Searching for Red Leaves in the White Mountains

The Victorian on Sunset Hill

I knew we weren’t in California anymore when I called ahead to The Black Mountain Burger Company in Lincoln, NH., and asked if the burgers were good. The owner answered, “Well, we’re busy.” This paucity of expression turns out to be an identifying characteristic in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Vermonter Calvin Coolidge, who assumed the presidency after the death of Warren Harding, became known as “Silent Cal.” Supposedly a seatmate at a dinner said to him, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” He replied,”You lose.”

Turns out people have a lot to brag about in this part of the country. They just choose not to.

We did indeed like the burgers at Black Mountain Burger Company, tucked in to a strip shopping center near where the Kancamagus Highway (Highway 112) rejoins I-93 and where hordes of “leaf peepers” return from Conway, on the eastern edge of the White Mountain National Forest.

Just before turning toward Franconia and Sugar Hill, I was surprised to see the sign, “Reduce speed: moose crossing.” I am happy to report that no moose were injured in the course of our journey (although from what we learned, moose-car collisions are as dangerous to the unfortunate driver as they are to the moose). We proceeded safely through the moonless night, past the Sugar Hill Sampler, housed in a huge barn that the family progenitor built after arriving by oxcart in the late 18th century.

From our first impression onward, we were in for a treat when we arrived at the Victorian on Sunset Hill, operated by the Bonenfants. As I wrote on Trip Advisor (cleaned up a bit):

When John and Nancy Bonenfant decided to open a bed and breakfast, they approached the task with the same vigilance that John approaches cooking. Taste (by visiting B&B’s) and perfect, taste and perfect.

The result is my idea of the perfect B&B. Some B&B’s are in beautiful locations and fuse the best of modern comforts with the elegance of days gone by. But they don’t necessarily deliver consistently warm service and mouth-watering food. Other B&B’s are a little too “granny’s attic” for me.

The Bonenfants have figured out how to offer solicitous service and delicious food in an exceptional historic property. John doesn’t like to set a time for breakfast; he wants you to eat when you feel like it. After breakfast, he and Nancy are happy to linger in the dining room, provide tips on visiting the area, or just chat. 

Our third floor Sunrise room was huge — the size of two normal rooms — and beautifully appointed, with a sweeping view of the fall colors on the hillside below. Franconia Notch is famous for its dramatic landscapes, but for my money, it’s well worth going 15 minutes further to stay in someplace this wonderful; furthermore, the six acre hilltop location offers better vistas than any of the inns we saw closer to the Franconia Notch. Every room in the house, which Nancy and John finished renovating in 2006, is gorgeous. (The inn, built in 1889, has five rooms: three on the second floor and two on the third, all with private bathrooms.)

And the food? Oh my! On our first morning, breakfast began with a perfect plate of fresh fruit and yogurt with thinly sliced, sweet strawberries, topped with sugared slivered almonds. That was just the warm up. John (who started cooking at a restaurant in 9th grade when the chef suddenly quit) made the most perfect eggs benedict I’ve ever had, accompanied by tantalizing Grand Marnier french toast. The second day he prepared omelets with roasted vegetables, along with two kinds of homemade bread, and the third day I couldn’t stop eating the lemon and blueberry pancakes. He improved on the original Cook’s magazine recipe (which features buttermilk and lemon zest) by adding extra lemon juice. The glass cookie jars were always filled with fresh homemade cookies. Once we discovered the butterscotch coconut cookies, which John makes from the Williams Sonoma Baking Book, it was all over.

By then many pounds heavier, we called upon John and Nancy’s knowledge of local trails and visited Crawford Notch (less than a half hour’s drive) and Franconia Notch. Unfortunately for our waistlines, they also knew the best local restaurants, which included Tim-Ber Alley in charming Littleton (10 minutes away).

Studying a local map, I noticed several land forms labeled as notches. Which struck me as curious. What would a notch look like?

Having read that the area was shaped by glaciers, I expected to see distinctive U-shaped valleys. Instead, at Crawford Notch, we stood at the foot of steep mountain sides that plunged toward a V-shaped slit, through which the Saco river tumbled even at this late date in fall.

The peaks here are the highest in the Northeastern U.S., but the highway’s gentle rise in elevation saps some of the drama out of the visceral experience that I associate with approaching the adolescent spires of the Cascades and the Olympics. The notches, however, are something. The continental ice sheet crawled over this area from the north, leaving glacial morains – sharp-crested ridges of boulders up to 100 feet high. Seeking the path of least resistance on its march south, the ice extruded through the pre-existing passes and ground out valleys. The Crawford Notch was initially a U-shaped valley, but raging glacial runoff sawed through the bottom of the U, creating a dramatic gorge.

Crawford's Notch

The granite formations of the area are legendary, even if some have fallen away, fractured by heat and ice. The Old Man of the Mountain, so beloved that it was selected as the image on the back of the state’s quarter, collapsed in 2003.

Inspired by its visage, Daniel Webster wrote: “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.”

Immediately after passing the summit above the notch, we passed two waterfalls that tumbled down the slope of Mt. Jackson. For a few minutes – a very few – we had the Silver Cascade almost to ourselves as we quickly climbed the granite rocks to explore the 250 foot high cataract framed by yellow and orange leaves. Then two buses arrived and we had our first introduction to “leaf peepers” — tourists who flock to the mountains of the Northeast, checking off their lists, quickly snapping pictures of themselves with nature as backdrop. In ten minutes, the swarm departed, off to its next stop.

The Silver Cascade, Crawford's Notch, NH

Betsy and Todd Stone by the Silver Cascade, Crawford's Notch, 2013

In search of sugar maples that would still be aflame with red leaves, we backtracked on Highway 3 and took the much smaller Mount Clinton Road, stopping at the Edmands Path Trailhead, a 3.3 mile out and back trail. We didn’t get very far, so awed by the red leaf-strewn path that crossed small creeks. With his tripod balanced on his shoulder, Jon strode ahead. Lisa focused on the palate that might inspire her next series of paintings. I lagged, interested in the prodigious variety of leaves: big, small, variegated, solid, speckled, leathery, smooth.

The volume of red leaves on the forest floor was telling; sugar maples were the first to respond to the cellular changes that caused them to drop as night lengthened with the change of season. Peak leaves or no, the path was magnificent.

To celebrate our outing, we adjourned to the Mount Washington Resort, which opened in 1902 and was later the setting for the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. It’s not hard to imagine the international policy makers and captains of industry roaming the palatial halls of the resort as they pondered establishing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Our visit was less notable; we enjoyed the cheese board and wine overlooking the golf course, as misty fingers crept down Mt. Deception.

We returned in time to change for dinner in historic Littleton at Tim-Bir Alley. “Tim” and “Bir” refer to the names of the owners, and it’s no longer in an alley, which is all a bit confusing. However, my chicken mushroom ravioli appetizer and beef tournedos (split with Lisa) were the perfect end to a tough day of leaf chasing. (The regional disinclination to expound was again evident when I asked the owner what she thought of the tournedos. She responded, “They’re good.”)  The menu is well curated, featuring seasonal ingredients, but the best part (and the best dessert of the trip) was Tim’s maple pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting.

DSCN3591

Littleton is one of the more charming towns in the White Mountain region. Settled in 1769, the town retains its colonial flavor with a restored 1797 grist mill (recently shuttered), covered bridge, lots of small shops and restaurants and Chutter’s Candy Store, which claims to hold the world record for the longest candy counter at 112 feet.

Just down the hill from the Victorian on Sunset Hill, the town of Franconia, incorporated in 1772, also has a couple of attractions. Curious about the fortress-like octagonal building we saw across the Gale River, we stopped to read about the Stone Iron Furnace.  The stone stack is the sole surviving example of a post-Revolutionary period furnace for smelting iron ore.

Better known in the area is The Frost Place, now a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts that operates in Robert Frost’s old homestead. Garnett Hill operates a factory firsts and seconds outlet that promises savings of up to 70% off the catalogue – but it’s only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. I also have to give a shout out to the friendly service we received from Tucker at The Franconia Sport Shop, where we stopped to pick up some warm socks.

It was only when we were leaving the area that we got around to stopping in Sugar Hill itself to stock up on cheese at Harman’s Country Store. While Jon, Lisa and Todd sampled cheese, I walked past the postage-stamp-sized post office to the Sugar Hill Meetinghouse, built in 1830. Though white-frame churches with spires are a dime a dozen in this part of the country, there’s something distinctive — even ominous — about the imposing black clock on the steeple.

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