Franconia Notch State Park's (tel. 603/745-8391) 8,000 acres, nestled within the much bigger White Mountain National Forest, host an array of scenic attractions easily accessible from I-93 and the Franconia Notch Parkway.
The Flume is a rugged 800-foot gorge through which the Flume Brook tumbles. A popular attraction in the mid-19th century, it's 800 feet long, 90 feet deep, and as narrow as 20 feet at the bottom; visitors explore by means of a network of boardwalks and bridges on a 2-mile walk. Early photos of the chasm show a boulder wedged in overhead; this was swept away in an 1883 avalanche. If you're just looking for an easy, quick hit of nature, it's worth the money. But otherwise set off into the mountains and seek your own sights without the crowds and cost. It's open from mid-May through mid-October, weather permitting, 9am to 5pm (a half-hour later in July and Aug). Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for children ages 6 to 12. Walk or snowshoe the grounds free in the off season.
Echo Lake is a picturesquely situated recreation area, with a 28-acre lake, a handsome swimming beach, and picnic tables scattered about, all within view of Cannon Mountain on one side and Mount Lafayette on the other. A bike path runs alongside the lake and meanders up and down the notch for a total of 8 miles. Take exit 34C to get to Echo Lake Beach; admission to the state park is $3 for visitors over age 12, $1 for visitors age 12 and under.
For a high-altitude view of the region, set off for the alpine ridges on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway (tel. 603/823-8800). The old-fashioned cable car serves skiers in winter; in summer, it whisks up to 80 travelers at a time to the summit of the 4,180-foot mountain. Once up top, you can strike out on foot along the Rim Trail for superb views. Be prepared for cool, gusty winds. The tramway opens from lay May to late October and costs $11 round-trip for adults, $7 for children ages 6 to 12.
The Old Man of the Mountain: Gone, but Not Forgotten -- If you haven't been back to New Hampshire for a while, you might not know that the famous Old Man of the Mountain stone face, hanging high above Franconia Notch's Profile Lake, came suddenly crumbling apart in 2003 after a spring snowstorm, and could not be restored. Local son Daniel Webster once famously wrote: "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men."
This was almost certainly the state's most beloved natural attraction, and you can believe me when I tell you that the collapse of the Old Man was a physically painful event for many native Granite Staters -- almost something akin to losing a family member. Don't expect to see the Old Man's vaguely native American (or maybe vaguely Abe Lincoln-esque) face staring down the notch ever again, but he does live on in the official state emblem (seen on police cars, state offices, and highway route signs) as well as on postcards, calendars, stamps . . . and in the long, long memories of true New Englanders.