To The Woods!
A guide to New England’s two best camping gems.
Words by Erin Costello Smith
Photos by Christopher Smith and Erin Costello Smith
"To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work"
- Mary Oliver -
The closest I came to camping while growing up in Connecticut was when my dad would wrestle up the tent in the backyard, grab some flashlights, a box of Triscuits, and some playing cards, and spend the night squeezed into our red tent with my brothers and me. I’d wake up with the birds and pad back into the house to join my mom for breakfast and likely not think anything more about it. Despite the camping-lite of my youth, as I got older there was a tug in me to substitute my mattress for a sleeping bag, the blue glow of the television for the flickering of an outdoor fire, and my backyard for the woods of New England.
While many people would argue that it is the furthest thing from a vacation, there’s something about camping that I find wholly rejuvenating. From waking up to tent walls glowing with early morning light to staring into a fire and letting the conversation wander, there is a peace in camping that I think can be hard to find elsewhere. When camping, I notice myself being much more present in the moment and paying attention to what is around me. It is a welcome change from the usual distractions that encroach on our lives. There are two campgrounds in particular where that connection and enchantment of camping are able to rise to full fruition.
Crawford Notch Campground
44.1342° N, 71.3593° W
It was kismet, for sure. We were looking to find a campsite in New Hampshire that wasn’t stuffed along a highway and where we wouldn’t be on top of other campers. Crawford Notch Campground looked promising and, when my husband called about availability, the woman on the phone excitedly informed him that one of the prized riverside sites had just opened up if we could stay for their minimum of three nights. We adjusted our schedules and hurried up 93, racing the clock to make it there before the gate closed for the night while also trying to stay safe in torrential downpours.
When we arrived at the campsite, having made it just ten minutes before the camp office closed, we couldn’t believe what we saw. We didn’t bother to take anything out of the packed car, instead, as if pulled along, grabbed hands and walked down the path. The campsite sat in a little copse of trees, private, yet with a clear sightline to the idyllic view of a rocky shore, winding river, and backdrop of layered mountains. The rain had just stopped and there was an invigorating coolness in the August air. We spent the next couple of days exploring Franconia Notch State Park, but it was our time at the campsite that we treasured most. In the mornings the sky behind the mountains was tinged with daubs of cotton candy pink and bands of soft mist curled around the trees like a comfortable cat. At night we would lean back in our chairs and watch the stars with only our intermittent gasps breaking the silence as meteors dashed by like gently flashing hyphens. When it eventually came time to leave, we walked back to the site over and over, desperately wanting one last look, until finally we found ourselves right up against the checkout time and forced ourselves to drive away.
If you go, the sites along Saco River are ideal, but they book up fast. From our walks around the campground, it seemed like the other sites were relatively private, especially for what we’ve seen at other spots in New Hampshire. The Crawford Notch Campground is located near Franconia Notch State Park, which has seemingly countless hikes and is home to some stunning waterfalls, gorges, and flumes. The Arethusa Falls, Ripley Falls, and Mount Willard are all under six miles away and offer stunning views, as well as spots to cool off in these hot summer months.
Coolidge State Park
43.5517° N, 72.6975° W
I remember when my husband sent me photos of a campsite in Vermont, his email brimming with excitement over the mountain views from the campground’s high perch. It was late in the season, so we were unable to get the highly coveted sites in the lean-to loop, but decided to choose one of the other spots without the mountain views and, while there, scout out the other sites for a future visit. When we arrived, we were very pleased with how secluded the site was and charmed by the golden evening light pooling through the tall pines.
Later, after we had set everything up and eaten our dinner, we had settled in by the fire for the night when an ethereal sound began to float through the trees. It was a four-part harmony hymn, which we later found out was the beginning of the evening vespers for a group of Mennonites camping a few sites down. I can’t really describe how it felt, sitting there in the dark and watching the fire while those timeless songs carried up to us, except that it was something like when you hold your breath for a long time and then let it out slowly. It filled me. The next morning we were treated to their morning vespers before we waved goodbye as their cars and vans slowly filed out. It was an experience unlike any other and yet another moment of camping when we found ourselves in touch with all that really matters.
If you are able to book one of the sites in the lean-to loop, those have the best views. A ranger said that Hornbeam offers the most privacy and we thought the views from Aspen and Boxelder looked particularly idyllic. That being said, all of the sites seem to offer generous privacy and are surrounded by beautiful, tall trees. There is also an amazing view from a picnic spot just a quarter mile up the road from the tent loop, so you can enjoy the views no matter where you stay. The campgrounds are within easy distance of Woodstock, home of the beautifully crafted Farmhouse Pottery, cheese and syrup tasting at Sugarbush Farm, and a charming town center complete with a covered bridge. Plymouth Notch is under ten minutes away and is the location of former President Calvin Coolidge’s homestead, along with a general store and cheese factory founded by the Coolidge family that are still in operation. As for whether or not the Mennonites will grace your evening with song, I can’t say.