Bellows Falls from Fall Mountain

Watch the view from 1855 morph to 2006

Sesquicentennial of Henry David Thoreau's hike is Sept. 10, 2006.

The one mile climb to the Table Rock overlook on Fall Mountain has been a favorite local hike for hundreds--maybe thousands--of years. You have to ask around to find the trailhead. It's far from obvious. It's in no brochure. There are no trail markings. The entry has a locked gate, but only to stop vehicles. No one minds if a family hikes up the antenna access road.

Bellows Falls, VT from Table Rock April 14, 2003 by Dan Axtell

The view above has been lithographed and photographed for more than 150 years, always from the same spot, a small, flat outcropping called Table Rock.

"Bellows Falls from Table Rock; From a Lithograph made in 1855" (scanned from reprint of History of Rockingham 1753-1907)1

 The view of the gorge of the Great Falls on the Connecticut River would be enough of a reason to make the hike, but there's much more to see. There is history spread out before you and at your feet (Henry David Thoreau stood here on Sept. 10, 1856). 

You can see:

About the hike

The climb is mostly steep with some loose gravel in dry weather and slippery rocks in wet weather. Still, it is an enjoyable hike if taken at a leisurely 40-minute pace. At the clearing by the high voltage  power lines, look up and you might see some hawks riding the thermals. Thoreau saw some. Once past the power lines, you're suddenly in real forest. Almost immediately, you see striped maple, a reminder that you're in the north woods. The smooth, green bark with vertical stripes and oversized leaves make this species unmistakable. Surprisingly, there are several 25-foot striped maples, about as tall as this tree ever gets. It's also called moosewood because it makes good winter and spring browsing for moose and deer. There are deer in these woods, but obviously not enough to keep the striped maples chewed down.

There's a grove of witch hazel here, with the lopsided serrated leaves that look like elm except that there are no elms around here any more. Feel free to wander off the trail a bit as you explore; there is no poison ivy on Fall Mountain.

And then, you're in a dark hemlock forest, near an always-wet spring. The only evergreens here seem to be fir, but maybe you'll find others. As the climb gets steep, you'll see the typical hillside birch and beech along with a wide variety of others. The steep, rocky ground is unstable enough that the standing trees barely outnumber the downed trees. The forest is recovering since the days "the mountain burned over with fair frequency, fires started by locomotives on the railroad along the base, and by hunters--quite a sight at night."3

In the forest, the dull sound of traffic is filtered out, but the good sounds penetrate. Every quarter hour, you'll hear the Bellows Falls clock tower. Occasionally, you hear a train whistle.

You're not going to the radio antenna; there's no view there, so bear right when there's a choice (no signs, of course). You're going to follow the rocky edge of the ridge a quarter mile past the antenna's power lines, going mostly downhill.  The family-friendly view is from the first big rocks you see.  These rocks are fun to climb on and give you a good view. If you're a grownup, you want to follow the trail down to its end: Table Rock, named (some people say) because it's flat as a table. You can look down the cliff unhampered by any safety barrier.

The 1963 Walpole Town History gives one account of the trails and buildings on Fall Mountain, although the Rockingham history disagrees a bit.  In 1849, a carriage road was built up the mountain as an excursion for visitors coming to the new hotels on the new railroad. Sometime after that, the Mountain House at Table Rock was built and "could be seen for many miles up and down the river, with it Grecian architecture and white pillars." The Mountain House "blew down in a gale New Year's night 1864 and was never rebuilt."3 (Does anyone know of a picture of the Mountain House?)

According to the 1957 Rockingham history, "While amusements and events occurring a hundred years ago are outside the scope of this work, it is interesting to note that the familiar trail leading from North Walpole up to Table Rock on Fall Mountain or Mt,. Kilbourne, had its inception that long ago. In fact enterprising youth of 1864 erected there what was fondly called the Mountain House. Perhaps it was to take their minds from the war between the states and perhaps to test the virility of both young ladies and gentlemen as they trekked up the that narrow path, so familiar to young folks of today, in their hoop skirts and tight pants.  Without these encumbrances, some of the present generation have found it hard going! But the new edifice did not stand up to the winds for long and it blew down that same year. There is also an account of a 'Grecian Temple' built up there as early as 1849, also blown down the mountainside in 1861 and the first path carved from the wood was ready for celebration up there in 1842."4

It's great fun to tramp around on the mostly-level ridge. You might get far from the trail, but you'll find your way back eventually. In mid-July, the wild blueberries are so thick, that you can eat as fast as you can pick. On my July hike, some stinging flies kept my visit fairly short. They may have been greenheads; they stung, but didn't leave any lasting bites. There is a lot of standing water on the ridge, so the insect life is as rich as the plant life.

I hike up only in the morning, before 11:30, when the sun is behind me on Table Rock. Once the sun swings south, the photography isn't so good. Sure, some morning river fog might ruin photographic possibilities, but a hike up Fall Mountain is never a waste. In the morning, you'll probably have the mountain to yourself. On a summer's morning--weekday or weekend--I'll feel a bit guilty that the mountain is unshared. Someday this beautiful, stubborn rock will be rediscovered, as it should, and become as crowded as in 1856.

Why Is Fall Mountain So Unknown?

The published histories of Rockingham, Vermont and Walpole, New Hampshire barely mention Fall Mountain and Table Rock--and their brief accounts don't agree much. I have yet to find a travel guide from any era that mentions the hike. I conclude that the problem is purely political. Walpole doesn't much care about a view of Bellows Falls Village in the town of Rockingham, Vermont--and Rockingham isn't likely to suggest that visitors go to New Hampshire and merely look at the Bellows Falls merchants from afar. For instance, the 1963 Walpole Town History shows an uninspired view from Fall Mountain towards the south instead of towards Vermont. Rockingham's Town History has multiple pictures from Fall Mountain, but there is no picture of the spectacular, looming Fall Mountain.

Further, the summit of Fall Mountain is close to the boundary between Sullivan and Cheshire counties, so gazetteers from both counties apparently don't see the mountain as a major landmark. In Cheshire County, the problem is greater, since Fall Mountain is puny compared to Monadnock. Foliage season adds complications. The southern Connecticut River Valley (along with Lake Champlain) peaks a week or more later than the rest of Vermont--about October 18, so it doesn't fit in well with statewide foliage promotion. Who's going to schlep up to Bellows Falls when the Berkshires in Massachusetts are just as colorful? Maybe some hikers and heritage tourists, but you people are two of the lowest-spending categories of visitors!

Thoreau's visit in 1856 provides a good example of Fall Mountain's ignorability. No local history mentions his hike. Vermont Life twice has mentioned his Vermont visit, but said little (and nothing good) about Fall Mountain. The The Fall 1954 issue said that he took the train to Bellows Falls to visit his his old Concord friend, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), in Walpole. The Summer 1989 article was specifically about the disappointing qualities of the Connecticut River valley he found here. Vermont Magazine also had an article in the July/August 2001 issue. These articles did not attract pilgrims to Fall Mountain.

Just 16 days after Thoreau visited, the mountain was christened "Mount Kilburn" after John Kilburn, an early settler on the south end. The name "Mount Kilburn" or "Mount Kilbourne" stuck for less than a century. Some maps show the highest point as "Fall Mountain" and a secondary peak on the ridge to the south as "Mount Kilburn." By the latter half of the 20th century, no one referred to "Mount Kilburn." The christening ceremony included Professor Hitchcock of Amherst College, after whom Lake Hitchcock, the post-Ice-Age glacial lake, was named.

About the Photos

As of 2005, I have used a one megapixel digital camcorder in still picture mode. For panoramas, I used a tripod and stitched the pictures together with a version of PhotoVista from 1997. In my limited experience, any panorama stitching program works fine. The camcorder, a 2001 Panasonic PV-DV851, has excellent optics and the 10x zoom (zoomed all the way in) is enough for this purpose (equivalent to about a 35mm wide angle lens for a 35mm camera). I tried a 4 megapixel camera in 2005, but the optics were not as good and the detail was poor. 

The April 2003 picture is notable for the snow visible on the north (right) side of the paper mill buildings in the foreground. An early April snowstorm along with cool temperatures preserved the snow piles until late April. Fall Mountain always holds some snow until April, but the climb that day was a slippery, wet adventure. This is one of the first panoramas I made. I hadn't leveled the tripod, so, after rotating the picture, the bottom right corner of the panorama was missing. That's why I put the description where the east end of the bridges belongs. The glimpse of the greenery on the far right came at great risk. I kept my eye in the viewfinder as I panned to the right. For the rightmost photo, my left foot stepped off the edge of Table Rock and I nearly became a part of the long history of Fall Mountain.

The October 2003 panorama took several tries. A stitched panorama needs a nearly cloudless sky, because the photos must overlap and moving clouds will muddle the photo. A partly cloudy day makes an odd photo, because the clouds' shadows are distracting. There is often morning fog. You can hope that it will clear by the time you reach the Rock, but there's no way to predict. If the view is pure fog, well, then you'll have to justify the morning outing as good exercise and a chance to stop at the Bellows Falls Cash Market's butcher counter on Route 5 ("Lisai's", pronounced "Lee Size") for that great marinated chicken or some stuffed pork chops. You can also stop at the Discount Food Warehouse in North Walpole on Route 12 to get some surprisingly good deals on high quality non-perishable food. Or just walk around the Bellows Falls Square. What a marvelous, enduring, old village.


1 - Hayes, Lyman Simpson. History of the Town of Rockingham Vermont 1753-1907.  Bellows Falls, Vermont: "Published by the Town," 1907.

2 - Klepper, Michael, and Robert Gunther. The Wealthy 100. Citadel Press, 1996. (measures wealth as a proportion of the contemporaneous U.S. gross domestic product)

3 - Frizzell, Martha McDanolds. A History of Walpole NH. Walpole: Walpole Historical Society, 1963. p. 407.

4 - Lovell, Mrs. Frances Stockwell and Lovell, Leverett C. History of the Town of Rockingham Vermont 1907-1957. Bellows Falls, Vermont: "Published by the Town," 1958. p. 203

Henry David Thoreau on Fall Mountain

The big panorama from Table Rock, Oct. 13, 2003

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Photos and web page by Dan Axtell