O S S I P E E, N.H., July 24, 2000 -- You’ve skied the majestic mountains, trekked the wild terrain and lounged by the lakes. So what’s left for the New Hampshire tourist? Try venturing into a volcano.

About 200 million years ago, long before tourists flocked to New Hampshire to see the foliage, an active volcano was the top attraction.

Geologists say that at the time it was much bigger than Mount St. Helens, and when it erupted for the final time the force was perhaps 10 times that of the 1980 rumble in Washington state.

Curious Attraction for Tourists

And the cloud of ash, which reached temperatures of 1,300 degrees and traveled some 100 mph, would have killed anything in its path.

Left behind today is a less dangerous, but still curious attraction for geologists and tourists — the Ossipee Mountains, which provide a rare look at the inner workings of an inactive volcano.

“It’s like taking a trip down to the center of the earth and getting deeper and deeper and seeing the bowels of a volcano, the plumbing,” said geologist Stanley Williams.

“It’s like being inside a volcano, kind of a neat thing. If you go to a modern volcano, you can take samples outside, but you can’t see down inside,” said Williams, who was a visiting professor at Dartmouth College from Arizona State University last year.

Take the Car, Take a Hike

Visitors to the Ossipee Mountains can experience the vicarious thrill of standing on a once-active volcano, and collect samples of volcanic rock belched up during the last eruption. “It is one of the few places in the world that offers such easy access to the guts of a volcano,” Williams said.

“Tourists can take the kids and experience the volcanic experience without worrying about eruptions,” state geologist Gene Boudette said. But they might have to do some studying to know for certain which rocks are volcanic, as they aren’t as obvious as some would think — there hasn’t been any lava flowing nearby for quite some time.

The Ossipees are easy to find on a topographical map of the state. The circular caldera, or crater, quickly catches the eye and it can be reached by road to Castle in the Clouds and a short hike.

A lot of people see the circle and want to go there, Boudette said. “It’s kind of getting everything there in a nice neat tight circle,” he said.

Geology professors in the state have taken their classes there for hands-on study, geologists from other parts of the world have made the trip, and there are the uncounted tourists who find their way up the mountains.

Most Accessible Volcano

Studying volcanos is like trying to put together “a jigsaw puzzle with maybe 200 pieces, but you’re given only 50 pieces, with the rest buried or covered,” Williams said. “Ossipee plugs in some of those pieces.”

The tallest peak is under 3,000 feet. Before the big eruption, the mountains were much higher — before collapsing into themselves, creating the caldera.

“It’s the most accessible, exposed and vivid example of the inner workings of a volcanic system,” Boudette said. “It’s kind of a geologic monument.”