Singletrack Mining in Southern New Hampshire
The White Mountains. Winnipesaukee. The Seacoast.
Ask any New Englander to talk about must-see destinations in New Hampshire and these three areas invariably come to the top of the list. Dig a little deeper and you might get mentions of Mount Monadnock, Santa’s Village, or even Manch-Vegas. You’ll have to wait a while- a long while- before you hear someone tell you that you should definitely go visit Milford. Or that you can’t miss Mason or Brookline. And Greenville? Yeah, that’s not going to be on the list. But it should be. It is time to visit the region that put the granite in the Granite State.
This story actually starts south of the border. The Massachusetts border that is. On last year’s Boston to Northampton Trail Ride I discovered the gem that is Pearl Hill State Park near Fitchburg, MA. It was an oasis of flowy singletrack nestled between a doubletrack descent and a long paved road climb that almost broke me. Pearl Hill checked all the boxes for a first family car camping trip: wooded sites, swimming pond, bike trails, showers, and less than an hour from home in case we needed to pull the plug early and escape to the house in the middle of the night. And so in late May my wife and I packed up the car with our camping gear, kids and dog and made our way to central Massachusetts. We had hot dogs and s’mores for dinner, and feasted on pancakes for breakfast. The kids slept through the night and the owls put on a performance. We went for an exploratory hike and we even got a swim in at the nearby pond. It was perfect. Well, nearly perfect. All except for the constant rain of caterpillar poop.
Yep, you see Central Mass was suffering through an infestation of Gypsy Moths. Millions of them were making quick work of the green canvas above our heads. So many, in fact, that you could hear them munching through the leaves and hear the constant pitter patter of caterpillar poop raining down onto the dry leafy canvas. After our morning swim I packed up the car for my wife and kids to head back home. But I wasn’t going with them. Instead, I was taking the long way home. I planned a route that slashed a wide swath through south-central New Hampshire, eventually dipping back into Massachusetts where I would catch the commuter rail from Ayer back to Belmont. Along the way I would explore the foothills just west of Nashua. Not quite into the mountains near Mt. Monadnock, this tour would take me through an area with which I was completely unfamiliar. An area that almost nobody ever talks about or recommends. Especially in the world of mountain bikers. A veritable black hole of biking. But before I could get to New Hampshire, I needed to make it out of Pearl Hill and Willard Brook State Forest. Wild singletrack weaves its way through laurel bushes and rock outcroppings common to Central Mass. Much like Leominster State Forest, not far to the South, the terrain is punchy, rocky and technical, which made for slow going. After an hour of spinning in circles, I eventually descended on single and then double-track to the wide paved Route 119 leading into Townsend. I grabbed an ice cold coke at the general store in the center of town, and trekked north on a quiet country road to the New Hampshire border.
Not far after crossing over into New Hampshire, I made a quick climb up onto an old abandoned railroad bed of the Mason Railroad Trail. The trail, a think ribbon of dirt surrounded by forest, was perfect. Built to serve the long abandoned textile mills and granite quarries of the area, the corridor now serves as a seven mile dirt byway from the Mass border to Greenville. Although I was climbing, it was railroad grade and so it felt like I was simply rolling along even ground. After a few miles, I turned off onto the short extension leading to a quarry and sat to eat a snack while admiring the sheer cliffs of granite dropping down into a deep aquamarine abyss.
I continued back on the Mason trail, heading north and passing into Russell Abbot Forest. Although my route made an oxbow, and I could have easily avoided the next several miles- if given the choice I would happily ride those miles again as they were some of the most memorable. After a broad lookout along a powerline, I dove off of the rail bed and onto some steep primitive doubletrack down into the heart of the state forest lands. I thundered downward, eventually straddling a small brook, which I followed out of the hollow to a four mile paved road climb. This was by far the longest road section of the trip, but it was quiet, mostly shaded, wide, and newly paved. This made the climb bearable, but I still winced at the nearly five hundred feet of elevation I lost on tarmac as I descended down toward Milford.
My troubles dissolved, as I rolled onto the trails in Tucker Brook Town Forest just to the west of Milford. I was amazed at the quality and quantity of good singletrack as I rolled eastward and eventually into a thin sliver of woods up against the roaring traffic of Route 101. The best section of singletrack for the entire trip greeted me along Route 101 where a gnome guarded trail led me into the beautiful hardwood glens and open fields of Harlan Burns Forest. As the sun was setting I scouted out a place to tie my hammock and settled in for the night.
Descending off of Burns Hill.My route picked up where it left off the second day and there was a long singletrack climb on the breakfast menu. I huffed and puffed my way up through pine forest all the way to the top of Burns Hill. Originally I had planned to skirt the hill, but the promise of a view, and rowdy descent was too much to pass up. Indeed, I was treated to views of the distant Pack Monadnock and after a playful hop on the rocky lined trail I returned to the planned route.
The next few miles involved working through a maze of bombed out logging roads. The GPS route I had planned was pretty useless, and instead I was left to feel my way through the trail network, trying to work eastward onto the Granite Town Rail Trail. My efforts finally bore fruit, and just as the going got good on some fun singletrack I was delivered onto the wide, smooth, packed dirt of the rail trail. What time I had lost in the maze of logging roads I quickly made up rolling south on the fast and easy rail corridor.
The rail trail ended just South of Lake Potanipo in Brookline and I was ready for a pit stop so I made my way down Route 13, where I refilled my water and food stores at a local mini mart.
Before long I was back into the woods on the Cedar Mill Trail which took me North and East toward Hollis through the Beaver Brook Conservation Lands. Before reaching Hollis, however, the trail veered south. Along this corridor were several amazing singletrack descents, the first leading down Beaver Brook, and the second just after the Beaver Brook association headquarters. I eventually found myself back on a quiet paved road straddling the Massachusetts border.
I worked eastward on road, passing along open fields and finally reaching the northern terminus of the Nashua River Rail Trail near Hollis Depot. From there it was a nearly straight shot southward to Ayer on the tree lined rail corridor. I stopped in Pepperell for a burger at Charlotte’s Cozy Kitchen, and had flashbacks of the Wayside in Montpelier where my grandmother used to take me whenever I visited. With a delicious meal in my belly, the last miles passed quickly before I rolled into Ayer at the commuter rail stop. With time to spare I sat on the bench, in the shade, utterly stunned at what I had witnessed the past two days.
Southern New Hampshire is awash in quality singletrack. Like the quarries of yesteryear these deep dives of flowy dirt are easily accessed by rail corridors running up from the Massachusetts border. Bikpackers be on notice. Southern New Hampshire is open for business. Here's the map of my route: