Arethusa Falls and Bemis Brook (NH)

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

Note – 10/11/10: In their October issue, Backpacker Magazine inaccurately listed Arethusa Falls as a Virginia destination. The falls are in New Hampshire.

This three mile hike leads to Arethusa Falls, which is (arguably) New Hampshire’s tallest single waterfall. The optional arm along Bemis Brook is challenging in spots, but offers more lovely stream scenery.

Arethusa Falls
Arethusa Falls might not be the most photogenic of New Hampshire’s many waterfalls, but it is likely the  tallest. Below: The optional side-loop trail along Bemis Brook takes you past Coliseum Falls.

Coliseum Falls

Christine Says…

We originally planned on combining these two trails with Frankenstein Cliffs to make a loop, but unfortunately we ran short on time and just did the three mile out-and-back.

The trail along Bemis Brook was extremely tough walking!  In addition to the roots, rocks and mud, we suffered a full-on mosquito assault.  I spent a lot of the walk along the trail cursing and flailing my arms wildly.  Even with DEET, the little buggers hovered right around my eyes, ears and nostrils, constantly buzzing in too close and getting caught in my eyelashes.

There were several very pretty small waterfalls along the Bemis trail.  Coliseum Falls were especially picturesque.  Since it was such a sunny day, I didn’t bother with a tripod.  Long exposures weren’t a possibility in the harsh sun, so I just took snapshots along the way.  The climb from Bemis Brook back up to the Arethusa Trail was practically vertical.  We had to climb, hand-over-hand, grabbing roots and rocks to drag our way up the mountainside.  There was one blown down tree that was particularly difficult to negotiate.  It was one of those fallen trees that was a little too high to climb over, but a little too low to scramble under.  I decided to clamber over it, and ended up getting my boot toe caught on the tree trunk.  I took a spectacular fall down onto the roots and rocks.  It absolutely left a big black and blue mark!  I was really glad when we finally saw the junction with the Arethusa Trail!

Frankenstein Cliffs
This trailhead for this hike offers beautiful views of Frankenstein Cliffs looming overhead. The trail has an option to lengthen the hike by a few miles to gain access to the top of the cliffs. We ran out of time and had to pass on that option. Below: Trails in the area are clear and well-marked.

Trail Sign

The rest of the way to the falls was much easier.  It was uphill and muddy in spots, but the trail was well-graded and nice to walk along.  The last stretch to Arethusa Falls led downhill into a chasm that opened to an amphitheater like setting.  The falls were very impressive!  The water falls like lace over the sheer rock face.

On the hike back, Adam and I waffled about whether or not to continue our hike up to Frankenstein Cliffs.  We even started down the Cliffs Trail, before turning back in less than a tenth of a mile.  We had plans to meet my parents in North Conway, and we just didn’t have time to finish the loop.

Instead, we visited the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center and got a few Cokes and relaxed in their lobby.  After we met up with my parents, we had an amazing lunch at Moat Mountain Brewery & Smokehouse.  If you’re ever in the area, don’t miss their barbecue and microbrews!

Adam Says…

Arethusa Falls is a gorgeous 160 foot waterfall that is very popular with families.  We started on the blue-blazed trail near the railroad tracks at the parking lot.  After about .1 miles, you come to a junction with the yellow-blazed Bemis Brook Trail.  We decided to do this side trail, since it goes partially along the water, guiding you to a few pools and smaller falls areas.  Once you come up to the Coliseum Falls area, you will need to climb up almost vertically up the trail to join back with the Arethusa Falls trail.  If you do want to do the Bemis Brook trail you should do this at the start of your trip rather than trying to descend it at the end.  This part of the trip was tough and takes a lot of strength out of you in a short distance, so plan appropriately.  Once we reached the junction at the top, we took a left to return to the Arethusa Falls trail.  The trail continues to go uphill until you reach a junction with the Cliffs Trail.  From this point, you continue downhill until you reach the falls in .2 miles.  You return the way you came, but you will avoid the Bemis Brook Trail on the way back and just stay on the Arethusa Falls trail to reach your vehicle.

Arethusa Falls was named after the poem, “Arethusa” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.  The falls were discovered by Edward Tuckerman, but named by Moses Sweetser and Professor Huntington in 1875.

Bemis Trail
The Bemis Brook Trail follows a beautiful stream for most of the way, until you get to the portion where it climbs, nearly vertically, back up to meet the Arethusa Trail. Below: The Arethusa Trail is much easier to walk – smooth and well-graded, compared to the Bemis Trail.

Arethusa Trail

While I was off hunting for a geocache and Christine was taking some photos, she struck up a conversation with a man hiking solo on the trail.  When I got back to them (after sliding down the hillside 20 feet on my butt), he wanted to take a look at my map.  He was thinking about doing the Frankenstein Cliffs trail and then looping back to make it to his car.  He was to meet up with his wife in less than two hours to take a ride up Mount Washington on the cog railroad.  We told him that it might be hard to make it in time.  He decided to go for it, but I don’t think there was any way he could have made it back in time for his trip up.  We both pictured his wife riding solo up the railroad, muttering to herself, and awaiting the moment she could give her husband a piece of her mind.

There are two geocaches you can get on the trail:

We wish we had more time to do the Frankenstein Cliffs trail (these are named after an artist, not the doctor who created a monster), because we have heard that it does give you some nice views from the top.  The trail is allegedly muddy and not as well maintained as the Arethusa Falls trail.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3 miles, out-and-back (2.8 if you leave the Bemis Brook Trail off and just stay on the Arethusa Trail the entire way)
  • Elevation Change – 650 ft to the falls.  There might be a bit more climbing if you do Bemis Brook.
  • Difficulty – 3. The Arethusa Trail is squarely moderate.  The Bemis Brook trail is more difficult with one killer climb uphill at the end.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.5 The Arethusa Trail is in nice condition most of the way.  There are some muddy spots and we encountered a flew blow downs.  The Bemis Trail is not easy walking.  There are numerous fallen trees, tricky footing and if it’s the slightest bit damp, the trail is very slippery.
  • Views –0. You’ll be in the woods the entire time.
  • Waterfalls/streams 4. The falls are large and impressive, but not terribly photogenic.
  • Wildlife – 0. The heavy human traffic probably scares any wildlife away.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5. Trails are marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 2. Because the hiking is a little more challenging, you won’t see the same crowds as you do at Flume Gorge or Sabbaday Falls.

Directions to trailhead:
From I-93, follow New Hampshire Route 302 west through Crawford Notch State Park.  A few miles past Sawyer Rock Picnic area you will see the Arethusa Falls parking area on the right.

4 thoughts on “Arethusa Falls and Bemis Brook (NH)

  1. Andrew Szalay

    The Bemis Brook trail looks like a challenge at the end. Great photo illustration. Thanks again for covering some routes in the northeast. As for me… I’ll be hitting up Shenandoah in a few weeks, I hope.

    Andrew Szalay


  2. Jeff Weeks

    Nice post! This is the location directly responsible for my current interest in photograpy. It was at the base of Arethusa Falls, in late October 2006… the snow was flying, and sticking to the persimmon berries all around the large pool at the bottom… and my point-and-shoot camera died forever before I could fire a single shot. I bought a DSLR for myself for my birthday and the rest is history. I can still see the scene in my head, and know exactly how I would frame it! Maybe one day…


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