Gifts from August

While a couple of my local recreational areas have been closed due to the too-much-love phenomenon (complicated by the no-sense-of-stewardship phenomenon), I am still getting out for good walks. August started out hot and hazy. It’s going out with hints of fall: fresh breezes, low humidity.

Pack Monadnock

On the one and only hilly hike I tried recently, Pack Monadnock via the Marion Davis Trail, I slipped on a bit of wet ledge and fell on my best-padded feature. I’ll have the bruise for another couple of weeks. It was worth it, just to be back on Pack. Even on a hazy day with a noisy storm approaching – which is what had me zipping downhill too quickly – Pack Monadnock makes for a nice hike.

View of Mount Monadnock from Pack Monadnock with Wapack Trail sign
The view of Monadnock from Pack Monadnock is unimpressive in summer haze. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

Pack Monadnock is in Miller State Park, one of the New Hampshire state parks that is operating under an advance reservation system for parking permits. Yes, COVID restrictions are still with us. I’ve used the reservation system at a few parks since last spring, and after some initial annoyance, I’m OK with it. It rules out spur-of-the-moment trips to certain parks, but there are always other trails to consider.

Close to home

Bench in a forest
The overlook I discovered: peaceful, not flashy.

Closer to home, my favorite nature preserve in town has been a soothing refuge all summer. I recently discovered a little overlook that I somehow hadn’t known about, complete with bench, in a quiet part of the preserve. What does it overlook? A bone-dry stream-bed, that’s what. We’re in a drought. Birches in the preserve have shown their stress by dropping leaves early. The larger ponds and marshes in the preserve are at low water levels, but they’re still full of life.

Dragonfly on log in pond
I sat pondside to watch for herons, and got distracted by the dragonflies.

Beaver Brook, Hollis

I took my own advice and sought out a less-used trailhead at Beaver Brook, where the Jeff Smith Trail meets NH Route 130 in Hollis. I was rewarded with a couple of hours of near-solitude on surprisingly varied trails.

Large maple tree hosting large fungus, mushroom, located in New England
Maple tree hosting the day’s most dramatic-looking fungus

The mixed hardwoods were no surprise. I loved coming across a meadow with an old cellar hole and a stone wall nearby, dead giveaways that there had once been a farm there. My favorite trail turned out to be one that I hadn’t known about before, through a patch of woods dominated by white pines. Pine needles cushioned my every step.

The breeze in the trees there reminded me of growing up in south Florida, where fifty years ago long-needled Australian pines dominated every local park. Those trees were non-native and invasive, but I didn’t know it at the time; they were just normal trees to me. The memory of the sound of the wind through those long needles has stayed with me. The pines in New Hampshire with their shorter needles play a slightly different tune, just as soothing.

Tiny late-summer pink wildflower in New England
Less than an inch wide and only a few inches above ground, this wildflower caught my eye.

Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod tried to get my attention, but a tiny pink wildflower beat them both. I don’t know what it’s called. Perhaps it’s something common, but it was new to me: a gift from August.

Three towns in a row

Recent walks and rides: Londonderry, Derry, and Windham. Each town has its own portion of New Hampshire rail trail on the old Manchester-Lawrence rail line. There are gaps, but the segments are being stitched together a bit at a time.

Windham Junction NH

These are paved trails. They’re like boulevards without cars. They’re high-traffic compared with most of their unpaved cousins, but they’re off-road and therefore safer than hoofing it down any local street. I just stayed to the right, passed with care when I needed to pass, and kept my speed down. (I never have trouble keeping my speed down.)

Londonderry

No sooner was the Londonderry trail extended to Harvey Road in 2019 than an informal parking lot took shape near the trailhead, doubling as an observation point for watching the planes at Manchester’s airport. I love that kind of efficiency.

On my most recent visit on a hot summer day, I was surprised by a gentle fragrance as Little Cohas Brook came into sight. I gave the credit to the blooming water lilies. Loosestrife was in bloom as well: lovely purple color on what I’m told is a highly invasive plant.

Little Cohas Brook, Londonderry rail trail NH
Along Little Cohas Brook, Londonderry rail trail. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

Busy as the trail can be, I had no sense of being crowded on my midweek visit. There was room for everyone. I even had a bench to myself for a bit of birdwatching.

bench along Londonderry rail trail NH
Benches are a bonus along rail trails.

I like seeing mile markers that have been restored or re-created. They keep me mindful of a trail’s history.

Mile marker, Londonderry Rail Trail NH
“L” for Lawrence MA, “M” for Manchester NH.

A decorative cairn made me smile at another peaceful resting spot along the trail.

Cairn along Londonderry rail trail NH
Positive thoughts along the way.

Four and a half paved miles extend from Harvey Road to the town line at NH Route 28. From the southern end, I could see across the road to a yet-undeveloped stretch of railbed in Derry. Its day will come.

Local trail group: Londonderry Trailways

Derry

I spent a good afternoon walking on Derry’s trail that links Hood Park with Windham Junction. That’s about 8 miles round trip, with refreshments available from businesses near each end. Parking is available at both ends.

Derry rail trail NH
Lest I forget about social distancing, someone painted a reminder.

Nothing but an embankment and a strip of trees separated me from I-93 on the southern part of the trail. Once the trail and highway diverged, the scenery changed to wetlands full of red-winged blackbirds. Proceeding north, I entered residential areas, then passed a ball field, and crossed busy NH Route 102 in the center of town.

Crossing 102 was easier than I expected. Traffic actually stopped for me as I entered the crosswalk. That is not something I take for granted in central business districts, even on a weekend.

My favorite part of the trail paid tribute to poet Robert Frost, who spent a few years teaching at nearby Pinkerton Academy. “The Road Not Taken” had been stenciled on the trail only a day or two before my walk. More artwork has since been added.

Robert Frost poem on Derry rail trail NH
Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a Derry Rail Trail highlight.

Local trail group: Derry Rail Trail

Windham

I confess to a special liking for the Windham rail trail. Annually – except during this COVID year – there’s a 5k race (3.1 miles) here that usually falls near my birthday. I consider the race a present to myself. Even on the hottest day, this is a cool and restful trail.

Boston and Maine caboose, Windham Junction, NH
This Boston and Maine RR caboose is now a Windham Junction landmark.

Windham Junction, with its restored depot and caboose, has a good-sized parking lot. That makes it a good starting point for a ride or walk north into Derry or south into Salem. My recent trip was just to enjoy the Windham trail itself.

Windham rail trail NH
Roulston Road crossing (no parking here).

The trail looked practically freshly-pressed. Recent maintenance work has improved the trail’s surface and drainage.

Windham rail trail NH
New pavement, new drainage work, trimmed shrubs: welcome to Windham’s rail trail.

Local trail group: Windham Rail Trail Alliance

New to Granite State Walker? Welcome!

Of all the unexpected things about 2020, a surge of interest in this Granite State Walker blog delights me. Southern New Hampshire’s trails are being discovered not only by Granite Staters, but also by Massachusetts neighbors whose recreational options have been limited due to pandemic restrictions. Readers from outside the region, well-traveled in their own areas, are eager to read about how other low-key hikers are faring in this challenging year.

I love it. Let’s learn from each other.

No need to be a pro or a full-time adventurer. I’m neither. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote in GSW’s first post back in 2006, explaining how and why I started this blog. Maybe something will sound familiar to you, or maybe your introduction to the trails was completely different. Either way, let’s share our stories. Thanks for visiting.

Ellen Kolb, blogger at Granite State Walker.

Launching Granite State Walker, 2006

Walking for pure joy sort of snuck up on me. When I needed to lose weight, I developed the habit of heading outside after dinner to go around the block a few times. Much later, it dawned on me that there were a whole lot of more interesting places I could explore — maybe not after dinner, but on weekends & days off.

I found state parks. I discovered rail trails. I walked through neighborhoods that I had only before seen from a car window.

[I’ve been in New Hampshire since 1982.] I moved up from Florida with my husband and baby, hardly expecting this whole Northern thing to work out as well as it has. It took me awhile to realize just how much of Florida’s beauty I had taken for granted the whole time I was growing up — the beauty most of the tourists miss. I didn’t want to make the same mistake here. Having five kids, and making them my occupational priority (why don’t I just say “full-time stay-at-home mom”?), I have learned little by little over the years about appreciating things close to home….

So, here I am, southern NH-based and fascinated by the NH outdoors. I am a complete amateur at what I do, in the sense that I do my walking because I love it.

I plan to write about some of my favorite spots (not all of them!) and post some photos if I manage to take any worth posting. I’m an amateur at that, too.

Flowers on summit of Pack Monadnock NH
From Pack Monadnock summit: View to North Pack Monadnock.

Beginning the NH Rail Trail Challenge: low-key, close to home

I can tell already that the Rail Trail challenge is going to figure into many future posts. I hope readers who are inspired by the challenge will share their own posts and photos so we can learn from each other.

I enjoyed a walk on the Goffstown rail trail a few days ago with Paula Bedard of the Bike-Walk Alliance of New Hampshire, of which the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition is an affiliate. If the Challenge has a prime mover and guiding spirit, she’s it. It was great to talk with her about our favorite trails and the shape they’re in.

Goffstown rail rail
Along Goffstown rail trail

She made an important point to me that makes me much more optimistic about earning that Challenge patch: participants must explore each trail, not travel every inch of every trail. Whew! OK, so I’m not just going to do a quarter-mile of the Northern Rail Trail and then check it off the Challenge list. But it’s good to know that an overgrown trail – northern stretch of Fort Hill, maybe? – won’t be a stopper.

The next day, at Paula’s urging, I picked up the second edition of Charles F. Martin’s book, Rail Trails of New Hampshire. The first edition has been my companion on many trips. With more trails developed and with conditions changing on existing ones, a new edition is timely.

Brookline: a pair of short trails

Why go out of my way to check off anything from a trail list? In 2020, the only reason I need is that I am grateful for diversions from the challenges of COVID-19. I crave out-of-the-way places where no masks are required. Fresh air clears my head. A straight flat trail lends itself to prayer and reflection; I can’t say I’m too busy to pray when I have three quiet miles in front of me.

Brookline NH rail trail
The Brookline rail trail is unpaved but wide and suitable for bikes. Ellen Kolb photo.

All of which brought me to the Brookline rail trail. The little town already has a place in this blog thanks to the Andres Institute of Art with its trails and outdoor sculptures. Nearby is the less-imposing rail trail. It’s short, straight, shady, and ideal for a brief respite from routine.

I parked off of Bohannon Bridge Road, next to a ball field, just past the Nissitissit River. Finding the trailhead for the developed part of the old rail line was easy. A runner was just returning to her car. A gentleman was walking his dog ahead of me. Farther along I saw a pair of friends laughing and walking briskly together. The trail might have been new to me, but clearly the locals were familiar with it.

Brookline NH rail trail
The Nissitissit river and the streams flowing into it are quiet in summer – but watch out during spring freshet. Ellen Kolb photo.

The trail is about a mile long. The slow-moving river alongside is concealed this midsummer by heavy vegetation. The trail surface is unpaved but wide and smooth. There’s one road crossing. The trail peters out at NH Route 13, behind a gas station and a pizza restaurant. The parking there makes a convenient starting point for anyone who wants to go out-and-back along the trail from that direction.

The Brookline rail trail isn’t a destination trail in the sense of being worth a special trip from out-of-area. As a local recreational resource, it’s a gem. I live a couple of towns away, and I work from home. One day, when it was time to close the laptop and take a break, I drove down to Brookline to see about this little trail. It rewarded me with a perfect little shady walk. 

After a hilly walk at the Andres Institute, the flat Brookline trail might be a good way to get the kinks out of those sore legs. 

A map will tell you that the Nissitissit rail trail is a continuation of the Brookline trail, but a map is unlikely to indicate the break dividing what was once a single rail line into two sections. A bridge fell down long ago, and now the sections don’t connect. Getting to the Nissitissit trail requires driving from Brookline along Pepperell Road into Hollis. There’s parking within a stone’s throw of the Massachusetts state line.

Heron at Great Meadow, Nissitissit Trail in NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

The Nissitissit rail trail is part of the Beaver Brook Association’s holdings. (BBA provides many miles of trails, well worth exploring.) It begins with a walk along Great Meadow, a marsh providing good habitat for herons. Past the marsh, the trail enters quiet woods. Springtime visits in the past have rewarded me with a variety of wildflowers, including lady slippers – even white ones, far less common than the usual pinks.  

White lady slipper, W
White lady slipper, a springtime treat along the Nissitissit rail trail. Ellen Kolb photo.

The Nissitissit trail can be a short out-and-back walk, or one could keep going into the town of Pepperell, Massachusetts. This trail segment is chiefly notable for its peace and quiet. Its greatest rewards come from stopping along the way: watch the marsh for its wildlife and the forest floor for its variety of flora. I wouldn’t bike here. Walking sets the right pace.

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.