways to start a fire, too much survival gear altogether. However, on this day, the day it’s pouring, I forgot my rain jacket!!! This was/is very embarrassing for me, but figured I’d share with you anyway.

 Upper parking area at Trailhead

Trailhead just over tracks

The trailhead consists of two lots, a lower lot and an upper lot. The upper lot was pretty empty (you know, since it was raining) so we parked there. At the west edge of the upper lot, the train tracks go through and separate a residential house and the parking area. We had a pretty loud dog barking at us from the house (looked like a Rottweiler) but seemed to be locked onto a porch. Once we got our boots tied up and our packs strapped on, we were quick to get going. It was colder than what I had expected and needed to get the blood flowing to warm up. We headed up the Arethusa Falls Trail which starts at the southwestern corner of the upper lot. We noticed right away that it was going to be muddy hike and I was very happy that I had bees waxed my boots before I put them away at the end of last summer. 
Bemis Brook Running Strong

Pretty quickly, at 0.1 miles, we were at the trail junction with the Bemis Brook Trail. This trail is a detour which rejoins the Arethusa Falls Trail and adds 0.1 miles onto the overall journey. It’s a bit rougher than the Arethusa Falls Trail, but it allows you to follow the Bemis Brook for 0.5 miles and affords you views of Fawn Pool, Bemis Falls and Coliseum Falls. With the rain we had been getting that day and previous days, the brook was running strong and made it a great day to see the falls. Hiking next to the brook also let us get our first glimpse of White Mountain wild flowers as we found some Painted Trilliums. We also found some Hobblebush plants that were very young in the season and had not budded yet.

 Painted Trillium on Bemis Brook Trail
Fawn Pool

Once we hit Coliseum Falls, I found myself trying to find the trail back to the Arethusa Falls Trail. That’s when we realized the trail turned right, up (and I do mean straight UP) the bank which looked like a very long ladder of roots and rocks. This part was extremely rough and steep, but did drop us off as expected 1 miles shy of Arethusa Falls on the Arethusa Falls Trail. The trail to the next junction was pretty muddy, but had a gentle grade and made it easy to pick up some speed. There were two bridges over some runoff brooks and one is in need of some maintenance as it’s missing some floor boards.

 Bemis Falls

Cascades below Bemis Falls

Coliseum Falls

When we hit the junction with the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail, we kept left and headed down in elevation to Arethusa Falls. Like the rest of Bemis Brook, Arethusa Falls was running strong. It made it difficult to get out in the open with no tree branches obstructing camera views. Alex and I spent some time there exploring the banks and trying figure out a way to get over to the south bank, but the brook was too high for comfort.

 The steep portion of the Bemis Brook Trail that climbs to meet the Arethusa Falls Trail

One of the two bridges on the Arethusa Falls Trail

Some broken floor boards on the bridge

After finishing up taking some shots of Arethusa, we backtracked 0.2 miles up to the trail junction we had just passed and headed down the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail. This length of trail (1.1 miles) was pretty uneventful other than one Purple Trillium that we spotted. It was a bit rough and muddy and had some ups and downs in elevation. It went by pretty quickly and we came to the Frankenstein Cliff Trail. This trail offered many viewpoints. One in particular was marked as a view over to Mount Washington and the Dry River Wilderness, however, the weather did not allow us any views at all.

Arethusa Falls

Bemis Brook below Arethusa Falls

As we continued on, we came to a spur path that went up to Falcon Cliff. The original plan was take this 0.2 mile path up to the higher elevation, but the weather did not make it seem to make sense for us. We were getting poured on pretty steadily, it was cold and there were no views. Therefore, we decided to forgo Falcon Cliff on this trip.

 Purple Trillium on the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail

Slimy Mushroom

Deer or Moose Scrape...Probably a Buck Due to its Lowness

We soon crossed the main outlook at the top of the Frankenstein Cliffs. At that moment, it seemed to start raining even harder and again, there were no views other than a couple silhouettes of mountains through fog and clouds. We snapped a couple shots and retreated into a spruce forest where we decided to have some coffee to warm up and a few hands full of trail mix. Its funny how rain spoils your lunch plans as there is no place to really sit or protect yourself and lunch from getting soaked!

Views from Frankenstein Cliffs

More Views

Heading down, the trail got pretty slippery. We crossed under the cliffs at one point, and the wet rocks were extremely slippery. At this point, I decided to use my trekking poles to keep my balance on the slippery surfaces. On this leg of the trail, I noticed that the Hobblebush flowers had bloomed, but they had not on the earlier portion of the loop near Bemis Brook. My guess is that maybe the brook side of the loop is consistently cooler than the cliff side so the blooming schedule is different…but I really have no idea why this would be the case.

 Passing under Frankenstein Cliffs

Left:Hobblebush that hasn't bloomed on the Bemis Brook Trail
Middle: Hobblebush budding but not bloomed on the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail
Right: Hobblebush fully bloomed on the Frankenstein Cliff Trail

We finally came to the train tracks and got a great view of the Frankenstein Trestle! There were many signs prohibiting getting on the tracks, so I wasn't able to get a shot from the top like I originally wanted to. From below, though, it was still pretty impressive. There were also signs stating it was under construction, so hikers needed to cross under some covered staging to keep from getting hit with dripping oils and falling debris. There’s actually a good history of this train trestle here.

Frankenstein Trestle from trail below

Hiking trail under staging due to construction

Woodpecker Domination!!!

The last 0.6 miles were pretty flat with some gentle grades. It traveled parallel to the train tracks between NH Route 302 and the tracks. We noticed there was a lot of train track garbage and debris along the banks of the tracks like old pieces of metal and old railroad ties. On this portion of the trail, we also spotted a few dead trees and logs that had been devoured by a very busy woodpecker which was pretty cool to look at.

We finally made it back to the car and it continued to pour. It was pretty clear at this point that we would not be setting up a couple chairs for a beverage and a cigar, so we headed home.

Even though it had rained the entire time and I was soaked and cold, this bad day on the trail was still better than any good day in the office. Regardless of the rain, I still had a blast. Hiking is such a great release for me and inclement weather cannot change that.

The total loop distance was approximately 5 miles and had about a 1,400 foot elevation gain. I would definitely recommend this hike as a moderate difficulty as it had some rough footing and some very steep sections. But a majority of the hike was pretty easy.

This hike had a lot of different features that were appealing to me. There were three water falls in all (Bemis Falls, Coliseum Falls and Arethusa Falls) and one swimming hole (Fawn Pool). Arethusa Falls is certainly the most impressive, being New Hampshire’s highest falls with approximately a 140 foot drop. The loop also had multiple viewpoints, although we were not able to enjoy these on this particular day. The trail provided lots of spring wildflowers for us to admire. Finally, we got to see the historic Frankenstein Trestle up close which was extremely impressive! I would highly recommend this loop or sections of this loop to hikers of all skill levels!



  1. We have also experienced that Crawford Notch phenomenon where one is convinced one is traveling under one's own personal black rain cloud while all the rest of the world is bright blue skies. Good on you for getting out despite it all!

    1. Hi Sarah - Thanks for the comment. The Crawford Notch is so unpredictable. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has experienced this! I must say, if it's going to rain on your hike, a good waterfall is a perfect destination (vs. a mountain top).


    2. For us, it's Franconia. No matter what's going on, Franconia Notch looks dark and foreboding for us! Occasionally we'll see a bright day there. We just got back from Arethusa (Memorial Day)! Did not do the cliffs. By the way, we carry a full load as well. My spring shoulder season includes spikes for any left over ice and tevas for difficult water crossings!