Driving to Brattleboro on Route 9 west from Keene, about six miles outside the city, I made an unplanned stop at the Chesterfield Gorge Natural Area.
It had been a while since I visited this geological phenomenon but on this hot day it seemed appropriate. What could be more refreshing than a short walk into a cool ravine? Just the thought of looking at the tumbling, white water brought me relief.
Chesterfield Gorge is a well-known wayside stop for travelers looking to stretch their legs or have a picnic lunch. On this August afternoon there were many cars with out of state license plates in the parking lot.
There is an ample amount of picnic tables here, and a seasonal Visitor Center with a restroom (flush toilet). And the added bonus of the 0.7-mile loop trail through the gorge. Pets permitted but must be in the designated area only.
After stopping at the Visitor Center, which is open and staffed, Thursday through Sunday, from 9 A.M - 5 P.M. until October 31, I started on the easy wide gravel path (white diamond blazed Gorge Trail) that descends into the cool ravine shaded by a hemlock forest. Ravines are classic locations for hemlock which prefers its feet in or near water. There are also huge beech and yellow birch trees here.
Moments later I turned left and heard the gurgling waters of Wilde Brook as it dashed over slabs of smooth bedrock.
Wilde Brook starts in a swampy pond area uphill from the park. It moves through the gorge before settling down into Partridge Brook. Ten miles later Partridge Brook merges with the Connecticut River.
I continued downhill on the steep needle-softened path past towering hemlock, savoring the splashing sound of the brook.
Five minutes from the start I crossed a small footbridge. A minute later I crossed a second, bigger wooden footbridge that spans the stream.
Turning left, I began the steep descent down the side of the gorge. Pipe railing has been erected along the trail here to guide hikers away from drop offs. The protective metal fence was constructed years ago after the dog of a prominent woman fell to its death from the steep embankment. Use caution with young children.
Here is a spectacular sight of the water as it tumbles, gushes and splashes through the narrow ravine in a string of impressive waterfalls, making a long drop onto granite ledges, forming a pool, and then spilling out below over a cascade of boulders. You will definitely want to linger.
A few minutes later is a view of the cliff covered with bright green mosses and lacy ferns opposite the ravine. The imposing geological feature was formed when the bedrock layers, which are not parallel to the earth’s surface, sloped downward along a fault. Wilde Brook, created from meltwater, flowed through the fracture, wearing away the bedrock over thousands of years until the present day.
I continued downhill and reached the bottom. The gorge ended abruptly. A final footbridge here crosses the stream. But before you cross, stop and look back upstream. The quiet pools and feathery hemlocks overhanging the high cliffs make a tranquil spot for reflection.
Crossing the bridge, I began my ascent of the gorge. Shortly I reached an outlook with benches that afforded another spectacular view of a series of cascades - a 75 foot long, silver ribbon squeezed between the sheer rock walls. After admiring the view, I continued uphill to another good vantage point of the string of tumbling waterfalls.
Here too is a view of the “Minuteman” in the ledges. The last time I was here I had trouble discerning the unusual natural rock formation. But there he was at full attention for my viewing pleasure.
I continued uphill and came to the first bridge that crossed stream. Taking a right turn, a few minutes more of walking brought me back to my car feeling greatly refreshed.
In the late 1800s, Chesterfield Gorge was a popular tourist attraction. Old timers called it the ravine or the glen. But guests at the Silverdale Hotel on Spofford Lake had a far more elaborate name: “The Grand Canyon.”
George White, a local farmer, was instrumental in the preservation of Chesterfield Gorge. White bought the land in 1936 and sold 15 acres to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. The land was then donated to the State of New Hampshire.