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.

Summer on the trails

It’s time to dig out my blaze orange gear. My favorite hiking season is at hand. I have no complaints about the season just ended, though. It was a beautiful summer in New Hampshire and beyond.

Mt. Kearsarge, Rollins State Park, Warner

The fire tower on Kearsarge was getting a serious makeover this summer, with heavy mats laid over the trail from Rollins State Park to accommodate construction vehicles. Hikers were still welcome, though. The broad ledgy summit offered its usual fine views.

Mt. Kearsarge summit, NH

view from Mt. Kearsarge summit, Warner NH

Mt. Kearsarge NH fire tower

Mt. Kearsarge fire tower gets a makeover, summer 2019

While I was there in July, a group of kids from a Boys and Girls Club arrived on the summit with their chaperones, having hiked up from the state park on the other side of the mountain. One boy, maybe ten years old, bounded around like a puppy. “Dude! I’ve never been to the top of a mountain before!” I suspect he’ll go in search of more.

North Country trip

Four days of car camping in August brought me to trails in Pittsburg and Jefferson and a few places in between. Ramblewood Campground in Pittsburg (a five-star establishment, in my book) and Percy Lodge and Campground in Stark served as homes-away-from-home.

It’s tough to pick my favorite part of the Cohos Trail. On this trip, though, Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson staked a pretty strong claim. I circled the refuge one sunny afternoon, stringing together several trail and road segments to make an 8-mile loop. Once out of the woods, the view was all about the surrounding peaks: Mt. Martha to my south, the Presidentials to the east, and the Pliny Range to the north. That just might be the most rewarding flat hiking route I’ve found so far in New Hampshire.

Cherry Pond, Jefferson NH

Cherry Pond, Jefferson NH. looking toward Pliny Range.

I didn’t limit this trip to Cohos Trail segments. I discovered Second College Grant, a Dartmouth College property the size of a town, where I enjoyed a serene walk alongside the Dead Diamond River. Another day, perhaps I’ll return for a hike up Diamond Ridge.

From Stark, I took a quick drive to Milan Hill State Park to check out late-afternoon views from the fire tower. Not a hike, but still a treat.

New Boston rail trail

What a difference since my last visit about five years ago. I found the shady New Boston rail trail south of Lang Station upgraded significantly since my last visit. Trail volunteers, take a bow.

New Boston NH rail trail

New Boston rail trail, NH

I walked for the first time north of Lang Station on the trail to the Goffstown line. Very different up that way: a work in progress, or maybe just in the planning stage. I found blowdowns, mud, and at the Goffstown line, an overgrown swath separating the trail from Route 114.

Someday, if a whole lot of things work out just right, the New Boston trail will connect with the Goffstown rail trail, which already connects to the Piscataquog trail in Manchester.

Rhododendron State Park, Fitzwilliam

rhododendron bloom

Blooming in July at Rhododendron State Park

I think I missed peak bloom at Rhododendron State Park in July, but there were enough blossoms to make the drive to Fitzwilliam worthwhile. The loop trail through the rhododendron grove is shady and not too long.

Actually, this quiet little state park has more to offer than a few weeks of rhododendron blooms. A trail branches off the grove loop, heading up Little Monadnock mountain with its view toward Monadnock. A mile’s walk on a quiet road just outside the park entrance leads to Rockwood Pond and the Cheshire Rail Trail.  This summer, though, I was there for the flowers. I wasn’t disappointed.

Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon: life-list material

My husband and I spent nine too-short days in Utah and Arizona in early September, where I got my first-and-maybe-last look at some of the gems of the national park system:

Zion, where temps in the low hundreds did nothing to dull the scenery…

Zion National Park

Zion National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon, land of the hoodoos, where even a half-moon can’t blot out the stars at night…

Bryce Canyon, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park

and Grand Canyon’s North Rim, far from South Rim’s crowds, where the sheer scale of the canyon left me speechless.

Grand Canyon

View of Grand Canyon from North Rim, Arizona

Along the way – it takes a lot of driving to see all three parks in only a few days – we found some beautiful lesser-known recreational areas: Cedar Breaks and Red Canyon in Utah, and portions of Dixie National Forest in Arizona.

As our return flight descended over the Monadnocks on the way into Manchester, I was happy to see our familiar green hills. This is home. Still, I treasure the awesome sights and beautiful places we saw out west.

Favorite rail trails

I’m reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. A description of a jam-packed campaign tour that he undertook in 1912 via rail includes Nashua, New Hampshire and Ayer, Massachusetts on a list of stops.

Hello, Nashua River Rail Trail. It appeals to my inner history buff that whenever I’m there, I’m retracing a path that was once traveled by a former President.

Who knows how many other distinguished passengers were once conveyed by rail along paths I take today? I’m sure there are stories I haven’t heard yet.

The NRRT has long been my favorite local rail trail, but the Goffstown Rail Trail along with its Piscataquog cousin in Manchester has become a contender. The connection between the Goffstown and Manchester trails was worth the wait. I’m particularly fond of the segment between West Side Arena and Danis Park Road. I get to use the pedestrian bridge that finally replaced the abandoned trestle over the Piscataquog River, and then I walk with just enough people on the trail to make it a pleasant experience. It’s a place of peace and quiet but not isolation.

I’ve yet to explore the full length of the Rockingham Recreational Trail between the Manchester/Auburn line and Newfields, but the westernmost segment alone does not disappoint with its views of Lake Massabesic.

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View from the trail’s main parking area, just south of the Massabesic traffic circle.

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Massabesic Lake seen from a boat launch along the trail: imagine the variety of birds to be seen and heard here.

My single visit to the trail along the old Troy-to-Fitzwilliam line left me determined to come back and explore more of Cheshire County’s rail trails.

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Heading from Troy to Fitzwilliam on a foggy day: silent, eerie beauty.

The Presidential Rail Trail and its crown jewel, the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge, are too far away for me to visit more than once a year. An easy mile-and-a-half hike from Airport Road in Whitefield leads to one of New Hampshire’s hidden treasures.

For eight years, I’ve relied on Charles F. Martin’s comprehensive book New Hampshire Rail Trails for information about the location and history of these and other trails. You could order the book online, but I prefer finding my trail guides at local book shops. The browsing always yields new resources for planning future trips.

Pondicherry is for the birds (and beavers and hikers)

A friend and I have been trying for several weekends to arrange a hike, with last-minute work commitments sabotaging every trip so far. Still, we keep planning. When I suggested Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge, she said “where’s that?” I was going to refer her to a blog post here, when I discovered to my embarrassment that I hadn’t yet written about this lovely place, despite my fondness for it. Oops. Making up for lost time here.

This is another northern trip, from my base in southern New Hampshire. The refuge straddles the towns of Jefferson and Whitefield. I usually see it in April, after I attend a certain annual event in nearby Bethlehem. I can’t drive that far without adding an extra hike to the agenda. In good years, I can fit in a summer trip as well. I take U.S. 3 (what else?) through Franconia Notch and Twin Mountain, and look for the airport sign in Whitefield pointing me to a right turn. A drive around the south side of the one-runway airport brings me to a little biomass power plant, across from which is a well-marked parking area for Pondicherry.

Mount Martha, with Presidential range at left. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

Cherry Pond, with Presidential range at left and Mount Martha at right. All photos by Ellen Kolb.

trailhead, Airport Road

trailhead, Airport Road

From the parking area, one could be forgiven for thinking “is that all there is?” The Presidential Rail Trail extends north from there, looking like a long dirt boulevard. (In fact, it’s a busy snowmobile thoroughfare in the winter.) Cherry Pond is a mile and a half away via the trail. During my April visits, little spring flowers are usually peeking up on the sunny side of the trail when there’s still ice along the shaded side. I seldom have company here, and there is little noise except for the occasional small plane landing at the airport.

Presidential Rail Trail, leading to Cherry Pond

Presidential Rail Trail, leading to Cherry Pond

 

 

 

 

The walk into the refuge is tree-lined, as you can see from the accompanying photo. This makes the sudden view of the Presidentials all the more startling when I arrive at Cherry Pond. I never get tired of that view.

Nearby are Little Cherry Pond and the adjacent wetlands. The Cohos Trail passes through, piggybacking on the Presidential Rail Trail for some distance. There’s an observation platform, affording excellent views for the birdwatcher who remembered to bring her binoculars (which I ALWAYS forget). A rail line runs through the property as well. Signs sternly warn that the rail line is “active,” but that means “two trains a week” or thereabouts. I sometimes see a few freight cars parked on a nearby siding; this quiet location still bears the old name of Waumbek Junction.

Beavers have waged undeclared war on hikers for years by causing flooding of a trail on the east side of Cherry Pond. Hikers currently have the upper hand with the recent rehabilitation of the Slide Brook Trail. The beavers don’t affect the southern access that I’ve described above. Critters of all sizes find Pondicherry a congenial place. I’ve seen moose tracks, but no moose.

Pliny Range, north of Cherry Pond

Pliny Range, north of Cherry Pond

 

Mt. Washington from Cherry Pond

Mt. Washington from Cherry Pond

On the boardwalk to Little Cherry Pond

On the boardwalk to Little Cherry Pond

Click on this link to read what the state of New Hampshire has to say about the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has information as well, though a link is unavailable at this time. The Pondicherry refuge is a cooperative venture of state, federal, and private organizations.

The best guide to the Pondicherry trails can be found in the Jefferson Dome chapter of Kim Nilsen’s 50 Hikes North of the White Mountains, about which I’ve raved before.

 

 

Rail line near Waumbek Junction

Rail line near Waumbek Junction; trail goes alongside it & should be traveled with caution.

Mount Martha, with its pointed Owl's Peak to the left of the rounded summit

Mount Martha, with its pointed Owl’s Peak to the left of the rounded summit. There’s a trail over there for me to explore on another day.

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