NH Rail Trails: a friendly challenge

The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition has issued an imposing challenge: travel every rail trail in New Hampshire, and earn a patch. I love patches. I’m in.

Cheshire Rail Trail, Troy NH
Cheshire Rail Trail, Troy NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

Can I really cover all 300+ miles? Not likely, if I try to fit my walks and bike rides only into my spare time. So what? I intend to enjoy the effort anyway. Download the list yourself from nhrtc.org and see what looks tempting.

Just reading the list is an eye-opener. I thought I knew about most of the trails in the state. But Head’s Pond in Hooksett? Nope. Lilac City Greenway, Cotton Valley trail, Fort Hill? Nope, nope, and nope.

I sense some road trips coming.

Hands Across the Merrimack Bridge, Piscataquog rail trail, Manchester NH.
Hands Across the Merrimack bridge on Piscataquog Rail Trail, Manchester NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

Already, since I’ve taken up the challenge, I have discovered new-to-me trails within a half-hour’s drive of my home. I’ve walked on some and biked on others. Many are well-shaded, which feels great during this hot summer.

I’ll be posting about some of my discoveries in the coming weeks. So far, these aren’t epic journeys. In stressful times, though, I don’t need “epic.” I’m happy to find a bit of beauty and recreation close to home.

Footbridge on New Boston rail trail, New Hampshire.
Footbridge on New Boston (NH) rail trail. Ellen Kolb photo.

Too Much Traffic: When a Park Gets Too Much Love

I’ll start with my conclusion: if the parking lot at your intended trailhead is full, keep driving. Please.

What’s happening in my own town is surely happening elsewhere. A recent online meeting of the conservation commission, normally an under-the-radar board, drew plenty of viewers and plenty of questions (submitted in advance by email). Topic: what’s to be done with Wildcat Falls?

Wildcat Falls is one of the main conservation lands in town with a trail network. It’s along the Souhegan River, not far from where I live. In ordinary times – will I have to say “former times” eventually? – the small parking lot is ample for the number of people who come to walk their dogs, birdwatch, or enjoy sunning themselves by the falls that give the area its name.

Then came the pandemic. The neighboring state of Massachusetts has been hit much harder than New Hampshire, and accordingly has had more restrictions on recreation. So did Massachusetts residents stay home and wait for things to clear up? No, they did not. (And neither would I, in their place.) They headed over the border and discovered some of the little southern New Hampshire parks I’ve been raving about for years.

That has meant a lot more action in Wildcat Falls. Combine our visitors with the locals who already love the place, and Wildcat Falls is being loved to death.

Like many local parks, Wildcat Falls is adjacent to a residential area. The parking lot for the trails is meant to hold maybe a dozen cars, though a few more can squeeze in with creative parking. What happens when the visitor census explodes? The visitors park on the local streets, blocking driveways and fire hydrants, and narrowing the streets to the point where emergency access – say, by a fire engine – could be impossible.

The conservation commission meeting was specially scheduled to give people a forum to vent about the parking, noise, and public health problems created by the additional visitors. No decisions were made that evening. There were plenty of suggestions, though, ranging from “tow the cars” to “close the park.” I’m not sure from what direction a solution will come, but for now, I am avoiding the area and taking my walking shoes elsewhere.

The Forest Society is coping with the too-much-love phenomenon at Mount Major, one of their properties that is extremely popular anytime but has become a major (no pun intended) draw for people whose other recreational options have been limited. Aerial footage of the road leading to the parking lot has made me wince, with cars parked along the road as far as the eye can see.

The Forest Society, blessed with numerous properties statewide, has responded by publicizing some of its less-visited reservations as alternatives to the hot spots. Good solution.

New Hampshire State Parks have resorted to a reservation system for popular spots like Monadnock and Pawtuckaway. It’s a little grating to me have to go online for a parking pass in advance, but not as grating as having the parks closed altogether – which was the situation for awhile.

In larger parks with an extensive trail network, a full lot doesn’t necessarily spill over to local streets, and doesn’t necessarily rule out social distancing on the trails. Little residential parks are different.

I have put serious mileage (for me, anyway) on my walking shoes since COVID-19 began affecting our health and blowing our routines to pieces. Getting outside has been absolutely essential to keeping me on an even keel. I get it: a lot of my neighbors, including my neighbors south of the nearest border, are in the same position.

But, please…when a trailhead parking lot in a residential neighborhood is full, let’s find someplace else to go. Quite aside from public health concerns, the neighbors will be grateful.

Update: in late June, a month after I wrote this post, the Merrimack Town Council voted after lengthy consideration to close the Wildcat Falls conservation area temporarily.

Related: I wrote Keeping It Local with some ideas for finding less-traveled trails in southern New Hampshire.

Pawtuckaway: No Crowds Midweek

To call this an odd spring for hiking would be an understatement, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve heeded New Hampshire’s stay-at-home recommendation as much as I can bear, being old enough to be considered more at risk than younger neighbors. I have a homemade mask to wear on my few outings. I’ve Instagrammed and tweeted about #homehikechallenge. I’ve walked lap after lap on neighborhood streets. Boredom finally drove me out to Pawtuckaway State Park, where I hoped the extensive trail network would allow for the social distancing we’re all supposed to observe.

Pawtuckaway State Park, NH

At boat launch, north side of park.

More than boredom got me out the door. I was afraid that state officials might suddenly close down trailheads on state property. The U.S. Forest Service recently did just that in the White Mountain National Forest, citing excessive crowding and a lack of social distancing at trailheads. The WMNF trails are open, but the trailheads and campgrounds are not. (I envision hikers being dropped in via helicopter, but that’s probably against the rules, too.)

For the moment, the state parks are open, with some new restrictions on parking in popular parks like Pawtuckaway. (See nhstateparks.com for details and current information.) On my midweek visit, the restrictions seemed to be effective, with only a couple of dozen cars parked in the lot at the main entrance. Signs were posted in the parking lot and at trail junctions advising visitors to observe good hygiene and stay at least 6 feet away from each other. No problem for me, traveling solo.

boatrentals

Boat rental area near the Pawtuckaway Lake beach is deserted during “stay at home” recommendation.

The fire tower on one of Pawtuckaway’s three little mountains usually attracts me, but it usually attracts lots of other people, too. Scratch that idea. The black flies were out, and even with DEET I didn’t relish the thought of swatting them away for a few hours in the still air of the woods. Nope. I decided on a breezy route that edged Pawtuckaway Lake: the access road from parking lot to campground to lake, then the Fundy trail northward to the boat launch and back. Jackpot.

Burnham Marsh

Burnham Marsh, late April: things are beginning to green up.

However many cars were in the main lot, I saw only about 20 people during my walk, which covered about 7.5 miles if my trusty MapMyWalk app is to be believed. That’s nothing compared to Pawtuckaway’s usual crowds. The visitor center was closed, and so was the campground and the boat rental station. The lake is usually dotted with kayaks and canoes in the coves, with powerboats making a racket in the open water. Not this time. The peace and quiet, odd at first, won me over pretty quickly.

trailhead NH Pawtuckaway State Park

Fundy Trail links Pawtuckaway Lake area with north side of park.

My friends and I have been joking about the “COVID 25,” meaning the weight we’re apt to gain with all the baking and cooking we’re doing during enforced time away from our usual activities. I hike for fun, but there’s an element of necessary exercise these days as well. My Pawtuckaway route was flat except for the slightest of inclines near the end, perhaps a couple of hundred feet in the last mile. I took that mile at the briskest pace I could manage without breaking into a jog. The COVID 25 was chasing me.

stone wall

Stone walls along the way – after all, this is New England.

I was in a familiar park under very unfamiliar circumstances, feeling ease and unease all at once. It was downright weird to be on those paths with so few people. Inside me is a spoiled child impatiently stomping her foot and demanding that the world get normal again. Yet under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had the lakeshore practically to myself.

I stopped at one point to watch three herons for awhile. No one else was in sight. The solitude suddenly felt right. It didn’t feel imposed on me.

glacial erratic

Glacial erratics are found throughout the park, calling cards of the Laurentide ice sheet from an earlier epoch. Backpack placed at base for scale.

Keeping It Local

Granite State Walker sprang to life when I realized that the low-key southern New Hampshire paths I loved weren’t getting the attention they deserved. I’ve spent more than a decade now blogging about these little gems close to home. For my readers in the Granite State’s southern tier, itching for recreation as the COVID-19 pandemic turns everything upside down, this might be a good time to review the nearby spots where we can walk and decompress.

Go ahead. Get out there. It’s worth the effort to find an uncrowded place to walk. Aim for solitude instead of isolation (there’s a world of difference). Social distancing is important, and some of us need to stay extremely close to home, but don’t rule out every outdoor option. Remind yourself that it’s spring, even if this seems like a crazy time. The peepers are waiting for you. The pollen may have found you already.

Can’t get out now? Plan for future hikes. The current unpleasantness is temporary.

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Oak Hill Trails, Concord NH

  • What are your favorite spots in your own town? Are the trailhead parking lots full?Maybe there’s a new park to discover nearby. Look up Parks and Rec or Conservation Commission on your city or town website. You may find trail descriptions and maps available for download.  Maybe there’s a newly-acquired property you haven’t heard about yet.
  • Facebook and Instagram can be gold mines of information on current trail conditions. Follow or “like” pages such as Friends of the Goffstown Rail Trail and Londonderry Trailways (to give just two examples). You might find reports that one trail is experiencing too-heavy use on a particular day, while another one five miles away is much quieter.
  • The Forest Society has more than a hundred properties statewide for you to discover. Forget the one on Mount Major, where the parking lot looks like a mall on Black Friday. That still leaves a bunch of beauties, and there’s probably one near you. Website bonus: virtual tours, where you can check out properties online and plan for future hikes.
  • There’s probably a New Hampshire state park near you. There are some access limitations due to COVID-19.
  • This isn’t the time to push any physical limits. First responders have enough to do at the moment without fetching injured hikers.

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Stratham Hill Park, Stratham NH: a guide to what you can see from the observation tower.

Are you avoiding even solo road trips? Join the club. I’m lucky to have a walkable neighborhood: no sidewalks, but no through-roads, either. That’s where I’ve done most of my walking for the past couple of weeks. I find that a daily walk is an absolute necessity, not so much for the physical exercise as for the mental shift.

Bonus for the soul: I’m seeing neighbors I’ve never met, who are also trying to fight the shut-in feeling that comes with these days. We observe social-distance protocols. The six-foot rule does not bar smiles and greetings.

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Mbari House by Geoffery Nwogu, one of many sculptures along the trails at the Andres Institute of Art, Brookline NH. 

I love the free Map My Walk app on my phone, which faithfully keeps track of my route and distance whether I’m going around the block or up to the Canadian border. I’m seeing how many miles I can rack up doing loops on my neighborhood’s streets. Maybe you like to leave watches and phones at home while you’re out, and that’s fine, too.

Traditional school’s out, gyms are shut, businesses are closed, paychecks may or may not be forthcoming, and #stayhome is trending. My walks are a refuge from all that. 

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Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield NH

Updated Trail Journal

For hikers, backpackers, slackpackers, and trail lovers everywhere, especially in the Granite State: I’ve gone back to add a few updates to my 2009 Cohos Trail journal, in case anyone is inspired to follow in my oh-so-inexperienced footsteps. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

The 2009 hike was my 50th-birthday present to myself. The journal, now that I look back on it, is both a record of ten joyous days and a cautionary tale of what not to do on a backpacking trip. (Don’t forget to pack camp shoes, for one thing.)

The update includes notes on what accommodations are still available, trail re-routes, and where to find good fudge along the way. Great fudge, actually. You’re welcome.

Originally posted at ellenkolb.com.

Golden Time

As Octobers go, this one has been a beauty in my corner of New Hampshire. We’re in that annual golden time, post-bugs and pre-ice. Literally golden, too. The trees are glowing.

rail trail in autumn

October on Nashua River Rail Trail

 Pulpit Brook Trail, Bedford and Amherst

trail sign, Bedford NH

Pulpit Brook trail, Bedford NH

I hadn’t visited Bedford’s Pulpit Rock conservation area in years. A recent mailing from the Bedford Land Trust advised me that the Pulpit Brook trail from that property now extends into Amherst and the Joppa Hill farm. When I compare a newer map of the Pulpit Rock area to my old map from 1997, it’s striking to see how much the conservation area has been expanded with the cooperation of area landowners. I like seeing a greenway linking towns.

autumn leaves

Mid-October: some leaves are just starting to turn.

Silver Mountain, Lempster

The Forest Society’s Five Hikes in Five Weeks program led me to this unassuming little hill with fine autumn views. The drive in was a little hairy: Lempster Mountain Road is paved and fine, and from there South Road is unpaved and sort-of fine, until it isn’t. The last few tenths of a mile of road before the trailhead feature a single lane with deep ruts. It must be all kinds of fun in mud season. At least it’s dead-flat.

But after a couple of minutes of bouncing along…what’s this? A parking area with decorative stone posts. On a dirt road in Sullivan County, no less.

From the parking area, the woodsy walk up to the open summit of Silver Mountain is easy.

berries on hilltop, autumn in NH

Autumn on Silver Mountain, Lempster NH

Silver Mountain summit cairn NH

Silver Mountain summit cairn; Mt. Ascutney in the distance at right

Kidder Mountain, New Ipswich

Here’s another spot I hadn’t visited in ages, just off the Wapack Trail. I had hiked up to Kidder with my son about fifteen years ago, and I recalled it as another one of those easy hills with great views (like Silver Mountain, come to think of it). I’m sorry I waited so long to come back.

The summit vegetation has grown in over the past few years, but the views to the south and southeast are still satisfying. There’s a great view of the southern Wapack Range from Barrett Mountain to Mt. Watatic.

southern Wapack Range

Southern Wapack Range seen from Kidder Mountain, New Ipswich NH

On my recent visit, I shared the summit with a young family. One of the children was a boy, maybe five years old. He surveyed the Wapack Range, and announced excitedly, “I see a volcano!” His dad took the news calmly. The boy wanted a livelier response. “I see lava!” At that point, I thought okay, I’ve got to see what this is about.

Mt. Watatic

At right: Mt. Watatic, faintly marked with old ski trails that spark the imagination.

I moved a little closer to see what the boy was pointing at. It was little Mt. Watatic just across the border in Massachusetts. It had a ski area long ago, and there are still faintly-discernible ski trails. To a five-year-old, those old trails looked like lava flows. I hope I never forget the look on that little boy’s face as he watched Mt. Watatic expectantly, hoping against hope that it would blow its top and show those Monadnocks who’s boss.

Sometimes the best part of a hike isn’t the hike.

Happy October!