Just south of Franconia Notch along US-3, a barrage of deliciously tacky tourist attractions and old-fashioned roadside Americana awaits you. Well-maintained 1930s motor courts line the highway, setting the stage for one of New England’s greatest roadside attractions, Clark’s Trading Post (603/745-8913, daily in summer, $20), where you can enjoy a slice of good ol’ cornpone kitsch. At Clark’s, you can ride on a genuine old wood-burning railroad over an authentic 1904 covered bridge (and be chased all the way by a hairy, hilarious Wolfman); admire an immaculate 1931 LaSalle in a vintage gas station; or tour a haunted mansion.
For the past 50 or so years, the main draw at Clark’s has been the chance, according to the sign, to “See Live Bears!” House-trained black bears perform a series of entertaining tricks—rolling barrels, shooting basketballs through hoops, and riding scooters—and they clearly seem to enjoy their work (not to mention the ice cream cones they’re rewarded with). The trainers and caretakers crack jokes and make wry comments about “bear facts” and how the animals are “bearly” able to behave themselves, but they smile and beam every time the bears do what they’re supposed to, giving the performances a feel more akin to a school play than to a professional circus. Many of the bears are born and reared here at Clark’s, and although they’re captive, they have a much longer life expectancy than wild bears. Across from the enclosure where they perform you can pay respects to the graves of favorite bears who performed here over the years. Spend any time at Clark’s and you’ll begin to realize that the bears are regarded as family members (albeit seven-foot-tall, 500-pound family members).
Clark’s has been in business since 1928, when it was known as Ed Clark’s Eskimo Sled Dog Ranch, and everything about it is very much a family affair. More than a dozen Clarks and close relatives work here throughout the summer, doing everything from training and caring for the bears to making milk shakes. The bear shows at Clark’s Trading Post are scheduled irregularly (typically in the afternoons, roughly every two hours or so; the schedule is posted online). You could happily spend most of a day here, making it well worth the price of admission. If you’re just racing through, be sure to at least visit the gift shop, which is stocked with all the wonderfully tacky stuff (wind-up toys, funky postcards, snow domes, and the like) retro-minded road-trippers drive miles to find.