About this Itinerary
New Hampshire’s Northern Rail Trail may not win any awards for naming originality, but what it lacks in creative naming, it more than makes up for in its beautiful scenery, year-round accessibility and easy access to history. Located in the heart of New England, the trail is a popular route with autumn leaf peepers, and since it’s open to skiers and snowmobilers in the winter, it’s a true four-season trail. It was created in the mid-1990s from the remains of the Boston & Maine Northern Line and, at 58 miles long, is the longest rail trail in the state.
The trail begins just a few miles from the Vermont border in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Like the rail trail it anchors, the town name doesn’t get any points for originality: it was simply copied from a nearby town in Connecticut that many settlers hailed from (that Lebanon, meanwhile, was indeed named for the country on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; the vast cedar forests found by the Connecticut settlers reminded them of the tree that the Middle Eastern country is famed for).
Lebanon, the largest city along the Northern Rail Trail, is home to about 13,000 people; it’s accessible via a small municipal airport nearby, an Amtrak station just a few miles away in Vermont and a much larger airport, the Manchester–Boston Regional, about 65 miles away. If you’re not bringing a bike with you, your only rental option is Omer & Bob's Sportshop, conveniently located just a few hundred yards from the trailhead. And that trailhead, near the campus of Lebanon College, is where our first foray into history begins.
In 1847, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the new rail line just about where the trailhead now stands. The featured speaker at the ceremony was famed orator and statesmen Daniel Webster, and it’s fitting that the trail begins with him, since he features prominently on it—the trail passes by both his birthplace and a lake that’s since been named after him. Now synonymous with gilded oration, Webster was so important during a critical period of American history, that his likeness has graced more postage stamps than all but a few of our most revered presidents.
Our itinerary is broken up into three days. This allows you to tackle the trail at a leisurely pace of about 20-30 miles per day, and there are plenty of attractions along the route that you can catch either coming or going when you need a break from the saddle.
The first attraction on our itinerary comes less than half hour into your ride from Lebanon. Turning off the rail trail, you’ll pedal down a bike friendly road along the shore of the beautiful Mascoma Lake, where the Dartmouth College sailing team is based. Your destination, about 3 miles away, is the Chosen Vale. Nestled between the lake and Mount Assurance, it’s where a group of Shakers settled in 1793. This site, the 9th of 18 Shaker communities to be established in the United States, was home to around 300 people at their peak in 1840. Like their brethren across the country, the population of the Enfield Shaker Village started declining in the second half of the 19th century; by 1923, the last of the Shakers had dispersed.
An offshoot of the Protestants, the Shakers were known for their ecstatic singing and dancing, a trait that earned them a portmanteau of shaking Quakers. Today, the Shakers are best known for their unmatched craftsmanship and simple design aesthetic. Dedicated to the Shakers that called the area home, the Enfield Shaker Museum features exhibitions, artifacts, eight Shaker buildings and restored gardens. The museum is open year-round, closing only on major holidays.
Dominating the landscape, and one of the highlights of a visit, is the Great Stone Dwelling House, the largest Shaker dwelling ever built and the largest residential dwelling north of Boston at the time. The imposing building of gray granite was constructed using advanced stone masonry techniques, revolutionary for the time period, and stands six stories tall. It was designed by Lebanon native Ammi Burnham Young, who also designed the second of Vermont’s state capitol buildings (Vermont is on its third capitol now) and was the supervising architect of the US Treasury building in Washington, D.C. If your timing allows for it, consider staying here overnight. Normally available only for groups of five or more, the Great Stone Dwelling House can occasionally accommodate smaller groups or individuals; contact them ahead of time to be sure. A hike up nearby Mount Assurance provides beautiful views of the valley below.
When the Northern Rail Line was originally being laid down, the Shakers proved a force to be reckoned with. The conservative community recognized the value of readily accessible train tracks to export their wares but did not want them within sight of their quiet enclave. So a deal was struck: in return for an investment in the railroad venture, the tracks would be moved to the far side of Mascoma Lake, helping to maintain the tranquility of the vale. One of the railroad's locomotives was even dubbed The Shaker.
Back on the Northern Rail Trail you’ll loop around the far side of Mascoma Lake and enter the town of Enfield—another town named by settlers from Connecticut to match the home they left behind. Mickey's Roadside Cafe is a great place to rest and recharge over lunch; a town favorite, they serve up hearty American fare: burgers, pizza, subs and the like. Alternatively, the Enfield House of Pizza, which specializes in those Italian pies also serves burgers, pasta and seafood.
Seven miles on is the town of Canaan. If you guessed that this Biblical-inspired name was in fact copied from a town of the same name in Connecticut, you win a prize. Copycat name notwithstanding, Canaan has a noble history, having served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses used by escaped slaves seeking freedom in Northern states and Canada. About 1.5 miles off the trail is a small museum operated by the Canaan Historical Society dedicated to the town’s past (Sat. afternoons, July–Oct.; free).
The next town on the line is Grafton, about 7.5 miles away, a former mining town that boomed when mica was first discovered in 1803. Several mica mines and granite quarries were opened in the area, and a man named Sam Ruggles developed his into one of the largest mining operations of its kind in the country. When the Ruggles Mine closed down in 1963, it opened its doors to the public instead. A bit more than a mile from the trail is the mine’s headquarters, and another 1.5 miles in—up a mountainside, steep but bikeable if you’re determined—is the entrance to the mine itself. Here you can you delve deep into the earth and explore caverns filled with minerals, such as beryl, mica, amethyst, quartz and garnet. Not only that, but you can collect your own as well! The mine allows you to use your own short-handled tools or you can rent hammers to excavate the more than 150 different types of minerals found there (weekends May–June; daily mid-June–Oct.).
Another 5 miles on is Danbury, named by settlers from—you guessed it—Danbury, Connecticut. The town is home to a one-room schoolhouse built in 1853. The museum is open only a few summer Saturdays a year, but admission is free. Check out the website for open times.
As you pedal past Danbury, you’ll ride along the edge of the Danbury Bog Wildlife Management Area, a 246-acre marsh home to many native and migrating waterfowl. Depending on the time of year, you’re likely to see mallards, black ducks, wood ducks and ring-necked ducks. Other common wildlife that call the marsh home include great blue heron, beaver, muskrat, otter, white-tailed deer, moose, coyote, woodcock and ruffed grouse.
The town of Andover, about 9 miles from Danbury, is chockablock with local history; here you’ll find a Victorian-styled 19th-century railroad station, considered the best surviving example of its type in the state, a restored caboose and boxcar, a well-preserved one-room schoolhouse, the homestead and gravesite of a famous magician and an early 1900s combined general store and post office. All these attractions are maintained by the Andover Historical Society (summer weekends, Memorial Day–Columbus Day).
The Potter Place Railroad Station can be found just steps from the rail trail on, appropriately enough, Depot Street; it dates from 1874 and features the station master's office, ticket window and separate waiting rooms for men and women; just outside the station you’ll find a restored caboose and freight car. Across from the station is a combined general store and post office that’s been restored to its turn-of-the-century styling, replete with a tin ceiling. Just across from the railroad tracks is the gravesite of Richard Potter, a magician, hypnotist and ventriloquist from Massachusetts who became the first African-American magician to gain fame in the U.S. The station was, in fact, named after him. Also nearby is the Tucker Mountain Schoolhouse that served the children of Andover from 1837 to 1893.
Andover is a great place to spend the night. Check out the Highland Lake Inn and consider booking the room for two nights, returning here at the end of Day 2. Dinner options include Pizza Chef and Naughty Nellies Café.
In the morning, enjoy breakfast at the inn then pedal about 12 miles to the next town, Franklin. The name was adopted in 1820 in honor of Benjamin Franklin, which seems a bit of a missed opportunity considering that the town had no connection to the man yet was the birthplace of equally renowned Daniel Webster. As you approach Franklin, you may catch glimpses of a lake that Webster frequented as a boy—known to him at the time as Clough Pond—that was later renamed after him in 1851.
About 3 miles southeast of Franklin is Webster’s birthplace and childhood home. Seemingly stuck in time, the two-room log cabin features antique cookware, furniture and an old spinning wheel; in addition to highlighting Webster's early years, the site, managed by New Hampshire’s Division of Parks and Recreation, also provides a glimpse of rural farm life. It’s about 15 minutes away from the trail on Route 127.
If you’re up for a bit of exploring in town, check out the Sulphite Railroad Bridge, an oddity of railroad bridge design believed to be the only surviving example of its type. Built in the late 1900s to carry Boston and Maine Railroad traffic across the Winnipesaukee River, the rail bed was laid on top of the bridge roof, designed to shelter the trusses below. This arrangement, a reversal of the usual construction, has earned the bridge the moniker the Upside-Down Covered Bridge. Not readily visible from any roadway, the bridge can easily be seen from the Winnipesaukee River Trail; from the trailhead in the heart of Franklin, the unique sight is less than 0.5 mile away.
The Northern Rail Trail ends just past the town of Boscawen. About 3 miles off the trail is the Pustizzi Fruit Farm, a pick-your-own place with a selection of fruits and vegetables that change with the growing season. The farm has family-friendly activities throughout the growing season and sells jams and pies. Lunch options in town include Kapelli's Pizzeria, Alan's of Boscawen and the Smoke Shack.
After Boscawen, it’s time to turn around and head back north, where you’ll spend your second night at the Highland Lake Inn in Andover. The return trip is nominally uphill, though with a nearly flat grade, the slope is all but imperceptible.
Today is, in large measure, your return trip. You’ll be biking about 30 miles north from Andover back to your start in Lebanon, checking out any attractions you skipped along the way. Back at the anchor city, dinner options include Three Tomatoes and Salt Hill Pub, both a stone’s throw from the bike shop where you may have rented your wheels from. After dinner, stroll over to Opera North, a theater company that does more than its name might suggest, offering up contemporary musical theater performances in addition to opera (most performances begin at 7:30 PM).