Given its covered bridges, historical aura and abundant wildlife, the Ashuelot Rail-Trail (a.k.a. Ashuelot River Trail) has plenty to offer. The 21.2-mile route follows the corridor of the Ashuelot Railroad, which operated from 1851 to 1983, fostering the development of textile mills, wooden box factories and leather tanneries in the region. Watch for the original granite mile markers, which pop up periodically along the trail.
From the trailhead on Emerald Street near Keene State College, you'll head south, tracing the Ashuelot River. Five miles of trail from Route 101 in Keene to Pine Street in West Swanzey has been improved with a stone dust surface. South of Pine Street the trail surface is packed cinder, ballast and dirt that takes a pounding under heavy rains, which give rise to sandy, muddy and even flooded trail sections. Surface improvements for the remainder of the trail in Swanzey are planned for the summer and fall of 2014.
Approaching West Swanzey, the trail passes near Sawyer's Crossing covered bridge, where you'll find a small parking area and a trail map. You'll soon reach a railroad trestle, marking your arrival in moose territory. Watch for moose tracks on the trail—similar to those of deer but twice the size—and if you do spot a moose, do not under any circumstances approach it, as they can be aggressive animals.
Next up is the historical town of Winchester, whose early settlers were repeatedly attacked and killed or taken captive by Indians. Following its burning in 1747, the town was rebuilt around its agricultural roots. Over the years, several small industries were established in Winchester. Graves & Company, one of America's first manufacturers of musical instruments, opened its doors here in the 1830s. The coming of the railroad brought still more industries and jobs to the region.
You can't miss Ashuelot's distinctive covered bridge, built in 1864 to bring wood across the Ashuelot River to fuel the burners of the railroad's steam engines. Considered one of New England's most sophisticated covered bridges, the span is 169 feet long, with intricate latticework and flanking sidewalks. A sign at each end of the bridge warns of a $5 fine for anyone riding or driving faster than a walk.
Don't overlook the Sheraton House Museum on the other side of the trail. The trail continues south, past old mills and rusting boxcars on sidings, to a high ridge with picturesque river views. Along the way you'll pass a railroad depot that's been restored and converted into a residence, complete with train cars on a siding. Near Hinsdale, the trail parallels State Route 63 through farmland. You'll emerge at a trailhead that links up with the Fort Hill Branch Rail-Trail.
To reach the Keene trailhead from Ashuelot River Park, turn left on West Street, right on School Street, then right again on Emerald Street. Parking is available in the shopping center lot directly across from the trailhead.
To reach the Hinsdale trailhead, follow State Route 63 for 2.1 miles south out of Hinsdale. The trailhead is on the right.