Bethel's stately, historic homes ring the Bethel Common, a long, rectangular green space created in 1807 atop a low, gentle ridge. (It was originally laid out as a street broad enough for training the local militia.) The town's historic district encompasses more than two dozen homes, most of them within a Frisbee toss of this green and all of them representing a range of architectural styles once popular in the 19th century. White clapboards are certainly predominant.
The oldest home here is the 1813 Moses Mason House, now a museum housing the collections and offices of the Bethel Historical Society (tel. 800/824-2910 or 207/824-2908). Mason was a doctor and local civic leader, willing to try anything once, including building his Federal-style house on a stone foundation. His compatriots assured him that the house would topple over in a gale, but it didn't, and all local houses were soon being built on similar foundations. Mason also commissioned an itinerant painter -- possibly the renowned landscape artist Rufus Porter -- to paint his foyer and stairwell. The result is an engagingly primitive panorama (still in pristine condition) of boats at anchor in a calm harbor flanked by a still forest of white pine. The museum, at 14 Broad St., opens to the public in July and August, Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 4pm. Admission is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children 11 and under.
Grafton Notch State Park -- Grafton Notch State Park straddles Route 26 as it angles northwest from Bethel into New Hampshire. This 33-mile drive, one of my favorites in the state, is both picturesque and dramatic, and unlike the Kancamangus Highway, it's never stop-and-go (there are no services along the way; gas up if needed). You begin by passing through fertile farmlands in a broad river valley before ascending through bristly forests to a glacial notch hemmed in by rough, gray cliffs on the hillsides above. Foreboding Old Speck Mountain towers to the south; views of Lake Umbagog open to the north as you continue into New Hampshire. The foliage is excellent in early October most years as well. This route attracts few crowds, though it's popular with Canadian tourists (and Canadian logging rigs loaded up with big trees) heading for the Maine coast.
Public access to the park consists of a handful of roadside parking lots near scenic areas. The best of the bunch is Screw Auger Falls, where the Bear River drops through several small cascades before tumbling dramatically into a narrow, corkscrewing gorge carved long ago by glacial runoff through granite bedrock. Picnic tables dot the forested banks upriver of the falls, and kids seem inexorably drawn to splash and swim in the smaller pools on warm days. From mid-May through mid-October, $2 per person admission is charged to the 3,000-acre park (discounted for kids, free for seniors); get a pass at a self-pay station in a parking lot.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.