With names like “Sun Alter,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Cave of Silence” and “Judgment Hall of Pluto,” the caves of Lost River Gorge do much to spark the imagination of visitors.
Located at Kinsman Notch in North Woodstock, Lost River Gorge brings to life the power and beauty of nature with walking trails traversing a majestic gorge carved into the rock by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, leaving behind “caves” of toppled boulders.
A natural garden boasting more than 300 varieties of wildflowers, ferns, trees and shrubs and a trout pond add to the beauty of the Gorge. And the chance to “pan for gems” at the Gorge’s sluice - located outside the visitor center - offers would-be miners a fun and surprising lesson in geology.
A visit to Lost River Gorge provides a welcomed alternative to New Hampshire’s beaches or lakes during the warm summer months. Cooled under a canopy of evergreens and hardwoods indigenous to the region, the 3/4-mile hike leads visitors over well-maintained trails and wooden bridges while offering a respite from the summer sun.
Alongside the trail are the Lost River caves — giant slabs of rock chiseled from the cliffs by the passing glacier, with hidden passageways along, over and through the Lost River.
“The caves are so cool,” said 14-year-old Dylan Hargrove of Salem who was visiting Lost River Gorge for the first time. “They’re all different and you don’t know what to expect — that makes it really fun.”
The caves - 11 in all - are rated A, B or C, according to difficulty. C-rated caves are the least challenging and involve maneuvering a tight space by ducking under or stepping over the damp stones. B-rated caves are a little trickier — tighter passages and slippery surfaces may have some adults on their knees.
The most difficult A-rated caves include the “Lemon Squeezer” and “Dungeon” and are enticing to the young and adventurous while requiring some skillful maneuvering by accompanying grown-ups.
The rewards are plenty for those who dare to venture into the caves. Hidden waterfalls and dark pools are hidden among the damp rocks carved and worn smooth by the river. Lanterns light the way in some, casting amusingly eerie shadows over the rock walls.
One of the greatest things about the caves at Lost River Gorge is their ability to turn lessons in geological history and natural science into just a really fun day - it’s kind of like adding chocolate to milk - the vitamins are still there, but it tastes so much better.
While maneuvering through the caves certainly adds to the adventure, visitors who choose to leave the spelunking to others can rest assured that they too will be treated to awe-inspiring vistas from the safety of the trail.
Moss and lichen blanket ledges, and trees look as though they’re hanging on for dear life with exposed roots grasping the sharp edges of rock - a sight embraced by Brigitta Larson, 3, and her 7-year-old sister, Amelia.
“The girls both love seeing how the trees can grow right over the rocks,” said Sue Larson, who visits the Gorge with her two daughters and husband Dave each time they come to northern New Hampshire from their home in Cumberland, R.I.
The cool and damp environment of Lost River Gorge presents the perfect habitat for low-lying crawly things.
Lovers of red-spotted newts, frogs and toads should keep their eyes open. Placard notes mounted along the trail offer information about other wildlife known to frequent the area. Mammals from meadow moles and mice to deer, moose and bears are known to live in the area.
More than 60 varieties of birds have been identified in the forest surrounding the Gorge. On a quiet day visitors can take in the songs of many of them.
Located outside the Lost River Gorge Visitors’ Center is the Lost River Mining Company sluice - a wooden channel carrying a stream of water down to visitors hoping to try their hand at panning for gemstones.
Large and small bags of dirt are available for purchase inside the visitor center. Would-be miners empty the bags into screened pans and shake the dirt gently in the flowing stream. Gemstones of every color begin peeking through as the dirt washes away. Prized stones from quartz to peridot and emerald to amethyst have been discovered at the Lost River Sluice.
OK, so the bags may be “fortified” with a variety of eye-catching gems but the resulting look of astonishment on a child’s face when he or she catches the sparkle of a hefty chunk of pyrite, or “fool’s gold,” makes the $4.50 well worth it.
When to visit
An easy ride up Interstate 93, Lost River Gorge is located a few minutes off Exit 32, west on Route 112.
Lost River Gorge is opened from mid-May to mid-October. Hours during July and August are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. During May, June, September and October, the Gorge closes at 5 p.m. The last tickets are sold an hour before closing.
Tickets are $11.50 for adults, $7.50 for children between 4 and 12. There is no charge for children under 4.
The boulders and stairways at the Lost River Gorge can be slippery so good walking shoes are recommended. Temperatures can be much lower the forest canopy and inside the caves so visitors may want to bring along a sweatshirt.
While bottled water and other drinks are available in the Gorge’s gift shop, visitors are welcomed to bring along their own picnics and enjoy the Gorge’s beauty from the deck outside the visitor’s center.
For more information visit findlostriver.com.
This article appears in the August 4 2006 issue of New Hampshire Business Review