The Great Outdoors

July 10, 2008

Scenic Drive - 41 Miles

Category: Scenic Drives – admin – 8:26 pm
General description: A 41-mile scenic route along the pastoral Connecticut River Valley between Claremont and Orford in western New Hampshire.Location: Western New Hampshire.

Drive route numbers: New Hampshire Highways 12A and 10.

Travel season: Year-round.

Special attractions: Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Connecticut River, Dartmouth College, Hood Museum of Art, Orford Street Historic District, Appalachian Trail, scenic views, fishing, hiking, nature study.

Camping: No campgrounds along the drive. Nearby campgrounds in Vermont include Ascutney State Park (49 sites) northwest of Ascutney (VT); Quechee Gorge State Park (54 sites) just west of White River Junction and Lebanon; and Thetford Hill State Park (16 sites) west of East Thetford and Lyme.

Services: All services in Claremont, Lebanon, and Hanover. Limited services in towns along the drive including Plainfield, Lyme, and Orford.

Nearby attractions: Cardigan State Park, Sculptured Rocks Natural Area, Mount Sunapee State Park, Gile State Forest, White Mountains National Forest, Bedell Bridge State Park, Ascutney State Park (VT), Quechee Gorge State Park (VT), Woodstock (VT).

Description Snapshot | Description | Map | Top
The drive: This route explores some of New Hampshire’s most charming scenery as it winds through hill country along the east bank of the mighty Connecticut River in the Upper Valley. The rural secondary roads along the drive pass not only superb views, but also some of New Hampshire’s famed cultural and historic shrines including the home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, perhaps the nineteenth-century’s greatest sculptor; the longest covered bridge in the United States at Cornish; and the beautiful Orford Street Historic District at the drive’s northern end.The Connecticut River, New England’s longest and largest river, cleaves the region politically, forming the boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont, and geologically. Some geologists interpret the zone that the river follows as a tectonic boundary between two crustal plates — North American bedrock on the west and a slice of an exotic plate from Europe or Africa on the east. The river existed well before the long glacial episodes that have intermittently covered and shaped New England’s topography. The last episode, called the Wisconsin glaciation, choked the valley with ice and chiseled it deeper into underlying bedrock.

Later, as the glaciers melted, the valley was filled by Lake Hitchcock, a long, thin lake that stretched 200 miles north from the moraine that blocked the river’s course near Middleton, Connecticut. Sediment and silt deposited in the lake by the melting glacier allow geologists to study the rate of glacial recession from New England. Studies of the distinctly laminated varved clays, each layer representing a single year’s deposit, shows that it took 4,300 years at an average of 245 feet annually for the glacier to recede from Middletown to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Much of the drive crosses terraced floodplains above the riverbanks.

The drive begins just west of Claremont at the junction of New Hampshire Highways 12A and 103. This junction is on the east side of the Connecticut River opposite Exit 8 on Interstate 91 and Ascutney, Vermont. The journey’s first leg, following NH 12A, travels 18 miles north from here to the southern outskirts of West Lebanon.

The rural highway runs north along the river’s east bank past orderly cornfields, apple orchards, and rich farmlands studded with strikingly plain barns and adjoining houses. Low, undulating hills border the riparian floodplain to the east. Pyramid-shaped Mount Ascutney, a 3,144-foot peak, looms above the valley to the west in Vermont. This dominating mountain, standing alone and aloof, is a monadnock or high point that towers almost 2,000 feet above the lower, older erosional surface that surrounds it. Ascutney’s summit is reached by a 3.8-mile, paved toll road in Mount Ascutney State Park. The mountain is formed of igneous rocks that are part of the White Mountain magma series deposited some 200 million years ago. The mountain’s commanding height along the Atlantic Flyway makes the peak a popular spot for birds and birders. The state park offers a 49-site campground and an excellent trail to Mount Ascutney’s apex.

At 4.2 miles the drive route passes the private Chase House, the 1808 birthplace of Salmon Portland Chase. Educated at nearby Dartmouth, Chase defended runaway slaves as a lawyer before becoming an Ohio senator and governor, helping found the Republican Party, and serving as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the United States. Other old homes dating from the 1770s also line the road.

About 0.5 mile later the road enters Cornish. Two covered bridges lie just east of this village on Townhouse Road. The first, Dingleton Hill Bridge, is 81 feet long. The second, Blacksmith Shop Bridge, spans 96 feet across Mill Brook and was built in 1881. Back on the highway, the drive reaches New Hampshire’s most famous covered bridge in another mile. The Cornish-Windsor Bridge (or the Windsor-Cornish Bridge, depending on what side of the river you’re on), is the longest covered bridge in the country. The 460-foot, two-span bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in America, was built in 1866 at the cost of $9,000. It was engineered and constructed by James Tasker, a construction genius who couldn’t read or write. Tasker used heavy, squared timbers rather than thinner planks to form the lattice work, making a very strong design. Today’s bridge, a designated National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, is the fourth one on the site.

The bridge was also the last Connecticut River bridge to charge a toll. The cost was two cents on foot, four cents for a horse, two cents for a cow, fifteen cents to tote a cord of wood across, and twenty cents for a four-horse carriage. A sign across the bridge entrance still says: “Walk your horse or pay two dollars fine.” Over time the State of New Hampshire slowly bought out the bridge companies and opened them for free passage, a popular move to discontinue what was called “interstate holdup.” The last toll on the Cornish Bridge was collected on May 31, 1943. The next day the bridge was ceremoniously opened for non-paying customers.

The bridge is still open for traffic and is now a popular tourist stop. Pull off at the designated parking area just south of the bridge and walk up to have a look inside. Vendors across the highway sell postcards, drawings, and other bridge paraphernalia.

Windsor, the historic town on the other side of the river, is acclaimed as the Birthplace of Vermont. New Hampshire, as part of its boundary agreement with Vermont, owns the Connecticut River to its west-bank, normal high-water mark.

Two miles north of the bridge is another unique and important historic site. Turn right at a park sign and follow a short uphill road for 0.6 mile to Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. The site, operated by the National Park Service from May through October, preserves the elegant hilltop home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the premier American sculptor of the nineteenth century. Born in Ireland and reared in New York City, Saint-Gaudens worked as an apprentice cameo cutter as a teenager before studying in Paris. He returned to New York and in 1876 at age twenty-seven he received his first commission, the Farragut Monument in today’s Madison Square Park. In 1885 he found this lovely spot above the Connecticut River and bought it as a summer residence. Here he executed some of his most famous works, including the Standing Lincoln, a Robert Louis Stevenson memorial relief, and the Shaw Memorial, a brilliant Civil War relief of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Black Volunteer Regiment that took fourteen years of exacting work. The site is scattered with various replicas of Saint-Gaudens’s heroic works, sketches, drawings, and casting molds. Visitors can tour the sculptor’s house, studio, and exhibition room along with 150 acres of manicured formal gardens and the small Greek temple where Saint-Gaudens is buried. From his deathbed on August 13, 1907, he looked out a window at sunset toward Mount Ascutney and said, “It’s very beautiful, but I want to go farther away.”

Back on the drive, NH 12A passes a historic marker for the Cornish Colony. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Saint-Gaudens’s presence made the rural Cornish area into a thriving artist’s colony. Some of the creative artists who lived at the Cornish Colony were the nation’s most popular novelist, Winston Churchill (not the British Prime Minister), and painter Maxfield Parrish. One of Churchill’s novels, Richard Carvell, sold more than a million copies. The writer hosted President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 visit to Cornish. Parrish used the surrounding landscape in his colorful, fanciful illustrations for numerous books and magazine covers. Other luminaries who lived and worked here were sculptor Herbert Adams, poet Percy McKaye, architect Charles A. Platt, and artist Kenyon Cox.

The highway continues north past small Freeman’s Cemetery and a side road that leads to Tasker’s Blow-Me-Down Bridge, a 90-foot covered bridge over Blow-Me-Down Brook. The bridge name is a Yankee corruption of the name Blomidon, an early settler. Past the turn, the roadway bends away from the river to the 1761 village of Plainfield. A red brick community church topped by a white spire dominates the residential town.

A series of low wooded hills — Freeman Hill, Stevens Hill, Home Hill, and Short Knoll — separate the highway from the river as it journeys northward. The road crests a low rise between two hills and drops through forest alongside Beaver Book to the river. Here it flattens and runs through thick pine and hardwood forests interrupted by occasional floodplain farms. Hills hem the road in on the east, keeping it along the riverbank. At Bloods Brook the highway passes Lebanon Wildlife Management Area, a swamp studded with cattails and twisted dead tree trunks. The road passes a gravel quarry and enters the southern outskirts of West Lebanon.

The next 6 miles are mostly developed. The drive continues along NH 12A under Interstate 89 and enters West Lebanon. In the town center, go straight on New Hampshire Highway 10 toward Hanover. For a short distance the drive emerges back into bucolic farm country. A roadside picnic area overlooks Wilder Dam and its accompanying hydroelectric plant. Nearby is the Pine Grove Rim Trail. After 3 more miles the highway enters Hanover.

Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, remains a bastion of culture and diversity in what seems like the New Hampshire backwoods. The college motto, Vox Clamantis in Deserto or “A Voice Cries in the Wilderness,” reflects this still-remote character. The college offers a classic Ivy League campus with a grassy quad surrounded by impressive buildings and spreading maple trees. The town of Hanover, originally a farming village, was granted in 1761. The college came eight years later when Eleazar Wheelock decided to move his Indian Charity School from Connecticut to New Hampshire “for the education of Youth of the Indian Tribes, English Youth, and any others.” Hanover’s citizens offered Wheelock 3,000 acres of land, free labor, and cash to move his school to their town. Governor John Wentworth gave a royal charter to officially establish the school, and the Earl of Dartmouth in England made a generous donation. In gratitude, Wheelock named his college after the Earl.

Dartmouth College and its town of 9,000 residents has since flourished. The college dominates both the town and region’s economy and cultural life. Dartmouth itself boasts numerous beautiful buildings, including the famed Dartmouth Row on the east flank of the college green. These four Greek Revival buildings are the 1829 Wentworth Hall; Dartmouth Hall (a 1904 reproduction of the 1791 original destroyed by fire); Thornton Hall; and Reed Hall. The college’s brick Webster Hall, fronted by tall columns, is named for Daniel Webster, its most famous alumnus. The 1928 Baker Memorial Library is modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. In the library’s basement is a spectacular, must-see series of frescoes called The Epic of American Civilization, painted by noted Mexican artist JosZ Clemente Orozco in the early 1930s. The nearby Hood Museum of Art owns an interesting collection of African art, Assyrian bas-reliefs, and paintings by Italian, Dutch, and American artists.

The highway follows Main Street, leading right through Hanover to Dartmouth’s campus before skirting around the quad on its east side. Stop and walk around the town and campus. Beside the classic buildings and museums are numerous bookstores, coffee shops, and interesting shops to browse through. During Winter Carnival in February, fantastic ice sculptures cover the quad.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, running 2,140 miles from Georgia to Maine, crosses the river and threads through Hanover before bending north and tackling the White Mountains. The New Hampshire portion of the trail totals 157 miles.

Back on NH 10, the road edges around the east side of campus before heading north. The scenic drive’s next leg runs 17 miles from here to Orford along the terraced riverbank. Past the Hanover Country Club golf course is the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, a research center on glaciers and polar conditions. The flat road passes a few homes and businesses before leaving town and re-entering the countryside. A few miles upstream is Hanover Boat Landing, a popular put-in spot for canoeists. The generally wide and placid Connecticut River offers superb canoeing on its flat water. There are lots of canoe rental places, some offering shuttle service between put-ins and take-outs on the river. As the tar road rolls north, good views unfold of the green Vermont hills to the west.

Almost 10 miles from Hanover, the drive edges the east side of Lyme Hill and enters the village of Lyme. This rural farming community is dominated by the narrow town green and its white-washed, wood-frame Lyme Congregational Church topped by a spire with a small octagonal dome. The church still has twenty-seven numbered and painted horse stalls that were assigned in bygone days to Sunday parishioners. Nearby is a cemetery filled with old gravestones. The town, settled in 1761 and named for England’s Lyme Regis, also offers the 1809 Lyme Inn and the excellent Lyme Country Store.

Past Lyme the highway passes Post Pond Preserve, a town recreation area with good canoeing and fishing. The road then crosses a low gap and follows Clay Brook north onto the flat river floodplain. Large cornfields and prosperous-looking farms with large barns spread across the fertile bottomland. The 154-foot-long Lyme-Edgell Covered Bridge crosses Clay Brook just west of the drive route. The bridge, built in 1885, was pre-constructed on Lyme Common and transported to the bridge site for assembly — a precursor of modern prefabrication. Farther north is 64-acre Reeds Marsh, a state wildlife area that offers excellent birding on a swampy bend of the wide river.

Next the road gently turns northeast and enters the lovely old town of Orford. Set among green hills on the river’s edge, Orford is one of those charming, unforgettable villages that travelers stumble across in rural New England. It boasts the Orford Street Historic District, a collection of stately white mansions dubbed Ridge Row, set back from the tree-lined highway. The houses, built in styles including Greek Revival and Federal, were erected between 1773 and 1839 for wealthy businessmen and professionals. They perch in a long row along a low ridge east of the road, fronted by wide, manicured lawns. The town also contains two churches — the 1854 Victorian Congregational Church and the Universalist Church. In the town center is the all-purpose Weeks General Store, established in 1804, and the Orford Social Library.

The scenic drive ends here in the town center where New Hampshire Highway 25A crosses the river to Fairlee, Vermont, and I-91. Fairlee is dominated by the Fairlee Palisades, a series of sheer precipices that offer sport for rock climbers. From I-91, travelers can easily go north to St. Johnsbury or south to White River Junction.

Adapted from the FalconGuide Scenic Driving New England by Stewart Green.

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