05-Who Knew? – Rollins SP

For over twenty years I’ve driven on the interstate past Rollins State Park without having any idea of exactly what I was missing.  To me, that’s precisely why the NH park system is having financial troubles – who knows what they have to offer?

It came as quite a surprise to me to read that Rollins is the home of a scenic paved road climbing nearly to the top of Mt. Kearsarge.  Built in the 1930’s by the CCC, it promises beautiful views and the kind of easy “up the mountain” experience that many bigger parks have made famous.  Maybe it’s just too easy for the mountaintop purists, but heck, even grandmas and couch potatoes can enjoy this one!  Last blog I expressed my frustration when, hoping to enjoy the park on a warm Sunday in April, we arrived to find the sign “Closed For Season” and the gate locked (in spite of the web site’s promise of the park being “always open”).  So this week, on another beautiful Saturday, I decided to take advantage of the situation: I would ride my bicycle up the empty road, without fear of cars, buses, and motorcycles, and then hike the easy last half mile to the top.  What a treat it was!  Surprisingly, in nearly two and a half hours, I saw only two other cyclists with the same idea.

A view on the way up the Rollins scenic road.

It’s easy to be critical of others, although it is usually more a reflection of the speaker’s state of mind than the object of criticism.  But my goal with this blog is not to be negative and criticize, but instead to share my thoughts, and, in this case, to offer ideas and a fresh perspective from one outside the park system.  It’s no surprise that the state park system is having a problem generating revenue and interest.  It’s written all through their 10-year strategic plan recently published in 2010.  To my mind, Rollins State Park is just loaded with untapped potential that could address both of these issues: revenue and audience.

Fact is, some state parks get all the attention.  In 2009, Mt. Washington, the Flume, and the seacoast beaches generated over half of all state park revenue.  Add one more park, Pawtuckaway, to that list and these big hitters combined for two thirds of all park revenue.  All this means that the other 33 parks just aren’t pulling their weight, for whatever the reason.  Some of them can’t and never will to be sure, but to my mind others like Rollins have lots of promise.  How might a marketing mind approach this?

Let’s start with the offer: every park has something special to offer.  In this case it’s a scenic drive to one of the premier views in the state, and one less subject to the vagaries of the weather than Mt. Washington, our most famous mountaintop park.  Hundreds of inscriptions carved into Kearsarge’s granite summit by 19th and 20th century visitors attest to its enduring appeal.  See blog #4 for photos of them.

A view to the south from halfway between the scenic road’s parking lot and the summit.

In demographic terms, this is just what the park system says they are looking to do – reach out to people who aren’t the typical park users.  There are plenty of people this should appeal to: handicapped travelers, families with very young children, older visitors, or those who just don’t have the time or inclination to climb mountains on their own.  In geographic terms the same is true.  None of the park system’s “heavy hitters” are in this part of the state, and at just 6 miles from the interstate it’s convenient to a huge number of travelers  on I89 who might never even get to the seacoast or Mt. Washington.

So what can be done to get the word out?  Here’s a simple idea: what about adding a single line to the sign on the interstate?  Instead of just “Rollins State Park”, why not add “scenic toll road”?  I count myself as pretty aware of New Hampshire’s major tourist attractions.  I’ve read brochures.  I’ve read guidebooks.  I’ve driven the interstate hundreds of times over the last twenty-plus years.  I’ve stopped in Warner well over a hundred times.  I’ve even visited the nearby Kearsarge Indian Museum several times, and it’s less than 5 miles from the park.  In all this time I had no idea that the scenic road even existed, and I doubt that I’m any different from most other folks.  What about adding a sign just off exit 9 and before all the gas stations, stores, and restaurants that could announce not only the road but also whether or not the park is open?  With thousands of people traveling the interstate every day, surely a few of them will get the idea in their head that there’s something here to be experienced.

Or what about promoting what I did?  What about a race up and down the mountain?  The road is paved and in very good shape and once the snow melts the way is free and clear.  I can see it now: the “Kearsarge Killer 12K”.  Have it in April when it’s outside of tourist season.  Have it on Patriot’s Day – the same day as the Boston Marathon.  Even better, have it on Fast Day, New Hampshire’s quirky ex-holiday that once fell on the 4th Monday of April.  Get it?

I would think the town of Warner would be eager to promote the park, too.  Does the park system ever partner with local governments?  Getting a little more traffic to Warner’s downtown and the Indian Museum would be a good thing.  Any way you look at it, this state park has a lot of untapped potential in my opinion and very little investment is needed to begin to tap into it.

Now a few minor details.  The scenic road was well paved and had 4-5 turnouts.  The park map lists a picnic area about a half mile down from the parking lot.  However this consists of a single table with no views and looks like it has never been used.  The road ends at a parking lot and picnic area about a half mile from the peak.  From the parking lot there are two trails to the top: the Rollins Trail and the Lincoln Trail.  The Lincoln is little used, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to use it in the future either.  The lower part was steep scrambling over a boulder field.  Even though it flattened out with a few nice views (see above picture), I don’t think it was worth the trouble.  The Rollins is much easier and has much better views on the way up.

Happy travels!

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