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Frankenstein Cliff

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Mount Jackson

Frankenstein Cliff as seen from the trail head parking lot.

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Frankenstein Cliff

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Frankenstein Cliff is a bare granite crag overhanging the southern end of Crawford Notch. It overlooks the trail head to Arethusa Falls, and marks the corner where the valley of Bemis Brook opens onto Crawford Notch. At 2,150 feet above sea level, Frankenstein Cliff towers a thousand feet over the valley floor. The wide, bare ledge offers a sweeping view of the upper Saco River Valley and the valley of Bemis Brook from Arethusa Falls to where it gets lost in the braided river system of the Saco and Dry River. The view is mostly to the south, but you can peek through the trees to the east to see the Giant Stairs on Stairs Mountain, Mount Crawford, and the rest of Montalban Ridge and Bemis Ridge.

Frankenstein Cliff is the southeastern extremity of a nearly flat-topped mountain. The mountain itself has no name, as far as I can tell. Frankenstein Cliff was named for Godfrey Frankenstein, who painted many landscapes in the area in the 19th century. (It has nothing to do with Mary Shelley's monster.)

The hike is somewhat of a challenge for the average couch potato, but manageable. It takes the better part of a day, but not a whole day. It's probably a bit much for very young children, but I see kids as young as ten years old or so enjoying Frankenstein Cliff almost every time I go there. Bear in mind that the Frankenstein Cliff Trail is quite steep (that's what "cliff" means, after all). It is difficult and, at times, even moderately dangerous, so make sure you are assessing your abilities honestly before you try to take this hike.

Frankenstein Cliff was the first big hike I brought my family on when we first moved to New Hampshire. (Lord, was it really 23 years ago?) I go back there about every other year or so when I feel like taking a fairly serious hike but I don't have a whole day to devote to it.

You could hike up and down the Frankenstein Cliff Trail, but most people make a loop hike that includes Arethusa Falls. I almost always go up the Arethusa Falls Trail and down the Frankenstein Cliff Trail, but many people go the opposite direction. It's a matter of personal preference, I suppose. Many people recommend taking the most difficult part of the hike first, while you're still fresh. I prefer to leave the more difficult part for last, so I'm not so exhausted that I can't enjoy the rest of the hike.

You could also form a loop hike with the Ripley Falls Trail, which might be moderately shorter and require a little less climbing. That would involve either using two cars, leaving one at each trail head, or hiking about four miles along the road to get back to your car. I've never done that, myself.

The entire loop that includes Arethusa Falls is a little over five miles around.

Trail sign:  Frankenstein Cliff Trail 1.1 miles

Distances on trail signs are only approximate. From the intersection of the Arethusa Falls Trail along the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail to the Frankenstein Cliff Trail is 1.1 miles according to this sign.

Trail sign:  Arethusa Falls Trail 1.2 miles

According to this sign, from the Frankenstein Cliff Trail along the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail to Arethusa Falls Trail is 1.2 miles. It's longer if you go this way!



There is no usage fee (yet) for Crawford Notch State Park, but there is a box at the trail head parking lot where you can make a voluntary contribution to New Hampshire's Division of Parks and Recreation for the upkeep of the trails. I strongly recommend that you contribute. The day of mandatory fees and passes is probably coming. For comparison purposes, day-use fees in New Hampshire State Parks that have them are typically $3.00 per person, and day-use fees in nearby National Forest Recreation Areas are typically $3.00 per car.

The Frankenstein Cliff Trail is located entirely within Crawford Notch State Park, as is most of the rest of this loop. Camping and campfires are not permitted along these trails.

Frankenstein Cliff and nearby Falcon Cliff are very popular with ice climbers, so the trails are passable in winter. Crampons are absolutely necessary, as there are a number of seeps that turn the trail into a skating rink with a 45-degree slope! Considering the ruggedness of the terrain, the compaction of the trail, and the amount of hard ice, I would recommend crampons with no snowshoes rather than snowshoes with built-in crampons. You might need the snowshoes if there has been a very recent snowfall, but most of the time the snowshoes would be more of a hindrance than a help.

Frozen seep along the trail

This frozen seep in late fall gives some indication of how slippery the trail can be.

Frozen stream crossing trail

And it gets worse! This frozen stream and fallen logs across the trail present a real challenge.



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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. The trail head to Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliff 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 and Frankenstein Cliff 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 upper trail head, just across the railroad tracks. The trail to Arethusa Falls and Bemis Brook is on your left as you face the house.

There is also a trail head at the north end of the lower parking lot (near the outhouse). A hundred yards or so in, you'll come to a "T" in the trail, clearly marked. Turn right to go up the Frankenstein Cliff Trail, or left to go up the Arethusa Falls Trail. This trail will bring you to the upper parking area in another hundred yards or so.

From either parking area, look to the north (and slightly west, from the lower parking area). That giant granite crag is Frankenstein Cliff, and that's where you're going.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Frankenstein Cliff is at an elevation of about 2,150 feet above sea level, and the trail head is at about 1,250 feet. Many areas are steeply sloped, and these are both heavily shaded and poorly watered. Other areas are more level, sunnier, and well watered. This results in noticeable differences in the plants that live in these different areas. North-facing steep slopes, such as the southern wall of the Bemis Brook valley and the eastern face of Frankenstein Cliff (where the trail goes down) are all conifers. Other areas are mixed conifers and hardwoods, tending to conifers in higher and drier places.

The land is mostly the typical glacial till of low- to mid-altitude New England. In the immediate vicinity of the brook, including Arethusa Falls, and on the cliffs themselves, you will see bedrock, but mostly there's a fairly rich but rocky soil that supports large, mature trees. In the areas just below the cliffs, there is a good deal of debris that erodes from the cliffs - large boulders close to the cliff and smaller rocks farther away - but not so much that it stunts the trees. (Contrast this with the more rapidly eroding Pack Monadnock.) 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, this area 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, especially between the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail and the highest point of the Frankenstein Cliff Trail.

Most of the higher elevations and all of the 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

Distances

These are the approximate distances of each segment of the hike up and down Frankenstein Cliff as described here. Note that the distances are not necessarily the total lengths of these trails, but the distance that you hike along these trails before turning off onto another trail.

(From the upper parking area. If you're starting and ending at the lower parking area, add about a tenth of a mile to the Arethusa Falls Trail and subtract a tenth of a mile from the Frankenstein Cliff Trail.)

Trail Length (mi.) this hike
Arethusa Falls Trail 1.4
Bemis Brook Trail (1) 0.3
Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail (2) 0.4
Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail (3) 1.2
Frankenstein Cliff Trail 2.1

Notes:

  1. 1. For the first leg, you can take either the Arethusa Falls Trail, or take a side-loop along the Bemis Brook Trail. The Bemis Brook Trail rejoins the Arethusa Falls Trail after half a mile or so, adding about a third of a mile to this leg of the hike. Advantage: You spend a good deal of time close to Bemis Brook and several very pretty little waterfalls. Disadvantage: There is a rather steep and difficult, but short, climb at the end to rejoin the Arethusa Falls Trail.
  2. This 0.4 mile distance refers to the distance from the junction of Arethusa Falls Trail with the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail, down to the waterfall, and back to the junction. It's a one-way distance of about 0.2 miles.
  3. This 1.2 mile distance refers to the distance from the junction of Arethusa Falls Trail with the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail to the junction of the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trial with the Frankenstein Cliff Trail.

Much of this trail is shared with the hike to Arethusa Falls. Rather than repeat that description, I'll invite you to read the trail description on that page. Then, there's a link there where you can come back here for the rest.

Okay, now you're at Arethusa Falls. Go back the way you came along the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail to the junction with the Arethusa Falls Trail. Now bear left (north) to stay on the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail.

The Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail climbs somewhat steeply for a while, beside the little brook that you crossed on the "Bridge of Kazad Dum" on the Arethusa Falls Trail. The trail passes through a forest of mostly hemlock. After a little less than a quarter of a mile, it crosses the brook and climbs even more steeply. About a quarter of a mile beyond the stream, the trail levels out and enters a forest of mostly beech. These are stout, slightly stunted trees, noticeably different from the beeches along the lower part of the Arethusa Falls Trail.

After a third of a mile of nearly level hiking, the trail crosses another small brook, then climbs again. There are two rather short stretches of quite steep trail, and you are suddenly on top of the mountain. Of course, you're still in a thick beech forest, and you can't see that you're on top (unless it's winter and the leaves are gone). You can only see that the trail is suddenly level. This mountain is almost a plateau, not exactly as flat as a table, but largely level on top.

Another third of a mile after the trail levels out, you'll reach the intersection with the Frankenstein Cliff Trail. This is a total of about 1.2 miles from where you left the Arethusa Falls Trail. Turn right (east).

The Frankenstein Cliff Trail starts out nearly level, continuing through this slightly stunted beech forest. After half a mile or so, you'll start to see that the trail emerges onto small areas of bare rock. From these, you can see that you're at the south and southeast edge of a high cliff overlooking the lower valley of Bemis Brook. You start to get the occasional view of the valley below and of the peaks of Montalban Ridge to the east.

Sign marking Mt. Washington outlook

The sign indicating the "outlook" near the top of the mountain. It faces east, so if you take the loop the way I recommend, you'll see the back of the sign.

About three quarters of a mile from the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail, there is a sign indicating an "outlook" where you can see Mount Washington and the Dry River Valley. This is the lower of two peaks of this mountain (and you've already passed the higher peak). Just a few steps north of the trail is a very small clearing, slightly elevated, that provides a view of Mount Washington and a few other peaks along the north and east of Crawford Notch. (You can see Mount Jackson from here, if you know what to look for.)

Mount Washington

Mount Washington from the outlook along the Frankenstein Cliff Trail.

North along Crawford Notch

The broader view north from this outlook. We see Mount Washington, Mount Jackson (almost obscured), Webster Cliff, and much of the Dry River Wilderness.

Mount Jackson

Here is Mount Jackson, through the bare branches of beech.

From here, the trail descends, quite steeply, for about a quarter of a mile through a forest of hemlock and balsam. You will pass a couple more of those small ledges with views to the south.

Looking west along Frankenstein Cliff

Looking west along Frankenstein Cliff (before we get to Frankenstein Cliff proper). Arethusa Falls is the white patch of ice near the head of the Bemis Brook Valley, just below the second dead branch (the "V" shaped one).

There is a sign for the Falcon Cliff Trail that turns off to the left (north). (Never gone that way myself.) The Frankenstein Cliff Trail turns right (south) here. Very soon, you'll emerge on the large clear ledge of Frankenstein Cliff proper.

Kick back for a while and enjoy the view. Notice the jack pines which, as far as I know, live nowhere else in the area but on these cliff-tops. Watch the sky, and see if you see the peregrine falcons. Look off to the west, where Arethusa Falls appears as a little white spot among the trees.

The view south from Frankenstein Cliff in spring.

Looking south from Frankenstein Cliff in spring. You can see the braided Saco River,
U.S. Route 302, and the Conway Scenic Railroad headed for North Conway. The sparsely
populated community here just south of the park is Hart's Location, one of two communities in
New Hampshire that become (sort-of) famous each election day as the first in the nation to
report their results.

The view south from Frankenstein Cliff in winter

A similar view in wintry conditions in late fall. The effect of shading and slope on the types of trees that can grow is even more apparent when the leaves are gone.



The view west-southwest along the valley of Bemis Brook in spring

Looking west-southwest from Frankenstein Cliff along the valley of Bemis Brook in spring. Arethusa Falls is near the right-hand edge of the picture, about a quarter of the way down.

The view south-southwest in winter

Looking south-southwest from Frankenstein Cliff in late fall. Again, you can see the effect of shading and slope. The far side of the Bemis Brook Valley is all evergreens, and most of the sunny areas are hardwoods. The clump of evergreens on the near side of Bemis Brook, just left of center in the picture, is just below where the Bemis Brook Trail joins the Arethusa Falls Trail.



The view southeast from Frankenstein Cliff

Looking southeast from Frankenstein Cliff toward Mount Crawford. Montalban Ridge is in the background.

Giant stairs seen from Frankenstein Cliff

Looking east from Frankenstein Cliff, you can see the Giant Stairs on Stairs Mountain through the trees.

From Frankenstein Cliff, the Frankenstein Cliff Trail descends very steeply along the east-northeast flank of the mountain. It immediately enters a close, almost gloomy forest of balsam and hemlock. There are about five or six large switchbacks (I always lose count) on the steepest part of the cliff. This switchbacking lasts a little less than half a mile, but it's a long, slow half-mile.

At one point, I think it's the second-to-last switchback, the trail crosses - I don't know, is it a very large seep or a very small stream? - under a huge, sheer cliff of dripping wet granite. This is a great place to rest and observe the abundant wildflowers in the little clearing (trees can't grow in this rapidly eroding scree) and the seventy-foot monolith towering above you.

Wet granite cliff overhanging the trail

This dripping wet monolith offers cool shade and dampness on a hot summer afternoon as you descend Frankenstein Cliff.

Ice-covered granite cliff overhanging the trail

The same cliff is a hazard of falling icicles on a winter morning as the sun warms the night's ice. And the seep below is perilously slick with inches of solid ice.

From here, the trail enters a beech forest and becomes somewhat less steep. Soon, you'll cross under the railroad trestle. (I think there is some historical significance to this, perhaps it was once the longest or highest steel railroad trestle in New Hampshire or something like that.) Immediately around the trestle, the forest is all very recent regrowth of very young trees. Don't know why.

Underneath Frankenstein Trestle

Looking up from beneath Frankenstein Trestle.

After the trestle, the trail turns south and runs between the railroad and U.S. 302. It goes across the slope for about half a mile, wandering up and down a bit, mostly down, but it feels nearly level after coming off the cliff-face. The forest here is almost entirely beech. There are a few large boulders that fell off the cliff in the past centuries, and many smaller rocks. Many of the smaller rocks are obviously products of that same erosion, but many are also man-made debris from the construction of the railroad. In any case, despite all the rocks, the soil remains rich enough to support a stable, mature hardwood forest.

Trail through the rock-strewn forest

The last leg of the Frankenstein Cliff Trail is nearly level as it passes through a rich but rock-strewn forest.

When you are almost back to the trail head, you have to keep your eyes open. Take a look at this picture:

Trail sign:  Fall to right, cliff to left

This sign indicates the turn-off point for the lower parking lot, but it's not very clear.

It's not at all obvious, but if you're parked at the lower parking lot, this is where you leave the main trail. Cross the brook, and look for the blue blazes in the forest. It's about a hundred yards or so back to the parking lot.

Blue blazes on the beech trees

If you're parked in the lower parking lot, these blue blazes will guide you back to your car. The trail is not very obvious, but you'll see the blazes after you cross the stream.

If you're parked in the upper parking area, stay with the main trail (toward the "falls," according to the sign) until you come out in the parking lot.





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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 might see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there. This list places special emphasis on those living things that are more abundant and/or more easily observed on Frankenstein Cliff than in other places that I have described.

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. The ones at the cliff-top tend to beg only in winter, but that could change quickly.
  • 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.
  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Tracks are common, but I've never seen the foxes themselves. Their populations seem to follow those of the lemmings.
  • Bobcat (Lynx rufus). Uncommon, and I've only seen tracks. Like foxes and owls, they seem to be more common in years near peak lemming populations
Bobcat tracks

Bobcat tracks in the snow along the Frankenstein Cliff Trail.



Birds

  • Woodpeckers. There are two areas where you're likely to see and hear them: The beech forest just above the trail head, and the balsam forest just above the cliff-top. Both areas are 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.
  • Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus). Often seen, either singly or in pairs, from the top of Frankenstein Cliff, especially in late spring and early summer when their chicks are at their hungriest. They will fly by quite closely. They are known to migrate, but I have seen them nearly any time of year, from April through November.
  • 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, especially in the beech forests, 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 and Falcon 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 Creatures

  • 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.

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. This infection is almost universal along the Arethusa Falls Trail, but almost absent in the higher areas along the Frankenstein Cliff Trail.
  • 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). Dominant in the steep forest in the immediate vicinity of the cliff. Common in other evergreen areas
  • Red spruce (Picea rubens). Dominant in most of the higher evergreen areas.
  • Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Quite rare in the area. You can see their distinctly tall forms here and there in the forest below the clifftop.
  • Jack pine (Pinus banksiana). Very rare in the area, but very common right at the cliff-top.
Pine cone

Cone of the Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana). Notice the needles. This is the only pine in northern New Engand with needles in fascicles of two. Needles are also much longer, but much stiffer than the needles of other pines in the region.



Shrubs

  • Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Common in 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.

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. Red 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 along the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail, 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.
Forest undergrowth with wildflowers

Look at this varied little garden! I see lots of hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium), including one clustered blossom, two painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) in full bloom, over half a dozen bluebead lilies (Clintonia borealis) in bud, a little clump of shining clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum), and a maple sapling (Acer sp.), all framed by young hemlocks(Tsuga canadensis).



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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