Another good trail in Concord

Some of my favorite short after-work hikes have been in Concord, New Hampshire, not far from the State House to which I used to travel for business. The trails on Oak Hill and in Winant Park stand out. Now there’s a new one – new to me, anyway – on the north side of town, where I recently walked for a fine hour and a half.

Autumn forest rail trail Concord NH
Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail, Concord NH. All photos by Ellen Kolb

The two-and-a-half-mile long trail is a segment of the Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail (CLSRT). This long-abandoned old rail line will someday be an uninterrupted upgraded rail trail once again linking Concord and Lake Sunapee. For now, it’s a disjointed thing, with a little piece open for use in Warner, another in Bradford, and now another in Concord.

I was there on an overcast, comfortably cool day. I overshot the lot by just a bit as I drove north on U.S. 3; turning around was no problem in a nearby business’s lot. Mine was the only car in the parking lot at the trailhead, at 25 Fisherville Road (U.S. 3). I found there an information kiosk and a bike-service stand.

trailhead Concord-Sunapee rail trail, Concord NH
Trailhead in Concord, on U.S. 3.

The first section of trail had a surface of smooth well-packed stone dust. The trail was flanked by businesses on one side and a wide open field on the other.

Cloudy day with rail trail
Peak color was past, but autumn conditions were pleasant along the trail.

Before long, the trail entered the woods, becoming a little rougher but still wide and well-defined. Most of the more-vividly-colored leaves had dropped. What was left created a glowing golden tunnel. Granite markers recalled the days of the old active line, when C stood for Concord and CJ stood for Claremont Junction.

The trail stayed close to U.S. 3 before veering west to parallel Bog Road. Traffic noise was not intrusive. One dog’s barking certainly was; more about that later. The noisiest moment I had was when I flushed what must have been a grouse concealed in the leaves just off the trail. The bird’s explosive takeoff startled me half out of my wits.

What’s now a formal piece of rail trail has apparently served as a snowmobile trail, or so I conclude based on one well-signed junction. For the most part, though, I was on a path freshly improved for walkers and bikers alike. Runners, too. I was passed by a few who were probably delighted not to have to get their miles in on the nearby roads.

Trail junction with directional signs
A signed junction along the way.

The trail passes through a residential area, with trees providing some buffer. Many properties were posted with customary small “no trespassing” signs. One owner adopted a more aggressive approach: a huge sign for the owner’s favored presidential candidate, including some profanity for emphasis; a fence alongside the trail with a disproportionate number of signs to discourage wandering trail users – seriously, one would have done the job; and a noisy bulldog to underscore the whole message.

In what may or may not be related news, the Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail website mentions a land-ownership dispute with a nearby resident on the Concord section. At the time I was there, the trail had no detours.

Grouse and bulldog aside, I had a refreshing five-mile round trip walk. I owe that to amazing work by many volunteers and donors who built up this section. Together, they have created another fine trail in Concord.

For more information: Concord-Lake Sunapee Rail Trail

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?

Three towns in a row

Recent walks and rides: Londonderry, Derry, and Windham. Each town has its own portion of New Hampshire rail trail on the old Manchester-Lawrence rail line. There are gaps, but the segments are being stitched together a bit at a time.

Windham Junction NH

These are paved trails. They’re like boulevards without cars. They’re high-traffic compared with most of their unpaved cousins, but they’re off-road and therefore safer than hoofing it down any local street. I just stayed to the right, passed with care when I needed to pass, and kept my speed down. (I never have trouble keeping my speed down.)

Londonderry

No sooner was the Londonderry trail extended to Harvey Road in 2019 than an informal parking lot took shape near the trailhead, doubling as an observation point for watching the planes at Manchester’s airport. I love that kind of efficiency.

On my most recent visit on a hot summer day, I was surprised by a gentle fragrance as Little Cohas Brook came into sight. I gave the credit to the blooming water lilies. Loosestrife was in bloom as well: lovely purple color on what I’m told is a highly invasive plant.

Little Cohas Brook, Londonderry rail trail NH
Along Little Cohas Brook, Londonderry rail trail. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

Busy as the trail can be, I had no sense of being crowded on my midweek visit. There was room for everyone. I even had a bench to myself for a bit of birdwatching.

bench along Londonderry rail trail NH
Benches are a bonus along rail trails.

I like seeing mile markers that have been restored or re-created. They keep me mindful of a trail’s history.

Mile marker, Londonderry Rail Trail NH
“L” for Lawrence MA, “M” for Manchester NH.

A decorative cairn made me smile at another peaceful resting spot along the trail.

Cairn along Londonderry rail trail NH
Positive thoughts along the way.

Four and a half paved miles extend from Harvey Road to the town line at NH Route 28. From the southern end, I could see across the road to a yet-undeveloped stretch of railbed in Derry. Its day will come.

Local trail group: Londonderry Trailways

Derry

I spent a good afternoon walking on Derry’s trail that links Hood Park with Windham Junction. That’s about 8 miles round trip, with refreshments available from businesses near each end. Parking is available at both ends.

Derry rail trail NH
Lest I forget about social distancing, someone painted a reminder.

Nothing but an embankment and a strip of trees separated me from I-93 on the southern part of the trail. Once the trail and highway diverged, the scenery changed to wetlands full of red-winged blackbirds. Proceeding north, I entered residential areas, then passed a ball field, and crossed busy NH Route 102 in the center of town.

Crossing 102 was easier than I expected. Traffic actually stopped for me as I entered the crosswalk. That is not something I take for granted in central business districts, even on a weekend.

My favorite part of the trail paid tribute to poet Robert Frost, who spent a few years teaching at nearby Pinkerton Academy. “The Road Not Taken” had been stenciled on the trail only a day or two before my walk. More artwork has since been added.

Robert Frost poem on Derry rail trail NH
Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a Derry Rail Trail highlight.

Local trail group: Derry Rail Trail

Windham

I confess to a special liking for the Windham rail trail. Annually – except during this COVID year – there’s a 5k race (3.1 miles) here that usually falls near my birthday. I consider the race a present to myself. Even on the hottest day, this is a cool and restful trail.

Boston and Maine caboose, Windham Junction, NH
This Boston and Maine RR caboose is now a Windham Junction landmark.

Windham Junction, with its restored depot and caboose, has a good-sized parking lot. That makes it a good starting point for a ride or walk north into Derry or south into Salem. My recent trip was just to enjoy the Windham trail itself.

Windham rail trail NH
Roulston Road crossing (no parking here).

The trail looked practically freshly-pressed. Recent maintenance work has improved the trail’s surface and drainage.

Windham rail trail NH
New pavement, new drainage work, trimmed shrubs: welcome to Windham’s rail trail.

Local trail group: Windham Rail Trail Alliance

Beginning the NH Rail Trail Challenge: low-key, close to home

I can tell already that the Rail Trail challenge is going to figure into many future posts. I hope readers who are inspired by the challenge will share their own posts and photos so we can learn from each other.

I enjoyed a walk on the Goffstown rail trail a few days ago with Paula Bedard of the Bike-Walk Alliance of New Hampshire, of which the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition is an affiliate. If the Challenge has a prime mover and guiding spirit, she’s it. It was great to talk with her about our favorite trails and the shape they’re in.

Goffstown rail rail
Along Goffstown rail trail

She made an important point to me that makes me much more optimistic about earning that Challenge patch: participants must explore each trail, not travel every inch of every trail. Whew! OK, so I’m not just going to do a quarter-mile of the Northern Rail Trail and then check it off the Challenge list. But it’s good to know that an overgrown trail – northern stretch of Fort Hill, maybe? – won’t be a stopper.

The next day, at Paula’s urging, I picked up the second edition of Charles F. Martin’s book, Rail Trails of New Hampshire. The first edition has been my companion on many trips. With more trails developed and with conditions changing on existing ones, a new edition is timely.

Brookline: a pair of short trails

Why go out of my way to check off anything from a trail list? In 2020, the only reason I need is that I am grateful for diversions from the challenges of COVID-19. I crave out-of-the-way places where no masks are required. Fresh air clears my head. A straight flat trail lends itself to prayer and reflection; I can’t say I’m too busy to pray when I have three quiet miles in front of me.

Brookline NH rail trail
The Brookline rail trail is unpaved but wide and suitable for bikes. Ellen Kolb photo.

All of which brought me to the Brookline rail trail. The little town already has a place in this blog thanks to the Andres Institute of Art with its trails and outdoor sculptures. Nearby is the less-imposing rail trail. It’s short, straight, shady, and ideal for a brief respite from routine.

I parked off of Bohannon Bridge Road, next to a ball field, just past the Nissitissit River. Finding the trailhead for the developed part of the old rail line was easy. A runner was just returning to her car. A gentleman was walking his dog ahead of me. Farther along I saw a pair of friends laughing and walking briskly together. The trail might have been new to me, but clearly the locals were familiar with it.

Brookline NH rail trail
The Nissitissit river and the streams flowing into it are quiet in summer – but watch out during spring freshet. Ellen Kolb photo.

The trail is about a mile long. The slow-moving river alongside is concealed this midsummer by heavy vegetation. The trail surface is unpaved but wide and smooth. There’s one road crossing. The trail peters out at NH Route 13, behind a gas station and a pizza restaurant. The parking there makes a convenient starting point for anyone who wants to go out-and-back along the trail from that direction.

The Brookline rail trail isn’t a destination trail in the sense of being worth a special trip from out-of-area. As a local recreational resource, it’s a gem. I live a couple of towns away, and I work from home. One day, when it was time to close the laptop and take a break, I drove down to Brookline to see about this little trail. It rewarded me with a perfect little shady walk. 

After a hilly walk at the Andres Institute, the flat Brookline trail might be a good way to get the kinks out of those sore legs. 

A map will tell you that the Nissitissit rail trail is a continuation of the Brookline trail, but a map is unlikely to indicate the break dividing what was once a single rail line into two sections. A bridge fell down long ago, and now the sections don’t connect. Getting to the Nissitissit trail requires driving from Brookline along Pepperell Road into Hollis. There’s parking within a stone’s throw of the Massachusetts state line.

Heron at Great Meadow, Nissitissit Trail in NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

The Nissitissit rail trail is part of the Beaver Brook Association’s holdings. (BBA provides many miles of trails, well worth exploring.) It begins with a walk along Great Meadow, a marsh providing good habitat for herons. Past the marsh, the trail enters quiet woods. Springtime visits in the past have rewarded me with a variety of wildflowers, including lady slippers – even white ones, far less common than the usual pinks.  

White lady slipper, W
White lady slipper, a springtime treat along the Nissitissit rail trail. Ellen Kolb photo.

The Nissitissit trail can be a short out-and-back walk, or one could keep going into the town of Pepperell, Massachusetts. This trail segment is chiefly notable for its peace and quiet. Its greatest rewards come from stopping along the way: watch the marsh for its wildlife and the forest floor for its variety of flora. I wouldn’t bike here. Walking sets the right pace.

NH Rail Trails: a friendly challenge

The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition has issued an imposing challenge: travel every rail trail in New Hampshire, and earn a patch. I love patches. I’m in.

Cheshire Rail Trail, Troy NH
Cheshire Rail Trail, Troy NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

Can I really cover all 300+ miles? Not likely, if I try to fit my walks and bike rides only into my spare time. So what? I intend to enjoy the effort anyway. Download the list yourself from nhrtc.org and see what looks tempting.

Just reading the list is an eye-opener. I thought I knew about most of the trails in the state. But Head’s Pond in Hooksett? Nope. Lilac City Greenway, Cotton Valley trail, Fort Hill? Nope, nope, and nope.

I sense some road trips coming.

Hands Across the Merrimack Bridge, Piscataquog rail trail, Manchester NH.
Hands Across the Merrimack bridge on Piscataquog Rail Trail, Manchester NH. Ellen Kolb photo.

Already, since I’ve taken up the challenge, I have discovered new-to-me trails within a half-hour’s drive of my home. I’ve walked on some and biked on others. Many are well-shaded, which feels great during this hot summer.

I’ll be posting about some of my discoveries in the coming weeks. So far, these aren’t epic journeys. In stressful times, though, I don’t need “epic.” I’m happy to find a bit of beauty and recreation close to home.

Footbridge on New Boston rail trail, New Hampshire.
Footbridge on New Boston (NH) rail trail. Ellen Kolb photo.

Pawtuckaway: No Crowds Midweek

To call this an odd spring for hiking would be an understatement, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve heeded New Hampshire’s stay-at-home recommendation as much as I can bear, being old enough to be considered more at risk than younger neighbors. I have a homemade mask to wear on my few outings. I’ve Instagrammed and tweeted about #homehikechallenge. I’ve walked lap after lap on neighborhood streets. Boredom finally drove me out to Pawtuckaway State Park, where I hoped the extensive trail network would allow for the social distancing we’re all supposed to observe.

Pawtuckaway State Park, NH

At boat launch, north side of park.

More than boredom got me out the door. I was afraid that state officials might suddenly close down trailheads on state property. The U.S. Forest Service recently did just that in the White Mountain National Forest, citing excessive crowding and a lack of social distancing at trailheads. The WMNF trails are open, but the trailheads and campgrounds are not. (I envision hikers being dropped in via helicopter, but that’s probably against the rules, too.)

For the moment, the state parks are open, with some new restrictions on parking in popular parks like Pawtuckaway. (See nhstateparks.com for details and current information.) On my midweek visit, the restrictions seemed to be effective, with only a couple of dozen cars parked in the lot at the main entrance. Signs were posted in the parking lot and at trail junctions advising visitors to observe good hygiene and stay at least 6 feet away from each other. No problem for me, traveling solo.

boatrentals

Boat rental area near the Pawtuckaway Lake beach is deserted during “stay at home” recommendation.

The fire tower on one of Pawtuckaway’s three little mountains usually attracts me, but it usually attracts lots of other people, too. Scratch that idea. The black flies were out, and even with DEET I didn’t relish the thought of swatting them away for a few hours in the still air of the woods. Nope. I decided on a breezy route that edged Pawtuckaway Lake: the access road from parking lot to campground to lake, then the Fundy trail northward to the boat launch and back. Jackpot.

Burnham Marsh

Burnham Marsh, late April: things are beginning to green up.

However many cars were in the main lot, I saw only about 20 people during my walk, which covered about 7.5 miles if my trusty MapMyWalk app is to be believed. That’s nothing compared to Pawtuckaway’s usual crowds. The visitor center was closed, and so was the campground and the boat rental station. The lake is usually dotted with kayaks and canoes in the coves, with powerboats making a racket in the open water. Not this time. The peace and quiet, odd at first, won me over pretty quickly.

trailhead NH Pawtuckaway State Park

Fundy Trail links Pawtuckaway Lake area with north side of park.

My friends and I have been joking about the “COVID 25,” meaning the weight we’re apt to gain with all the baking and cooking we’re doing during enforced time away from our usual activities. I hike for fun, but there’s an element of necessary exercise these days as well. My Pawtuckaway route was flat except for the slightest of inclines near the end, perhaps a couple of hundred feet in the last mile. I took that mile at the briskest pace I could manage without breaking into a jog. The COVID 25 was chasing me.

stone wall

Stone walls along the way – after all, this is New England.

I was in a familiar park under very unfamiliar circumstances, feeling ease and unease all at once. It was downright weird to be on those paths with so few people. Inside me is a spoiled child impatiently stomping her foot and demanding that the world get normal again. Yet under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had the lakeshore practically to myself.

I stopped at one point to watch three herons for awhile. No one else was in sight. The solitude suddenly felt right. It didn’t feel imposed on me.

glacial erratic

Glacial erratics are found throughout the park, calling cards of the Laurentide ice sheet from an earlier epoch. Backpack placed at base for scale.