New Hampshire's Lost Waterfall Hunter

Sep 17, 2015

For the last ten years, photographer Chris Whiton has been combing through old guide books, hundred year old newspapers, and even modern maps to find lost waterfalls in the New Hampshire wilderness.  Some of them used to be located on old trails long since abandoned.  

Some, like the 70 foot Rumney Canyon Falls on Stinson Mountain, show no record of ever having been found.  As he told NHPR's Sean Hurley on a recent bushwack in the White Mountains, Whiton's hope is that by bringing lost waterfalls back into the public eye, some of them may become destination spots again.    

At the Gale River Trailhead in his hometown of Bethlehem, photographer Chris Whiton tells me about his grandfather, Clyde Smith. "He had a shop at the Flume, " he says, "The Flume Sign Shop they called it and his job was to make signs for all the trails in the area. I mean they've all kind of slowly rotted away by now. I think there's up one on Sanguinary Ridge up in Dixville Notch. It's just an arrow sign but I recognize his work."

Undated photo of Clyde Smith and one of his signs.
Credit Provided by Chris Whiton

It's the last of his grandfather's signs, Whiton thinks.  We head up the Gale River Trail, but where we're going, he reminds me, there won't be any helpful arrows pointing the way. "Hawthorne Falls. There's no hiking trail that goes near it. It still shows up on a lot of maps. Most people don't know about it. It's actually one of the first lost waterfalls that I ever went to. So it kind of started my passion for checking these out. Really kind of sad that something like that that used to be a destination just kind of got routed around and people forgot about it."

In the 1930's, hurricane floods destroyed the former trail.  "So they decided to reroute the trail," he says, "and they rerouted it away from this really pretty 70 foot tall waterfall. And ever since it's just been something out in the woods."

After crossing the Garfield Stream, we leave the known trail, but before we start bushwhacking Whiton warns me, "The woods aren't very friendly. There's so many blowdowns and holes and rotted spots."

After crossing Garfield Stream, we bushwhack alongside it a mile and a half further.
Credit Sean Hurley

We bushwhack alongside the stream, through constant branches, fallen trees, moss traps.  It's an overcast day. We hear thunder in the distance.  "This is when you want to photograph waterfalls cause you don't have sun glare," he says, "waterfalls usually you are dealing with a long exposure. Long exposures, the less light the better." 

Ten years ago, Whiton found his way here after reading an old guide book that mentioned Hawthorne Falls.  He grabbed his camera and spent two days wandering the stream until he found it.  "Took some shots, got back and thought to myself,  'You know it took me forever to figure out what this even looked like because there's nothing online there's no pictures online.'"

Whiton heads off into the woods.
Credit Sean Hurley

So, Whiton put his photos online and sent one off to the owner of a popular waterfall website. "And he posted that picture as his official photo of the falls and got them on Google Earth and a few other things. I thought that was pretty cool at the time because I was just doing this for fun."

It got even cooler when he noticed that his lone shot had put the forgotten place back on the map.  Now, he says,  "You go online now and look up Hawthorne Falls you find many trip reports and photos."

Whiton began to collect old maps and newspapers, and assembled a list of forgotten waterfalls.  

Hawthorne Cascades - The Three Sisters.
Credit Chris Whiton

  "So I thought wouldn't it be cool to go out and get a photo of each one of these? So I started doing that. I like to think I'm trying to bring them out to the public eye." 

So far, Whiton has found about fifty lost waterfalls.  "There's a bunch in Warren.  There's Oak Falls, there's Rocky Falls. There's Moose Falls in North Woodstock. There's one called Dixie Falls that shows up in one of these old logging books.  And I found an old timer up there that showed me where it was. That's way way up there near Dartmouth College Grant."

Whiton volunteers with Search and Rescue and during a training run on Stinson Mountain he came across one of the most spectacular waterfalls he'd ever seen. "And we couldn't find any name for it. Again, a giant 70 foot waterfall in a box canyon in an old lava dike. We couldn't find it in any book and I contacted some local historians in Rumney. couldn't find anyone who'd heard of it or knew of an old name. So we called it the Rumney Canyon Falls."

Rumney Canyon Falls.
Credit Chris Whiton

It takes an hour and half to walk a mile and half but finally we arrive. "This is Hawthorne Falls," he announces, "It's a beauty. When the waters roaring it's something else. It's one of the bigger White Mountain waterfalls out there. And to think 10 years ago I couldn't find a picture of this in a book, on the web, anywhere."

Hawthorne Falls.
Credit Chris Whiton

Now, there are clear signs of visitors around the edges.  Trampled moss, woodchips below fallen trees cleared by chainsaw. Whiton sets his camera on a tripod.  He'd normally come in late June with the river at its peak. If he was here alone, he'd take a thousand pictures and maybe keep two or three. He provides a quick lesson in composition, "A straight on shot of the waterfall is not usually the best thing. You want to get a nice rock or some leaves on the rock, a minor cascade below, something in the foreground. The trick of it is to get the person that's looking at the photograph to give their eyes a place to start and lead into the photo to end up at the main event."

Whiton sets up to take a shot of the falls.
Credit Sean Hurley

We stare at the main event. "I can't believe they didn't - when they switched the trails around back in the 30s - that they didn't make it still come this way, " he says, "because the Gale River Trail is pretty dull. There's nothing on until you get to the top. This would be a great diversion."

Up on a ridge in Dixville Notch, Clyde Smith's last wooden arrow has been pointing at the same trail for years now.  For the last decade, his grandson - using a different kind of arrow - has been pointing out all the places a trail could be in the years to come.

Watch the video of Sean and Chris's trek to Hawthorne Falls below:

Visit whitemountainimages.org to see more of Chris Whiton's wilderness photography.