How can you spend any time in the Flume Gorge at Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire and not feel a sudden interest in geology coming on? When nature presents you with chasms of towering cliffs and plunging water, who can help but be curious about the awesome forces that shaped this landscape?
Then you run smack into a thicket of unpronounceable terms, impenetrable lexicon, and a maze of increasingly arcane definitions. For example, “…Conformably overlying these rocks are Devonian deep water turbidites of the Littleton, Carrabassett and Seboomook Formations. These formations were deposited in a foreland basin setting associated with either a southeast dipping subduction system that overrode the Silurian northwest dipping subduction system (Bradley et al., 1998) or a double subduction that consisted of the same northwest dipping Silurian subduction system that persisted into the Devonian and the southeast system of Bradley et al, etc.” OK, I got “rocks,” “formations,” “basin,” and I think I understand “deep water turbidities.” How many did you get?
Anyway, here’s the lay person’s version; and I couldn’t have shared it without the helpful background provided by the state parks department.
The Flume Gorge is an 800’ high canyon at the base of Mt. Liberty, in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, New Hampshire. Its granite walls are 70-90’ high, and it is 12-20’ across at any given point along the gorge. There’s a boardwalk that allows you to climb up through it.
We’ve all heard of the Jurassic period, right? The era roughly 197 to 146 million years ago when great plant-eating dinosaurs roamed the earth. Back then, the granite that now forms the canyon’s walls—they call it Conway granite—was deeply buried molten rock. As it cooled, the rock was broken up by narrowly-spaced, almost parallel vertical fractures laying in a northeasterly direction. Then, small dikes of basalt (extruded volcanic rock formed from the rapid cooling of basaltic lava) were forced up along the fractures.
Erosion eventually wore away the earth’s surface and exposed the dikes. As overlaying rock was worn away, pressure was relieved and horizontal cracks developed, allowing water to seep into the rock layers. Those basalt dikes eroded faster than the surrounding granite, creating the gorge.
The valley was covered by glaciers during the Ice Age, partially filing the gorge with glacial debris. The glaciers receded; big boulders were scattered all over and Flume Brook flowed through the valley once more. Even now, storms continue to shape the canyon, deepening it and forming new waterfalls over time.
One day in 1808, 93 year old ‘Aunt’ Jess Guernsey was out fishing when she discovered the Flume Gorge. (I’m guessing that local native people knew about it before then though!) She eventually convinced her family to come and see it for themselves—they didn’t believe her when she described it .
At the base of the gorge the oldest covered bridge in the state was built in 1886, over the Pemigewasset River (meaning “swift or rapid current” to the Abenaki Indians). The Flume Bridge has been nicely restored (twice) and it’s very cute, especially when you read that it’s often called a “kissing bridge.”
Walking up through the gorge, the large Conway granite outcropping called Table Rock was created by the plunging waters of Flume Brook. It’s about 75’ wide by 500’ long, and visitors are cautioned to please stay off the slippery rock, so naturally there are teenage boys skipping over it on a hot summer afternoon.
At the top of the Flume you can get sprayed by Avalanche Falls, although it’s late in the summer. Even now the falling water echoes down the gorge—imagine the roar in the spring.
Continuing up the ridge path leads you to Liberty Gorge, where the brook plunges down the narrow valley that presages the Flume. And following that path around you’ll come upon The Pool, a deep basin that was formed 14,000 years ago as the Ice Age waned. Fed by the cascading Pemigewasset River, its 40’ deep waters are surrounded by 130’ high cliffs.
And it’s spanned by certainly the grandest man-made sight in the park: the Sentinel Pine Covered Bridge. A 1938 hurricane toppled the 175’ pine, but it was put to good use as the base of the bridge. Other trees uprooted in the same storm became the bridge’s superstructure and cover.
On the far side of the bridge you can crawl up into the Wolf Den, if you feel like getting small and dirty.
Along a different stretch of the Pemigewasset River (known affectionately here as “The Pemi”), you can stop at a granite pothole about 20’ across—they call it “The Basin.” It was gouged out by stones dragged by the retreating North American ice sheet, then smoothed by 15 million years of fast-moving, whirling pebbles and grit. Continuing upriver, you’ll find a long staircase of waterfalls.
Throughout the park you’ll witness the determined efforts of the birches, yellow beeches and maples to survive. When seeds sprout on these big glacial rocks, their roots go off in search of soil. Sometimes they take fantastic, sensuous paths to find the nutrients they need to thrive.
I hope you liked this little guided tour of Franconia Notch State Park! It was such a good day—we just really wanted to share our pictures, poor stand-ins for the real thing; and our awe in the face of the crazy natural forces that formed this bewitching place.