Follow the leaders

I like walking and hiking solo. Peace, quiet, my own pace. But sometimes a guided hike is a good thing. I have a lot to learn about the things I see. One way I try to expand my horizons is by participating in some of the guided hikes offered by the Forest Society throughout the year. The latest one was at the Society’s McCabe Forest in Antrim.

I found McCabe Forest a couple of years ago during a Society program. It was summertime, and the insects were out in force. Now, it’s autumn, the golden time, pre-ice and post-bugs. Forest trails are in style.

The Contoocook River edges the property. The river is lazy and low this time of year, but there’s evidence of how high it can get in periods of heavy rain. I thought about how often I’ve seen the Contoocook during my travels: I’ve hiked along the rail trail in Rindge and Jaffrey that follows the river from its source. I’ve walked the Peterborough Common Path in wintertime with the river beside me. I’ve seen it as I’ve explored Mast State Forest in Concord, just a few miles from where the river flows into the Merrimack.

River and forest, autumn, New Hampshire
Contoocook River, Antrim NH. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

I long ago abandoned the silly notion that if you’ve seen one forest trail, you’ve seen them all. Even a single trail can fascinate me with its changes from one season to the next. Accompanying someone familiar with a property can help me sharpen my powers of observation. How could I walk right by a mahogany-colored mushroom of majestic dimensions? I would have, without a guide. It would have been just a random thing blending in with the fallen leaves.

Fungi on the forest floor, dwarfing the leaves

People living in a house at one edge of the property enjoy a view that many of us might envy, with no sign of where the backyard ends and the Forest Society land begins. The “border,” such as it is, is figuratively afire with a very attractive shrub that is unfortunately an invasive nuisance. Burning bush is an apt name for it, with leaves whose color stands out from everything around them. Originally imported as an ornamental, burning bush has escaped garden plots all over the state and now crowds out native plants. In fact, it’s now a prohibited species in New Hampshire, so don’t try to buy it. In my own town, it’s one of several hard-to-control invasives on our Conservation Commission properties.

Burning bush, a invasive ornamental plant
Burning bush, attractive but invasive

These Forest Society hikes feature informal lessons on natural history, geology, and the people who have lived in the area. (If you’re ever on a Society hike with Dave Anderson, settle in for some good storytelling.) Also, it’s fun to meet people who share an interest in New Hampshire’s natural beauty. Keep the Forest Society in mind if you’re looking for guided-hike ideas. You’re bound to come across something interesting.

Autumn afternoon

As a pedestrian, I like to take advantage of the auto road up Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park during off-hours, when the gate is closed to auto traffic. Sometimes I’d just rather reach the summit on smooth pavement instead of using the trails in the woods. I recently made the trip as late afternoon was shading into evening.

Miller State Park auto road (Pack Monadnock), late October. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

The road’s uphill grade gave me a bit of a workout, even at my modest pace. I’m discovering that a pair of trekking poles can be helpful to me no matter how smooth the terrain. My poles and I made it to the picnic area at the summit about 35 minutes after leaving the parking lot, covering a bit under a mile and a half of road with 700 feet of elevation gain.

Mount Monadnock seen from Pack Monadnock

Gold and bronze leaves caught the setting sun and made the woods glow.

The Boston skyline was lost in haze, except for one of the Back Bay skyscrapers situated at just the right angle to reflect the sun’s rays. It was probably the glassy Hancock building, which I know has a different name now – but it will always be the Hancock building to me.

Mount Monadnock – the Grand Monadnock – is only a few miles away. The view of it from the picnic area at the summit of Pack Monadnock is almost clich├ęd; everyone takes a photo from the same spot. I’m no exception. The colors of the sky vary with the season and the time of day. Sometimes the view is hazy and sometimes it’s crystal clear. However many pictures I’ve taken there, no two are identical.

New Hampshire historical marker number 270, Miller State Park, Pack Monadnock summit

I love finding historical markers on my walks, and there’s a new one atop Pack Monadnock in honor of Miller State Park. Almost all of the New Hampshire markers are placed along state highways, but this one rated a special spot. Route 101 gets you to the park, but you’ll have to drive or hike to the summit to see the marker.

I got to the park too late in the day to join the autumn raptor migration count that takes place on Pack Monadnock daily, sponsored by New Hampshire Audubon and the Harris Center in Hancock. It’s a fascinating event that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this time of year. Bring the kids!

The park’s $4 admission fee is a bargain. I put my donation in an envelope and dropped it in the iron ranger, which is a donation box visitors can use when there’s no attendant on duty. For visits during the park’s regular hours, I advise checking the New Hampshire State Parks website first; reservations might be advisable on busy days.

Several of the state parks have auto roads to featured vistas, and they each make for a pleasant drive. My favorite way to enjoy those roads, though, is on foot in the early morning or late afternoon, when the gate is closed and there are no cars around. Autumn with its moderate weather is prime time for a visit.

November in Boscawen

One of the southernmost trailheads for New Hampshire’s Northern Rail Trail is on Depot Street in Boscawen, just north of Concord. A little informational sign on the stretch of road shared by US 3 and US 4 points to the side street.

The trail surface invites biking, which means it’s fine for walking, too. The ambitious traveler with the right kind of bike could go clear to the other end of the trail in Lebanon in one trip.

I found the Depot Street trailhead on an overcast November afternoon that was warm enough for me to walk without my jacket. In the hour I was there, I covered about three miles. Along the way: a ball field, a farm with its big mown field, a bend in the low-flowing Merrimack River.

For more information: Friends of the Northern Rail Trail

Fall day in Candia

I drove down Depot Road in East Candia a little slowly, wondering if I’d be able to find the parking lot where the Rockingham Rail Trail crosses the street. I needn’t have worried; the nearly-full lot was impossible to miss. That’s nearly full. I tucked my car into one of the few open spots.

East Candia New Hampshire railroad depot sign
No depot building here, but a sign marks the spot where a depot once stood. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

The lot was a busy place. Couples and singles and families were taking bikes off racks or putting them back on. Hikers were setting out, many sporting seasonal blaze orange vests. It was as warm a day as November ever brings, and everyone wanted to take advantage.

Pick a direction: should I go east into Raymond, or west through Candia? Seeing several parties setting off to the east, I wished them well, and then turned my back to them to walk west.

rail trail granite walls
Rock cut along Rockingham Rail Trail, East Candia NH.

The Rockingham Rail Trail between Manchester and Newfields is more than 20 miles long. It’s a piece-at-a-time endeavor for a walker. I picked a winner of a day to amble out-and-back on a three-mile segment in Candia.

Temp in the 60s: what kind of November is this? Sunshine, few clouds, air as dry as could be.

There were more bicyclists than walkers on the trail. That didn’t mean walkers were overwhelmed; traffic was light to moderate. The few walkers kept their cheerful distance as we passed each other with smiles and nods – you stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine, we seemed to be saying.

Where houses were visible as I approached Main Street, the sounds and smells of a sunny late-autumn weekend took over: raking, leaf-blowing, the last round of mowing for the season, a carefully-tended fire to burn the clippings.

New England rail trail autumn
A sign along the way hints at the winter traffic to come.

My turnaround point was Route 43, or more precisely the tunnel under the ramp linking 43 with Route 101. The parking lot in East Candia was nearly deserted when I returned. I decided to spend a little time walking toward Raymond, but I was racing the sunset: after half a mile, I returned to my car.

I think I saw the trail at its most inviting for walkers. Once the snow flies and piles up, the Rockingham Rail Trail will become a snowmobile corridor. Until then, all you need there is your bike or your walking shoes.

My turnaround point. West of Candia, the trail continues through Auburn into Manchester.

A layered trail

I needed a walk with no cars in sight. I headed to Mine Falls Park in Nashua. I found leaves over patchy ice over mud: not my favorite trail surface, but that’s what the end of October is dishing up in my area.

trail in woods at sunset
Mine Falls Park, Nashua: late afternoon, end of October. Ellen Kolb photo.

A scant inch of snow fell yesterday along with the leaves. Everything froze overnight, and then the sun came up and promptly warmed things up to about forty degrees. That left me with the layered trail. It wasn’t too bad, and it was certainly better than pavement. The bridges over canal and river were still a bit slippery from the snow.

The park was quiet. Weekends are usually busier. Even adjacent Lincoln Park, where I left my car, was nearly empty. No complaints. I was a bit out of sorts, and solitude suited me.

I usually see mallards in the canal. This day, I saw them in the Nashua River instead. About three dozen were together midstream. The river was sluggish, and the ducks paddled upstream effortlessly. That left the cove for about 20 Canada geese, most of them napping in the late afternoon.

I needed my sunglasses as I returned to my car, with the sun low in the western sky. That reminded me that I was walking during the last day of Daylight Savings Time. November will bring the sense of dislocation I feel every fall until I mentally reconcile what the clock says with what the sun does.

Autumn road trip: clouds and no crowds

My husband and I drove north for a hastily-planned weekend trip for some hiking and biking, past the peak autumn foliage and the oppressive crowds driving to see it. The cloudy weather got cloudier. Traffic got lighter. When we stopped at a little inn on U.S. 2, we were exactly where we wanted to be.

You can call it “past peak.” I call it just fine.

narrow road in autumn, Weeks State Park New Hampshire, photo by Ellen Kolb
Weeks State Park auto road. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

It was not a weekend for grand vistas or clear night skies. Low clouds were the rule. My favorite lookout spot on the Weeks State Park Auto Road, which usually features a showstopping view of the Presidential Range, featured nothing but a wall of fog.

sunset and fog with fire tower, Prospect Mountain NH, photo by Ellen Kolb
Weeks State Park: sunset and fog on Prospect Mountain.

So instead of looking at things miles away, I spent more time looking at things like the carpet of red maple leaves under my feet. I liked walking for miles in the cool conditions. Segments of the Presidential Rail Trail were ideal.

bicyclist on Presidential Rail Trail, autumn, New Hampshire, photo by Ellen Kolb
Presidential Rail Trail, Gorham NH

The only noisy mile of trail was one I shared with ATVs in Gorham when I wanted to get a look at the Androscoggin River from a trail bridge. Once I’d done that, I scooted back west to where the trail was closed to motorized traffic. Once I was on that stretch, I saw a grand total of three other people in five miles of walking.

Androscoggin River in Gorham New Hampshire
Androscoggin River, Gorham NH: low in October after a dry summer

At one point during the weekend, the clouds lifted enough to reveal nearby Cherry Mountain, which for once wasn’t just a visual foil to all the other peaks in the area. I was lucky enough to be walking in the Pondicherry area when the sun came out and the view opened up.

Cherry Mountain, Jefferson New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb
Cherry Mountain, Jefferson NH

Note: there’s been extensive work recently on the Presidential trail in the Pondicherry area. The unpaved surface there is in the best shape it can be.