Cold River Camp: A Gem in the White Mountains

I frequently come back from vacations wanting a few days to recharge. Despite finding our trips invigorating in many ways, the constant decisions (where to eat? what to do? when to do it?) and moving around can also leave me exhausted.

My family’s trips to Cold River Camp, in the White Mountains on the border between New Hampshire and Maine, always leave me refreshed. My family has made the trip every year since I was about two. Since moving to the west coast, I have not made the trip every year. With Kyle’s first trip to Cold River this summer, though, it seems like a good time to share some notes.

I have a hard time describing what it is like to be at Cold River, though. I can describe my typical day in camp, so I’ll start there.

 A Day at Cold River Camp

6:20am. Wake up, head to the lodge for a cup of coffee and sit on the porch, chatting or reading. If it’s cold, I sit by the fire.

7:00am. The fog horn (yes, a manually operated fog horn) sounds the wake up alarm, and the trail lunch table is ready. I go inside and make a sandwich (turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard, onion) and gather some snacks. Then, I head back to the porch for more conversations or reading.

7:30am. The fog horn sounds again, and it’s time to eat. I go inside and find a seat at a six-person table. Usually I eat with my family at breakfast, especially if we have not set our plans for the day, but otherwise I might sit with other guests. Breakfast consists of hot cereal with toppings, cold cereal, juice, a main (typically eggs, pancakes, or french toast), a meat, and fruit. Over breakfast, hike leaders announce two led trips for the day — typically a more ambitious hike and a less ambitious hike.

8:00am or so. We’ve wrapped up breakfast and hopefully made a plan for the day. We might join a led hike, come up with a family option, or plan something with other guests. I return to the cabin, brush my teeth, and finish getting my pack ready.

8:30 – 10:00am. The urgency to get out of camp depends on the ambitiousness and driving time to the hike.

Early afternoon. Return to camp (often after an ice creams stop) and take a shower. Depending on how close it is to dinner, I might go down to the river, check in with work email on the wifi hotspot at the camp office, pick and eat berries, or read at the lodge or cabin. By 5:30pm, though, I am usually back at the lodge to hear about other people’s days or to read.

6:00pm. The dinner horn blows and I head into the lodge to find a table for dinner. Dinner, also served family style, usually includes salad, bread, a main, at least one side, and dessert. On the Saturday — arrival day — and Thursday, dinner is instead a buffet style barbecue outside, if weather permits. The food is good and filling. A travel journalist once called Cold River an “eating camp with a hiking disorder.”

After dinner, I might attend an evening program in the rec hall (square dancing or a presentation on hiking elsewhere in the world), play a board game in the lodge, or read some more. Others drive down to the blind to look for moose. On Friday night, the camp gathers for a talent show.

Typically, I turn in pretty early — by 10:00pm, often earlier. My family has been going to Cold River in August for the last several years, which makes for cool nights and great sleeping weather. Some nights, I will stay up late to watch the stars, especially if our visit coincides with the Perseids.

The Camp

Cold River consists of several cabins, with accommodations for around 70 guests. The cabins are rustic — the majority don’t have electricity or bathrooms. For me, that adds to the charm, but it means that the Cold River experience is not for everyone. Cabins have either a wood burning stove or fireplace, a welcome feature on cooler nights.

There are central bathrooms on either side of camp. The rec hall and lodge have electricity for evening reading and socializing, as does the library.

A short trail leads to the camp’s namesake, where a dam creates a small swimming pool on one side. On the other, water flows over rocks creating places to sit and read or play.

Baldfaces seen from Baldface Knob, White Mountain National Forest
The Baldfaces seen from Baldface Knob

The Hiking

If you are vaguely familiar with the White Mountains, you probably know Mount Washington and the Presidentials. Cold River Camp sits two valleys to the east, in quiet Evans Notch / Cold River Valley.

This location means you are a twenty minute drive or less from several wonderful hikes in the valley, including some that leave directly from camp. Many more — the northern Presidentials and the Carter Range — are within an hour’s drive. An hour and a half will bring you to the trailhead to Zealand Falls or to Franconia Notch.

With that mix, you can find a shaded walk to a beautiful green swimming hole, a modest climb to views, or a scramble over granite ledges. Others walk to mines to look for garnet or amethyst. Once a week, the camp typically leads a canoe trip on the Saco or Androscoggin rivers.

I’ve written up my favorite hikes in the Evans Notch area, including the Baldface and Carter ranges, and in the Presidentials. For more, the AMC White Mountain Guide offers in-depth descriptions of every trail in the White Mountains, and the corresponding maps are excellent. That amount of depth may overwhelm someone new to the White Mountains, but visitors to Cold River can draw on the experience of the hike leaders and other guests to find the right hike for any group and any day. Don Devine and the Chatham Trails Association also publish a Cold River Camp Hiking Guide (available at camp), with more focused recommendations, suggestions of how to combine trails for the best hike, and driving directions right from CRC.

Hiking in the Evans Notch area

Hikes in Presidentals

What this doesn’t capture

The details above still fail to describe the magic of Cold River, so I’ll describe a bit more of what keeps me coming back.

You may have noticed that the typical day does not require many decisions. What hike will you do? Will you stop for ice cream? If so, what flavor will you get? What do you want on your sandwich? Will you go to the evening program? I find that this helps me detach from work and relax much faster than I can on many other vacations. Consequently, I return from Cold River refreshed more than most other trips.

Cold River also brings together many wonderful people. While growing up, we tried to go the same week most years, which gave me almost an extended set of cousins to hike with and run around camp together. We would not see everyone every year, but I always looked forward, and still look forward, to seeing my Cold River Camp friends.

Being able to split up for hikes — and join others for led hikes or “bootlegs” with other guests — meant that one parent could do a more ambitious hike while another stayed with me and my brother when we were young. As we got older, it meant that I could stretch my teenage legs on ambitious hikes. In the afternoons and evenings, I could run around camp and play board games with others, while my parents read, played games or music with other guests, or attended the evening program.

Now, I look forward to going back to Cold River and the White Mountains to see the other guests and to see my family.

Cold River Camp hikers enjoy lunch on the summit of Caribou, White Mountain National Forest
Cold River Camp hikers enjoy lunch on the summit of Caribou, White Mountain National Forest

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