New Hampshire's timeless attractions

The Cog Railway has been bringing visitors to

The Cog Railway has been bringing visitors to the top of Mount Washington for nearly 140 years. Spectacular scenery unfolds during the three-mile journey. (Credit: Mount Washington Cog Railway)

I was 10 years old when my family took its first summer vacation to New Hampshire's majestic White Mountains. That I can still recall as vividly as I do what we did that August week in 1965 is owing primarily to two things: how much I enjoyed the "big" attractions we took in and the neat little cabin courts where we stayed, and the fact that I've had so many opportunities in the intervening 47 years to revisit them, most recently with my own two children.

To be sure, summer tourism in the scenic White Mountains has evolved since I was a kid. Much of the momentum comes as ski resorts have expanded and -- no longer willing to sit idle from April to November -- now offer a variety of downwardly mobile rides and activities. In addition, there has been a surge in outlet shopping and upscale resorts.

But with the notable exceptions of the rocky visage of the Old Man in the Mountains, New Hampshire's state icon, which disintegrated from on high in 2003, and the addition of I-93 through Franconia Notch, it all looks remarkably similar. Most of the marquee roadside attractions that I knew as a boy -- and that my mother knew as a girl before that -- are still there, albeit upgraded and modernized. And nowhere I know in the country -- particularly since the demise of Route 66 -- have those cutesy tourist cabins, whose origins lie in the advent of the family car and the middle-class vacation, survived in such abundance.

To find out why, I spoke with 81-year-old Floyd Ramsey, a local historian in Lincoln, N.H. Ramsey, who used to drive a bus at the Flume Gorge, attributes it to two factors: most of the businesses are still owned by the founding families, who value tradition and aren't motivated by greed; and that the enveloping 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest (the largest in the East) effectively limits development beyond the narrow valley floors.

And from my own experience as a kid -- and as a parent watching my own kids -- I can attest that both the attractions and the cabins are also just plain fun. Nor does it hurt that, generally speaking, they are still quite modestly priced. So forget about those zip lines, alpine slides, paintball and theme parks for a while, and come enjoy the tried-and-true family fare the White Mountains have been serving up for several generations.

Hours given are for summer weekends; weekday hours are sometimes different. Children younger than the minimum age listed are free.

CANNON MOUNTAIN AERIAL TRAMWAY

(Route 3, Franconia Notch; 603-823-8800, cannonmt.com)

North America's first aerial tram started taking passengers to the top of 4,080-foot Cannon Mountain in 1938. Today's 80-person tram cars date from 1980, but the view of the Franconia Range is just as spectacular.

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Tickets: $15 age 13 and older, $12 ages 6-12

CLARK'S TRADING POST

(U.S. Route 3, Lincoln; 603-745-8913, clarkstradingpost.com)

New Hampshire's first and still purest roadside attraction began in the 1920s with a sled dog ranch, but made its reputation with trained bears. The 21st century lineup has expanded to include a steam-powered railway, Merlin's Mystical Mansion, Tuttles' Rustic House, a Chinese acrobatic troupe, several museums, a climbing tower and an introductory Segway ride.

Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Admission: $19 ages 4-64

LOST RIVER GORGE AND BOULDER CAVES

(Route 112, North Woodstock; 603-745-8031, lostrivergorge.com)

Acquired by the Society of the Protection of New Hampshire Forests exactly 100 years ago, this geologic wonder traces the course of a "lost" river as it disappears into caves and beneath boulders in a 300-foot natural gorge. A nature garden and a combination gemstone and fossil mine complete the adventure.

Hours: 9 a.m.- 6 p.m.

Admission: $17 age 13 and older, $13 ages 4-12

FLUME GORGE

(Route 3, Franconia Notch; 603-745-8391, flumegorge.com)

A series of wooden boardwalks leads up an amazing natural chasm of rock walls 70 to 90 feet high and only 12 to 20 feet wide through which Flume Brook races, tumbles and, occasionally, falls. But be prepared to walk nearly two miles -- half of it uphill.

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission: $14 age 13 and older, $11 ages 6-12

MOUNT WASHINGTON COG RAILWAY

(Six miles off Route 302, Bretton Woods; 603-278-5404, thecog.com)

The great-granddaddy of all White Mountain attractions -- and the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway -- turned 150 in 2009. The complete excursion to the highest point in the Northeast (6,288 feet) takes three hours and includes an hour at the summit.

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. until July 20, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. through Labor Day.

Admission: $62 age 13 and older, $39 ages 4-12. Note: the only steam train is at 8:30 a.m.

POLAR CAVES PARK

(Route 25, Rumney; 603-536-1888, polarcaves.com)

Since 1922, children and young adults have enjoyed scrambling through the series of boardwalk-lined caves carved by nature some 20,000 years ago. Recent additions include live animals, a rock garden and a maze.

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: $16 age 11 and older, $11 ages 4-10

SANTA'S VILLAGE

(Route 2, Jefferson; 603-586-4445, santasvillage.com)

Capitalizing on their North Country location, the Dubois family opened this Christmas-themed amusement park in 1953. Today, the 19 rides, which cater primarily to preteens, are complemented by two live shows, a 3-D theater and, of course, Santa himself with his reindeer.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: $27 age 4 and older

SIX GUN CITY

(Route 2, Jefferson; 603-586-4592, sixguncity.com)

Young cowpokes will enjoy this 55-year-old Western-themed amusement park that mixes traditional rides with a 35-building Wild West street featuring cowboy skits and shows. Added in the 1980s was Fort Splash Water Park.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: $22.95 age 4 and older

STORY LAND

(Route 16, Glen; 603- 383-4186, storylandnh.com)

Since 1954, this storybook-themed amusement park has been a favorite with the younger crowd and their caregivers, as each of the 21 rides is designed so that an adult can ride along. There also are seven interactive shows.

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Admission: $29 age 3 and older

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