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The "Upper Valley" | A Place of 'Unexpected Discoveries'

The “Upper Valley” | A Place of ‘Unexpected Discoveries’
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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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Monday, August 4th, 2014

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5 Responses to The “Upper Valley” | A Place of ‘Unexpected Discoveries’

  1. Corinne August 6, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Another place to visit just over the Connecticut river is the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. My family has a summer home on Lake Mascoma and when the weather isn’t good for the beach we’d take the kids to the museum for the day. Lots of hands-on activities for the kids.

  2. Judy Hunter August 9, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Another wonderful place in Thetford Center is “The Shoots” swimming hole on the Ompompanoosuc River in the Union Village Dam area. Lovely waterfalls make it fun for swimmers who like a thrill and shallower water for the young ones. There used to be a sign which read, “No nude swimming”. Wonder why it is not there now?

    Also Crossroads Farm in Post Mills is a stunning farm and absolutely beautiful farm stand. Around Memorial Day they have gorgeous annuals and perennials in their greenhouses for sale and later fresh yummy vegetables are on display. It is a real find!

    Another pleasant place to eat is Isabelle’s Café in East Thetford which serves home cooked breakfasts and lunches. It is a real local treasure and a place where good friends meet for home cookin’,

  3. Peggy Heath Ogilvy August 11, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

    One mile up the road from St. Gaudens National Historic Site is The Song Garden…a small pick your own flower farm and there is a small Tea House on site for refreshments…The Tea House is the original painting studio of Cornish Art Colonist William Ladd Taylor, built in 1910. The garden and tea house are open from July 1st through Sept. 30th. A beautiful, peaceful setting in the heart of the Cornish Art Colony.

  4. Alan MacNutt August 12, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    There is one photo in the gallery of a bicyclist crossing a bridge over the Connecticut River. That is the Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge connecting Orford, NH and Fairlee, VT. Daresay, I crossed that bridge; walking, riding my bike or crossing in a car, jeep or truck everyday summers 1954 through 1958. My aunt and uncle owned the Orford Inn in the south end of the Village of Orford at the intersection of NH Rts. 10 and 25A. This Philadelphia suburban kid stayed with them those summers; and, three more summers on top of Moose Mountain, six miles east of Hanover and Dartmouth College (1959-61).

    It was Orford and Fairlee (and Lake Morey) that I liked the best. The annual 4th of July parade started in front of the Orford Inn, went up Rt.10 to the bridge road, left across the bridge, crossed the north-south Boston & Maine/Canadian Pacific railroad tracks, turned left (south) on US Rt 5 in Fairlee, went down as far as the train station and feed mill, reversed course, went back over the bridge to Orford, then turned left onto Rt. 10 to the large Common (Green) across from the Congregational Church and the Grange Hall for the rest of the day’s festivities.

    It was in Orford in a farm field out back of the Orford Inn that I taught myself to drive in a ’46 Ford pick-up, that I learned to like square dancing (every town had one or more “town callers,” Selectman Glenn Pease was one), that I swam and dived into “White’s Pool,” the local deep, natural granite lined water hole in Jacob’s Brook, camped out nights with friends Bruce and Paul; it was at the Fairlee Town Beach on Lake Morey that I earned my “Junior Life Saving” badge; it was at the Lake Morey Stables’ equestrian ring I learned to ride horses (earned Blue and Reserve Champion Ribbons at the end-of-summer competition), in Fairlee I learned the joys of train watching; it was on the Connecticut River that I had a 12′ runabout powered by a Mark 5 Mercury outboard; fond memories all.

    Today Orford and Fairlee feature one of the few bi-state school districts (Hanover, NH and Norwich, VT, 21 miles south, is another.

    Alan MacNutt
    Bridgewater, VA

  5. Jared December 16, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

    Plus, the Upper Valley even has a coed floor hockey league, called Upper Valley Floor Hockey!

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