Getting outside this winter is going to be essential as we double down in various levels of seclusion. Short walks will help keep you open to the wide world. The other day, I started to drive down Route 113 from Conway toward Madison and decided to visit the Madison Boulder. I hadn’t been there in 15 years.
I soon turned right on Boulder Road and followed the signs. I parked in the small dirt parking lot. There were four cars already there, half hunters and half visitors to the boulder. I put on hunter orange, passed a gate and walked 10 minutes to the boulder, passing an extended family on their way back out to their two cars.
The mansion-sized boulder came into view, a gray monolith. I paused at the new kiosk to read about the geology, then walked around the boulder, touching it occasionally if lichen or stains from water caught my attention. I took some photos, and had to stand back in front of it to get the whole boulder in the frame.
I looked at the older State Park sign on the back of the kiosk, and walked back to my car.
I could end my column here, but the experience was really the tip of the iceberg. I called my friend Brian Fowler, geologist and friend of the White Mountains. A resident of Madison in the late 2000s, he was instrumental in raising money to rejuvenate the Madison Boulder property, partly from private individuals and partly from federal funds — the Madison Boulder being a National Natural Landmark — one of two in the state along with Franconia Notch State Park.
Work began with the staff of the White Lake State Park sandblasting graffiti off the boulder. A gate was put up to block the older larger parking lot. From a smaller parking lot, the road was improved for handicapped access, now an easy 10 minute walk in. A new kiosk was built by a carpentry class at Kennett High School. Lee Wilder of the New Hampshire Geological Survey wrote a brochure and information poster for the kiosk.
The story of the boulder itself is fascinating. As the Late Wisconsin Ice Sheet moved southeast, it moved smoothly up the northwest slopes of the mountains and plucked rocks from the southeastern slopes.
The Madison Boulder was originally part of Whitten Ledge on the shore of today’s Whitten Pond, a mile and a half away. This was proved by geologist Wallace Bothner, who took samples from both Whitten Ledge and another nearby ledge called B & M (railroad) Ledge. The sample from Whitten Ledge matched exactly, while the other did not.
Technically, the boulder is called a glacial erratic because it moved from one rock type to another. It now sits on a rock called Concord Granite, different from Whitten Ledge, which is Conway granite. Taking into consideration that 10 feet of it is underground, it is 23 feet high, 37 feet wide and 85 feet long, and weighs an estimated 5,963 tons.
This spring, geologist Thom Davis did a unique measurement using cosmogenic dating. With permission, he chipped a piece from the boulder and measured how long it has been exposed to the sun, or uncovered from glacial ice. The result was 13,500 plus or minus years, yesterday in geologic time.
It has been a decade since Fowler’s involvement in restoring the Madison Boulder site, but today he remains involved with the New Hampshire Division of Parks and their six geological wayside parks, including Madison Boulder, the Old Man of the Mountain Memorial Park in Franconia Notch, Chesterfield Gorge in Chesterfield, Sculptured Rocks in Hebron, Mount Pisgah in Swanzy, and Plummer’s Ledge in Wentworth.
Ed Parsons of Tamworth has written a hiking column for various newspapers in the Mount Washington Valley, and for the Conway Daily Sun since the early 1990s. Since moving to Tamworth 7 years ago, he ranges frequently into the Lakes Region for hikes as well.