You've probably heard of Stonehenge—that mysterious collection of megaliths (big rocks) over in the old England. But did you know that America has its own Stonehenge in New England?
If you want to see a prehistoric archaeological enigma, all you need to do is head about 40 miles north of Boston to Salem, New Hampshire, where you can explore 30 acres of cave-like dwellings, astronomically aligned rock formations, a sacrificial stone, and other mysterious structures left behind by an unknown people.
History of America's Stonehenge
America's Stonehenge in New Hampshire opened to the public in 1958 under the name Mystery Hill Caves. Renamed America's Stonehenge in 1982, the site continues to intrigue visitors and to puzzle archaeologists and other researchers. Each time you visit this southern New Hampshire attraction, you'll be mesmerized by the strange series of stone structures and compelled to develop your own theories of how and why they were built here.
Were the astronomically aligned megaliths positioned by migrant Europeans, maybe the descendants of the original builders of Stonehenge, who arrived in America long before Columbus? Were the secret passages and chambers constructed by Native Americans? Is this truly one of the oldest megalithic sites in North America, as radiocarbon dating would suggest? Did prehistoric peoples live on "Mystery Hill," site of the attraction now known as America's Stonehenge?
Radiocarbon dating has determined that some of the stone structures on the site have been there since as early as 2000 BC. Prehistoric artifacts have also been discovered on the site.
Stone walls are some of the dominant features of America's Stonehenge. Examining the workmanship allows archaeologists to draw conclusions about the age of the structures and the people who built them. Plan a visit, and draw your own conclusions.
What to See at America's Stonehenge
Visitors to America's Stonehenge in Salem, New Hampshire, first pass through a Visitors Center, where tickets are sold, a gift shop offers interesting site-related items, and a short video provides a preview of the mysterious attraction that lies just ahead.
After the video preview, visitors exit to the rear of the Visitors Center, and that's when their America's Stonehenge adventure really begins. Comfortable walking shoes are a must on the half-mile trail that leads to the site's stone structures. It's about a 10-minute walk before the first of these curious compilations of rocks pokes up out of the woods. One of the most significant early stops on the tour is a cave-like chamber.
A map of the attraction is provided to visitors to America's Stonehenge, and white wooden circles with numbers, positioned on each stone structure, correlate with the commentary contained in the guide. It's important to keep in mind that while some of the site's history is documented, much remains speculation, so you should feel free to develop your own theories about how these mysterious megaliths came to be positioned as they are in the New Hampshire woods.
While you can surmise much by looking at the arrangements of stones at America's Stonehenge, some of the great mysteries of this site lie beneath what is easily apparent. Archaeologists and other researchers who have studied the site since 1937 have found such things as drains and wells as they have attempted to make sense of the site. Visitors must also keep in mind that they are seeing only part of what once existed on the site.
Over the years, the rock formations at America's Stonehenge, such as the Mensal Stone, have been named by researchers. Mensal means "table." The slab that makes up the "table surface" is estimated to weigh 6 to 8 tons. How did it get there? On its front, you will see, marked with white paint, three modern drill marks believed to have been created by quarrymen in the 1800s. The fact that this site was quarried further reminds visitors that, as they form impressions, they must take into account that much of this stone marvel has been irrevocably altered over the years.
While the stone structures that make up America's Stonehenge are remarkable, even more fascinating are the strategically positioned rocks that ring the site's perimeter. Like its namesake, Stonehenge in England, these megaliths have been determined to have been precisely placed based on astronomical understanding. One monolith is known as the Summer Solstice Sunrise Stone. While the Earth has tilted a bit on its axis in the 3,500 years or so since these stones were believed to have been placed, you can still watch the sun rise over this marker on the longest day of the year. Some people visit just for that purpose.
Many of the astronomical alignment stones at America's Stonehenge can be seen from the Astronomical Viewing Platform if you don't want to take the time to walk the Astronomical Trail. From the Astronomical Viewing Platform, visitors also catch their best glimpse of one of the most intriguing and controversial structures at America's Stonehenge.
Named the Sacrificial Table, this 4.5-ton grooved slab is believed to have been used for sacrifices. Its size is one reason for this interpretation. The grooves in the table might have been "blood gutters." And, very mysteriously, underneath the slab lies a speaking tube or "Oracle." Below the speaking tube is a "Secret Bed," a space just large enough for a person to crawl into and be completely hidden. Words spoken into the tube reverberate as if the table itself is talking.
Plan Your Visit to America's Stonehenge
Intrigued by the mysteries of America's Stonehenge? This odd attraction, located at 105 Haverhill Road in Salem, NH, is open to visitors daily year-round (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas), and special events are held to coincide with full moons, solstices, and other astronomical happenings.
Visiting America's Stonehenge in the Winter
If you want to go on a winter walk in the New Hampshire woods... and encounter something mysterious... winter is a fine time to explore the 30-acre site. Snowshoe rentals are available, and candlelight snowshoe treks are offered on select Saturday evenings in January and February (take your Valentine!) under the light of the full moon. Reservations are required and can be requested via email or by calling 603-893-8300.
More Attractions Near America's Stonehenge
While you're in Salem, New Hampshire, you may want to visit:
- Canobie Lake Park: This nostalgic family amusement park, home to the famous Yankee Cannonball roller coaster, operates seasonally in Salem, NH.
- Robert Frost Farm State Historic Site: The Derry, New Hampshire, farm where New England's most cherished poet lived for a spell, is located 6 miles from America's Stonehenge.
- Salem, Massachusetts: The city, known for witch hysteria in the 17th century, is a 45-minute drive away.