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Spanning 57.6 miles from Lebanon to Boscawen, the Northern Rail Trail is New Hampshire’s longest rail-trail conversion. Trail development began in 1996 after the state purchased the Boston and Maine Railroad’s dormant Northern Line. Built in 1847 by the Northern Railroad, the line formed a substantial portion of a Boston-to-Quebec route that was heavily traveled during the first half of the 20th century. While the state owns the rail corridor, local groups did most of the work to open the trail for year-round use in their respective counties from 2000 to 2014.
In addition to walking and biking, permitted uses include horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and dogsledding.
Begin your journey in Lebanon at the trail’s northern end to take advantage of the mostly downhill slope. Lebanon offers a handful of restaurants and shops, and you’ll want to make sure you stock up before you set out, as there are remote sections between towns.
The journey southeast from Lebanon is easy and scenic as you cross nine short bridges over the Mascoma River in the first 4 miles. The trail then skirts the northern shore of the 1,100-acre Mascoma Lake, where you may encounter bathers taking a dip on a hot day. The trail then enters the lakeside community of Enfield. Past here, the path occasionally narrows and can be overgrown with grass and other vegetation. You’ll appreciate the dense tree cover in this heavily wooded country in the summer, however.
About 20 miles past Enfield you’ll arrive in Danbury, a popular near--midway point for rest and replenishment. The Danbury Country Store offers snacks, restrooms, and a welcome porch. By now you have crossed into Merrimack County, where the trail is upgraded to a crushed stone surface rather than the cinders in Grafton County. Several interpretive signs scattered throughout the remainder of the trail also improve the experience and inform trail users on the rail line’s history.
Seven miles past Danbury you pass Andover’s Potter Place Railroad Station, restored to look as it did in 1874. The depot’s museum, caboose, and nearby freight house are operated by the Andover Historical Society. In 1 mile, the trail crosses the Blackwater River next to the 1882 Keniston Covered Bridge. Andover stretches along US 4/Main Street roughly between Eagle Pond and Highland Lake; restaurants are on Main Street north of the trail.
East of Andover, the trail enters slightly denser environs, so expect to encounter more people using the trail. This is particularly true at the popular swimming spot Webster Lake, named for local 19th-century statesman Daniel Webster. In Franklin, 1.7 miles past the lake, a short on-road connection links to the Winnipesaukee River Trail.
Continuing south on the Northern Rail Trail, you’ll come across the stone remains of a turntable that once assisted in changing the direction of locomotives. For the remaining 11 miles south, you’ll closely follow US 3 and the Merrimack River to the trail’s end at a cornfield in the southern reaches of Boscawen.
Future plans call for extending the trail on both ends. In the north, the paved Mascoma River Greenway will run 4 miles from the Northern Rail Trail in Lebanon to West Lebanon. Grander plans in the south would connect the Northern Rail Trail about 7 miles to the state capital of Concord. They are all components of the Granite State Rail Trail, a 125-mile project that will eventually span southern New Hampshire from Massachusetts to Vermont.
To reach the northern trailhead from I-89, take Exit 18 onto NH 120 toward Lebanon. Head south 0.4 mile, and turn left onto Hanover St. Go 0.4 mile, and stay straight onto US 4/S. Park St. Go 0.2 mile, and turn left onto E. Park St./Campbell St. Go 0.1 mile, turn right onto Parkhurst St., and then immediately turn left onto Spencer St. Look for parking on the left in Eldridge Park. The trail starts on the right.
A second parking lot can be found east of this point along the trail, located at the address 35 Riverside Drive, Lebanon.
The southern endpoint does not offer trailhead parking, but parking is available at Boscawen Town Park/Jamie Welch Memorial Field roughly 2 miles north. To reach this trailhead from I-93, take Exit 17 onto US 4/Hoit Road toward Boscawen. Head west 1.2 miles to a traffic circle, and take the first exit to remain on US 4/King St. Go 2.1 miles, and turn right onto Depot St. Parking is available in 0.2 mile at the park. Backtrack a short distance to access the trail.
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