Pawtuckaway State Park
Mary Grace Hamme of Waltham, Massachusetts, takes in the view near a pond at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, New Hampshire. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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Over the border and through the woods, to Pawtuckaway State Park we go.

If you’ve been to Pawtuckaway in Nottingham, New Hampshire, about an hour and a half from Portland, then I don’t need to tell you about its charming moss-covered forest floor, enormous glacial erratics, the plethora of ponds, and rad fire tower.

If you haven’t, then allow me to introduce you.

Pawtuckaway State Park
Hamme peeks through a pile of boulders in Pawtuckaway State Park. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

At a glance, Pawtuckway features 32 miles of family-friendly hiking trails and the paddle-perfect Pawtuckaway Lake. Look a little closer and you’ll note the trails strewn with massive boulders (some as big as a house), the community of beaver dens, and the old cellars and cemeteries featuring the names of settlers who tried to farm the land in the 1800s. 

Well before the settlers’ arrival, the area was hunting and gathering ground for the Pennacook, Algonquian-speaking Indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands. In the Algonquin language, Pawtuckaway means “land of the big buck.”

And a long time before any human foot met the ground here (well before humans existed at all) there was a volcano. 

The three peaks of Pawtuckaway State Park – South Mountain, Middle Mountain, and North Mountain – are the remains of that ancient volcano, which erupted here (maybe a couple of times) more than 100 million years ago.

While hard to see when you’re traipsing through the park, these peaks form a ring dike: A circular formation resulting from the collapse of a volcano’s caldera (the cauldron-like chamber where all the magma is before it’s spewed out during an eruption). Take a look at a topographic map of the area and you’ll easily see it.

More recently, maybe 18,000 years ago, a mile-thick ice sheet made its slow-going way over that ring dike, breaking off chunks as it crept along, only to drop them again a little while later like it decided it didn’t want to bring those big rocks home after all. 

Pawtuckaway State Park
The view from the Pawtuckaway State Park fire tower. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Turns out, today’s humans appreciate that decision. Those boulders are a popular place for bouldering climbers, and they’re impressive to see even if you decide not to climb on them and instead just pose for pictures while peeking through a crack or pretending to hold up a precarious-looking rocky overhang. 

The whole park is truly a looker at every turn. The trails lead hikers up mountains, through boulder fields, and across rivers. The variety of terrain is fantastic. Want some root-scrambling elevation? Done. Want an easy-going path along a pond? Done. Meander by the marsh, take over the fire tower. And during paddling season you can explore Pawtuckaway Lake.

It’s easy to pack on the miles here, partly because there’s so much to see, but also because it’s easy to get turned around (my group did during our first visit a couple of years ago). So arrive prepared with a trail map (there are often trail maps available at kiosks at the trailheads), download the AllTrails map, and keep your eyes peeled while hiking.

Who knows what historical, geological, or magical things you’ll see.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

Pawtuckaway map
Topographical map of Pawtuckaway State Park, with its volcanic ring dike, from the University of New Hampshire Library Digital Collections Initiative. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Pawtuckaway State Park

The main park entrance is at 7 Pawtuckaway Road, Nottingham, New Hampshire; there are also other parking areas with access to trailheads around the park. Admission (pay at iron ranger during the off-season) is $5 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-11; children 5 and under, and New Hampshire residents 65 and over, are free. For more info: https://bit.ly/3HFbS4H.