NORTH WOODSTOCK, N.H. —
Think Winnie Pooh getting stuck in the honey pot or Alice in Wonderland slipping down the rabbit hole. Caving in New Hampshire is dirty fun. Here are three great places to go underground in the Granite State — no experience necessary.
Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves
Wear grungy clothes and shoes that you don’t mind getting a little wet to explore this popular White Mountains natural attraction, where the tumbling Lost River goes underground into a steep-walled gorge. The narrow, boulder-clogged gorge was formed by retreating Ice Age glaciers, about 300 million years ago, and discovered in 1852, when Royal Jackman, who was fishing along the stream, fell into one of the nearly-hidden caves. Today, an extensive boardwalk system with ladders and bridges links 11 caves, as it weaves around boulder fields, waterfalls, and lush forest. You’ll climb more than 1,300 stairs and descend 300 feet as you enter the damp, verdant gorge, and hear the nearly-always present sound of flowing water. It’ll take about an hour and a half to follow the boardwalk and visit the caves. But, take your time; there are several pretty outlooks to mountains, forests, and waterfalls, and interpretive signs along the way, explaining the natural surroundings. The most popular caves include Judgment Hall of Pluto, the only cave with a waterfall inside; the Cave of Odin, where you’ll crawl over a pool of water; the Sun Alter, with one opening to a giant pothole that was formed by the forces of nature eons ago, and the Cave of Silence, the only cave where the river can’t be heard. The most famous — and equally loved and hated — cave is the Lemon Squeezer. You need to fit inside an 18-inch gauge, before entering the tightest and most difficult cave in Lost River Gorge, requiring you to crawl under boulders and squeeze through narrow cracks. Paradise Found is a pretty photo op along the boardwalk, where the Lost River emerges from underground as it tumbles over a series of rocks, and the Loop Trail takes you past old growth trees (Lost River is one of the few places in New Hampshire with old growth trees), and a vernal pool. Guided lantern tours are also offered several nights during the summer and fall; the two-hour tour ends with a campfire and s’mores. 603-745-8031, www.lostrivergorge.com; adults $19, ages 4-12 $15
Channel your inner Batman — and let the kids get their first taste of spelunking — at this series of caves in Rumney, New Hampshire. Giant boulders were deposited some 50,000 years ago, forming a maze of potholes, grottos, and narrow passageways. We love to visit this family-owned park, which opened in 1922 and draws some 50,000 visitors a year, on a hot, humid day, when the cool 55-degree caves offer a welcome respite. This is why it was named Polar Caves; there’s one hole where snow remains until August. Boardwalks and stairs link nine caves clustered around Hawk’s Cliff. The Lemon Squeeze is the tightest cave — don’t even think about doing it if you’re at all claustrophobic. The aptly named Fat Man’s Misery cave is the longest and has the largest chamber.
The caves take about an hour to explore, but the park also features friendly fallow deer, pheasants, and ducks. Kids also love to find their way in the maze-like rock garden with giant glacial boulders, or sluice for gems and minerals. Still feel like climbing? This year they added a granite rock climbing wall and the Polar Ascent, a via ferrata course featuring a 172 foot climb up rod iron stairs to above the tree line before the rappel down. 603-536-1888, www.polarcaves.com; adults $17.50, ages 4-12 $13.50. The climbing wall is $10 per climb. The Polar Ascent is a guided tour and costs $25.
Pawtuckaway State Park
The forces of nature and the power of weather are on display at this popular New Hampshire State Park. There’s camping, swimming, boating and hiking trails that take you through picturesque marshes and ponds, where you may spot beavers and great blue herons, but the one-of-a-kind giant boulder field is a unique draw. Rock climbers come from around the world to spider up the behemoth rocks, and spelunkers (and curious novices, kids included!) can explore the jumble of rocks that tumbled down from North Mountain, when the Ice Age glaciers receded, forming tight passageways and deep caves and caverns.
“You can spend a day back there, crawling around the boulders, squeezing through tunnels and exploring caves, and still not see it all,” says Dave Richardson, park manager.
There are hundreds of glacier erratics littering the former old growth forest, some up to 40 feet tall. One of the most popular is Devil’s Den, found along the North Mountain trail. “You can walk into this one; it’s about 30 feet deep, with a tall, 10 to 15-foot ceiling. It’s pretty cool,” says Richardson.
Local lore says there’s a hidden cave here, too. “I haven’t even seen it yet,” Richardson says. “But that might entice some people to go exploring.”
Grab your flashlights; that sounds like a challenge to us! 603-895-3031, www.nhstateparks.org/pawtuckaway; adults $5, ages 6-11 $2Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.