The Northern Rail Trail is a gem. Parts of it have signs of deferred maintenance, especially through Grafton and Canaan, where a fat tire bike is necessary. But otherwise, many parts are in excellent riding shape, including Lebanon, Enfield, Andover and Franklin.
I did the entire trail in a series of out-and-back segments as I was riding alone. The availability of lodging is scarce throughout the trail so it helps to plan if a multi day excursion is desired.
The trail conditions range from ballast to sand, grass and mud in some places. Still, it is a historically significant trail with spectacular views, especially the areas by Lake Mascoma and near Mt Cardigan. Bring camera.
Biking from the southernmost end in Boscawen to Webster Lake and back (28 miles roundtrip)
We had a great ride right from the Park N Ride off exit 17W off Rte 93. We were surprised at how pretty the trail was and how few road crossings there were. It was very pleasant. Trail could be used by a road bike, but a mountain bike would probably work better because of the packed sand.
Granny Judy's Kitchen was a good place for lunch. It's at 71 North Main Street in Franklin. To get there off the path, if coming from the south, you'll see the "Franklin" sign on the right on the paved road below the path -- after the National Guard place. After that there will be two "Caution Bridge Crossing" signs for bridges. After the second sign, you'll come to a bridge. Alternatively, coming from the north, when you get to the granite marker that reads 92/47, you'll be at the right bridge. Take the path off the trail after the bridge, wheeling bike down the path. Then turn left onto the road. Ride to bottom (about 1/4 mile), then turn right onto North Main Street. Granny Judy's is a half a block to a block down this street on the left. It's open from 6:30 to 2:00 every day, I think. Phone number is 603-934-4404.
Round trip on the NRT
My wife and I just completed an end to end round trip on the NRT. Leaving Lebanon on 7/10/15, we rode through to Boscawen, where we stayed over Friday evening. We made our return ride to Lebanon the next day.
We were blessed by two beautiful July days, which made for an idyllic explore. There are numerous points of interest and railroad heritage, particularly from Lebanon to Franklin. The stone abutments, rock cuts, and causeways across bogs attest to the creative engineering of another era. There is the remains of a possible turn table in the Canaan town park, Potter Place with its beautifully intact station and freight house, and the remains of a turn table in Franklin - or is this an ancient stone circle??
The trail is well shaded which aided or stamina for this weekend trek - as did the enjoyable swim stops at Highland Lake for two hours on the first day and Webster Lake and Tewksbury Pond - a gift on our return day. End to end, with interest stops, swimming, and lunch, took us ten hours each day. We were riding mountain bikes.
The only drawbacks from granting five stars is the woeful lack of signage along the trail. This is a serious deficiency. While we were able to use the granite markers to calculate how far we had come and the distance that lay ahead (yes, we relied on the technology of an earlier era), there were no signs that indicated distances to towns, services that could be found, or even what villages we were going around.
On the return trip, hoping to find food in East Andover, I did locate the Highland Lake Inn. While the innkeepers were enthusiastic about our use of the trail, the only help with our need for sustenance was to mention the pizza shop off trail in Andover or to make it through another thirteen miles to Danbury. Other than a sign propped up by an off trail ice cream shop, there was no signage on the trail about services in Andover or even that we were going by Andover. But then, that was the case for every town. Yes, there are signs that indicate crossing a town line, but not one village was marked or identified as to the services that could be found.
On the Boscawen end, it was equally befuddling. Having reached the end of the trail, there was not direction as to how we could find food or lodging. This, despite the fact, that we had made reservations at the Elmwood Lodge, which is recommended on this website. But then, the proprietors of the Elmwood, when booking our reservation, could not clearly tell us how to get from the trail end to their lodge. And finding dinner in Boscawen, meant riding extra miles along Route 3 - not fun on a Friday evening. We night have stayed at the Highland Lake Inn, back in East Andover, but they require a two night weekend minimum and, as mentioned above, there is no food available.
Much can be done to improve signage and service amenities. However, it is acknowledged that these shortcomings added, in their peculiar way, to the sense of adventure that always seems to accompay every bike trip.
All in all, the NRT is a great accomplishment by NH and many volunteers that have made this 57 mile trail a reality. I am not grumbling about the above deficiencies - but improvement there would have made things a little easier.
Now to River Rd. in Boscawen
The Northern Rail Trail now extends to River Rd. in Boscawen, NH. The ribbon cutting was on October 14, 2014, and I rode the trail on that drizzly day from Gerrish Depot to the celebration, then to the end of the trail. The trail construction is similar to the crushed stone that's in place north of Depot St. in Boscawen, so your hybrid bicycle will do just fine. The new section has some very nice views of the Merrimack River and farm fields. As you're riding, watch for farm vehicles crossing the trail.
Parking is available at the Hannah Dustin site on Rte 4 (Exit 17 / Boscawen Park & Ride parking lot), and the trailhead is only about 1/2 mile away on a very quiet road. From the Park & Ride head down the ramp, cross the tracks (they are inactive), and head north, crossing under Rte 4 on River Rd. The trailhead will be about 1/3 of a mile from there on the right.
Nice historical site at Potter Place
I rode the Winnipesaukee Rail Trail from Tilton to Franklin, then on-road through Franklin to Chance Pond Rd. to pick up the Northern Rail Trail for a ride to Potter Place in Andover, NH. It was a scramble up from Chance Pond Rd. to the Northern Rail Trail atop a railroad bridge, and I was greeted by a smooth crushed stone trail with a concrete mile marker nearby (the trail in that section has been graded and resurfaced recently, and the work is heading south to reach Concord, NH). I hopped back on my hybrid bicycle and rode northwest. Much of the trail is isolated and wooded with the occasional street crossing, but for stretches it parallels and crosses local routes, which you can sometimes see and hear. The trail's surface changed to slightly larger stone for a short while, and for some stretches it was more like an old dirt road with a variable surface, but it was still very passable on a hybrid. There are several bridges over water and several underpasses beneath roads, including one trestle that crosses very near a covered bridge. After a short while I encountered Webster Lake, where you can hop off the trail and stop for a swim if you like. Further up the trail is Highland Lake, and beyond that the trail turns rather dry in the hotter weather. There is little canopy, so have plenty of water handy--bring what you need, as there are no stores visible from the trail pretty much all the way from Franklin to Andover. I rode into Potter Place in Andover, NH, passing some short sections of track that are in place as part of this historical section of town, and one siding had a boxcar, another a caboose. I discovered that the station and the old general store were open as historical exhibits, a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. It was great to look at the railroad station as it was years ago, the same with the caboose out back and the general store across the street. The people from the Andover Historical Society were delightful and gave me tours. Had I not been so worn out from the hot, sunny ride I would have spent more time chatting, but I opted to go lie down at the picnic table near the station and have a late lunch. Someone has created a small garden in a shady cellar hole near the picnic area behind the station, making the picnic area relaxing after your ride. As the day was wearing on, I hopped back on the bike and made my way back to Franklin and then the Winnipesaukee River Trail to where I parked the car in Tilton, a total of about 34 miles round trip.
A sweet trail
I rode on this trail while my wife shopped at Patternworks, over in Center Harbor. Only had time to ride 7 miles of the trail. The eastern end of this trail stops at the county line. The railbed continuing east is legally accessible, and is probably usable by snow machines, but still has the ballast. I've ridden on ballast before and it's no fun. They have plans to replace it with rock dust in 2010.
I rode in the direction of Grafton and had a great ride. Encountered a few walkers, and the day before (driving in) saw a few other bicyclists. Not a busy trail, but a nice trail. Plenty of interesting railroad artifacts. Took photos of all but the whistle post east of Grafton, uploaded them to Flickr: http://flickr.com/photos/russnelson/tags/northernrailtrail/
There's a nice treatment of a former at-grade crossing. They rebuilt the highway bridge over a stream just off the railbed, and left room on the side for the trail. So there's a slope down, a bit of rusty drainage, and a slope back up, but no cars.