Saco Lake Trail
Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.
The Saco Lake Trail is an excellent little hike for children or those with moderate mobility problems. It scarcely climbs at all, yet it affords access to some semblance of most of the major ecosystems of the White Mountains, as well as some very pleasant views.
The trail is only a mile long, and nearly level. Still, it does require a little bit of agility. The greatest "challenge" is getting up and down from the trail bridges. Most school-age children can handle it easily, and little tykes can be lifted onto and off of the bridges (or carried across). Conveniently, the two most difficult bridges are within fifty feet of the trail head, so if you can get started, you can finish with no problem.
Adults in wheelchairs or who can not walk a mile without a walker should probably just enjoy the lake from the parking area, which is also a pleasant way to spend a half-hour or so.
I've walked the Saco Lake Trail as a "starter hike" with each of my grandchildren. I also use it as "one last hike" at the end of a long day in the mountains, when I have a little time but not much energy to spare.
Saco Lake, the source of the Saco River, sits just about at the top of Crawford Notch. There are no sweeping views of the valleys from here, but a very pretty lake, forest, and boulder-strewn mountainside.
There is an overlook on top of a large boulder halfway around the trail. This is an easy climb, but not for the mobility-challenged, and not safe for very small children. But it is a pleasant place for a picnic supper as the sun sets.
The trail skirts the shore of the lake, beginning in a second-growth evergreen forest at the foot of a steep and rocky hillside. Just over halfway around the lake, it climbs slightly above the lakeshore into a hardwood forest. The last leg of the hike, you're simply walking along the road beside the lake.
The Saco Lake Trail is not very popular. This is somewhat surprising to me, but I suppose most people are looking for a challenging hike and a specific destination like a waterfall or a mountain peak. Saco Lake offers neither of these. It's just a nice little introduction to the woods.
The trail is popular enough to remain passable in winter even without snowshoes.
How to Get There
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. In another eight miles or so, you'll reach the top of Crawford Notch. You'll pass a large parking lot on the left, then come to a much smaller gravel parking lot on the right, just next to the dam at the near end of Saco Lake. Park there.
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. As soon as you pass the Crawford Depot railroad station on the right and Saco Lake on the left, park in the little parking lot on the left near the dam at the far end of Saco Lake.
Take in the view of the lake, and notice the two distinct kinds of forest on the other side, evergreens to the right and beeches to the left. That's where you're going.
The trail starts with a bridge over the dam and into the evergreen forest. And if you can handle climbing onto this bridge, and the next one about fifty feet into the forest, you can easily handle the entire trail.
Terrain and Ecosystems
Saco lake, pretty much at the top of Crawford Notch, is about 1,900 feet above sea level (well, 1,887 if you want to be precise, and if the USGS is to be believed). At its highest point, not counting the Idlewild Overlook, the trail is barely six feet higher than the lake.
In a one-mile circuit of the lakeshore, the Saco Lake Trail covers some approximation of nearly every major ecosystem in the White Mountains.
The trail begins in a dense second-growth forest of spruce and hemlock, cut by a babbling mountain stream. Here are red squirrels and birds that feed on cones.
There is a very small meadow-like patch of wildflowers tucked into a corner between the forest and the lake. You won't see any flowers that you couldn't find more easily in a larger meadow in the Crawford Notch area, but this just adds to the variety of the Saco Lake Trail.
Along the eastern shore of the lake, the trail skirts between the water and several huge, nearly vertical boulders. Literally at arm's reach, and without having climbed a foot, you can see the intricate community of near-microscopic plants that live on the bare granite surface.
On the northeastern corner of the lake, you enter a second-growth hardwood forest of mostly beech, and a few birch. You'll notice a change in the kinds of birds that live here as compared to the evergreen forest, as well as more chipmunks and fewer red squirrels.
The view from the Idlewild Overlook, west across Saco Lake to Crawford Depot, Mount Tom in the background.
The Idlewild Overlook is a huge boulder you can climb on top of for an excellent view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. The rough stone stairs make the thirty-foot climb a bit easier and safer than just climbing up the boulder itself, but it is still a challenge and a bit risky for young children and those with mobility problems. From the top, you can see close-up the geologic processes that are sending the mountains relentlessly to the sea. At the northern end of the boulder, there is a crack that extends straight down to the level of the lake, and it is cracks like this, widening slowly over time, that put this boulder here in the first place.
There is an old overgrown homestead on the eastern shore. You can find the overgrown foundation of a small house, and a couple of barely-legible gravestones.
Literally in the middle of it all is the lake. You can watch the ducks, sometimes beavers, and other aquatic animals. At a few points, the trail bridges take you out over a shallow arm of the lake, where you can look down to the muddy bottom to see the little invertebrates that live there. And at the foot of the Idlewild Overlook, you can get one of the best close-up views of a beaver lodge that you're likely to find in the wild.
The beaver lodge near the east shore of Saco Lake.
You could begin at either end of Saco Lake, and proceed either clockwise or counterclockwise around the lake. I will describe the trail as I virtually always take it, starting at the south end near the dam and proceeding counterclockwise.
The first step is a doozey. Climb up onto the bridge over the dam. Unless you're going up the Idlewild Overlook, this is about as high as you will get. Take a moment to look down into the lake on your left and the beginnings of the river on your right. Then climb back off the bridge onto the trail.
Soon you come to the second bridge, which is small and easy. After another thirty feet of level walking, you come to the third bridge. It's nearly as difficult a step up as the first, and it has no handrails. The small brook you're crossing is actually wider than the Saco River! In winter, this bridge can be utterly treacherous, sheathed in thick black ice. Watch your step!
In times of high water, such as spring thaw season, the grassy area beyond the bridge can be muddy. The trail can even be flooded, so watch the little ones.
That's it! The difficult part of this hike is behind you, so relax and enjoy the rest.
You'll pass a small open area and approach some huge boulders, small cliffs, sloping up to the east. Soon you enter thick forest again, but the boulders are still there.
There is a sign marking the "stairs" to the Idlewild Overlook. It's worth the thirty-foot climb, if you're up to it. There's an old iron railing along the edge of the "cliff," but small children can walk right under without even noticing that it's there. Here you can sit a while and observe the spruce tree-tops at eye level. Watch a woodpecker. Look down into the lake and watch the fish. You might even see where the beavers' door is. On the far left edge of this little ledge is a crack, about three inches wide, that goes all the way down to the water level. Take a look!
Back on the main trail, you pass between the near-vertical cliff and the beaver lodge. The space between boulder and lake finally gets so small that the trail goes over a couple of small bridges out over the lake itself.
At the point where the trail starts leaving the shore and climbs slightly up into the beech forest, there is also a side trail heading straight away from the lake. This is an interesting side trip of about twenty feet, where you'll find an overgrown homestead and a couple of old gravestones.
Follow the main trail through the beech forest and watch the birds.
Too soon, the trail emerges onto the road. Turn left, and you'll be back at the lake in no time. Walking between the lake and the road back to where you parked, try not to be too distracted by the traffic. (There's plenty of room, and a line of large boulders forming the suggestion of a wall, so you don't have to be too concerned about the kids running into the road.) Notice the nests of bluegill sunfish in the sandy shallows of the lake. See the many varieties of wildflowers along the edge of the water. Watch the dragonflies hunting for mosquitoes. You're still in something of a wilderness, even with traffic buzzing by a few feet away.
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.
- Squirrels. Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are very common in the evergreen areas, and chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are just about everywhere in the White Mountains.
- Beaver (Castor canadensis). They come and go every few years, usually building a lodge among a field of boulders near the eastern shore of the lake, right near the Idlewild Overlook. Presently, the lodge is quite close to shore, much closer than the one built by the previous generation of beavers. In high water, they sometimes build a small stick dam on top of the concrete dam at the southern corner of the lake.
- Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Just about everywhere.
- Woodpeckers. Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and hairy woodpeckers (P. villosus) are fairly common in the hardwood areas.
- Robin (Turdus migratorius). It can be interesting to know that this familiar backyard bird is also at home in the mountains.
- Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Frequent visitors to Saco Lake, but they usually do not nest or raise their young there.
- Wood duck (Aix sponsa). Occasional visitors to Saco Lake, they prefer the swamp across the road.
- Common loon (Gavia immer). Rarely seen, but long remembered.
- Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). You sometimes see them crossing the lake or hunting on the nearby slopes.
- Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). A very rare visitor, I've seen one roosting above the Idlewild Overlook, but didn't see him doing any fishing.
- Toads. American toad (Bufo americanus americanus) and Fowler's toad (B. fowleri) lay their eggs in the lake, literally by the millions. In late spring, the shallows near the dam are often carpeted with wriggling black tadpoles. A few weeks later, the ground can be crawling with the little dime-sized toadlets emerging from the lake and making their way to the woods.
- Red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus). You can find them under logs in places that are moist but not damp.
- Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). For many people, this is why God created mountain lakes. Fly fishing only in Saco Lake, and in most years, it's catch-and-release only.
- Bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus). More common than trout in the shallows, these are the fish you are most likely to see.
- American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Dominant, nearly exclusive, in the hardwood area at the north end of the lake.
- White birch (Betula papyrifera). Not uncommon in the hardwood areas, and there are a few among the evergreens.
- Red spruce (Picea rubens). Dominant in the evergreen areas.
- Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Common in the evergreen areas.
- Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Common in hardwood areas, less so among the evergreens.
- Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium). Most years, you'll only find a few near the south end of the lake, beside the river, but some years there's a bumper crop. They're usually ripe in mid- to late August.
- Trillium, including white (or large-flowered) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), painted trillium (T. undulatum), and purple trillium (T. erectum). Fairly common, flowering in late spring through mid-summer. Most trilliums (trillia? Plants of the genus Trillium) have practically no aroma, but the purple trillium has a strong scent of rotten meat. Great fun for the kids to smell!
- Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis). Very common in the hardwood areas. Flowers in mid spring. The distinctive "blue bead" fruits can be seen all summer long.
- Trout lily (Erythronium americanum). Not uncommon, but you have to go in exactly the right week in early spring to see them blooming.
- Asters, including white wood aster (Aster divaricatus) and New England aster (A. novi-angliae). Fairly common between the first stream and the "cliffs." The New England aster especially likes the muddier places.
- Rough-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago rugosa). A few plants line the trail between the first stream and the "cliffs." This is usually thought of as a meadow flower, but it is often found in small, sunny clearings in the forest.
- Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus). Very common along the western shore of the lake, beside the road.
- Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Fairly common along the western shore of the lake, beside the road. Very strange-looking flower.
- Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Very common, especially in the hardwood areas.
- Numerous lichens and algae grow on the bare boulders at the southeast corner of the lake.
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