The sound of water thundering down a nearly 200-foot cliff, cold mist blowing across my face, the fear of slipping on wet rocks, craning my neck upward, eyeing the cliffs above as the immense water flow fell downward to the basin below — those sensations and feelings rushed through my head as I stood below Arethusa Falls with Sandy, Pam and Karen.
The lure of the White Mountains' highest waterfall brought us here, along with the prominent views from Frankenstein Cliff.
Why are thousands of people attracted to waterfalls in New Hampshire? Greg Parsons and Kate B. Watson have published "New England Waterfalls" (Countryman Press $24.95), a guide to more than 500 waterfalls and cascades in New England. What’s the appeal? Is it some innate calling that bonds our human nature to cascading water? Is it viewing the immense power of water as it thunders over a cliff’s edge? Is it viewing the beauty and splendor of the water breaking into droplets, forming majestic patterns and crashing to an end on the rocks below?
For me, it’s the mesmerizing effect of the waterfall. Roland Kemler says it best: “There's no better place to find yourself than sitting by a waterfall and listening to its music.”
Arethusa Falls is named for a nymph in Greek mythology who fled from her home in Arcadia beneath the sea and came up as a freshwater fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily. Nymphs are divine spirits who represent the beauty and majesty of the natural world where they live and are usually depicted as beautiful, young graceful maidens.
The name of the waterfall was most likely given by Moses F. Sweetser in his 1887 Handbook for Travelers, alluding to the poem "Arethusa" by English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who wrote, “Arethusa arose // From her couch of snows // In the Acroceraunian Mountains, // From cloud and from crag, // With many a jag, // Shepherding her bright fountains.” The Reverend Starr King (Star King Mountain in Jefferson) quoted Shelley’s lines in his classic work, "The White Hills, Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry," first published in 1859.
The hike we planned was a circuitous route, starting at the Arethusa Trailhead on Route 302 in Crawford Notch State Park, 3.4 miles south of the Willey House site. We planned to trek to the falls (1.5 miles) and continue our hike on the Ripley Falls Trail, turning off at the junction of the Frankenstein Cliff Trail. The Frankenstein Cliff Trail would lead us to an escarpment overlooking Crawford Notch and eventually back to the trailhead of the Arethusa Trail, hiking a total of 5 miles. We felt this route would be an easy four-hour amble in a spring woodland. How wrong we were! Even though spring is on her way, “ice-out” has been declared on Lake Winnipesaukee, trees are budding in our yards and our hills are rapidly shifting to their summer greens, winter still holds a tight grip in the White Mountains, especially with this cold, wet spring we’ve been experiencing.
Thomas Starr King wrote, “The earth hath felt the breath of spring, // Though yet on her deliverer’s wing, // The lingering frosts of winter cling.”
Karen, Sandy, Pam and I had a cheerful and chatty trek to the base of Arethusa Falls via the Arethusa Trail. An alternate route following Bemis Brook was another option we considered, but we chose the easier route. In the summer, the Bemis Brook Trail would be ideal for a family with children, because it follows the brook and leads to Fawn Pool, Coliseum Falls and Bemis Brook Falls — places where children can wet their feet and dunk their heads.
Arriving at the outlook to the falls, we were in awe at the sight of the spectacular waterfall. We carefully scrambled over the wet boulders to the base of the falls and stood looking up at Bemis Brook, running full blast, careening down the 200-foot drop. The immense force of the falling water crashing on the rocks near us, engorged by rain and snow melt, felt threatening. It was rather unnerving to be standing so close to the immense power of the cascading water, knowing that, with one slip or misstep, we would be facing our doom. We quickly took a few photos, carefully crept back to the trail and began part two of our journey: the climb to Frankenstein Cliff.
Many people believe that the towering cliff was named for the famed monster created by Doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1823 classic novel, because of the fear it invokes in climbers and hikers who dare scale the sheer walls looming over Crawford Notch. I must dispel that assumption: The cliffs were not named for the terrifying monster created by Doctor Frankenstein. The name was given by Dr. Samuel Bemis to honor Godfrey Nicholas Frankenstein (1820-1873), an artist who immigrated to the United States in 1831 from Germany. He became noted for his landscape, portrait and panorama paintings. He is best known for his many panoramas of Niagara Falls. Dr. Bemis became fond of Frankenstein when the artist came to New Hampshire to paint the landscapes of Crawford Notch and to paint a portrait of Dr. Bemis.
Samuel Bemis (Bemis Brook, Bemis Lake, Bemis Ridge and Mount Bemis) was born in Putney, Vermont, in 1793, moved to Boston in 1812, and became a renowned dentist in the Boston area. He began visiting the White Mountains in 1833 and befriended Abel Crawford and his son-in-law, Nathaniel Davis (Davis Path), staying at their Mount Crawford House Tavern. Besides his interest in horticulture, surveying, watchmaking, dentistry, and geology, he was one of the first landscape photographers — hence his association with Frankenstein. Bemis purchased a daguerreotype camera in 1840 and immediately began to take photographs of the White Mountains. Many of his images are on display at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.
After beginning our hike on the Ripley Falls Trail, we began to encounter snow pack — first a few inches, then quickly growing to a few feet. We didn’t bring snowshoes, thinking that the snow levels wouldn’t hinder our hike, but as we progressed up the trail, we were wallowing in three feet of snow. Pam wasn’t equipped to push ahead through several feet of snow and Sandy agreed to turn back with Pam and return to the trailhead. Karen and I pushed stubbornly along, not wanting to forego the view from the cliff and to claim bragging rights for our intended climb to the summit. We struggled through the soft, melting snow for three miles, sometimes falling, other times reaching bare ground with a sigh of relief, only to find ourselves back in the relentless snow pack.
Upon finally reaching the viewpoint on Frankenstein Cliff, we relaxed in the warm sun, knowing we would no longer be hampered in our trek by heavy, deep snow. From the viewpoint, we looked south through Crawford Notch, a view well worth the climb. Karen and I knew Sandy and Pam were waiting for us at the trailhead, so we hustled off the peak and began the steep descent along the walls of Frankenstein and Falcon cliffs. As we descended from the view point, the high walls of the cliffs rose above us. Small waterfalls from the cliffs above crossed the trail.
As Karen and I slowly made our way along the trail, dropping into the valley below, we were greeted by the Frankenstein Trestle, a 500-foot iron structure that spans one of the deepest gorges on the Conway Scenic Railroad line. The original wooden trestle was built in 1871 by the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad. It was replaced by an iron structure in 1895 and still stands today as a testament to the engineering feat by John Farwell Anderson.
The trail led us under the trestle, where we gazed at the immense steel structure built more than a century ago, outlasting most highways bridges in New Hampshire. Within a few hundred yards of the trestle, we were met by Sandy and Pam who were starting up the trail to find us. When we met, we yakked about our misadventures wallowing in the snow, but also our glee in making it to the viewpoint of Frankenstein Cliff.
I hope to return in a month, when the snow has disappeared and the forest floor is in bloom with colorful wildflowers and delicate ferns. You, too, may want to experience the beauty of spring by hiking to the waterfalls of the Greek mythology and the cliffs that inspired a renowned landscape painter of the White Mountains.