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Rugged beauty and solitude without a long hike

At Pillsbury State Park, Mill Pond spills over a dam, feeding this stream. A campsite atop an ancient stone abutment overlooks the racing water. At Pillsbury State Park, Mill Pond spills over a dam, feeding this stream. A campsite atop an ancient stone abutment overlooks the racing water. (Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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WASHINGTON, N.H. - Nothing says New Hampshire like chunks of granite sticking out of a mountain-ringed lake. Tilting at shorn-off angles that suggest their crystalline composition, these stones, as much as the sheet of gray-blue water surrounding them, anchor the stillness that pervades Pillsbury State Park. Add the smoky light of early fall, a mist softening the water’s glaze at both ends of the day, the rhythmic dip of a paddle, and the shoreline lighted in crimson and gold, and you have an accessible slice of paradise. After school starts, the summer throngs thin to a trickle, leaving a quiet broken chiefly by the splash of a fish or the rustling of a chipmunk in fallen leaves.

A little less than an hour northwest of Keene, in the southwestern corner of the state, Pillsbury feels far more remote. Of its vast area - 8,135 acres, the size of a respectable Western ranch - the surfaces of seven ponds account for 2,600 acres. The rest is covered in forest and threaded by six main hiking and mountain-biking trails, including a stretch of the 51-mile Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, which links Mount Monadnock with Mount Sunapee to the north.

With 41 rustic campsites, most tucked along the edges of the two largest ponds, Pillsbury engulfs campers in a sense of solitude usually reserved for backpackers willing to trek deep into roadless hinterlands. (The park contains a few campsites accessible only by canoe or kayak, and others where campers need to carry in their gear after parking, but even the most distant hike-in campsite lies only three-quarters of a mile from parking.) With no showers, electricity, or flush toilets, even car campers can sample the quiet joys of a weekend uninterrupted by the slamming doors and glaring lights of a shower building. And the ubiquitous granite, known for its power to mangle even the stoutest steel propeller blades, prevents powerboats or personal watercraft from entering these ponds, so the whine and rumble of motors - and their paddler-soaking wakes - are delightfully absent.

One thing backpackers might envy here is the chance to bring along kayaks or a canoe to Pillsbury’s tranquil waters. (Campers can also rent them right in the park.) The ponds may be shallow and placid, but their granite islands and irregular shorelines, studded with boulders as big as most tents, lend themselves to paddling explorations.

By far, water is the park’s defining asset. The two main ponds, May and Butterfield, are linked by two shallow channels passing between jutting boulders, each channel no more than six feet wide. They are called the Narrows, but the name, conjuring a hull-puncturing squeeze, is scarier than it needs to be. With no current or wind, it isn’t hard for even novice paddlers to thread this needle. (Overall, it’s hard to imagine a less intimidating place for inexperienced paddlers to hone their skills.)

On a September weekend, a kayak outing launched from one of the shoreline campsites took in the shifting moods and dramatic contrasts of autumn. The aroma of campfire smoke clung to the water’s surface. Chimneys of mist rose from the hillsides, spreading out into strands of milky vapor that floated against an orange-crimson backdrop. After a while, enough sun filtered through to melt the veil, and the ghost of a giant white pole and a three-bladed propeller emerged atop nearby Lempster Mountain. One after another, stark white windmills materialized from the mist, enormous even from a distance. The pale forms of this new wind farm, though proportionately massive on the low hills, possess a sculptural elegance.

A light, hurricane-season drizzle saturated the colors of the slopes and sharpened the scent of balsam wafting from shore. In a quiet cove, a pair of loons popped up from a dive, one after the other. As anglers in these parts know, these shallow ponds with their marshy edges provide ideal habitat for pike, pickerel, and small- and large-mouth bass, as well as hornpout (a.k.a. catfish), all of which in turn support abundant waterfowl. At dawn and dusk, the keening of Pillsbury’s loons floats over the water like echoes from a lost world.

In the evening, after a meal cooked over the fire, a steady rain blew in. The muffled thrumming of raindrops on the nylon tent swallowed all other sound. The air flowing in through the tent’s mesh windows smelled of fresh water, overripe berries, and drenched leaves. By dawn the rain had lifted. A morning kayak paddle around a wooded jut of land proved blissfully solitary - an almost too-peaceful way to end the weekend, guaranteeing a rough reentry into normal life. The sky was clear, and the angled sun lighted the park road, now a corridor of hot color leading back to the world.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at regan-brown.com.

If You Go

Pillsbury State Park

Off Route 31

Washington, N.H.

603-863-2860

nhstateparks.org

Reservations:

ReserveAmerica Call Center

877-nhparks

(877-647-2757)

newhampshirestateparks.re

serveamerica.com.

The park office is open late April to late October, but campsites are open until Dec. 1, weather permitting. Water, pit toilets, a playground, canoe and kayak rentals available. Campers at waterfront campsites can rent canoes and tandem kayaks at day rates ($40 a day, solo kayaks $30 a day). Campers at other sites must rent by the hour. Firewood costs $6 a bundle. Note: All rentals and purchases are cash only. In addition to paddling, the park allows warm-water fishing, hiking, and mountain biking, but no motorboats. Pets are welcome, subject to state park rules (see website).

Camping fees: $23 per tent site a night, plus a 9 percent state room and meals tax, covers two adults and two children under 18. Each additional adult is $11, child $5, with a maximum of two tents, four adults, and six people total. (For RV and other rates, see www.nhstateparks.org/state-parks/rates.aspx.)