Parks and rail trails go together

By Ellen Kolb. Originally published by New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition.

The Granite State has more than 300 miles of rail trails, along with more than 90 state park properties. Why not explore one of each in a single trip? You can create your own itinerary with the information you’ll find at nhstateparks.org and nhrtc.org. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Take Route 101 to exit 5 in Raymond and head north to Pawtuckaway State Park. Take your pick of activities there, with a lake, a fire tower, and a boulder field awaiting your discovery. Later, head back toward 101 and set your map app to “Raymond B&M Depot” or “Raymond Historical Society.” There, you’ll find a restored train depot and a parking area from which you can set off for a walk on the Rockingham Recreational Trail.

Read the rest of the post at nhrtc.org for more ideas.

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.

Subtly Spring

“Show me some spring pictures,” a reader recently asked me. He was looking for budding trees and fresh green growth. Perhaps I can oblige him in another week or so. For now, the signs of spring are subtler.

It’s mud season, but the trails at Horse Hill Nature Preserve in Merrimack were in remarkably good shape the other day. The herons were back on Lastowka Pond, croaking and courting. I could see that the beavers had been busy along the shoreline, taking down a big tree that barely missed a bench as it fell. Deeper into the woods, I smelled freshly-cut lumber on a refurbished bog bridge.

Simple wooden bridge on forest trail
Early-season work by trail maintainers: a refurbished bridge. Photos by Ellen Kolb.
Trees with beaver damage
The beavers are in town: this pair of trees had been untouched a week earlier.

On a recent walk through Mine Falls Park in Nashua, I looked for swans in the cove but found none. Some years, there’s a pair that bullies the park’s Canada geese into the cove’s farther reaches. The geese are safe for now. I was glad to see blackbirds amid the reeds that edge the cove; I missed them in winter.

Blackbird amid reeds
Blackbird, nearly hidden in reeds

Business took me to Loudon recently, and I added a couple of hours to the trip so I could visit nearby Belmont and discover the Winni Trail, a paved rail trail along Lake Winnisquam. That was one of my better detours.

Winni trail logo, Belmont NH

I had the advantage of a fine sunny day, with cool air and miles of visibility. A stretch of trail went through the woods, with lake and rail line out of sight, and then broke into the open to hug the shore alongside the rails. Good thing someone thought to set up a few benches along the way; the views are definitely worth stopping for.

Lake Winnisquam, Belmont, New Hampshire, from rail trail
Seen from the Winni Trail: a railroad signal mast, Lake Winnisquam, and the hills of the Lakes Region.

It was my first experience with rail-with-trail, where a trail shares the right-of-way with an active rail line. That particular line is owned by the state of New Hampshire, not by a rail corporation, and I suppose that might have simplified development of the trail.

The shared right-of-way continues into Laconia on the WOW Trail (for Lakes Winnisquam, Opechee, and Winnipesaukee). Someday, with a lot of cooperation and investment and volunteer work, there could be a continuous recreational rail trail linking WOW in Laconia with the Winnipesaukee River Trail in Tilton via the Winni Trail in Belmont. That’s a project to cheer for, if Belmont’s trail is indicative of what’s ahead.

Winni trail, rail trail in Belmont New Hampshire, in early spring.
Early spring on the Winni Trail

Good news to follow

There are a couple of wonderful blogs I follow, written by people who love southern New Hampshire outdoors as much as I do. Keep these in mind if you’re looking for trip inspiration.

New Hampshire Garden Solutions: This one isn’t a gardening how-to, as the name might suggest, but a beautifully-illustrated guide to southwestern New Hampshire’s natural phenomena. The topics vary with the seasons, wherever the writer is wandering. A naturalist’s eye for detail, flowing language, and excellent photographs make this blog delightful.

This is a blogger after my own heart. From the About page: “I hope by visiting that you will see what amazing beauty nature holds and that you will become more interested in exploring your own area.” Perfect.

Miki’s Picks: Find in this blog simple and straightforward descriptions of easy hikes, most of them in southern New Hampshire. I like following this one to discover new hikes close to home, like Burns Hill in Milford.

I hope my readers will share their own favorites. I can understand if you don’t want to give away the location of your favorite trail. Your favorite blog, on the other hand, is meant to be shared.

Happy February!

First Day Hikes on your own

Plan now to hit the trail on New Year’s Day. First Day Hikes might be “virtual” in 2021, but they’re happening. New Hampshire State Parks offer some opportunities. No groups, but also no lines at a sign-in table. That works for me.

This post is illustrated with a couple of photos from past First Days, when I visited Monadnock and Wellington State Parks. Guided hikes like the ones I enjoyed there won’t be happening this January 1, but walking solo or with family is a treat in itself.

Ellen Kolb at Monadnock State Park, New Hampshire
The Granite State Walker celebrating a New Year’s Day near Mt. Monadnock

The state parks team is making the best of yet another virtual event, a peculiar phenomenon of 2020 origin that means group-event-without-a-group. If you register for their 2021 First Day Hike program, you’ll be eligible for a drawing for a 2021 Family Season Pass to New Hampshire state parks.

And then there’s the photo contest, for photos taken at New Hampshire state parks between December 26, 2020 and January 1, 2021. Read the details on the State Parks page, and then head out to Pawtuckaway or Miller or whatever other state park strikes your fancy.

As I write this, a day-long rain has washed away the foot of snow that fell here in southern New Hampshire just last week. No telling what trail conditions I’ll find by the time New Year’s Day rolls around. Barring an ice storm, though, I’ll be outdoors that day. Maybe I’ll travel no further than one of my town’s nature preserves, or maybe I’ll be more ambitious. There’s nothing like a Granite State walk to bring in a new year properly.

May you find just the right path from which to wave goodbye to 2020!

Ellen Kolb on New Hampshire First Day Hike 2017 overlooking Newfound Lake
First Day Hike, 2017: the Granite State Walker on Little Sugarloaf overlooking Newfound Lake, via Wellington State Park in Bristol NH.

Join NH Rail Trails Coalition, Get Guidebook as Bonus

[Update, 2021: please note that this particular membership promotion has ended. I hope you’ll check out the NHRTC website to see what’s current.]

My appreciation for New Hampshire’s rail trails is expressed all over this blog, as many readers have found. Now, the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition is offering a deal that I hope will win the trails some new fans.

Until December 15, 2020, you can join the NHRTC ($20 for a one-year membership for individuals, $35 for organizations) and receive a copy of Charles Martin’s guidebook New Hampshire Rail Trails, 2nd edition at no additional charge. There’s no better guide to the trails around the state, with more than 100 maps along with photographs and trail descriptions.

Want to take a crack the the Rail Trails Challenge? Martin’s book and the Challenge’s Facebook page (private, but anyone may request access) will be your new best friends. Meet the Challenge, earn a patch. Even if you don’t travel on all the rail trails in the state – and as someone who does a lot more walking than biking, I know the Challenge can be a slow process – you’ll have memories and experiences that are way more valuable than a patch, even a pretty one like this.

emblem of New Hampshire Rail Trails Challenge
Patch awarded for completion of NH Rail Trails Challenge

If you already have Martin’s book, maybe there’s a Granite State walker in your life who would love to receive a copy as a gift. Another gift idea: separately from membership, the Coalition also offers a hat for $20 (shipping included).

New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition hat and book

Full disclosure: I’m on the NHRTC board, but I get no personal benefit from this promotion except the pleasure of knowing that it will encourage more people to value a New Hampshire recreational resource.