Spring on Cheshire roads and trails

Cheshire County, New Hampshire is best known to outdoors enthusiasts for its most dramatic geological feature, Mount Monadnock. I have nothing against the mountain, except that I can’t seem to get to the summit and back without an injury of one sort or another. That’s not a problem. The Monadnock region offers plenty of options that have nothing to do with hiking uphill.

Rockwood Pond in Fitzwilliam , New Hampshire, with Mount Monadnock in the background.
Seen from the Cheshire Rail Trail in Fitzwilliam: Rockwood Pond with Mount Monadnock nearby. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

As part of the New Hampshire Rail Trails Challenge, I’ve been exploring rail trails all over the state – but I’ve barely touched southwestern New Hampshire, aside from a few miles in the town of Troy. This is the year I’ll get busy out in that direction. I got off to a modest start recently on a short segment of the Cheshire Rail Trail in Fitzwilliam.

What a day! Weather was pleasant. The flying insects were not yet out in force (but alas, the same couldn’t be said for ticks; I came prepared with permethrin-treated clothing). Deciduous trees hadn’t yet leafed out. That left the hemlocks and pines to shade me, and as a bonus, the breeze through their boughs was like music.

Parking along long trails like the Cheshire can be a problem. Not every road crossing has room nearby for cars to pull over. I decided to begin my walk at Rhododendron State Park, a mile away from the trail. No trouble parking there. The park’s signature rhododendrons won’t be in bloom until July, but spring wildflowers abounded in the park’s grove and along its trails.

daffodils and violets, flowers

Spring flowers at Rhododendron State Park

From there – pull out your maps app now – it’s a mile along unpaved Rockwood Road to the the intersection with rail trail along Rockwood Pond. Rhododendron Road provides a shorter but less interesting link.

The scenic highlight of the day was the view of Monadnock seen from the shores of Rockwood Pond. Pine trees tried to obscure the view, but I found my way through them.

From the pond, I headed south. The trail was unpaved, wide, and shaded. It’s a snowmobile trail when there’s snow cover, but motorized vehicles are supposed to stay off the rest of the year. Wide ruts in some soft sections of the trail told me that an ATV driver or two had ignored the restriction. Aside from that, the trail was in good condition between the pond and state road 119. South of there, the trail was full of roots and rocks, looking like a typical New Hampshire woods walk. I got as far as Royalston Road before turning around.

I had thought about stopping in Jaffrey on the way home for a cone at Kimball Farm, but the twenty or so cars overflowing onto Route 124 from the Kimball’s parking lot made me abandon that idea. I’ll be back another day.

Using mud season to plan ahead

New Hampshire’s mud season is here, thanks to a month that has brought days of snow alternating with days of 50 degrees. I went to the forest trails in one of my favorite Concord parks the other day, and I turned around after about a hundred yards. Squishy ground is not ideal for hiking. Turns out hiking isn’t ideal for squishy ground, either. Ask any trail maintainer. I’m switching to pavement for the time being.

Paved bike trail in wooded area, with old brick industrial building in background
March 2022: Nashua River Rail Trail, Dunstable MA. Clear pavement, muddy edges. Ellen Kolb photo.

While I’m putting in the miles on roads and paved trails, I’ll be giving some thought to the maintenance work and spring cleanup that will be going on as the weather gets warmer and the mud dries up. This is a good time for trip planning, too.

I serve on my town’s conservation commission, on a subcommittee dedicated to one of the town’s nature preserves. We’ve been keeping an eye on some areas being taken over by invasive plants that are crowding out native species. In consultation with an expert from the local university’s extension program, we’re coming up with a management plan to tackle the invasives later in the year. Planning now will pay off later.

My favorite local paved trail, the Nashua River Rail Trail, has obviously seen recent work from volunteers who have already made the most of mud season. While the side paths in the woods are still muddy and soft, working on the pavement is easy. Between my last two visits to the northern section of the trail, a crew or crews had been through to clear away fallen branches and pick up trash.

I’m gathering trail information this month for a multi-day hike later in the year on the rail trails in the southwestern part of New Hampshire. I don’t feel quite so stuck during mud season when I know there’s a trip ahead to plan and train for.

Mud season might give you time to learn more about the trails in your area, even if they’re temporarily off limits until things dry up a bit. Is a trail owned or managed by your town? Check with the Parks and Recreation department or the municipal Conservation Commission to find out if there are opportunities for you to volunteer for upcoming events. Are you fond of a certain rail trail? The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition website contains links to many local trail clubs, each with its own projects and schedule. Don’t dismiss Facebook; it’s still a great way to find groups organized around a specific trail or park. Those Facebook groups are often the best source of information on up-to-date trail conditions and maintenance needs.

Avoiding the trails for another couple of weeks will be good for them. Using the time for planning ahead will be good for me.

Discovering Winter Trails, Meeting New Friends

Have you been reluctant to step outside for some winter hiking on New Hampshire’s trails? Now’s the time to give it a try. You don’t need to head to the mountains to experience a fine winter day. Rail trails and town conservation properties can inspire winter hikes close to home. 

A few days after a storm dropped fresh snow throughout southern New Hampshire, I joined a small group of participants in the New Hampshire Rail Trail Challenge for a snowshoe hike on the Goffstown Rail Trail. While the trail was ungroomed, a few snowshoers had already been through, packing down a good track for us to follow. The Goffstown trail is usually popular, but we met only a few other hardy folk enjoying the sunny Sunday. Winter conditions meant no crowds!

While we were enjoying a Goffstown trail, Manchester Moves was hosting its Winter-Fest a few miles away in Manchester’s Stark Park. Sledders, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers all enjoyed this family-friendly event. A bonus was the Outdoor Gear Lending Library managed by Manchester Moves, letting everyone who attended the event give skiing or snowshoeing a try on the newly-developed Heritage Trail-North.

How do you find out about winter recreation opportunities close to home? 

  • Join the New Hampshire Rail Trail Challenge Facebook group. You’ll see photos from Challenge participants, reports on trail conditions, and occasional announcements of group hikes.
  • Ask your town’s Parks and Recreation Department about seasonal programs.
  • Check your town’s website or library for information about town-maintained trails. Most New Hampshire cities and towns have town forests and conservation properties, each with its own special features.

Winter means dressing in layers for outdoor activities. Sunsets come early, so plan accordingly. Be sure to carry out trash you might have (like an energy-bar wrapper), since few trails have trash cans along the way. Pack a water bottle so you can stay hydrated. 

Ready? Pick a trail, and enjoy winter in New Hampshire!

This post was originally published in the New Hampshire Rail Trail Coalition blog.

Get a grip this winter

Southern New Hampshire – and northern, for that matter – serves up a varied weather menu each winter. As I write this, the weather forecast is for up to a foot of snow from a coming storm. Maybe I’ll finally need snowshoes for a local hike. So far this season, all I’ve needed is a set of traction aids to strap on my sneakers or boots. Nothing as aggressive as microspikes; just a little bit of help to get over the snow-dusted ice on nearby paths.

Investing in a traction device like YakTrax or a set of Stabil cleats (both of which I’ve used) can make the difference between taking a walk at the nearest park and staying home for fear of falling on the ice. Cleats aren’t just for hill hikers.

I was recently at Horse Hill nature preserve here in town. Conditions on those trails are less than ideal: bumpy ice topped by a dusting of snow, with some pine needles sandwiched in between just to make sure things stay slippery. I found the same conditions around Lake Massabesic a day earlier. Without cleats, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at either place. I’m simply not as surefooted as some of my neighbors. (I’ve even been known to strap on cleats just to walk to the mailbox.)

I found my cleats at a local outlet store specializing in outdoor equipment. You can shop for them online as well.

I had the chance to head north to Waterville Valley’s Nordic ski center not long ago, with beautiful trails extending into the White Mountain National Forest. That was a glorious snowshoe hike in spite of bitter cold temps. I seldom hike where a trail pass must be purchased, but this was definitely a worthwhile trip.

If you decide to explore a Nordic center, be sure to check the facility’s website or Facebook page in advance for trail conditions and Covid adaptations.

Cross-country ski trail in White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
At Waterville Valley, groomed Nordic trails extend into the White Mountain National Forest. Ellen Kolb photo.

A walker’s view of rail trails: video of Granite State Walker’s presentation to NHRTC conference

The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition biennial conference went virtual this year, and the online environment didn’t get in the way of an informative event. I was invited by fellow NHRTC board members to talk for a few minutes about a walker’s view of the trails, and how even the slowest of users can become an enthusiastic advocate for rail trails. My presentation is now up on Vimeo, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

The Granite State Walker Explores NH Rail Trails-Broadband High.mp4 from NH Rail Trails Coalition on Vimeo.

For all of you who have suffered through videoconference indignities this year, you’ll sympathize with the post-slide-show Q&A here featuring my deer-in-the-headlights reaction to someone’s unintentionally muted mic. Once that problem was solved, our ace moderator kept the questions flowing.

You can find other presentations from the conference at The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition Vimeo page.

Kicking through the leaves

One more thing to love about autumn in New Hampshire, as if there weren’t enough already: playfully shuffling and kicking my way through the fallen leaves.

I recently arrived in The Big City (well, big for New Hampshire) for a long-booked three-hour business appointment, only to find it had been cancelled due to a broken piece of equipment. I understood the situation but was miffed nonetheless. Then it occurred to me that with three open hours ahead, I could probably find a decent trail nearby.

Epping was only a few miles away, with its piece of the Rockingham Recreational Trail that I hadn’t yet explored. Off I went. I found a small pullout at the trail crossing on Depot Road, just off Rt. 101.

Rail trail, autumn scene, New Hampshire, with marker for old bridge along railroad
Rockingham Recreational Trail, Epping, New Hampshire. The marker indicates the former site of a railroad bridge along the route. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

Fall colors are weeks past. Leaves are down. It’s all quite low-key, which is actually perfect for recovering from a moment of being miffed at a blown appointment.

The trail was covered with crisp dried leaves that rustled with my every step. At some spots, the wind had piled them up. And so I did something I never had a chance to do back when I was a kid in south Florida, and something I used to get annoyed at my own kids for doing after a wearying session of raking: I kicked the pile. I made a racket. Those leaves flew into the air.

It felt great. I had fun. And when I found other piles, I kicked through those, too. I was alone, so I wasn’t worried about looking silly. Pretty soon, I was downright grateful for the busted thingamajig that had caused cancellation of my appointment.

Go ahead. Find yourself a leafy late-fall trail, and send those leaves flying.

Wetland along Rockingham Recreational Trail, autumn, Epping NH.