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Arethusa Falls/Bemis Brook

Introduction How to Get There Terrain and Ecosystems Trail Description Plants and Animals Stories In-Page Navigation, Arethusa Falls Page
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Arethusa Falls/Bemis Brook

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Fee Update: There is still no fee to use the Arethusa Falls Trail, but as of the summer of 2007, there is a box for voluntary contributions. The box is located at the lower parking area (see text). For comparison, the day-use fees for most New Hampshire state parks is $3.00, and the day-use fee for most White Mountain National Forest recreation areas is $3.00. I, for one, go to Arethusa Falls sufficiently often that I think I ought to make a contribution now and then.

Arethusa Falls is generally regarded as the tallest waterfall in New Hampshire, but there are other contenders. It's usually officially said to be 200 feet tall, but this includes the not-quite-vertical riffles above and below the vertical part. It may also include some exaggeration. The vertical free-fall part of the falls is probably about 120 feet tall.

I go to Arethusa Falls an average of once every other month. Typically, I'll hit the trail a little before sunrise and have the waterfall to myself for an hour or so. About the time I'm heading out, others are beginning to arrive - ice climbers in winter, general hikers in summer.

It's one of my favorite places to hang out.

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How to Get There

Crawford Notch State Park is located in New Hampshire's White Mountains, not far from Bretton Woods and North Conway, rather near the Mount Washington area.

If you're near the coast of New England, from Rhode Island to Maine, your best approach is probably up the Spaulding Turnpike (go to Portsmouth, NH via I-95 and you'll find it). I hardly ever go this way myself, so here's the best of my recollection. Somewhere along the way, the Spaulding becomes State Route 16. Continue to follow that to North Conway, then start looking for U.S. 302 west (the intersection is actually in Glen, NH, but it's pretty much continuous strip mall from Conway on up). Follow U.S. 302 west for 18 miles or so, and you'll find yourself in the park. Arethusa Falls is on the left immediately inside the park. If you see the Dry River Campground on the right, pull in and turn around.

From almost anywhere else, follow U.S. 3 or I-93 north. Doesn't matter which, as they come together above Manchester. If you're on U.S. 3 north of Nashua, stay on the Everett Turnpike and I-293 as you pass Manchester, and you'll get back to I-93. Once you're on I-93 north of Manchester, stay on it. U.S. 3 will come and go, and cross a few times, but just stay with I-93 until you get to Franconia Notch. A mile or so north of Franconia Notch State Park (and Cannon Mountain ski area), U.S. 3 splits off again. Follow it this time, toward Twin Mountain and Carroll. In Twin Mountain, at the only traffic signal, you'll come to U.S. 302. Turn right (east) toward Bretton Woods. Soon the road will curve around toward the south-southeast. Maybe 15 miles after Twin Mountain, you'll enter Crawford Notch State Park. You'll know it, as the road descends precipitously from the top of the notch. Another eight miles or so, and you're at the southern end of the park. Watch for Dry River Campground on your left, and the trail head to Arethusa Falls is about a third of a mile ahead on the right.

There are two parking areas. The lower one, immediately off the road, is for newbies (so park there). Those who have been going there for many years use the older parking area at the end of the road.

There's a private house at the trail head, just across the railroad tracks. The trail to Arethusa Falls and Bemis Brook is on your left as you face the house.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Arethusa Falls is at an elevation of about 2,150 feet above sea level, and the trail head is at about 1,350 feet. The valley or "canyon" of Bemis Brook is somewhat narrow and steep-sided, resulting in a fairly heavy shading on the north-facing south wall of the valley. This causes noticeable differences in the plants between the two sides of the valley. The southern side is all conifers, and the northern side is mixed conifers and hardwoods.

The land is mostly the typical glacial till of low- to mid-altitude New England. In the immediate vicinity of the brook, including the waterfall itself, you will see bedrock, but mostly there's a fairly rich but rocky soil that supports large, mature trees. Like most of New England, the area was largely logged out early in the 20th century, and much of the present forest is regrowth. However, being as rugged as it is, the Bemis Brook valley has many large stands of genuinely old forest.

Lower elevations contain northern hardwood forest that supports the typical hardwood wildlife. There is also a slightly stunted hardwood forest on the well-watered and sunny higher parts of the trail.

Higher elevations and steeper slopes are a boreal evergreen forest. These areas are somewhat poorer in mammal species but support a surprising variety of small birds.

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Trail Description

You can take either of two routes to Arethusa Falls: The shorter way up the Arethusa Falls Trail; or the longer way that takes a side-loop up the Bemis Brook Trail. The shorter way is about a mile and a half each way, and the Bemis Brook Trail adds about a third of a mile to either leg of the trip.

The advantage of the Arethusa Falls Trail is that it's shorter, and it climbs steadily.

The advantage of the Bemis Brook Trail is that it stays closer to the brook with its array of beautiful little waterfalls and pools. There is even a fairly popular swimming hole (Fawn Pool) along this trail. The water is frigid, but it can feel very refreshing on a hot summer day.

Bemis Brook on granite ledge.

Bemis Brook races along bare granite ledge
between Bemis Falls (in distance) and Fawn Pool
(out of view behind).

Bemis Falls.

Bemis Falls along Bemis Brook Trail.

Coliseum Falls.

Coliseum Falls, right where
Bemis Brook Trail begins to climb
back to Arethusa Falls Trail.

The Arethusa Falls trail is moderately rugged. It climbs in a few separate stages, with a couple of level spots here and there. The first half is rather rocky, and the second half can be muddy in spots.

I think the average couch potato can hike to Arethusa Falls and back in half a day, including about an hour hanging out at the falls. Unless you're in good physical condition or prepared to hike out in the dark, don't set out for Arethusa Falls in late afternoon.

The Bemis Brook trail is deceptively easy at first. It follows the brook pretty closely, climbing slowly and steadily, until you get to the point where it turns to rejoin the Arethusa Falls Trail. Then it climbs abruptly, gaining about 200 feet in altitude for less than 200 feet forward progress. This is a hands-and-feet clinging to tree roots kind of hiking.

The average couch potato can hike up the Bemis Brook trail, but I wouldn't recommend it. A better plan might be to go up the Arethusa Falls trail, then take the Bemis Brook Trail on your way back down.

Once you get to Arethusa Falls, you can climb up to the top of the waterfall. This is not part of the marked trail, but there are two fairly obvious trails, one on the south side of the brook and one on the north. Either way is a fairly serious climb, comparable to that last part of the Bemis Brook Trail. It's only for those in moderate to good physical condition.

The view from the top of Arethusa Falls.

Looking east from the top of Arethusa Falls in late winter.

If you have serious mobility problems or are in very poor physical condition, you could consider hiking the Bemis Brook Trail up to the point where it starts to climb, then call it a day.

Trail head parking lot full of cars in winter.

The Arethusa Falls Trail is quite popular even
in winter.

Sturdy trail bridge covered with snow.

The Bridge of Kazad Dum. The sign has since
been stolen.

Trail intersection sign in snow.

Notice that there are no footprints leading
down the Bemis Brook Trail.

The Arethusa Falls Trail is quite passable in winter, even without snowshoes, most of the time. Right after a big snowfall, of course, it can be an exhausting slog through bottomless powder, but within a few days, it will be packed down enough that you can walk it as easily as in summer. The Bemis Brook Trail requires snowshoes, even if you are only planning to come down that way. Either trail is a bit too steep for cross-country skis, and the Bemis Brook Trail is too narrow.

Did you start out reading the description of the Frankenstein Cliff Trail? Click here to get back.

An ice climber halfway up Arethusa Falls.






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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things you will see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there.

Mammals

  • Chipmunks (Tamias striatus). They are very common in the beech forests.
  • Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). They can be seen in both hardwood and evergreen forests. The ones near the waterfall are used to being fed, but they won't eat out of your hand. They will raid backpacks.
  • Red squirrel on a fallen hemlock on the Arethusa Falls trail.
  • Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Not native to the area, they are beginning to invade the immediate vicinity of the road, following suburban sprawl up from Bartlett. You'll only see them near the trail head.
  • White-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), and nearly indistinguishable deer mouse (P. maniculatus). Their tracks are easy to see in winter, but you almost never see these strictly nocturnal mice.
  • Mouse tracks in snow along the Arethusa Falls trail.

    Tracks of either white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) or deer mouse (P. maniculatus).

  • Northern bog lemming (Synaptomys borealis). Their populations seem to cycle, much as their tundra cousins do. Most years, you won't see a sign of them, but some years they're all over the place, especially in the wet areas. When their population is at its peak, they tend to be diurnal, and not too shy.
  • Squirrel and lemming tracks in snow along the Arethusa Falls trail.

    Tracks of red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) running right to left crossing tracks of lemming Synaptomys borealis) running upper-left to lower-right.

  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Tracks are common, but I've never seen the foxes themselves. Their populations seem to follow those of the lemmings.
  • Moose (Alces alces). Only two times, both in 2007, I saw tracks along the trail. Don't know if the moose was just passing through or is taking up residence. The first time I saw them was three weeks and the second just one week before I'm posting this.
  • Moose footprint in snow along the Arethusa Falls trail.

    Moose footprint in late spring snow.

  • Black bear (Ursus americanus) Only once, just a week before I'm posting this, I saw a bear stepping out onto the trail. I went back to the same area at the same time of day the other day, but didn't see anything exciting.
Bear on Arethusa Falls trail.

Here is the bear I saw, running away. Click here for a brief video.

Birds

  • Woodpeckers. Especially in the hardwood areas. The beech forest just above the trail head is thick with downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and hairy woodpeckers (P. villosus). I have heard the call of the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), but never actually saw one there. I've heard reports of black-backed woodpeckers (P. arcticus), but never saw one myself.
  • Hairy woodpecker on the Arethusa Falls trail.

    Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus).

  • Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). They're everywhere!
  • Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe). You'll hear their distinctive calls, but they're a bit hard to see.
  • Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus). Your best chance to see them is to look toward Frankenstein Cliff. They are quite busy hunting there in late spring and early summer when their chicks are at their hungriest. Of course, the only places where you'll have a clear view of the cliff at these times of year are from the parking lot and from the top of the waterfall.
  • Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis). Also cliff-top hunters, but they sometimes cruise low over the forest. They're easier to spot than the falcons, because they're so large and rather more common. This is the largest bird you're likely to see.
  • Eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). I've seen their tracks, but never the birds themselves.
  • American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). You'll often see and hear them in and above the treetops.
  • Common ravens (Corvus corax principalis). Not nearly as common as crows. They like to congregate on the cliff-tops, and Frankenstein Cliff is a favorite gathering spot. If you manage to get close, listen carefully. They're much more chatty than crows, and they make a surprising variety of sounds.
  • Owls, including barred owls (Strix varia) and great horned owls (Bubo virginianus virginianus), which you can hear calling from Frankenstein Cliff beginning in late afternoon. Rarely, you may hear a saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) "singing" in a heavily leafed tree such as a beech.

Other Animals

  • Northern dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus). Sometimes you can see them in the brook during breeding season.
  • Toads. American toad (Bufo americanus americanus) grow to monstrous sizes. I think the record books may need updating. Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri) also might challenge the record books.
American toad on the Arethusa Falls trail.

American toad (Bufo americanus americanus).

Trees

  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Dominant in all the hardwood areas, and especially in the lower hardwood areas. Many individuals have some kind of infection in the bark that renders it bumpy and dark, unlike the typical smooth, silvery bark.
  • Hickory. Somewhat uncommon in the lower hardwood areas. My references tell me these must be shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), but I think they're pignut hickory (C. glabra). Supposedly, the pignut doesn't grow any farther north than southern New Hampshire, but these trees along the Arethusa Falls Trail have nuts that look to me too small for shagbark, and not the right shape.
  • Birches. White birch or paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is very common in the hardwood areas, and in isolated stands in among the evergreens. Yellow birch (B. lutea) is less common, and less obvious due to its inconspicuous bark. Sweet birch (B. lenta) is rather rare.
  • Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Dominant in the lower, steep-sloped evergreen areas.
  • Balsam fir (Abies balsamea). Common, and difficult to distinguish from hemlock without close examination.
  • Red spruce (Picea rubens). Dominant in the higher evergreen areas.
  • Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Quite rare in the area.

Shrubs

  • Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Common in higher hardwood areas. First broadleaf plant to leaf out in early spring, striking white clusters of flowers in late spring, first to turn color in late summer, turning a striking deep burgundy. Otherwise, you'd never notice it.
  • Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Occasional in evergreen areas. Flowers in late spring.
  • Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). Occasional in hardwood areas, especially right along the brook. Bright red berries in late summer and lasting into winter, bright red compound leaves in fall.

Wildflowers

  • Trillium, including white (or large-flowered) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), painted trillium (T. undulatum), and purple trillium (T. erectum). Very common in lower areas, both hardwood and evergreen areas, flowering from late spring through late summer. Purple trillium, least common of the three types, is worth a close look. The flowers are pollinated by flies, and they smell like rotten meat.
  • Pink lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule). Occasional in hardwood and evergreen areas. Found at all elevations, blooming earlier at lower elevations. Around the trail head, blooming starts in late May, and around the waterfall, lasts until late August. Despite the name, flowers in this area are often white, fading to pale pink as they age.
  • Trout lily (Erythronium americanum). Rare in the lower hardwood and evergreen areas, and you have to go at exactly the right week in mid-spring to see these inconspicuous little flowers.
  • Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis). Common in hardwood areas. Flowers in mid spring, but the distinctive "blue bead" fruits can be seen all summer long.
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Only in large swampy areas. Flowers in late spring through summer.

Other Plants

  • Shining clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum). Very common in large patches, especially in the hardwood areas. Sometimes mistaken for a young fir seedling, but much softer and brighter green.
  • Ground cedar (Lycopodium complanatum). Uncommon, mostly in drier evergreen areas. Even more easily mistaken for a seedling, but you won't see any cedars or other flat-scaled trees that could be their parents.
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