Best Places to Get Away From it All
Camp on an island in a remote northern lake, gaze at the Milky Way free from city lights (or any lights, for that matter), hike through a vast wilderness — these are just some of the ways to find an escape in nature
A note from New Hampshire Magazine: Due to the ongoing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, some places mentioned here are temporarily closed or are delaying/rescheduling events and opening dates. You can also find updates about New Hampshire State Parks here. Officials are asking that you be safe, be well and be local. Please avoid popular parks and trails whenever possible. Where available, specific information is noted throughout the story. We will continue to update this and other stories as more details are released. In the meantime, we hope you use this guide (and others) to make future plans for when we can once again experience all that our wonderful state has to offer. Stay safe, and stay healthy!
Update: As of April 24, the White Mountain National Forest closed many high-use trailheads, day-use areas and some other facilities. You can find more information and a map of the closures here.
Update: Announced on May 1: “The White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) closed several sites last week as part of a tactical pause to assess operations, including staffing, equipment availability and to develop a phased approach to operate within CDC guidelines and prepare for the summer. As part of a phased opening approach in alignment with Maine and New Hampshire State Parks the White Mountain National Forest will be opening most trail heads on the forest.” Read more here.
There’s much to love about New Hampshire, but perhaps its biggest perk is that, no matter where you are, you’re close to nature. Every region has something different — ocean beaches, clear lakes, mountaintop views, expanses of wilderness, extensive trails and so much more — enough variety that you could spend a lifetime exploring all the Granite State has to offer.
There are, of course, famous spots known (and visited) by people from around the world: Mt. Washington and its infamous weather; Mt. Monadnock, the second-most climbed mountain in the world; Wolfeboro on Lake Winnipesaukee, the country’s first summer resort; and Hampton Beach with its boardwalk feel aren’t exactly locals-only secrets.
Though our landmarks are famous for worthy reasons, the restorative power of nature is often best sought well away from the crowds. Here are recommendations in every region for “secret” (or at least less-frequented) places to get away from it all.
Great North Woods
13 Mile Woods
Located near Umbagog Lake, 13 Mile Woods Community Forest along the Androscoggin River is ideal for both fishing and taking in the scenery via canoe or kayak. If you really want to get away from the crowds, this is the place. In some parts, the nearest major city or town is over 30 miles away, which has the added benefit of outstanding stargazing.
A pristine lake awaits in the wilderness of Coös County. The remote beauty of Umbagog Lake State Park, one of the newer additions to the state park system, is well worth the journey, and promises a summer adventure you won’t soon forget. Tucked away up north along the border with Maine, it has a base park campground with 27 sites with electrical and water hook-ups available, three cabins, 33 remote campsites and four remote cabins in isolated locations around the lake that are accessible only by boat. Want to see what it’s like to camp at Umbagog Lake State Park? See our Explorers story here.
Note: Please see New Hampshire State Parks’ updates about COVID-19.
At 45,000 acres, this is the largest wilderness in the White Mountain National Forest. The 60 miles of maintained trails are for hikers only — no other transportation is allowed, including bikes. At one time, what is now a serene forest contained an extensive logging railroad system. Between 1880 and 1940, over one billion board feet of timber was removed from the area, and unsustainable logging practices caused a devastating fire in 1907. Happily, the Pemigewasset Wilderness has since regrown, and now offers beautiful terrain for backpacking and hiking.
Note: You can keep up-to-date with closures and other restrictions in the White Mountain National Forest here.
Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge
Located beneath the mountains just north of the Presidential Range in Jefferson, Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge has been called one of the crown jewels of New Hampshire’s landscape. Here you can hike through both wetlands and forest (sections of the trail are boardwalks that wend through bogs and around ponds), experiencing a huge variety of wildlife, plants and scenery all in one place. Birders will be interested to know that the refuge was named the first Important Bird Area in the state, and New Hampshire Audubon offers excellent trail guides.
Note: While NH Audubon nature centers are closed, sanctuary trails remain open. Please use them responsibly — avoid crowded areas and practice appropriate social distancing. See more here.
The largest of the Isles of Shoals, Star Island is located about 7 miles from the mainland. Day visitors are welcome, and for those without a boat, both the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company and Island Cruises offer transportation. But the best way to experience the island is to stay overnight. The Star Island Corporation operates the Oceanic Hotel, which offers comfortable but decidedly not modern accommodations, which is all a part of the charm of sustainable island living. The nonprofit organization is sincere in its conservation efforts, hence the rustic hotel with shared bathrooms and minimal amenities. Throughout the season, they host a number of programs and conferences that include yoga, spirituality, art, history, sustainability and more. It’s a place where you can connect with yourself, friends and nature.
Note: Star Island announced that they will not be opening for the 2020 season. You can read the letter from CEO Joe Watts here.
Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1992, this refuge, which protects 1,000 acres for migratory birds and other wildlife, is located along the eastern shore of Great Bay in Newington. It’s one of the longest stretches of undeveloped shoreline along the bay, consisting of mud flats, salt and freshwater marshes, swamps, ponds, streams, woodlands and fields. These rich and varied habitats provide refuge and relaxation to wildlife and people alike, and are home to the state’s largest concentration of wintering bald eagles, and several state-listed rare and endangered species. Even though it’s a part of our small coast, here you can bike, hike, paddle and watch wildlife away from the crowds.
Note: The US Fish & Wildlife Services says that national refuges will remain open wherever possible.
Sheldrick Forest Preserve
Before Europeans settled in New Hampshire, what would become the Granite State was covered in mature forests with centuries-old, 200-foot trees. Nearly all of that forest was cleared for timber or pastures by the mid-1800s, making such majestic trees a rare sight. However, a glimpse into the past remains. Strolling through the 227-acre Sheldrick Forest in Wilton, with its cathedral-like stands of 150-foot trees, is about as close to how New Hampshire looked before settlement as you’ll find.
Note: The Nature Conservancy is keeping preserves open wherever possible. Check the website for updates.
Squam Lake, though famously the site for the film “On Golden Pond,” is still one of the most pristine and peaceful in the state. Big and Little Squam Lakes are naturally spring-fed and connected by a channel in Holderness, and between the two offer thousands of acres for exploration. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking and learning about wildlife (Squam Lakes Natural Science Center or Kirkwood Gardens are great choices), but consider paddling out to one of Squam’s islands. Chocorua Island is home to a unique, rustic nondenominational chapel for quiet contemplation, Moon Island’s beaches are available to nonmotorized boats and the campsites on Bowman Island are accessible via docks on its northwest and southeast ends.
Note: Squam Lakes Natural Science Center and its Kirkwood Gardens are closed until further notice. Check here for updates.
Mink Brook Nature Preserve
Though located just south of the college town of Hanover, the 112-acre protects habitat for wild brook trout, bear and other wildlife while providing trails (foot traffic only) for enjoying this peaceful area. As the name of the preserve suggests, two brooks — Trout and Mink Brook — wind through the forest. The property offers a variety of walking terrain, and the easy Quinn Trail is accessible to both strollers and wheelchairs and links up with the trails in the Tanzi Tract, another preserve in Hanover. On the south side of Mink Brook, wooded hiking trails lead to more preserved land located in Lebanon.
There are two popular state parks in southern New Hampshire (Bear Brook and Kingston), but if you’re hoping for something a bit quieter, Benson Park in Hudson is often overlooked. This 166-acre recreational spot was once home to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm (1924-1987), and is now maintained by the Hudson Department of Public Works with help from a dedicated group of volunteers. You can pack a picnic, bring your canine companion to the dog park, or walk or bike along the 4 miles of easy loop paths.
Dartmouth/Lake Sunapee region
Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park
The Saint-Gaudens estate in Cornish was the home of American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He began living here seasonally in 1885 and year-round from 1900 to his death in 1907. Today you can walk the grounds and wooded trails, taking in artwork both natural and manmade. From the historic estate, take in the views of rolling hills and the nearby Connecticut River, walk through the gardens and experience the place that once inspired a great artist.
Note: The National Park Service is modifying its operations on a park-by-park basis. While Saint-Gaudens is open at this time, the NPS encourages people who choose to visit during the pandemic to adhere to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities to protect visitors and employees. As services are limited, the NPS urges visitors to continue to practice Leave No Trace principles, including pack-in and pack-out, to keep outdoor spaces safe and healthy. You can read more here.