You might immediately think mountains when you start to talk New Hampshire trails. But the Monadnock Region is equally lucky to boast more than 70 miles of rail trails. These networks provide a unique, versatile experience for outdoorsmen and women year-round.
History Along Every Mile
Throughout the 1800s, trains running through the Monadnock Region were a critical link to the outside world. Keene acted as a central connection between rail services, and lines also ran from Jaffrey to Peterborough and on to Concord.
These railroads aided in New England’s industrial boom, hauling textiles, timber, and agricultural products to the marketplace. Milk from dairies on both sides of the Connecticut River was a particularly lucrative product that made its way to Boston.
At the same time, the railroad also opened up a whole new realm of travel for passengers. It offered tourists one of the most scenic rides around when they came to summer in the area.
However, the railroad wouldn’t last forever. As road infrastructure improved and automobiles grew increasingly popular, passenger traffic declined and other forms of shipping began to emerge.
Decades after the first engine’s highly anticipated arrival, the once well-traveled tracks went dormant. But the routes remained to serve a different purpose. Over time, they were refurbished to accommodate hikers and bikers.
Since then, the well-known system of rail trails has been utilized by local communities in all seasons, even seeing plenty of use in winter for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and more.
Lots of Views to Choose From
Three major rail trails extend through the Monadnock Region and beyond, providing scenic views and excellent exercise opportunities for residents of all ages and skill levels. These tracks include the Monadnock, Cheshire, and Ashuelot Recreational Rail Trails.
The Monadnock Recreational Rail Trail is the shortest of the three at 7.5 miles long. This refurbished route offers a secure way to explore the area while bearing witness to some picturesque sights along the way.
The trail begins in a populated area of Jaffrey, next to the American Legion Post on Webster Street. From there, hikers get to indulge in Contoocook River panoramas, getting a glimpse into the 28-acre Children’s Woods, as well as the whopping 100-acre Carey Park. Both conservation lands are owned and preserved by the town of Jaffrey for environmental protection and enjoyment purposes.
Heading farther south along the trail leads to mossy wetlands near the western edge of Contoocook Lake. Views include myriad wildflowers and exquisite lake scenery. The route gradually transitions into the Rindge Rail Trail.
When moving along to the Contoocook Marsh Conservation area in Rindge, keep in mind that the terrain becomes tougher. The last three and a half miles or so have some serene views, but the trail narrows and is prone to flooding, so keep an eye out for signs indicating closures. The path detours to Route 202 – a wider but busier road. A granite pillar at the Massachusetts state border marks this tranquil trail’s end.
Next up, the Cheshire Recreational Rail Trail runs a full 32.9 miles from Walpole through Keene to Fitzwilliam. This route is known for mountain biking, horseback riding, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. While packed with awesome scenery, the beginning of the trek in Walpole has fairly rough terrain, with several sheer inclines before reaching the center of Keene.
Once in town, there’s a small paved portion, creating easy access for those seeking a less involved entryway. It is here where paths cross with the Ashuelot Recreational Rail Trail, and hikers can choose to divert towards Hinsdale.
Otherwise, the quaint town of Troy is about a ten-mile trek onward, with local dining available and a restored train depot for hikers to check out at their leisure. Beyond that, there are some really stunning segments in Fitzwilliam, which run by rivers and through the marsh until the trail finds its end at an old stone bridge.
The last rail trail on the list might be considered the most scenic of the three! The Ashuelot Recreational Rail Trail is certainly exceptional in that it passes through some of the state’s historic covered bridges, abandoned mills, and longstanding villages. Mountain bikes are definitely recommended for this trail during the warmer months, but many cross-country ski, snowmobile, snowshoe and even dogsled in the winter.
At about 22 miles long, the Ashuelot Railroad route begins in Keene, passing through the Keene State College campus, crossing the Ashuelot River, and ultimately leading to a pedestrian bridge. About two and a half miles from there, travelers come upon Sawyer’s Crossing Road, with Cresson Covered Bridge on the left-hand side of the trail. It’s a cool experience to ride on through and a great place to pause for a look back in time.
Continuing toward West Swanzey, there’s an area well-known as moose territory; be sure to keep an eye out for those magnificent creatures! A small detour leads to the Thompson Covered Bridge, and if it’s bridges you love, you can do the same further on to take in the Slate Covered Bridge.
Several miles south, you’ll come upon the fourth and final bridge sighting, the Ashuelot Covered Bridge. Considered one of NH’s most sophisticated, this is one you don’t want to miss due to both its intricate design and historic value.
Then, as the route blazes forward, hikers pass several abandoned mills and railroad depots along the way, eventually reaching the Connecticut River, where the rail trail ends. However, there is an opportunity to pick up the Fort Hill Recreational Trail and travel parallel to Rt. 119 from Hinsdale all the way to Brattleboro, Vermont!
In addition to the three major rail trails, all in the western part of the Monadnock Region, there’s a lightly traveled rail trail in the eastern edge of the region. The 13.8 mile Mason Rail Road Trail runs from the parking lot at the rear of the Antiques and Collectibles Mall of New England (behind the old railroad depot) in Greenville and into neighboring Mason. Popular with hikers, bird watchers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, and ATV clubs, it features beautiful wild flowers and is good for all skill levels.
With miles and miles of scenic trails for all ages and abilities, these timeless trails will keep any outdoors person occupied for hours. They’re also a wonderful alternative for those who love to hike and see the sights without contending with steep inclines or unpredictable terrain. The best part…they’re yours to enjoy for free all year long.