The air is crisp. The skies are (hopefully) clear. The leaves are becoming a mish-mash of red, yellow and orange. Now is the time to get out and enjoy New Hampshire’s wild places.
Southern and central New Hampshire boast an array of hiking opportunities ranging from family-friendly to gasping-for-air challenging, hikes that feature breathtaking views, varying terrain and a chance to learn about history, habitat and your own lung capacity. Some take you along streams or by ponds and lakes. Others take you scrambling up a steep ledge. Others take you through thick woods from which you’ll emerge to find views in every direction.
The five hikes here — South Mountain in Pawtuckaway State Park, Mount Cardigan, North Pack Monadnock, Beaver Brook Association and the Massabesic Audubon Center — represent the tip of the iceberg of hiking in the Granite State. Each offers the hiker something a little different.
So grab your hiking boots, a compass, a backpack and some granola bars, and hit the trail. Isn’t it time to breathe that fresh, clean New Hampshire air?
Beaver Brook Association
Spanning 2,100 acres of forest, fields and wetlands and including 35 miles of trails, the Beaver Brook Association in Hollis has options for hikers of all abilities. Parents can take their small children on 20-minute hikes that expose them to the great outdoors and a variety of habitats. More ambitious hikers can piece together more challenging circuits.
The property features a variety of habitat and scenery, including vernal pools, old farm fields and orchards, streams, the Nissitissit River, mature hemlock forests, talus slopes, Old City Trail and its cellar holes, plus beaver dams and lodges.
Why not begin with a walk along Beaver Brook itself? “A pleasant walk to take in the fall is along the stream,” said Celeste Barr, of the Beaver Brook Association, in an e-mail. “This is a moderately easy hike on rolling hills with views of water for a third of the hike,” Barr said, noting the hike is slightly longer than two miles.
Park at Maple Hill Farm at 117 Ridge Road in Hollis, and walk uphill on Ridge Road to the start of Whiting Trail. Whiting Trail winds through the forest downhill to Spatterdock Pond. At the T junction near the water, turn right and walk to the pond edge, where there is a wooden bench on which you can enjoy some quiet sitting, Barr said.
If you take a left at the T instead, and then turn right at the next junction, you’ll walk on a bridge and proceed onto Eastman Meadow Trail. Bear right and follow Eastman Meadow Trail north along Beaver Brook for about one mile, Barr said. “Look for beaver lodges, large trees chewed by beavers, great blue herons and wood duck nesting boxes,” Barr said.
At the next four-way junction, turn right and cross the brook on Bouchard Bridge, a long boardwalk through cattails and colorful shrubs. Continue straight to a junction with Cow Lane. Hikers can take Cow Lane back to Maple Hill Farm in another half mile, Barr said.
On the way, take a moment to see the ash bark wigwam constructed by Beaver Brook Association instructor Kap Siddall. Hikers can reach the wigwam by taking a left at the junction of Wigwam Trail and Cow Lane. The wigwam is used for teaching about woodland people who lived in New England for as many as 10,000 years, Barr said.
“White ash was a bark commonly used in wigwam construction in this region,” Barr said. “Pop inside to look at the construction.”
Hikers can turn back up the trail to Cow Lane and turn left to return to their starting point.
“There are dozens of other trails that connect in the vicinity of this route so the hike can easily be extended,” Barr said.
Download a trail map at www.beaverbrook.org
. There are dozens of easy-to-find letterboxes on the Beaver Brook trails for those who like to search for things in the woods, Barr said. Clues to letterboxes are found at www.letterboxingna.org
About 10 years ago, I hiked Mount Cardigan — probably my first hike on an actual mountain — with my then girlfriend, now wife. Having forgotten her hiking boots, she wore a pair of her grandmother’s Keds. At one point, another hiker told her, apparently without any irony, that although she hadn’t thought it would be necessary, “I guess you really can’t hike this mountain without hiking boots.” She said this as though my wife weren’t wearing a pair of her grandmother’s Keds. We made it to the top. Still, that other hiker, she had a point.
Mount Cardigan’s bald peak is a landmark in central New Hampshire. Hikers can thank a forest fire in 1855 for the mountain’s bald top, which provides the very definition of 360-degree views. People looking for panoramic views have been able to rejoice ever since the fire.
“It’s kind of an iconic mountain in central New Hampshire,” said Steve Smith, co-editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide.
Cardigan is the type of mountain people can plan to spend a few hours on, or a full day.
“It’s just a very cool mountain,” Smith said. “It’s very popular. It’s got quite a following.”
First things first, considering the 3,155-foot summit is bare ledge, hikers should bring layers of clothing, including hats and gloves, Smith said.
“There’s lots and lots of bare ledge at the top,” Smith said. That means wind, often cold. It should also mean fantastic foliage views.
Hikers can tackle the mountain from either the east or the west, with more trails originating from the east. From the east, beginning at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cardigan Lodge, at 774 Shem Valley Road in Alexandria, hikers can take advantage of a number of loop hikes.
The simplest loop is a 5.7-mile circuit beginning at the lodge. You start up the Holt Trail and then connect with the Cathedral Forest Trail, which takes you to the Clark Trail. The Clark Trail takes you right over the summit. You can go right up to the summit via the Holt Trail, but be ready for a challenge — Smith said it is considered perhaps the steepest trail in New England. Smith said only experienced hikers comfortable with difficult terrain should consider tackling the Holt Trail the entire way. (Something that’s probably not recommended: hiking up the Holt Trail in your grandmother’s Keds.)
From the summit, you can take the Mowglis Trail, which is named for a nearby campground. The Mowglis Trail takes hikers over to a spur peak called Firescrew Mountain, which was named because of a corkscrew of fire originating from the peak during the 1855 fire. Firescrew features open ledges as well, along with fantastic views. From Firescrew, you can take the Manning Trail back to the lodge.
“That’s sort of the classic Cardigan loop,” Smith said.
The loop should take roughly four hours, using the AMC’s formula: two miles per hour and 30 minutes for every 1,000 feet in elevation gain, Smith said.
“Cardigan just has phenomenal views,” Smith said. “It’s a big bald dome. If it’s a clear day, you can see Mount Washington to the north and Mount Monadnock to the south, and a lot of the green mountains in Vermont.”
The Summit has a fire tower on the top, which people can climb, but it’s hardly necessary to enjoy the views, Smith said.
“You can see Cardigan from many, many mountains,” Smith said. “It’s like a landmark. Up in the White Mountains, you can see Cardigan.”
The trails are mostly wooded and largely moderate in difficulty. The Manning Trail can be steep in sections, Smith said. “There is a lot of ledge scrambling in the upper part,” Smith said. “It’s not dangerous unless it’s icy. Then it can be very dangerous. So make sure you do it on a dry day.”
For adventurous hikers, Smith said, much longer loops can be created. The longest is about 10 miles round trip, along the Skyland Trail over a ridge to Orange Mountain.
The Woodland Trail, which is incorporated in the 10-mile circuit of the mountain, takes hikers by some interesting beaver ponds.
Cardigan has a unique trail blazing system: the trails on the east side are yellow and trails on the western slopes are orange. Trails along the ridge crest are white. With a number of trails converging at the top, the blazing system can be useful, Smith said.
From the AMC lodge, you can take a relatively short walk to Welton Falls, making for a 2.4-mile round trip, out-and-back hike. If you are with a group and some don’t want to climb up the whole way, some could go over to the falls and others could hike to the summit.
Hikers can buy a waterproof trail map at the AMC lodge for $9.95. Hikers can also purchase the AMC’s southern New Hampshire guide book at the lodge.
Lake Massabesic and Battery Point
On the outskirts of the state’s largest city sits Lake Massabesic. The lake provides drinking water for 159,000 people in the Manchester area. The surrounding forests and fields provide relatively easy hiking options for the whole family.
The Massabesic Audubon Center in Auburn boasts plenty of hiking. Most of the property is protected by a conservation easement.
“It’s just beautiful,” said Angie Krysiak, program director and naturalist at the Center. “And you do get nice foliage views.”
Starting at the Audubon Center, 26 Audubon Way in Auburn, which has 130 acres of land, hikers can follow a one-mile loop that takes them through a mix of fields and forest, along with a swing by the lake. The route, which features wide and flat trails, takes you to a bird blind where you can stop and look out at a new nesting platform, Krysiak said.
A pair of osprey called Lake Massabesic home a couple years ago but they disappeared. Officials hope the new nesting platform will draw in another pair next spring, Krysiak said. The stop on the trail includes information on osprey.
A little farther along the trail, people can stop and gaze out on the lake, Krysiak said, and during the summer, you might see loons.
Families with youngsters can take a five-minute walk to a frog pond from the Center. Kids will get a look at frogs and turtles, and water birds, depending on the time of year, Krysiak said.
If you’re looking for a little longer trip, you can take a 3.2-mile out-and-back hike to Battery Point. Battery Point used to be a tea house, a place where people ferried across the lake to have tea and lunch. Today, all that remains is a small stone foundation, but it is in a big clearing at the end of a peninsula, which offers a great view of the lake, Krysiak said.
My plan was to tackle Battery Point, rain or shine. On the drive over to the Massabesic Audubon Center last week, it was clear I couldn’t catch a break with the weather. It wasn’t pouring, but the cloud cover was thick and there was an ever-constant drizzle. Nevertheless, I pressed on. What’s a little drizzle, after all?
The trail also goes through fields and forest, and you can check out some vernal pools as you’re walking along, Krysiak said.
While the weather was dark and dreary much of last week, flecks of foliage poked through the forest cover as I made my way to Battery Point. The trail, which is easy to follow, begins at the Audubon Center and meanders through a couple fields, before diving into the forest. In the fields, you’ll see lots of boxes. They’re for nesting bluebirds, which call them home during the spring and summer. Bluebirds are migrating now. The trail system features wooden trail maps with an always helpful note that “You are here.”
And even on a drizzly day, the views from Battery Point are excellent. Only splotches of yellow, orange and red dotted the tree-covered shoreline, but it was clear that in a few weeks Battery Point would make for a good place to take in the vibrant fall colors. Aside from a couple acres of field, most of the property is forest. At times, the tree canopy gave off almost a cathedral feel. At one point, a canopy of yellow leaves brightened the broad path.
It is an easy hike with largely flat trails. The loop around Battery Point itself was a little more rocky and root-laden, but still flat. On a rain-free day, I could have spent a good bit of time on Battery Point, maybe bringing lunch or a good book.
During the winter, Audubon rents snowshoes. Trails are not groomed during the winter, but cross-country skiers and snowshoers enjoy the trails.
Pawtuckaway State Park isn’t short on recreational opportunities. Aside from Hampton Beach State Park, it’s the most visited state park in the state. Pawtuckaway Lake spans 803 acres, and the park itself spans 5,500 acres. People flock to the park for hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The park, at 128 Mountain Road in Nottingham, boasts plenty of options for hiking.
South Mountain, even with a relatively low elevation, provides excellent views.
“I wouldn’t call it an easy hike,” said Tary Blaney, park manager. “I guess it’s probably on the easy side of moderate.” Families with children will hike to the top of South Mountain, Blaney said. “It’s really got some good views.”
There are a couple options for getting to the top of South Mountain, but most people would go to the park headquarters and take the Mountain Trail to the South Ridge Trail, making for a 2.4-mile hike, one way.
“The majority of the trail is in the woods,” Blaney said. For the most part, the trail meanders through the woods on a gradual upgrade. Once you reach the South Ridge Trail, that’s when you begin to go up the mountain.
“That’s the shorter leg of the trip,” Blaney said, adding the summit is just 908 feet above sea level, which is “not dramatic” in number.
On a clear day, you can see Boston’s skyline, and on a particularly cold, crisp and clear day, you might catch a glimpse of Mount Washington. Mount Monadnock might be visible as well.
Hikers can climb the fire tower at the top of the mountain, which was among the first fire towers erected in New Hampshire. The fire tower gets you above the tree line and provides great views of area forests, including excellent foliage views.
“[From the top of the fire tower], you basically have 360-degree, panoramic views,” Blaney said.
Figure the hike will take three and a half to four hours, depending on how much time you spend at the summit, Blaney said.
“It’s a good trip to pack a lunch and hike up and have lunch and then hike down,” Blaney said.
More ambitious hikers could hike South Mountain and continue down the South Ridge Trail, which would bring them to Round Pond.
“There a bunch of different loops depending on how long of a hike they wanted,” Blaney said.
The Boulder Field is also popular at Pawtuckaway, both for hikers and for rock climbers.
There are trails originating from the back side of the park, but there are no facilities on that end.
Fall hiking coincides with hunting season, so Blaney recommended wearing something orange so hikers stand out. Pawtuckaway State Park typically is not staffed after Oct. 30, but the park remains open year-round
North Pack Monadnock
Driving out to North Pack Monadnock, I needed to look for a brand new parking lot on Mountain Road in Greenfield. That much I was sure of, thanks to a conversation with one of the rangers with the Waupack Wildlife Reserve, which the mountain sits on.
The parking lot was brand new, that was clear.
Mount Monadnock is perhaps the most-hiked mountain in the U.S. That’s for good reason, surely, but I wanted a hike that was a little less popular. North Pack Monadnock fit the bill. The ranger assured me it was beautiful terrain.
The weather, my nemesis in the past week and a half, had kept on with showers; not deterred, my friend Shawn and I checked out the trail map and embarked. Our plan was to take Ted’s Trail to Carolyn’s Trail to the Cliff Trail, which would make a roughly six-mile round trip.
Part of the reason we chose North Pack Monadnock was that it would presumably present a front-row seat for raptor migration. Each fall, hawks, falcons and eagles migrate through New Hampshire to places as near as southern New England or as far away as South America. The cloud cover prevented us from seeing any hawks, but they were no doubt there, soaring overhead.
We wanted an easy to moderate hike, which Hike New England (www.hikenewengland.com
) suggested this would be. We wanted to stretch out the distance a little without getting a grueling, uphill slog.
The problem was that we were at the wrong parking lot but didn’t know it. What we took was the Wapack Trail, which spans 21 miles between Ashburnham, Mass., and Greenfield. No worries, though; from the parking lot the trail is about a 1.5-mile hike to the 2,278-foot summit of North Pack Monadnock.
Of course, the whole time, we were looking for the intersection with Carolyn’s Trail, lamenting the poor signage as we reached several points that appeared to be intersections. Those “intersections” were just alternative routes to let people avoid steeper sections. In hindsight, the signage was fine. The trail was marked with yellow blazes.
The Wapack Trail meandered through thick forest, over a mountain stream and up some sections of ledge steeper than we’d expected. There were times when nearby trees and rocks were helpful for balance. The trail offered several points where hikers likely would have had excellent views on a clear day. We stopped to take a look at a bright orange salamander on one of the steeper sections. The path followed an old stone wall, as well. The rain held off just enough, and the tree cover acted as an umbrella. The summit features a big pile of rocks and probably would have provided sweeping foliage views, without clouds.
We met another couple on the way down who informed us of our route error. They suggested doing the hike in winter, wearing micro spikes. we saw one other hiker on the way down. We'll have to return in a few weeks for the foliage — on the route we'd intended.