Manchester program invites exploration

It’s been a fine spring here in southern New Hampshire, even with the usual allergies kicked up by all the pollen in the air. I’ve been visiting familiar trails, a couple of new ones, and one that I haven’t visited in a long time. I’ll post some photos and comments in due course. But in last weekend’s Sunday News, I came across something I want to share right away. It just might be something that lets a city-bound Manchester reader discover new places.

Check out Transit to Trails, a project of Manchester Transit in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy and several other organizations. On the first Saturday of each month from June to October, buses will run between 775 Elm Street in Manchester (Veteran’s Park) and an outdoor destination within a half-hour’s ride away. The program is free to riders, and it even includes admission to the state parks that are part of the program. This is a first-come-first-serve program. Find details at

On June 3 and October 7, the destination will be Pawtuckaway State Park, with its fire tower, lake, and miles of trails. July 1 will be dedicated to Manchester parks and a farmer’s market. The August 5 trip will be to Bear Brook State Park, which like Pawtuckaway offers a variety of activities and plenty of trails. On September 2, the destination will be the New Hampshire Audubon Massabesic Center on the south side of Lake Massabesic.

I don’t know of any other way to find car-free and cost-free access to Pawtuckaway, Bear Brook, and the Massabesic Center. This sounds like an amazing program for Manchester residents.

glacial erratic boulder in Pawtuckaway State Park, New Hampshire
Glacial erratics are found throughout Pawtuckaway State Park. Backpack placed at base for scale. Ellen Kolb photo.

Checking in on NH State Parks

Earlier this year, as more people were drawn to outdoor recreation during the COVID pandemic, the most popular New Hampshire State Parks instituted a parking-pass reservation system to prevent overcrowding. Grating though I found the idea at first, I found on a trip to Pawtuckaway that the system seemed to be working. So how’s the reservation system now, more than half a year later?

At this point, only three parks still require advance reservations at least through November 22: Miller (Pack Monadnock), Monadnock, and Pawtuckaway. That leaves dozens of other state parks where there’s no need to reserve a spot in advance.

Wapack Trail sign, mountain, New Hampshire
View of Mt. Monadnock from Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park. Ellen Kolb photo.

Times being what they are, you might want to pack a mask or wear a neck buff that can be pulled up when needed. Governor Sununu has issued a mask order effective November 20 that includes outdoor masking if 6-foot distancing between people can’t be maintained. Somehow I doubt that enforcement on trails will be a priority, but please don’t take that as authoritative guidance.

Whatever park you choose, may you find respite and refreshment there.

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 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.


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.

Markers here and there

Making my way over North Mountain in Pawtuckaway State Park one day, I came across this, embedded in the granite.


I had never come across one of these survey marks before, but have since learned that they’re pretty common. The National Geodetic Survey keeps an extensive database listing them.

I looked up the NGS data sheet for this Pawtuckaway marker – or “patuccawa”, as it’s engraved on the disk – and saw that there’s been some kind of marker at this location since at least 1851. The data sheet includes references to various landmarks visible from the marker’s location, but I think those references go back a few years. North Mountain is pretty thoroughly forested now. The fire tower on Pawtuckaway’s South Mountain is the place to go for long-range vistas.

The marker has a stern warning about a fine or imprisonment for “disturbing” it. It would take one seriously motivated vandal to disturb that thing, which seems to have been installed to last.

I could make a list from the NGS database of markers nearby, but I won’t bother. I have enough lists of places to see. I’ll let the markers surprise me.

Pawtuckaway via Deerfield Fair

Given a complimentary pass to Deerfield Fair, I decided to enjoy not only the fair but also nearby Pawtuckaway State Park. ┬áIt’s early fall, cool but not yet cold. The leaves are just beginning to turn around here. It’s less than an hour’s walk from the quiet northwestern edge of the park to the fire tower on south Pawtuckaway peak.

First fall colors at the edge of wetlands on Tower Road.

First fall colors at the edge of wetlands on Tower Road.

I hiked in from the northwest corner of the park on Reservation Road, far from the busy main entrance.

I hiked in from the northwest corner of the park on Reservation Road, far from the busy main entrance. The little blue asters were the only blooms in sight.

Pawtuckaway fire tower. Barely visible on the underside of the cab are charts describing the landmarks in each direction.

Pawtuckaway fire tower. Barely visible on the underside of the cab are charts describing the landmarks in each direction.

View from fire tower east to Pawtuckaway Lake and the Seacoast.

View from fire tower east to Pawtuckaway Lake and the Seacoast.

View to northwest; Mt. Kearsarge in distance.

View to northwest; Mt. Kearsarge is barely visible in the distance at center.


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A ranger’s first assignment to Pawtuckaway (reposted from NH State Parks blog)

What fun! Here’s a the view of an interpretive ranger taking a look at her summer assignment, Pawtuckaway State Park:

Despite its summer crowds, Pawtuckaway is a great place. It’s so big that while the beach and the fire tower might be overrun, there are still plenty of quieter places and trails to explore. Take Exit 5 off NH 101, and follow the signs. I think the entrance fee is $5 per adult, a dollar higher than at most NH parks.

Next time you’re there, see if you can find this U.S. Geological Survey marker on North Mountain. One more thing to add to the Pawtuckaway to-do list …

Marker on North Mtn., Pawtuckaway State Park: can you find it?

Marker on North Mtn., Pawtuckaway State Park: can you find it?