The "Upper Valley" | A Place of 'Unexpected Discoveries'
The “Upper Valley” along the Vermont/New Hampshire border is a collection of little-known small towns featuring the New England we all look for. You’ll find beauty, nature, soft adventure, art–and even what Forbes magazine called “the best gelato in America.”
Up we floated above Lake Fairlee, over green shores and kids’ summer camps. Whoosh … and up again, the hot-air balloon rising over a ridge and down over woods patched with cornfields, on toward the Connecticut River. On the Vermont bank, a dozen or so small figures were saluting the sunset with tai chi. We hovered briefly above an iron bridge spanning the narrow ribbon of water and drifted southeast over New Hampshire woods, settling down gently in a Lyme hollow.
Fairlee, Vermont, and Lyme, New Hampshire, are in the “Upper Valley,” a distinctive region that at its heart includes towns twinned on opposite banks along a roughly 40-mile stretch of the Connecticut River: from Windsor, Vermont, and Cornish, New Hampshire, in the south to Bradford, Vermont, and Piermont, New Hampshire, in the north. The name was coined in the 1950s by the Valley News to define its circulation area, reaching into both states. What fascinates me is the way it has stuck to an area that includes some of the same communities that in the 1770s attempted to form the state of “New Connecticut,” with Dresden (now Hanover, New Hampshire) at its center. Even today, the river remains more of a bond than a boundary.
Visitors can easily prowl both sides of the river. Interstate 91, set high above the Vermont bank, offers a quick route up and down the valley, but the old highways–New Hampshire Routes 10 and 12 and U.S. Route 5 in Vermont–thread through fields and villages. Older roads hug the river in places, while byways branch invitingly into the hills. Formal attractions are few, but you’ll find river landings, many farm stands, and frequent unexpected discoveries.
Last summer along Route 244 in the Vermont village of Post Mills (in the town of Thetford), I happened on a dinosaur, with a smaller dino beside it, both cobbled from recycled wood. The adult “Vermontasaurus” is 122 feet long and 25 feet high, fashioned by local students from a collapsed barn roof ; the “babysaurus” was born with blowdown from the larger sculpture, delivered by Hurricane Irene in August 2011. Several gliders and a tow plane rested in the large field, beyond which, a sign announced, is Post Mills Airport. Nothing told me that the long, nondescript wooden building beside the field housed one of the world’s largest collections of hot-air balloons, airships, and contraptions that were never meant to fly but do.
Brian Boland, creator of both the sculptures and the museum, was tinkering around out front. We struck up a conversation, and he told us that virtually nobody in this country was offering hot-air balloon rides in the 1970s when he began making his own and flying them. I soon learned that he’s known internationally as a hot-air balloon designer–and locally as the “Willy Wonka of the Upper Valley.”
Boland’s adventurous spirit is infectious. In short order I ventured up in his balloon, and then a few weeks later I returned and set out on the Connecticut River in a rented kayak, putting in a mile north of the Cornish-Windsor Bridge, New England’s longest covered bridge, backed by the hump of Mount Ascutney. The mountain is in Vermont, but the river and the bridge are in New Hampshire, because that’s what King George III decreed some two and a half centuries ago. Many disputes later, the boundary was set at the low-water mark on the Vermont side by the United States Supreme Court in 1933.
My takeout spot appeared three miles below the bridge. I climbed through a meadow to the barn that houses North Star Livery. Thirty years ago, just as the river was finally recovering from a half-century’s worth of abuse, Liz Drummond began renting canoes from her family’s riverside farmhouse on New Hampshire Route 12A in Cornish. Today dozens of boats are stacked against the barn, which doubles as check-in desk for North Star and stable for the draft horses that farrier John Drummond raises.
I picnicked at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) is best remembered for his public pieces, including the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common and the General William T. Sherman statue at the entrance to Central Park, among many. With his wife, Augusta, he bought a vintage 1817 tavern, set high above the river here. Initially a summer retreat, “Aspet” became a year-round home; as commissions poured in, he added a studio and other buildings, and the property was elaborately landscaped. The house retains its original furnishings, but it’s the 195-acre grounds and the beauty of the reproduced sculptures that make this a must-see destination, especially on summer Sundays, when the public is invited to picnic before a (free) concert on the lawn.
Old farms were selling cheap in the wake of the Civil War; many of the sculptor’s prominent artist friends came to visit and soon bought nearby homes of their own. This “Cornish Colony” flourished from 1885 to 1935, and its spirit lingers today. Cornish was home to painter Maxfield Parrish until his death in 1966; writer J. D. Salinger lived quietly in Cornish until his death in 2010.
Whether Saint-Gaudens ever climbed Mount Ascutney, nobody knows. Certainly it dominated his view, and a hiking trail there dates from 1825. I’d never thought of climbing it myself before last summer. Ascutney is also the site of one of the oldest Vermont state parks, good for camping, mountain biking, and hiking, and a popular launch spot for hang gliders. A well-surfaced “parkway” spirals gently up from Route 44 in Windsor to a parking lot 2,800 feet above the river, and from there trails access various views. I headed up the 0.8-mile trail to the summit, not realizing how rugged the short climb of 344 vertical feet actually is. But what a reward: a 360-degree panorama from the fire-tower deck, sweeping into New Hampshire from the White Mountains down, and west and north across Vermont farms and forests, rolling into the Green Mountains.
When I descended, I drove north on U.S. 5 and then west along Route 244 again, turning north at Lake Fairlee, up a farm road and into the hills, drawn by a flyer for Open Acre Ranch. Its reasonably priced trail treks–fine-tuned to the ability of individual riders, on 400 private acres –sounded too good to be true. But this was the Upper Valley.
A small sign announced the ranch, and the horses looked promising. Owner Rebecca Guillette explained that she keeps around 40 mounts, catering to the summer camps on nearby Lakes Morey and Fairlee. She guided me out onto a dirt road and then onto narrower, leafier trails, lined with crumbling stone walls. We broke smoothly into a canter on the uphill stretches (I held gratefully onto the saddle horn), emerging eventually onto a high meadow, with views across to the Vermont hills and to the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
- Photographs | Upper Connecticut River Valley
- The "Upper Valley" Resources | When You Go
- Hanover, NH | Hub of the Upper Valley
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