When you start out on the trail at Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, it seems like any other New England trail. But before long, you feel as though you’ve been transported to some kind of tropical land.
The trees become sparser, and the gigantic rhododendrons start to take over. Their wide, flat leaves look like something you would see in a jungle and the enormous, fragrant flowers in bright white and pinks are completely dazzling. But that’s not even the best part. As you go along the trail, there are several spots in which the branches all weave together in a beautiful way and bushes have grown tall enough to create a flowery tunnel to walk through. It’s absolutely magical.
The rhododendron maxim found in this park bloom later than the ones typically planted in yards that bloom in the spring; they are at peak bloom in mid-July, so there is plenty of time to still get out there and enjoy this gem. Due to the large size of these bushes, the trail is a shady and cool way to spend some time outdoors.
In addition to the main Rhododendron Loop Trail, you can explore the Laurel Trail and the Wildflower Trail.
The Wildflower trail is maintained by the Fitzwilliam Garden Club, and visitors will appreciate the small little signs along the way advising them of what is growing where. Also on this trail is a garden club visitor registration station where you can sign your name and thoughts in the notebooks provided.
Along with looking out for wildflowers, birders will appreciate trying to spot the multitude of often-spotted and heard species on the trails this time of year, including ruffed grouse, white-throated sparrow, towhee, chickadee, warbler, woodpecker, flicker, sapsucker, nuthatch and brown creeper.
Rhododendron, which means “rose tree,” prefer acid soils, according to New Hampshire State Parks, and grow in association with hemlock as well as red maple, and here, where the soil is drier, yellow birch trees. Evergreens and oak shed needles and leaves that create the deep acid humus needed by rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Where maples and other deciduous trees drop their leaves, the soil becomes more alkaline, hospitable to different species.
Rhododendrons are members of the heath family, which includes blueberries, cranberries, mountain laurel, heathers, trailing arbutuss and wintergreen, and you can find several of these relatives growing along the trails in the park.
This grove is the largest in New England and was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1982. The land was gifted to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in 1903 and then transferred to the N.H. Division of Parks and Recreation. Since then, it has been operated as the state park system’s only designated botanical park.
The park is 16 acres, but the trail is only about a half-mile long. The rhododendron property’s trails are wide and flat, universally accessible and appropriate for an inexperienced hiker.
If you are looking for a more challenging hike after finishing at the rhododendron property, the Little Monadnock Mountain Trail branches from the rhododendron grove loop and climbs for one mile, where it joins the Metacomet-Monadnock (MM) Trail. There is a vista of Mt. Monadnock, Pack Monadnock and North Pack Monadnock Mountain at the junction of the two trails.
Rhododendron State Park has a “carry in carry out” trash policy and is pet friendly, although pets must be leashed and waste must be cleaned up. There is a suggested donation of $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 6-11, which can be put in a self-pay box at the trailhead. There are outhouses available, as well, to the left of the parking lot. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk.
For more information, or disability accommodations, call (603) 532-8862 or visit nhstateparks.org/visit/state-parks/rhododendron-state-park.