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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Any visit to New Hampshire should include a bike ride on the Northern Rail Trail

Any visit to New Hampshire should include a bike ride on the Northern Rail Trail
By:  Michael Lander

Many cyclists enjoy the 58-mile Northern Rail Trail from
Lebanon to Boscawen, NH, which was converted from the
Northern Railroad line to a trail system beginning in the

If you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in New Hampshire, and you’re looking for a great place to ride a bike, the family-friendly Northern Rail Trail is absolutely what you will want to visit.

Located in the “Live Free or Die” State of New Hampshire, the 58-mile Northern Rail Trail is the longest rail trail in the Granite State and the trail is on the Rails-to-Trails’ list of the best biking and walking trails in North America.

There are plenty of scenic views for cyclists and pedestrians
along the Northern Rail Trail, which is the longest trail system
in the State of New Hampshire.

The trail offers visitors with some incredibly scenic wooded areas, around mountainous terrain, fields and valleys, near crystal clear lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, all that are in view of some charming and quaint New England towns with a few old and colonial era homes and buildings and even a covered bridge or two.

The trail is one of many great bike and pedestrian trails that can be found in the Upper Connecticut Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire and it received its name from what was once the Northern Railroad.

Covered bridges just like this one are one of the things that
are distinctively unique to New England.  This one is located
just outside of Lebanon.

The Northern Railroad had been one of New Hampshire’s earliest and longest railroads, according to

Today, cyclists and pedestrians are the benefactors to the land where railroad tracks once existed between Concord to Lebanon and where locomotives and railcars traveled along them for a better part of a century and a half, (143 years, altogether), from November 17, 1847 until the tracks were no longer used and were finally abandoned in 1991.

This is just one of the many unimpeded views of Mascoma
Lake that cyclists can take in on their ride on the Northern
Rail Trail.

In its heyday, the Northern Railroad, (and later the Boston & Maine) was an essential means of passenger travel and the movement of freight that was vital to the economic livelihood of generations of many New Englanders in this area.

The Northern Rail Trail is one of the earliest efforts in the nation in converting no longer used railroad lines to trails for public use, which is now being enjoyed by those who wish to walk, run, ride a bike, or even ride a snowmobile on it in the winter.

This is a bird's eye view of Mascoma Lake in 1849 with the
Shaker Bridge spanning across it.  The railroad line (and
now the trail system) runs along the perimeter of the
lake in the foreground.  (Photo:  Courtesy of A.B. Hunt
Publishing in Lebanon, NH)

The abandoned rail line was purchased by the State of New Hampshire in the mid-1990’s and, through a volunteer-led effort, work was done that included the removal of railroad ties, installing decking for the bridges, and other projects that eventually transformed the railroad line into the popular trail that it is today.

The impetus for re-imagining or re-purposing old and abandoned railroad lines into something that will be used for the public good was a culmination of circumstances that first began in the mid-1980’s. 

One of the remaining remnants of a bygone era that
cyclists and others can see along the Northern Rail
Trail is the Baltic Mill and its dam and a woolens
factory in Enfield.

The availability of federal transportation “enhancement” funds in the early 1990’s, coupled with a raised consciousness of more environmentally-friendly alternatives in transportation, the development of non-profit organizations that were established to promote healthy activities like cycling, and other factors, ultimately helped to create an environment that has greatly facilitated the proliferation of bike and pedestrian trails, like the Northern Rail Trail, throughout many part of the U.S.

The most northern portion of what was once the Northern Rail is located in Grafton County along the extremely scenic and picturesque Mascoma Valley region.

These are images, circa 1847, of Orange Cut, which is the
highest point along the Northern Rail Trail.  Laborers for
the railroad had to use blasting powder and chisels to
carve out a passage through the rocky summit.  (Photo:
Courtesy of the Lebanon, NH Historical Society & A.B.
Hunt Publishing)

Dick Mackay, in his book – “Adventures in Paradise – Exploring the Upper Connecticut Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire (On a Bicycle),” described this corridor of Lebanon to Enfield as being, “right up with the best of the rail trail rides in the Northeast.”

Part of the appeal for Mackay is the fact that the trail is almost entirely separated from traveled roads in this section.  It also features seven bridge crossings within a 4-mile span and it provides a runner, walker, or cyclist with a mile-long view of Mascoma Lake all to themselves with an all-paved alternative route over to Crystal Lake that loops back around toward West Canaan.

This is an image of Orange Cut as it exists today.

With the exception of the Baltic Mill and its dam and a woolens factory building in Enfield, there are few existing remnants of the 19th and early 20th Century industries, mills, factories, distilleries, taverns, or mines in this area or of the Shaker Colony that was once there, but there are a few structures that can still be found that stand as silent sentinels to a bygone era.

After traveling beneath Interstate 89, the dirt, crushed gravel, and cinder-paved pathway, (which is best suited for mountain bikes and hybrids), takes you to a wooded river valley that is said to have been carved out by the runoff from glaciers in the Mascoma Lake area over 6,000 years ago.

The Northern Rail Trail is a family-friendly trail that is
especially popular in the northern portion of it from
Lebanon to Enfield.

As you approach Canaan, you pass by the Herbert L. Webster Wildlife Management Area, Mirror Lake, and then you come across one of the most distinctive features on the trail, which is a man-made canyon known as “Orange Cut.” 

This carved out rock formation was created by laborers for the railroad who used stone chisels and common blasting powder to clear the rock away for the rail line.  It marks the high point of the trail with an elevation of 968 feet.

The Northern Rail Trail has many bridges along its 58-mile
course from Lebanon to Boscawen, NH with seven of them
in the first four miles of it in the north.

At its steepest grade, the Northern Rail Trail does not exceed 52 feet in any given mile throughout its entire 58-mile course.

After traveling past Orange Cut, you will go past Tewksbury and Kilton Ponds and then on to Danbury and into Merrimack County.

While in Tewksbury, and near the adjacent marshlands, you may have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a moose, bear, or various other wildlife in the area, too.

From there, you will go another eight miles by Fraser Brook to Potter Place where you will come across the only preserved Victorian era railroad station on this trail system.

The Potter Place Railroad Station is an original, Victorian
era train station with a museum that can be found
about eight miles south of Danbury, NH.

Should you travel the trail even further, you will eventually come to Highland Lake in East Andover and to Webster Lake, both of which offer public swimming beaches and a great way to cool off after a long, hot bicycle ride.

Ultimately, there is a plan to have this trail extend all the way down to Concord from Boscawen and west to White River Junction, Vermont from Lebanon.  If and when this ever occurs, this will only help to enhance a trail that is already a great trail to ride on even without that addition.

To find out more about this trail, and for details about parking and trail access, click on this link:

To learn more about other great bike trails in New England, visit or Dick Mackay’s “Adventures in Paradise – Exploring the Upper Connecticut Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire (On a Bicycle).

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