Chesterfield Gorge off Route 9 in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, is only about 13 acres in size, but it packs more interest and drama in each of its acres than any other park in the state. In recent years the Gorge had suffered from neglect and disinterest, but the great news is that it has recently made a wonderful comeback, and it has been all though the work of a small group of dedicated volunteers. Chesterfield Gorge was formed through a shift in a fault line creating a channel for flowing water. Over the millennia Wilde Brook has eroded the rock and continues to carve its way through tumbling cascades and dramatic falls. From top to bottom the Brook drops about 175 feet on its way to Partridge Brook and then to the Connecticut River. The park was created as the result of the foresight of one local farmer. In 1936 George White bought the 15 acres around the gorge to protect it from logging. He eventual sold the land to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, who donated it to the state for preservation. Officially, the Gorge was set aside as a geological preserve to highlight the interesting rock formations.
The Old Man of the Gorge
The area features a .7 mile Loop Trail which follows both sides of Wilde Brook through the Gorge. It is an easy/moderate hike along the edge to the bottom of the drop. Along the way there are various points to observe the brook as it cuts through steep rock formations and over a series of waterfalls and cascades. Although the Old Man in the Mountain slipped from the side of Franconia Notch in 2003, Chesterfield Gorge has its own “Old Man.” The Old Man of the Gorge, as I call it, protrudes from the west wall, watching over the beginning of the long cascade. It is seen best by looking up from the first long view on the west bank. To me it looks like a colonial soldier wearing a tri-corner hat, but you may need to squint a bit to appreciate the full effect.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the Gorge had suffered from the effects of shrinking state budgets. The trail and bridges which encircle the gorge had fallen to disrepair and most of the dramatic trail side views of the falls had become suffocated by the uncontrolled growth of trees and shrubs. The visitors center was closed and the rest rooms were boarded over. The region was at risk of loosing one of its most valuable natural attractions, but happily a small group of local volunteers have stepped in to save the day.
The Friends of Chesterfield Gorge
The Friends of the Chesterfield Gorge was organized in 2010 with the goal of improving the trails, and facilities, and making the park a
more pleasant, family friendly attraction. The Friends have done amazing work improving trails, repairing and replacing bridges, cleaning up the picnic areas and performing routine maintenance in the park. That guy mowing the lawn around the parking lot is a volunteer, not a state employee, but the Friends have also worked to increase the state government’s appreciation of the value of the Gorge, and it seems hopeful that more state support will be forth-coming. They have promised to refurbish the visitors center, create a gift shop and reopen the bathroom facilities.
A few weeks ago we on the Chesterfield Conservation Commission had the privilege of joining the Friends of Chesterfield Gorge in the dedication of a new Kiosk erected next to the Gorge parking lot. The Kiosk provides information about the gorge, but also includes a great new map showing all the public lands and trails in Chesterfield. It is a perfect place to welcome visitors to the many natural attractions of our town and to highlight the work done by the Conservation Commission, the Friends of the Gorge, the Friends of Pisgah State Park and many other regional volunteer conservation organizations. New Hampshire is wonderfully rich in natural treasures and sadly poor in the governmental commitment required for their preservation. Without the tireless work of volunteers our state’s priceless natural resources would fall to neglect over development.
Sculpting the Compositions
After the dedication of the Kiosk, the friends of the Gorge led a hike along the refurbished trails. The effect of their work has been remarkable. The views from the trails have been opened revealing dramatic vistas of the tumbling waters that I had not seen for years. Sections of the trail are quite steep, but although care is still needed, the footing has been much improved. A new foot bridge at the bottom of the Gorge was built by a local Boy Scout and is beautifully constructed. The most exciting part of my hike along the loop trail was that the members of the Friends kept asking me, as a photographer, how I thought the trail could be modified to improve the vistas. Really?! Imagine walking a trail and being able to point out the obstructing branches or unsightly piles of brush. I felt I was sculpting my future compositions with a group of people who were thrilled to have the input. The energy, dedication and excitement of the Friends of the Gorge is truly remarkable.
There is still more to be done at the Gorge and the most difficult test will be how the volunteers and the state are able to work together to maintain the park in the long-term. We in the Conservation Commission will continue to support and applaud their efforts. Come visit the Gorge when you are in New Hampshire’s southwest corner. It is easy to find and a joy to explore and while you are there remember the volunteers whose hard work has made the Gorge the special place it is today.
For more images check out the Chesterfield Gorge Album on this week’s Getting it Right in the Digital Camera Blog.
Also Check out : “Waterfalls of Cheshire County”
The Gorge Natural Area is located on Route 9 west of Keene, NH. It is about 5.6 miles west of the intersection of Routes 101 and 9 in Keene. Look for the sign on the right side of the road. The area has a parking lot which accesses the trial.
~ Jeffrey Newcomer