Autumn walk to a fire tower

Take time for Oak Hill when you’re passing through New Hampshire’s capital city. Concord has many fine parks and trails, but only one includes a fire tower. The tower on Oak Hill was rebuilt not long ago, so it’s as shiny-and-new as you’ll ever find it. A hard frost or two has smacked down the local insects. Autumn colors are muted now, more gold-and-bronze than scarlet-and-yellow. Trees are losing their leaves, and so views are opening up. Wear something that’s blaze-orange; ’tis the season.

Find maps to all of Concord’s trails at concordnh.gov/1033/Hiking-Trails. Oak Hill is #12.

Oak Hill is exactly that: a hill covered with oak trees. It’s all a walk in the woods except for the fire tower and a couple of vistas (conveniently marked on the trail map). Follow the Tower Trail’s yellow blazes from the parking area on Shaker Road. Once at the tower, a climb to the landing just below the cab will reward you with a 360 degree view.

With apologies for my unsteady camera work: Oak Hill’s fire tower with one of the neighboring communication masts. All photos by Ellen Kolb/Granite State Walker.
Mount Kearsarge in Warner, seen from the Swope Slope vista on Oak Hill in Concord, New Hampshire.

Madame Sherri’s castle may crumble, but trails remain

As reported by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the castle ruins at Madame Sherri Forest in Chesterfield are now a bit more ruined. Time, weather, and probably a few too many human footsteps resulted recently in a collapse of one of the arches supporting the stone staircase. That makes me a bit sad. I’ve always found the remains of the “castle” – actually a once-fancy house – to be a charming visual gateway to recreational land.

(See Forest Society photos of the damage.)

But don’t fret. There’s still enough of the old structure left to spark a smile and fire the imagination, even with caution tape in place. Even better, the adjacent trails are unaffected.

ruins of Madame Sherri Castle in Chesterfield, New Hampshire
Madame Sherri’s castle, before July 2021 arch collapse

The Chesterfield Conservation Commission maintains a list of trails and features. The 50-mile Wantastiquet-Monadnock trail runs through the property. My favorite feature of the forest is Indian Pond, a fairly easy walk from the forest’s small parking area.

The Madame Sherri Forest is still very much worth visiting. Enjoy what’s there.

Indian Pond, Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield New Hampshire
Foggy day at Indian Pond, Madame Sherri Forest, Chesterfield NH

Little things

I love vistas from mountaintops. Sweeping views can take my breath away. They’ll always have their place for me. Even so, I take time to look down as I walk. What’s along the trailside? What’s in bloom this month? What’s that little kid ahead of me exclaiming over, pulling mom or dad aside to see? Little things.

What’s growing

Local history

What’s current

When I parked at Gerrish Depot in Boscawen and walked south along the Northern Rail Trail, I knew I was near a veterans’ cemetery. What I didn’t know is that there was a spur from the trail directly to the cemetery, with a sign that offered an detour to trail users wishing to pay respects. Other trails use signage to inform users about expansion plans, inviting donations to maintain or extend a trail. Sometimes a trailhead kiosk will feature a flyer that tells me about a local festival or program.

Destination hikes – heading to a waterfall, a view from a notch, or a fire tower, for example – are always interesting. I like big payoffs, especially if I’ve had to stagger my way uphill for a few miles. I’ve learned to love my undramatic walks, too. They’ve taught me to look out for the little things.

Patching up

Four years, folks. That’s how long it’s been since I plunged into the Forest Society’s Forest Reservation Challenge. Visit 33 of the Society’s New Hampshire properties & get a patch, they said. Piece of cake, I said.

It took me four years to consume that particular piece of cake, I just got my patch.

Forest Society patch held by Ellen Kolb of New Hampshire
The Granite State Walker meets a challenge.

A few favorites

The project sent me to easy hikes and challenging ones, wetlands and high granite ledges, near home and darn near Canada. A few of the properties made deeper impressions than others.

Christine Lake, Stark, New Hampshire
Christine Lake, Kauffmann Forest, Stark NH
  • Kauffmann Forest, Stark. Christine Lake with its view of Victor Head and the Percy Peaks is a worthy destination in itself.
  • Dame Forest, Durham. When my daughter was a UNH student, I didn’t know this beautiful wetlands jewel was only a few miles away from campus. A long easy trail leads to Great Bay, and shorter trails are available. I had the place to myself for an unhurried visit when I was there a couple of years ago. I’m told that since COVID, it has become much more popular. I recommend a midweek visit.
  • Morse Preserve, Alton, with the summit of Pine Mountain. After seeing the wonderful view of Lake Winnipesaukee from there, and sharing the trail with only three other people, I may never visit Mount Major again.
  • Moose Mountains Reservation, Middleton/Brookfield. The view from Phoebe’s Nable turned my brown-bag lunch into a special event.

That’s not to mention the lime kilns, and the roads with whimsical names like Faraway and Local Ox Team, and autumn on Silver Mountain. Then there are a few spots suffering these days from too-much-love syndrome, and I’ll let you figure those out for yourself.

berries on hilltop, autumn in New Hampshire
Autumn on Silver Mountain, Lempster NH

How I did it

Pre-COVID, I had a job that sent me all over the state for various projects. I fit in Forest Society reservations where I could: a stop in Bethlehem on the way home from business in Littleton, a trail in Sandwich on my way to a presentation in Ossipee. A couple of times, I took one-day road trips with two or three reservations on the itinerary. The Society’s 5 Hikes programs helped me.

Bretzfelder Park, Bethlehem New Hampshire
Bretzfelder Park, a Forest Society property in Bethlehem NH

The Kingsbury-Chippewa property in Haverhill was particularly elusive. I finally got there as my husband and I returned from a weekend upstate, determined to avoid I-93. I said, “There’s this Forest Society reservation over in Haverhill…” and I may have mentioned something about the patch. Actually I’m sure I did. “Let’s go,” said my traveling companion. And so we did.

As is often the case, the journey – in this case journeys – mattered more than the arrival. The arrival took the form of a little embroidered patch. Every time I look at it, I’ll recall one of those journeys, and I’ll be smiling.

Exploring Forest Society properties

The Forest Society has some excellent resources. Check out NH Forest Explorer for a mobile-friendly guide to select reservations. Enjoy the 5 Hikes Challenge, a modified version of the older 5 Hikes in 5 Weeks program. Follow the Forest Society’s Facebook page for videos including virtual field trips to various properties.

A gallery of trail bridges

Everywhere I hike, I benefit from trail builders and maintainers. One of the most important things they do is design, install, and maintain bridges. I’m grateful for those structures, from the deceptively simple-looking bog bridges through soggy areas to the big metal spans replacing broken-down trestles over rivers.

rail trail bridge over Merrimack River in Manchester New Hampshire
The Hands Across the Merrimack bridge, where the Piscataquog Rail Trail crosses the Merrimack River in Manchester NH.

Some of them are lovely. Some are downright homely. A few are used: there’s one metal trail span in my town that was acquired from another municipality where it was no longer needed. There are bridges over rivers and bridges over busy highways.

Erecting a bridge on a trail isn’t a simple matter of saying “let it be so.” Sometimes, wetlands permits are required. Local commissions and even the state Department of Transportation might be involved. For bog bridges, materials need to be hauled in, often some distance from the nearest trailhead. Sometimes it takes a helicopter to lower a span into place. Maintenance is a constant concern, as wood rots and metal corrodes.

Thank you to all the bridge-builders out there!

Here are photos of a few that have helped me get from point A to point B now and then. From your own travels, what are some of your favorites?