Turn a trip to Plymouth into a lesson in New Hampshire’s geology

Last modified: 9/15/2013 1:07:20 AM
New Hampshire’s landscape can often seem like one giant outdoor classroom, full of places where nature lessons come blended with bouts of running, crawling, climbing and splashing.

But dig below the Earth’s surface, and you may discover a whole new way to amaze your kids with Mother Nature. Here’s a day-long itinerary that will introduce children to some hidden, almost subterranean natural gems – whether navigating a maze of spooky caverns or exploring a remote stretch of deeply-carved riverbed – among other nature-themed diversions. Think of it as a daylong, hands-on geology lesson, for both kids and adults.

This trip centers on Plymouth, a 45-minute drive north from Concord. If you get an early start to the day, head straight to our first destination: the Polar Caves, a classic roadside tourist spot located just 5 miles west of Plymouth on Route 25, that has welcomed visitors since the 1920s. The main attraction here is the series of rough tunnels formed by chunks of granite deposited by glaciers on the nearby mountainside 50,000 years ago. But you don’t have to know the geology behind this jumble to enjoy yourself here.

Each cave has a name, with varying degrees of foreboding and goofiness: Tut’s Tomb, the Needle’s Eye, Orange Crush and Fat Man’s Misery, among others. While the passages through the boulders are often tight and require lots of ducking, twisting and squeezing, all of them are lit by electric lights, and a carefully maintained boardwalk connects the caves.

And if not everyone in your group is feeling adventurous, each cave also has a “detour” path. The entire trail laces its way through dense woods, with towering cliffs looming in the background and visible from bends in the boardwalk.

Between the caves, signs point out unusual geological features of the landscape: a patch of fluorescent minerals, a mysterious “hanging boulder,” and one cliff edge that – a la Old Man of the Mountain – kinda-sorta looks like an Indian chief’s profile when viewed from just the right angle.

Polar Caves also includes a small, quirky zoo near the entrance, with a surprising collection of Asian pheasants and European reindeer as the only exhibits. Kids will enjoy feeding the docile, beautiful deer by hand. If your group needs a bit of quiet time after a few hours of spelunking, Polar Caves also offers a network of nature trails that pass through deep pine woods.

Be sure to save some time for the Mining Expedition – which lets kids try their hands at prospecting for minerals – and for the Polar Caves’s wonderfully tacky gift shop, where you can fill any gaps in your collection of onyx elephants or fossilized shark teeth.

Polar Caves offers a modest cafeteria as well as a spot for picnics. But a better option might be taking the short drive back to Plymouth, where you’ll find a handful of fine lunch options. Our favorite is the Main Street Station, a no-frills diner that occupies an old-fashioned dining car right across from the Plymouth State University campus. You’ll find breakfast all day (or lunch), appropriately old-fashioned New Hampshire décor, and staff who are very understanding about children and the mayhem that sometimes accompanies them.

If the weather is inviting, pick up sandwiches, fruit, cheese or hummus at the Chase Market just down the street, and then picnic on the shady town green off Main Street.

After lunch, head just a few blocks away to the Museum of the White Mountains, which offers another way to experience New Hampshire’s best-known natural features.

The small gallery, owned by Plymouth State University, displays paintings of famous North Country vistas, including the Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge, as well as a few artifacts of life and tourism in the North Country, like old tourist maps and magazine advertisements. Our favorite was the circa-1859 menu from the old Profile House hotel in Franconia Notch, where you could order boiled “neat’s tongue,” raw tomatoes and, for dessert, something called the “floating island.” Kids might enjoy the museum’s treasure hunt, which challenges them to navigate the gallery using a small compass and written clues referencing details hidden in the works of art.

If you’re not yet ready to head back home, take Route 3A southwest to Groton, where you’ll find another one of New Hampshire’s geologic gems: Sculptured Rocks. The 272-acre park’s centerpiece is a narrow gorge carved by the Cockermouth River. Years of glacial action and natural erosion left the river’s rocky banks gouged into swirls and curlicues that look like pieces of modern sculpture. Small cascades and potholes swirling with river water make this a magical place any time of year. The higher ledges and downstream wading pools attract locals on warm weekends, and your kids may be tempted to take a plunge into the gorge, but it’s not something we’d recommend. Best to enjoy the dramatic views from above.

If you’d like to savor a bit more outdoors before heading back home, take a few minutes to explore the maze of hiking trails that lead beyond the footbridge across the gorge.

If you go

Polar Caves: 705 New Hampshire 25, Rumney; $16 for those 11 and older, $11 for children ages 4-10, free for children younger than 4; polarcaves.com

Museum of the White Mountains: 34 Highland St., Plymouth; admission is free; plymouth.edu/museum-of-the-white-mountains

Sculptured Rocks Natural Area: 251 Sculptured Rocks Road, Groton; 485-2034

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