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A camp between the notches: Kicking back in the White Mountains

A small falls on the Zealand River at Sugarloaf Campground in the White Mountain National Forest.  The Sugarloaf camping experience in the White Mountain National Forest.
A small falls on the Zealand River at Sugarloaf Campground in the White Mountain National Forest. The Sugarloaf camping experience in the White Mountain National Forest.
©Stillman Rogers Photography

For four generations our family has chosen to spend summer vacations camping in the National Forest at Twin Mountain, ever since the 1940s, when the original Zealand campground snuggled between the Ammonoosuc River and Route 302.

A small falls on the Zealand River.
©Stillman Rogers Photography

Saving a forest, creating a wilderness

Back then the land was only beginning to recover from decades of clear-cut timber operations that had virtually lain the mountains bare. This timbering devastation, which covered much of what is now the White Mountain National Forest led to devastating fires, causing John Weeks, a Massachusetts Congressman with New Hampshire connections, to introduce a bill authorizing the federal government to buy land to preserve and maintain as national forests. The bill became law on March 1, 1911 and National Forests came into existence. (Weeks’s NH estate on Route 3 in Lancaster NH, between Whitefield and Lancaster, is now a state park with hiking and nature programs). Since then the White Mountain National Forest has been an ideal place for camping vacations.

A trio of campgrounds with three different experiences

Today, the forest has matured and regenerated and has returned to its natural state. Still there, the original Zealand campground (named for a lumbering ghost town that once stood nearby) is an open camping area along the Ammonusuc River. Zealand. While a pleasant campground, it has the disadvantages, from our perspective, of being mostly an open, non-forested area and close to busy Route 302 which forms the northern edge of the camping area. Uphill, away from the noise of the highway, lie two additional camping areas, originally begun as CCC projects during the late 1930s, their completion delayed by World War II.

Sugarloaf I with 29 campsites

The facilities at Sugarloaf I include flush toilets and water from faucets powered by a solar-operated pump. None of the sites has electricity. Most of the sites at this campground are tenting sites, with steps up or down between parking space and campsite. Most are nicely carved into the woods, preserving privacy and a sense of being surrounded by nature.

Sugarloaf II with 33 sites

Sugarloaf II, a short distance uphill from Sugarloaf I, is different in that most of the sites allow campers to back into the site for off-loading. We like this feature because it allows us to keep our food supply safely locked up in our truck so as to not attract bears. The toilets at Sugarloaf II are enclosed pit type toilets, instead of flush. The water supply at Sugarloaf II runs only when you apply energy to the handle of the pump – we use it for clean-up, but prefer to buy drinking water in town. Like its sister, the sites at Sugarloaf II are nicely carved into the forest. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- its more primitive facilities we prefer Sugarloaf II.

The Sugarloaf experience

First there is the quiet, the separation from the gaggle of modern life, the absence of computers and the chance to relax, rest and get some exercise. For us, one of the most enjoyable things about camping is cooking on a campfire. A family of long-time campers, we can cook anything at camp that we can do at home but with a different sense of accomplishment. One favorite meal is freshly prepared chili with corn bread baked in a reflector oven in front of the campfire. Another is lamb shish kebab cooked over the coals, and pancakes with maple syrup usually wins in the morning.

The road up to the Sugarloafs is also the road to the trailhead of one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the state. leading up the Zealand River to Zealand Pond and Zealand Falls with views down into one of the last great natural wilderness lands. The trail ends at the Zealand Falls AMC Hut and meets there with the famed Appalachian Trail. That trail leads hikers east toward Mt Washington or west to Mt Guyot and Mt Garfield.

In the campgrounds themselves are also shorter but interesting trails. They lead to the Zealand River, which flows down past the campgrounds and down into the Ammonoosuc River. These trails are a wonderful way to enjoy the forest, to try to identify trees and discover amazing funghi along the way. The river itself is a beautiful rushing small stream that plunges over and around rocks but which can become a raging torrent after heavy rains, a real joy to experience.

Things to do away from the campground

The Sugarloafs are also nicely located about halfway between New Hampshire’s two great notches, Crawford Notch to the east and Franconia Notch to the west. Franconia Notch, in addition to outstanding natural sites (I think of it as the Yosemite of the east) also has the Aerial Tramway, an exciting family experience and family boating and swimming in Echo Lake Beach State Park at the foot of Cannon Mountain. Crawford Notch is home to the trails and programs of the AMC Highland Center at the gateway to the notch, and above the notch is the historic Mount Washington Cog Railroad, the first cog railway in the world.

Getting There

Access to Zealand and the Sugarloaf campgrounds from the eastern side of the White Mountains is via I-95 to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and then Route 16 north through North Conway. When it turns right in Glen, continue straight ahead on Route 302 past the Mount Washington Hotel to the campgrounds on the left. From the western side of the Whites take I-93 north through Concord, and into the White Mountains at Franconia Notch. At the head of the Notch exit I-93 onto Route 3 toward Twin Mountain (a village in the town of Carroll). Route 3 intersects Route 302 at the far end of Twin Mountain. Turn right onto Route 302, and the campgrounds are about 3 miles on the right.