The Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center at Crawford Notch (tel. 603/278-4453), on Route 302 in Bretton Woods, is a newish, multipurpose facility on 26 acres of AMC-owned land. It's a great headquarters for hikes into the surrounding mountains. Under one roof, you can book a tour, hike the path that passes nearby, bunk down for the night in the Highland Lodge, eat communal dinners, or use L.L.Bean gear for free (yes, really). It's open year-round.
From June through mid-October (but only Sat-Sun after mid-September), the Center is also the hub for two AMC-operated hiker shuttles (tel. 603/466-2727). These vans cruise the mountains, depositing and picking up hikers; they're useful, though pricey -- but if you haven't brought a car, this is really your only option. Rides cost $14 one-way, regardless of length; AMC members get a $2 discount.
Much of the mountainous land flanking U.S. Route 302 falls under the jurisdiction of 5,700-acre Crawford Notch State Park (tel. 603/374-2272), established in 1911 to preserve lands that had largely been decimated by aggressive logging. The headwaters of the Saco River form in this notch, and what's generally regarded as the first permanent trail up Mount Washington also departs from here. Several turnouts and trail heads invite a more leisurely exploration of the area as well. The trail network on both sides of Crawford Notch is extensive; consult the AMC White Mountain Guide or the White Mountains Map Book for more details.
Up the mountain slopes that form this valley, hikers can spot a number of lovely waterfalls, some more easily accessible than others. Arethusa Falls has the highest single drop of any waterfall in the state, and the trail to the falls passes several attractive smaller cascades en route. It's especially beautiful in spring or after a heavy rain, when the falls are at their fullest. You can enjoy a 2.6-mile round-trip to the falls and back via either the Arethusa Falls Trail or a 4.5-mile loop that takes in views from Frankenstein Cliffs (which were not named for the monster doctor but for a landscape painter). If you're coming from the south, look for signs to the trail parking area just after passing Crawford Notch State Park's entrance sign. From the north, the trail head is a half-mile south of the Dry River Campground. At the parking lot, use the sign and map to get your bearings, then cross the railroad tracks and start up the trail to the falls.
For another waterfall experience, continue north on U.S. Route 302 to the trail head for tumultuous Ripley Falls. This easy hike is a little more than a mile, round-trip. Look for the sign to the falls on Route 302 just north of the trail head for Webster Cliff Trail. (If you pass the Willey House site, you've gone too far.) Park at the site of the Willey Station. Follow trail signs for the Ripley Falls Trail, allowing about a half-hour to reach the cascades. The best swimming holes are at the top of the falls.
Take a Dip in the Saco -- During the lazy, hazy (sometimes crazy) days of summer, the Saco River -- which runs through this valley -- offers several good swimming holes just off the highway. They're unmarked, but you can still find them. Here's how: Watch for clumps of local cars parked right off the side of the road for no apparent reason. The trail you find will either lead up a mountain or, more usually, to the oasis. Let the soaking and splashing begin.
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.