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New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services

Designated Rivers
The Saco River Report to the General Court

Lower Merrimack River MapThe pristine Saco River lures recreationalists from throughout the Northeast who wish to engage in the fine fishing, canoeing, kayaking, sight-seeing, and camping opportunities which abound on its waters and banks. From its headwaters at Saco Lake high in the White Mountains, the river drops nearly 1500 feet in elevation as it flows for approximately 40 miles through the towns of Harts Location, Bartlett, and Conway before entering Maine and continuing on to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Saco River was designated into the NH Rivers Management and Protection Program in June 1990. Its basin is the only major river basin in New Hampshire which is currently meeting all of the surface water standards of the federal Clean Water Act. The watershed of the Saco River upstream from the New Hampshire-Maine border encompasses approximately 427 square miles, of which 80 percent is within the White Mountain National Forest.

With the exception of some scattered residential housing, private lands in the river corridor are generally undeveloped and forested. The town centers of Bartlett, North Conway, and Conway are located near the Saco River, but land use along the river has remained a mixture of agriculture and low-density residential uses.


In Harts Location, the Saco River flows through Crawford Notch, a spectacular, narrow, steep-sided valley with exposed rock cliffs. The upper Saco River is characterized by fast-moving water, tumbling over rocks and boulders with frequent cascades. Near the mouth of Nancy Brook, the river has cut a narrow gorge into the bedrock, forming a short turbulent waterfall. A number of steep, sheer cliffs or ledges are also present near the river, including Frankenstein Cliffs, Humphrey's Ledge, Cathedral Ledge, and White Horse Ledge.


Evidence of inhabitance in the Saco River Valley dates back nearly 10,000 years. Documented settlement of Native Americans, as recorded by Darby Field, dates to 1642, with the Pigwacket kin-based group. Major Native American trails have been found along the river and the potential for further archaeological discoveries exists. In the early 1800s, small farmsteads dotted the valley, particularly in lowland areas adjacent to the river. Numerous stone fences, dug wells, cellar holes, and the famous paddleford style covered bridges remain as evidence of early settlers. Two sites along the Saco River corridor are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Crawford Depot and the Crawford Artists Studio.

The Saco River drains the eastern slope region of the White Mountains.

The Saco River drains the eastern slope region of the White Mountains

Wildlife and Plant Resources

Because the Saco River flows primarily through the White Mountain National Forest, the continued presence of a large contiguous forested riparian habitat, capable of supporting a diversity of wildlife species, is assured. Notably, three breeding pairs of the federally-listed endangered peregrine falcon are known to be nesting along the river. A 1983 Saco River Basin Study by the US. Department of Agriculture listed that 56 species of mammals, 165 species of birds, 32 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 36 species of fish are supported by the river and the surrounding forest habitat.

According to the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Inventory, a state-listed endangered plant species, the inflated sedge, occurs near Saco Lake at the headwaters of the Saco River. A rare natural community, New England riverwash hudsonia barrens, is found in five locations along the river. The presence of riverwash hudsonia barrens is significant because the community is virtually nonexistant elsewhere on earth. Due to this, it has been given "globally rare" status by the National Heritage Network, a cooperative of biologists and Natural Heritage Inventories from the 50 states, six Canadian provinces and several Latin American countries. Two significant plant species are found within the riverwash hudsonia barrens. Though very rare in New Hampshire, the shrub, the hairy hudsonia, and the perennial herb, the White Mountain silverling, are listed as "globally secure."


Historically, the Saco River was one of the premier trout fishing rivers in the Northeast. Today, the natural reproductive capability of native fish populations has been exceeded by angler demand, and stocking of hatchery-reared brook, brown, and rainbow trout is carried out each year by the NH Fish and Game Department and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. On weekends, anglers congregate in the fly-fishing only section of the Saco River from Humphrey Ledge pool to Artist Brook. The Saco River also supports extensive spawning habitat for anadromous fish (fish that live in saltwater, but return to freshwater to spawn), but seven downstream dams in Maine currently prevent their return to New Hampshire. An effort is underway to require fish passage facilities at these dams, thereby restoring anadromous fish, including Atlantic salmon, to the New Hampshire portion of the river.


The natural beauty of the Saco River has been attracting visitors to the region for over 150 years. A regional boater' guide describes the Saco River Watershed as the "most impressive in all New England." The guidebook further describes the "majesty of this view" of the White Mountains from the riverbed as "breathtaking" on a clear spring or summer day.

The presence of clear, clean water and sandy beaches along the Saco River provide excellent opportunities for swimming, tubing, and other water-based recreational activities in all sections of the river throughout the summer. Campgrounds are located along the river from Crawford Notch State Park to Conway providing through private and publicly owned facilities, a full spectrum of camping experiences. For those desiring a more remote adventure, wilderness camping is available within the White Mountain National Forest and on isolated sandbars and, by permission, on private lands along the river.


The Saco River and its tributaries are used by thousands of people from throughout the Northeast annually for canoeing, kayaking and rafting. In early spring, the upper section of the river offers one of the most exciting whitewater runs in all of central New England. Between the Gorge at Notchland and the center of Bartlett, five miles of continuous rapids and occasional drops require whitewater expertise to navigate. From Bartlett to Conway, the river offers a popular run of medium difficulty with quickwater and intermittent rapids. From North Conway to the Maine border, the river is primarily smooth water with the exception of a few rapids between Conway and Center Conway.

Route 302 parallels the entire length of the Saco River and provides numerous access sites to the river. Canoeists and anglers frequently use bridge crossings over the river as access points. Conway also maintains three public access sites and the town beach in Bartlett is located on the river.

NH Department of Environmental Services | 29 Hazen Drive | PO Box 95 | Concord, NH 03302-0095
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