The mysterious Thompson Falls


5-12-12-parsonsThompson Falls. The trail approaches the falls from the left. (ED PARSONS PHOTO)Thompson Falls, located on a rushing mountain stream at the base of the east side of Moat Mountain, is a mysterious place. Though found on the 1942 USGS North Conway quadrangle, and briefly described in the AMC White Mountain Guide back in the 1950s, it fell from public awareness for a long time.

Also, the half mile Thompson Falls Trail didn't become an official White Mountain National Forest foot trail until last year, and was brought into awareness only because of the 14 miles of "user created" mountain bike trails in the surrounding area at the base of the Moats, that were then officially recognized by the forest service. And, it was designated as a foot trail only because it was too steep to be designated as a mountain bike trail.

Often that which is nearby, is overlooked. Thompson Falls, though nearby, has had an air of mystery for a long time. It was "discovered" and named by Benjamin Champney, the driving force behind the White Mountain School of landscape painters in the 1850s. Here is an excerpt from his book called "Sixty Years' Art and Artists."

"One day, Mr. Thompson, the landlord, said that he knew there was a waterfall behind the White Horse Ledge because he had heard its road while he was in that logging camp in that neighborhood in the winter. He gave us directions for finding it, fitted us out with a mountain wagon, loaned us his son William for a driver and guide. We drove through all the woods roads in vain, and were about to give up the search, when young Durand and myself determined to make a last effort, and after traveling through the dense woods for half a mile, we found the stream, and following it down heard the rush of waters and soon caught a glimpse of the chaotic masses of broken ledgy rocks. We at once named it

Thompson's Falls, and hastening back to our comrades, we gave them such glowing accounts of our discovery, that we all wished to return the next day for sketching, and we did, and every day for a week, William drove us over and we painted the wild scene. It was, however, a hard place to find until we had blazed the trees and cut away many impediments. It has remained to this day, a mysterious place, and many visitors have failed to find it after a resolute attempt."

Thomas Starr King, the Boston Unitarian minister who wrote "The White Mountains, Their Legends, Landscapes and Poetry" in 1859, was aware of Thompson Falls. "One of my favorite excursions of those who remain long in North Conway, is to the Ledges, Thompson Falls, and Echo Lake on the other side of the Saco, the extreme distance being only three miles. The falls flow down a spur of the Mote Mountain just in the rear of the lower ledge. The loose rocks are thrown about in such complete confusion that it strikes the eye, fresh from the finished landscape around the meadows, as a patch of chaos too obstinate to be organized into the general Cosmos."

Today as then, to see Thompson Falls is to see other places along the way. This year, two trails in the same area have been added to the 29th addition of the AMC White Mountain Guide — the Thompson Falls Trail and the 1.9 mile Moat Mineral Site Trail. The best way to get to Thompson Falls is to start out on the Moat Mineral Site Trail.

To get there from Conway, take West Side Road and then a left on Passaconaway Road. In 1.9 miles, bear right on High Street. Continue after it turns to dirt and in 1.8 miles bear left at a fork and continue to the Mineral Site Trail parking lot at the end.

Start out on this pleasant old trail. In almost a mile, you enter the mineral connecting area, and can see many mounds of earth and rotten granite up to your left, where rock hounds have dug for quartz crystals and other rocks over the years.

Old prospectors such as Peter Samuelson of Fryeburg have dug there for years, and remember another era when you could drive into the site. He remembers when Swede Ohlson, the head ranger of the Forest Service's Saco District at the time, used to occasionally drive in after work and prospect. Times have changed.

Continuing on the Moat Mineral Site Trail past the digging area, the trail starts making switchbacks downhill. It is frequently used by mountain bikers, so hikers must be aware.

In 1.9 miles from your car, you reach the wide dirt forest service road called FR 379. For a nice loop hike to Thompson Falls, turn right at that point. Walk down the road for three tenths of a mile, passing a gate along the way. A tenth of a mile after the gate, the Thompson Falls Trail (as yet without a sign), enters the woods on your left. If you pass an old road entering on your left with a brown numbered sign, you have gone too far.

As you enter the woods on the Thompson Falls Trail, a mountain bike trail called the Lower Stony Ridge Trail coincides with the foot trail for 30 yards, then swings right. The Thompson Falls Trail bears left.

As you continue up to the falls, the sound of the brook grows ahead. You are walking on a old trail where many people climbed to the falls, even during its long period out of public awareness.

Finally you are there, and no words are necessary. With care, climb out onto the flat top of the boulder located right next to the falls.

It is best to go there in high water, or after a good rain. This weekend would be good.

To complete the small loop, the trail continues uphill past the falls. It climbs beside the brook for a way, then bears left, where you soon reach FR 379. Take a left on the road, and descend for two tenths of a mile to the Moat Mountain Mineral Site Trail on your right, and return to your car the way you came.

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