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.

Talk about trails

When 2020 kicked off, I had never heard of Zoom. Since March, thanks to COVID, I’ve had online meetings on the Zoom platform several times a week. (And still, I’m apt to forget to unmute myself when I’m called upon to speak.) When I’m lucky, as I’ve been this month, I get to Zoom about trails.

My thanks go out to the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition board members, who welcomed me to a recent online meeting to talk about our mutual interests. I learned more than I shared!

autumn leaves

I’m likewise grateful to Jeanine Notter, who welcomed me and former New Hampshire Rep. Lenette Peterson to her “Chattin’ With Jeanine” show on Merrimack Community TV for a half-hour conversation about our favorite places to hike in the Granite State. Even the TV show was a Zoom event, with everyone logging in from home while an MCTV tech whiz put it all together.

Ellen Kolb NH Granite State Walker
Screenshot courtesy Merrimack Community TV/Chattin’ With Jeanine

I love sharing trail stories with fellow Granite State walkers. We learn from each other. If you’re a program host and you’d like to shine a light on southern New Hampshire’s trails, please let me know if I can be part of your conversation.

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.

October’s walks

Blue sky, thirty-odd degrees, visibility unlimited: October at its best. This was a month of short hikes in a pleasing variety of places. Some of them have been guided hikes as part of the Forest Society’s Five Hikes in Five Weeks series.

Goffstown Rail Trail

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The Friends of the Goffstown Rail Trail have just unveiled a short but welcome upgrade to the sandy stretch of trail running behind the county government complex on Route 114. The new hardpack surface is much friendlier to bicyclists.

The trail is covered with leaves, which is no surprise in October. What did surprise me was the absence of fallen twigs and branches after several windy days.

This was a between-appointments visit to the trail. I wish I’d had the time to walk clear out to the Piscataquog river bridge and back.

Muster Field Farm

Muster Field Farm is up Sutton way, just south of I-89. It’s a working farm as well as a historical homestead. It’s on a quiet road that’s fine for walking, with other paths and roads nearby to create loop routes of varying lengths. There’s a farm stand on the property, and I was lucky enough to be there on a day when $5 got me a big bunch of colorful cut zinnias.

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Muster Field Farm, Sutton NH.

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The Harvey Homestead is part of the Muster Field property.

Monson Center

My previous visits to the trails in Monson Center near the Milford/Hollis line were in the summertime, with irises blooming and mosquitos biting. October brings a different atmosphere, bracing and clear.

Monson was an 18th-century town that lasted less than 40 years before its inhabitants petitioned the state to formally rescind the town’s charter and divide the land among surrounding towns. Today, the land is a Forest Society property. Located only a few miles from busy Rt. 101-A, the parking area on Federal Hill Road is easy to miss. I’ve overshot it myself. It’s worth finding, though, for its historical interest as well as its trails.

 

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Beavers flooded part of the Monson property, and herons have taken advantage, as their nests attest.

Moose Mountains Reservation

This was a bit of a drive for me, taking me up to Middleton, but it suited me fine during foliage season. My hike in Moose Mountains Reservation took me to Phoebe’s Nable. That’s right, Nable. I wondered if that was a corruption of “nubble,” but my companions didn’t think so. None of us knows how the feature got its name. No matter – the views from there were fine, and it was possibly the month’s best lunch spot.

The reservation has other trails I had no time to explore. This would make a fine destination for a half-day of wandering through hills, fields, and forest.

Phoebe's Nable

The view from Phoebe’s Nable

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Mushroom season

A late-summer visit to Winant Park in Concord brought me the sight of tall summer wildflowers blooming cheerfully by the parking lot. Once I passed the information kiosk where the trails begin, there wasn’t a blossom in sight. Instead, mushrooms were all over the place. I don’t know what’s what when it comes to fungi, so I was reduced to simple wonder at the variety of colors and sizes. A hazy day made the usual Winant vista unremarkable, but the colorful forest floor made up for that.

October Assortment

This has been a muted fall in New Hampshire, which is not to say a bad one. There are brilliant trees here and there, but for the most part, this month has been dominated by gold and bronze. Here’s my October sampler, featuring Oak Hill, Horse Hill Preserve, Ponemah Bog, Craney Hill, and Crotched Mountain.

Oak Hill, Concord

It had been seven years since my last walk to the fire tower on Oak Hill. Finally, I got back there. I had been warned about wasps near the cab, but the first frosts must have  nipped them.

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Oak Hill fire tower, Concord NH

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View to west from Oak Hill. The plume of steam is from a plant near the Concord-Boscawen town line.

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A small notice announces a new trail on Oak Hill, created by Concord High School students.

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The day’s best maple leaves, spotted along the two-mile trail leading to the Oak Hill fire tower.

 

Horse Hill Nature Preserve, Merrimack

The best color this fall has been in the wetlands, not the hills. A walk to the center of the Horse Hill preserve rewarded me with much brighter foliage than I’d seen just a couple of days earlier on a drive toward the Monadnocks.

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I’m amazed that the beavers haven’t abandoned this lodge so close to a Horse Hill trail. I guess we hikers haven’t been disruptive.

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Leaf-peeping in one of my favorite spots in Horse Hill Preserve.

 

Ponemah Bog, Amherst

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The shrubs and water plants in the bog were showier than the trees.

Craney Hill, Henniker

The NH Fire Towers page on Facebook clued me in to the Craney Hill lookout tower, once a fire tower. Now, it’s open to the public two weekends a year, during foliage season. I made it to the tower just in time – last visitor on the last day!

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Craney Hill lookout tower, Henniker NH.

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From Craney Hill, looking toward Craney Pond, mid-October.

 

Crotched Mountain, Greenfield-Bennington

I didn’t stop with the Gregg Trail this time. Two friends joined me for a walk to the ridgetop via Shannon’s Trail. I owe thanks to the folks who managed to get a picnic table up there.

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The view from the picnic table atop Crotched Mountain: a hint of color, and distant Monadnock. And oh, that sky.