This Little-Known Theme Park Is Basically the Dollywood of New England

Old-timey charm meets break-neck speeds at Canobie Lake Park.

Long before contemporary roller coasters were hurling guests through the air at face-peeling speed, American theme parks were places of pastoral leisure and simple pleasures, involving things like picnics and penny arcades. One such place, Canobie Lake Park, is a folksy destination in southern New Hampshire that bridges the gap between the old and the new; the old-timey purity and the adrenaline-pumping terror of a roller coaster with a 97-degree plummet.

The oldest theme park in the Granite State–and one of the oldest in the country–Canobie Lake Park first emerged in 1902 as a charming trolley park, offering a lakeside retreat for families in and around the Massachusetts-adjacent town of Salem. And while technology has amped up the thrill factor over the ensuing century, it’s a park that retains a classic quaintness and Americana kitsch that feels like New England’s very own Dollywood. But instead of Dolly Parton and Civil War-themed dinner shows, here you'll find acrobatic rescue dogs and fried dough BLTs. Here's what to know about visiting Canobie Lake Park.

Canobie Express train station
Jaclyn Vernace/Shutterstock

Trolley park roots

It was a simpler time for theme parks back in the day. Long before the Star Wars cosplay and the 13-story Wonder Woman roller coasters, trolley parks were mainly gardens and leisurely recreation areas for families to frequent along streetcar lines in the late 1800s. The OG of theme parks, they were less about adrenaline and 4-D immersion and more about picnicking in a park and watching fireworks—maybe floating in a canoe if you were feeling crazy. Canobie Lake Park was such a place, opened in 1902 by The Hudson, Pelham & Salem Railways as a way to encourage people to use their streetcars and give them a destination to frequent for wholesome family fun.

Indeed, Canobie Lake Park’s botanical garden vibe attracted quite the refined crowd. Folks came clad in their finest garb, donning gowns and suits to hit the penny arcade and ride the Circle Swing. The whole vibe looked like a Georges Seurat painting, complete with waterfront green space, cottage-like buildings, and forested pathways. Pre-roller coaster, this was a place primarily used for picnics, gaming, and casual sporting events—until the onset of the automobile brought things to a screeching halt and changed the face of trolley parks forever.

Canobie Lake Park

A thrilling new era

After Canobie Lake Park’s heyday as a trolley car mainstay, times were a-changing in the 1920s. The rise of the automobile meant the downfall of the streetcar—and thus, the demise of the trolley park. As streetcar lines dwindled, so too did attendance at Canobie Lake Park, culminating in its closure in 1929. Fortunately, the downfall was brief, and it emerged anew a few years later with thrilling new features—including, as a new necessity, a parking lot—to bolster interest and attendance.

Canobie 2.0 reopened in 1932, with a few new tricks in the works—namely, a dazzling new wooden ride called the Greyhound Roller Coaster, which was shipped from Connecticut and re-assembled on site. Still in operation today and now known as the Yankee Cannonball, the rickety attraction was a game-changer for the park that opened the doors for a slew of new activities, rides, and events.

It’s motif, too, took on a bucolic fairy land aesthetic, as meandering pathways through the trees filled in with dance halls, performance stages, carnival-style games, concessionaires, and wood-clad buildings capped with spires and flags. The antique carousel, constructed in 1903 and filled with gilded horses swiveling to orchestral organ music, became quite the show-stopping centerpiece.

Then came the stars. Although Canobie Lake Park has yet to be graced by Dolly Parton’s presence, its Dancehall Theater became quite the star-studded attraction by the 1950s, going on to host A-list performances from the likes of Duke Ellington, Jimmy Dorsey, Aerosmith, and Sonny & Cher. At one beautiful point in time, you could see Cher singing in the New Hampshire woods, dreaming of a future that only Dippin’ Dots could deliver.

But not even Cher could protect Canobie from America’s frivolous relationship to theme parks. By the late ‘50s, roller coasters were disappearing at a rapid clip across the country, and the park could no longer rely on the Yankee Cannonball to do the heavy-lifting as the marquis attraction. With new ownership in 1958 came a new mission to dig deep and pave the way for a more durable future. Literally, this meant paving pathways through the woods, and adding a bevy of new eateries, arcades, games, and rides.

roller coaster
Canobie Lake Park

Canobie Lake Park today

Nowadays, while you likely won’t see Cher performing any time soon, you can watch rescue dogs leap through the air to catch frisbees. Or pose for photos with Dapper the Dog, basically the Mickey Mouse of Canobie Lake Park. A far cry from its trolley park days of yore, the parking lot is routinely at capacity, filled with folks from all over New England looking for a taste of old-timey fun.

Through all its ebbs and flows, the park maintains a rustic, folksy ambience that feels utterly preserved in time—and in a world filled with over-the-top Harry Potter rides and theme parks more expensive than your mortgage, it’s a breath of fresh air. That’s not to say Canobie hasn’t advanced and innovated, though. The tree-lined pathways, shimmering lake views, vintage-looking go-carts, refurbished carousel, and faux casinos all preserve the Americana atmosphere, while new attractions, rides, and snacks (the fried dough BLT is the audacious comfort food of your dreams) continue to catapult the park into a new era of enduring nostalgia for future generations.

The Yankee Cannonball is still going strong, jettisoning visitors out on a wooden romp by the parking lot, while other thrills include the super-soaked Boston Tea Party boat ride, the fast-spinning Turkish Twist that’ll make you feel like laundry in a washing machine, and the hilariously spooky Mine of Lost Souls, which feels like a frontier-themed precursor to Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The newest novelty is the park’s most intense attraction to date, a vaguely lumberjack-themed coaster called, unnervingly, Untamed. Guests board grizzly bear cars and buckle up for a series of speedy loops and zero-gravity rolls, including a 72-foot drop that goes beyond vertical.

With more than 80 attractions at this point, Canobie Lake Park is still as family-friendly as ever, with plenty of rides and games for kids of all ages, like the Kiddie Canoes and Pony Carts. There’s also a water park, Castaway Island, and the autumnal Screeemfest with haunted houses, creepy shows, and free-roaming monsters lurking in the dark.

A lot has changed and grown at Canobie Lake Park, one of the oldest and most enduring theme parks in the nation. Sure, the roller coasters aren’t all wooden anymore, the arcade games cost more than a penny, and ballgowns are no longer the typical attire, but it’s still a pastoral paradise for familial fun in the New Hampshire woods.

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A transplant to Oklahoma City, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for LGBTQIA+ stories, national parks, Disney World, and road trips. Follow him on Instagram.