Trail of the Month: December 2014
“It has a Rocky Mountain West Coast feel . . . It’s the prettiest trail I’ve ever been on.”
Psst…come closer. We’ve found New Hampshire’s best-kept secret—the Presidential Range Rail Trail—and winter is the perfect time to visit it. With a long snowy season, generally running between mid-December and early April, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy its spectacular views on a pair of Nordic skis or snowshoes. Along the 18-mile trail, the range of snow-topped peaks named after famed American presidents make a striking contrast against a crystal blue sky. Buffered by balsam fir trees, the trail even smells like Christmas.
“All the rail-trails in New Hampshire have great scenic value,” says Chris Gamache, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails, which manages the rail-trail. “But some of the best views are from this trail.”
Occupying a historically important east-west passage through the White Mountains, the trail offers a glimpse of the distant past. Paleoindian hunters who lived here just after the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago) watched for game in the valley below; remnants of their encampments and the makings of stone spear points and knives have been found in the area. Among the rugged peaks, Mt. Washington stands out at 6,288 feet, New England’s highest summit. Railroad buffs may want to check out the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which scales its steep slope and boards at Bretton Woods, less than 20 miles from the trail’s west end.
“It has a Rocky Mountain West Coast feel,” says Jim Brown, trail development manager at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, who estimates that he’s traveled on hundreds of trails in this country and abroad. “It’s the prettiest trail I’ve ever been on.”
For those who have enjoyed perhaps many rail-trails before, the chance to be whisked along behind a team of powerful and exuberant sled dogs offers a vastly new and different experience. Adjacent to the trail, the Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel in Jefferson is home to more than a hundred dogs, many of which are rescued “second-chance” animals. The organization offers guided tours down the rail-trail and other local trails. Ranging from 2- to 50-mile treks at a pace of about 3 to 10 miles an hour, the experience is exhilarating, but still comfortable for most ages and abilities.
In addition to dog sledding, frequent moose sightings give the trail an almost Alaskan feel. (Canada is a nearby neighbor a little more than an hour away.) The Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge on the trail’s west end offers a good bet for seeing the majestic animals; its ponds and wetlands offer the type of habitat they favor, though you’re most likely to see them in the spring or fall. The town of Gorham even offers guided moose tours; check the town’s website for more information.
Gorham is also a hub for snowmobiling, which is permitted on the rail-trail. Two major snowmobile routes—one going north-south, the other heading east-west—connect in town, offering continuous riding in all directions. With 7,000 miles of snowmobile trails in the state, the activity is a major tourism generator. On a local level, snowmobiling provides an economic boost for the towns along the rail-trail, and the annual registration fees for the vehicles also cover the trail’s ongoing maintenance costs.
“It’s a real way of life out here,” says Brian Ruel, president of the Presidential Range Riders, a snowmobile club that rides the rail-trail and provides grooming and volunteer upkeep on it. “The rail-trail definitively brings more business into town, because it makes it easy to get from point A to point B. Lancaster and Conway are just a quick ride away. It’s a beautiful asset to the area.”
Ruel notes that he frequently sees cross-country skiers and dog sledders on the rail-trail and that the user groups coexist peacefully.
“We all recognize the need for a healthy economy here,” says David Govatski, president of Friends of Pondicherry, a local group that volunteers on the trails in the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge, including the rail-trail. “We work closely with the snowmobile clubs. They help us and we help them. It’s a cooperative effort.”
While the trail is two to three hours from major cities such as Portland and Boston, the communities along the route, though small—the largest is home to about 10,000 people—offer all the amenities travelers need: lodging, restaurants, entertainment and shopping. Gorham, in particular, which blossomed as a railroad town in the mid-1800s, exudes warmth and a quaint New England beauty. Brown says the community doesn’t have a forced touristy vibe, calling it “legitimately charming.” When he and his friends visited the trail this past August, they liked the town so much that they decided to stay another day.
A block from Main Street, a refurbished railway station dating back to 1907 houses the Gorham Railroad Museum, offering a plethora of exhibits and photographs showcasing the region’s history. The rail-trail is built along a line once used by the Boston & Maine Railroad to haul lumber and paper between Whitefield and Berlin, the latter of which, perfectly situated on the Androscoggin River in a heavily forested region, became a thriving mill town. The community still goes by the moniker “The City That Trees Built.” The state bought the rail corridor in 1996; by then, the rails and ties were already gone, and the corridor was primed for conversion to a trail.
One relic from the rail-trail’s past life, the Snyder Brook Bridge in Randolph, is currently undergoing repair. Just this month, the 1918 structure—one of only a handful of Howe pony truss bridges remaining in North America—was lifted from its crumbling abutments so that work could begin. The bridge has an unusual design with raised wooden side panels that give the bridge an appearance of a long box with no lid. The renovated bridge will return for use next summer.
One thing holding the rail-trail back from being truly embraced as a popular destination is its lack of easy connections to the communities that surround it. The rail-trail is remote, rural and removed from town centers. To reach downtown amenities, travelers will need to take a short jaunt on roads. Thankfully, the roads are wide and the traffic volume is low, but there are no bike lanes, and there is limited directional signage.
Brown remembers having trouble finding the trail and seeing homemade signboards along it directing visitors to local restaurants and businesses. The desire for connection is there and the opportunities for the rail-trail feel palpable. “I think there’s a ton of potential for it,” he says.
“We’re trying to improve it and make it a recreational resource,” says Govatski. “It’s a gem in the rough. It would be easy to upgrade the trail, but trying to find the funding is the tough part.”
In the warmer months, leafy trees and verdant undergrowth meet to encompass travelers in lush greenness, a gurgling Moose River follows at your side for much of the way, and the marshlands are bright with wildflowers and loud with bird chatter. The trail’s surface—now clear of snow—is predominantly gravel, best-suited for mountain bikes but also frequented by hikers and equestrians. Those looking to enjoy this serene, natural experience may want to avoid the stretch of trail (about six miles) between Gorham and Berlin; during the summer, this section at the eastern tip of the trail is heavily used by ATV riders, though they are not permitted on the rest of the trail.
“We’re working on making this part of a regional effort to increase bike tourism,” says Gamache.
“For example, we want to connect the rail-trail to Moose Brook State Park and all the mountain biking trails there for summer bicyclists. It’s only about 300 yards away, but you have to jump on a paved road to get there.”
The trail’s proximity to state parks, the White Mountain National Forest and a national wildlife refuge provides boundless opportunities for outdoor recreation. Paddling down the Androscoggin River, hiking the Appalachian Trail (which lies just a few miles away) or exploring the dozens of footpaths and mountain biking paths that crisscross the surrounding mountains can add variety and adventure to a trail trip and increase the rail-trail’s allure.
“I went to the University of New Hampshire and spent four years hiking, biking and skiing in the state, but never heard of this trail,” says Brown. “And to think we almost gave up on it!”