At 58 miles, the Northern Rail Trail spans Grafton and Merrimack counties and is the longest rail-trail in New Hampshire. Along with grass, the surface is dirt, crushed gravel, and cinders in Grafton and crush gravel in Merrimack; both easily bikeable on hybrids or mountain bikes.
The northern half of the trail in Grafton County follows the scenic Mascoma Valley as it goes south from Lebanon to Grafton. Trail development began here in the mid-1990s when the recently abandoned Boston & Maine's Northern Line was purchased by the State of New Hampshire. Volunteers, including local snowmobile clubs, removed the thousands of railroad ties left behind by rail salvagers and decked the many bridges along the line.
Leaving from the trailhead in downtown Lebanon, the trail follows the Mascoma River, crossing it seven times in just the first few miles. Passing beneath Interstate 89, the cinder pathway enters a wooded river valley carved by runoff from Glacial Lake Mascoma 6,000 years ago. The much smaller remnant, Lake Mascoma, is reached at the Ice House Road parking area four miles out from the trailhead. Just ahead, a bike rider or jogger has a mile of the lakeshore to himself as the corridor enters Enfield.
The trail then encounters exposed rock along a dramatic cut—a reminder of the considerable effort expended to construct this line in the days of black powder and muscle-powered chisels. Services are available in Enfield village just ahead. Beyond, the antique Baltic Mill and its dam, a woolens factory from the late 1800s, is a reminder that railroads were crucial to American industry for a century.
Approaching Canaan (where services and parking are available), you'll cross a high bridge over the Indian River. The trail passes through culverts on either side of town. Surfaces vary within them, so cyclists should dismount and walk through. East of Canaan lies well-watered moose country. The Orange Cut, a manmade canyon, marks the high point on the rail line and the entrance to the Merrimack River drainage. Tewksbury and Kilton Ponds are next.
In Grafton, a general store can be found near the post office across Route 4. This marks the last available parking on the Grafton County section of the corridor, which ends at Zaccaria Road on the Merrimack County line.
The first mile of this section, from Zaccaria Road to two miles north of Danbury Center, are compacted cinder ballast, which is slightly softer than the stone dust that lines the remainder of the trail, but it's still very doable for hybrid or mountain bikers. In Danbury Center, the recently renovated Danbury General Store has parking, bathrooms, and food.
From Danbury, you'll travel eight miles along Fraser Brook to Potter Place, where you'll find the only preserved railroad station on the trail. The station is open weekends in the summer and has an excellent display of railroad memorabilia and bottled water for sale. There is parking and seasonal restrooms here as well.
Continuing east, you'll reach Blackwater Park in Andover, then Highland Lake in East Andover, which has a public beach and seasonal restrooms. In this area, you'll find the trail's official welcome site: Highland Lake Inn at 32 Maple Street. The Inn is also a good place to spend the night if you are planning to bike the entire 56 miles.
Travel about another four miles and you'll arrive at Webster Lake, which has a public swimming beach and seasonal restrooms. From Webster Lake, it's another 14 miles along the Merrimack River to the southern end of the trail at River Road in Boscawen. This section has remarkable views of the Merrimack River and stops just north of the Hannah Dustin Park & Ride.
In Grafton County, parking is available at the following places:
To reach the Lebanon trailhead near the Lebanon College campus, take I-89 to Exit 18 and head south on SR120 toward Lebanon. The trailhead is at the intersection of Taylor and Spencer streets. If the trailhead parking lot is full, street parking is available.
To reach the Grafton trailhead, take SR 4 east into town. Trail access lies opposite the general store. Park in the dirt pullout on the trail side of the highway.
Additional trailhead parking is available along Main Street off SR 4 in Enfield and at the end of Depot Street off Route 4 in Canaan.
In Merrimack County, parking is available at the following places:
At the southern end of the trail, opposite the State Nursery on Route 3 in Boscawen.
In the public lot across the street from the Congregational Christian Church (25 South Main Street) in West Franklin. Access from the lot is by crossing Route 3 and going to the west end of the parking lot behind the church and walking your bike up the short steep hill to the trail.
In the public lot at Webster Lake in Franklin at the intersection of NH Route 11 and Webster Avenue. Access is across NH Route 11 at Chance Pond Road.
At the Highland Lake Inn parking lot (32 Maple Street) in East Andover. Access is down Maple Street about 150 feet to the trail.
At Blackwater Park at the intersection of Lawrence Street and Park Street. Access is at the park.
At the restored railroad station at Potter Place in Andover. Access is at the station or at the northwest edge of the large parking lot north of the station.
In the center of Danbury at the intersection of US Route 4 and NH Route 104. Access and parking are on the west side of US Route 4 alongside the trail and just north of the intersection of Route 4 and NH Route 104.
At the Hannah Dustin Park & Ride on Route 4, which is about a mile west of I93 at exit 17. Access is down the ramp marked with the Hannah Dustin sign; turn right at the bottom, cross the RR tracks, turn right again. You are now on River Road. Go about a half mile north on River Road and on your right will be the start of the trail.