Hiking a Monster: New Hampshire’s Frankenstein Cliff

September 18, 2012 — I'd like to tell you that New Hampshire’s Frankenstein Cliff is so named because a monster made out of human corpses (or the mad scientist that created him) met his doom there. The real story of its name is, well, very German. I'll skip the details, since I covered it in my New England book, but in short, the rock is named after a German artist whose family was named after a German castle that may or may not (and probably not) have been one of the inspirations for Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein.

Actually, that’s the whole story, so I don’t know how I filled space with that in my book. Especially since at the time, I’d only gazed at the cliff’s granite face. This weekend I walked on its…granite head? I'm not a huge outdoorsman, so I don't know all the terminology.

Sunday was an amazing Fall day in central New Hampshire, breezy and with a temperature barely daring to break the 60 degree mark. The only flaw was that we were about two weeks too early for the changing foliage. That’s a big flaw, admittedly, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t live my entire life during those two glorious red and gold weeks. Although I still try.

Frankenstein Cliff is a 2500-foot sheer face of rock located in the White Mountains. It’s surrounded and topped by varicose hiking trails, and we were there to hike two in particular, the Frankenstein Cliff Trail and the Arethusa Falls Trail, which connect in a loop. All told, that’s about five or six miles of wondering why we thought it was a good idea to hike at our age and fitness level. Also, the path gains about 1400 feet of rugged elevation, meaning lots of clambering up, followed by lots of stumbling down.

But all the shin splints and abrasions were worth it for the three major sites of the trail loop, which starts and terminates at a parking lot off Route 302. We decided to start with the Frankenstein Cliff section.

Going in that direction, it wasn’t too long before we crossed under Frankenstein Trestle. Named for the same Godfrey Frankenstein whose other namesake was towering over us, the elevated train bridge was originally built in 1875 out of wrought iron and then replaced in 1893 by a steel version. Today, it’s mostly used by the scenic railway out of North Conway.

Between you and me, I’ve never taken a hiking trail that I didn’t get confused and turned around on. Actually I’ve never taken a highway where the same didn’t happen. Where it went wrong this time was right under that looming trestle. For some reason I thought we were supposed to climb up the steep, inclined ground that led to the train tracks and then go across the trestle.

That’s right. Cross the 120-year-old framework of creosote-covered steel.

No official signs told me not to, nor for some reason did any of the preservation instincts supposedly bequeathed to me by my cavemen ancestors. And the rest of my life I’ll wonder why my wife followed me over.

At least she was there for what turned out to be some of the more terrifying moments of my life.

The trestle floats more than 80 feet off the rocky ground and stretches in a curve across some 520 feet of chasm. The width of the trestle is just barely more than a single track. On one side, three feet of grating and a rusty guardrail parallel it. On the other, nothing put pure air and a drop straight down the cliff. In hindsight, this path was only meant for the rural equivalent of people who wash skyscraper windows.

In fact, upon returning home, I searched the Internet and found very few pictures of anybody crossing this stupid thing. The few that I could find were taken by ice climbers who obviously have death wishes just judging by the nature of their chosen hobby.

I did find this video.

My entire crossing was an out-of-body experience as my soul itself abandoned me out of fear that my body would plummet to the ground. The condition I earlier described in beatific terms as “breezy” now became a murderous wind attempting to blow me over the side. I concentrated on my feet, but could see straight through the grate down into the rocks below. Some of those grate tiles were alarmingly loose and bent and gave a little bit with my weight. Every time I turned my head to check on my wife, vertigo would complete the turn with my innards.

We finally made it across after what seemed like the length of the extended cut of The Lord of the Rings, but it must have only been about a minute or two judging by the fact that I held my breath the entire time.

Once we crossed it, it was immediately apparent that the trail didn’t go that way. The railway hugged the sheer rock and continued on into the foreseeable distance without a single trail blaze painted anywhere. That meant we had to either recross the trestle or spell out “help” in a big bonfire of birch branches…and neither one of us brought any matches. It felt like that scene in every horror movie where the entire cast survives a particularly tense event, only to be forced to do one stupid thing too many right afterwards, with predictably deadly results.

So we cried, puked, beat the blood back into our knees, and made the return crossing.

Part of the reason I got confused was that the blue blazes that had to that point marked the trail turn to yellow around the trestle. This differently colored part of the trail wended up the cliff, swinging close enough to get within touching distance of some of the vertical rock. After about a mile of that muscle strain, the trail opened onto a massive outcropping of granite with the kind of views reserved for those who died horribly on trestles and are floating to the afterlife.

It was an amazing view that must intensify beyond my faculties of imagination when the Fall colors blossom. From that vantage, we saw a vast panorama of rivers and roads and mountains, even a tiny snake of train whistling its way toward the trestle. My faculties of imagination also fail when trying to consider what would have happened had we met the train there. Probably something I deserved.

From that point, the path more or less sloped downward for about two or three miles, where it ended at the base of Arethusa Falls.

Named after a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem about a nymph (Percy, of course, being the husband of Mary Shelley, by the way), the falls is formed when Bemis Brook suicides over 140 feet of orange granite. It’s a really striking waterfall, spreading in a wide, flat cataract straight down the rock face like it obeys two different laws of gravity. The river below was low and full of large rocks, and you could walk right up to the bottom of the falls for an wet and intimate experience quite easily.

From there, it was a little over a mile back to our car, and by the time we made it there we were dirty, wobbly, and craving Slurpees.

All together, it was about four hours of hiking, including stops and one or two moments of passing out. Based on the way my legs still feel as I write this, my calves must've pulled a Grinch's heart that day.

But I do know that I will always find it difficult to look at the pictures we took of Frankenstein Trestle.