Get Out and Enjoy Nature

Plan a fall hike (or walk)

Illustration by Gloria Dillanini

The hundreds of hiking paths and trails crisscrossing this state are magnificent year-round. Nevertheless, with autumn’s cool, crisp air and the explosion of varied and vibrant color on display only during fall foliage season, October is the best month to lace up your boots, get outside, and get in touch with nature.

“Nothing can change your outlook like taking a walk outside,” says Rich Westhoff, an advocate for the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition, which promotes the development, maintenance and active use of trails constructed on New Hampshire’s abandoned railroad corridor.

Even better, neuroscientists and gerontologists agree that a brisk walk is the optimal way for seniors to reboot their brain and stay healthy.

“The rail trails are a good way to get started,” says Westhoff. And he would know. Over the past 18 months, Westhoff and his wife bicycled all 52 rail trails (give or take a few based on how they’re counted), which covers more than 300 miles.

One of the bonuses of these trails is that none has an elevation grade of more than 4%, which makes sense given that the old trains couldn’t climb steep hills. This makes them ideal for seniors, anyone less athletically gifted, or those with disabilities.

On the coalition’s website (, there’s a link to the Rail Trail Challenge, which breaks the trails out by region and describes each in detail, and lists the degree of difficulty.

“There are the ones we call the ‘Easy Peasy,’” says Dave Topham, president pro-tem and treasurer of the NHRTC.

“They’re the ones where nothing is overly strenuous, and there is a good surface with paved or hardpack. Some of the others are not for newcomers, but all of us seniors can enjoy ‘Easy Peasy’ [trails].”

This category includes the rail trails in the state’s southern tier in Nashua, Salem, Windham and Londonderry, and they are ideal for a stroll, walking the dog and bicycling. For the more adventurous and athletic, established hiking trails in the North Country can be more challenging, but your effort will be rewarded with some of the most spectacular vistas anywhere in New England — or the country, for that matter.

“We published a book called ‘The Old Codger’s Guide to Hiking and Climbing in the White Mountains,’ which is designed for the older generation,” says Mike Dickerman, the renowned historian, hiking enthusiast, former co-editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “White Mountain Guide,” author of 14 books on the subject, and the owner of Bondcliff Books publishing house in Littleton.

Dickerman says that there is an abundance of opportunities for hiking the White Mountains — it’s all a matter of what your comfort level is.

“You don’t have to be walking across the exposed elements of the Presidential Range to enjoy the mountains. There are plenty of places in the valleys,” he says. “Waterfall hikes are a lot easier to get to. You can’t beat one,” he adds.

Dickerman also highly recommends that enthusiasts explore the Notches.

Crawford Notch is replete with roadside waterfalls and relatively easy hikes, from either a half-mile to a mile-and-a-half, and the Franconia Notch area has some hill climbs that are short, but steep. In Pinkham Notch, you can hike up to the Elephant’s Head, which is a rock formation overlooking the Gateway to the Notches.

“It’s got a little bit of climbing to it, but it’s a neat little hike. You’ll get a spectacular view for the amount of effort you put into it,” says Dickerman.

For an easier trek, he suggests starting at the AMC’s Highland Center and hiking to Ammonoosuc Lake in a one-mile loop. If desired, it can be extended a half-mile to the Red Bench Trail leading you out to an actual bench in the middle of nowhere, overlooking the railroad tracks that go through Crawford Notch. It provides a gorgeous view of the Presidential Range.

Rail trails, while less taxing, can be just as beautiful.

“There is the Presidential Rail Trail in the northern part of the state,” says Topham, referencing the 18-mile-long trip from Jefferson to Gorham. “You’d be surprised — it’s actually pretty flat. It’s well maintained and very nice. That links up two trails and some road and another dirt road across the state on the north side of the Presidential range. It’s a little more challenging, but it is so worth it.”

Like everything else in life, timing is everything. “One of the key things to recognize is that, just like the rest of New Hampshire, the rail trails really light up from north to south as you go through the fall season,” says Westhoff. “Rail trails are these corridors through the trees. If you find where the foliage is peaking, you’ll find the colors are especially good on those trails at that time.”

The state’s rail trail system, which Topham says is used by more walkers and bikers than any other in the country, is inclusive. Those who are disabled are invited to enjoy the hard-packed or paved trails with any ADA (Americans Disability Act)-compliant limited mobility device.

The welcome mat is also out for everyone at Crotched Mountain, with its 1,200-plus acres of protected forest, open fields and wetlands.

The Crotched Mountain trails are the longest accessible trail system in a mountainside environment in the United States, and include the Gregg and Dutton Brook Trails. They are distinctly different, though they combine unique hardpack pathways, boardwalks, moderate grades, switchbacks and rest stops to create a natural, yet accessible, hiking experience for people of all abilities.

The Dutton Brook is a woodland trail full of diverse animal habitats, and the boardwalks and observation decks present the chance to learn more about our native plant and animal life. The Gregg Trail, with grades of no more than 8%, is .8-mile trek to the top of the Knoll, where there is an observation deck offering panoramic views of Grand Monadnock and the Contoocook River Valley.

“The fall is the best time to get out and hike,” says Dickerman.

Topham agrees. “You can see a lot more detail and beauty when you’re walking at the speed of three miles per hour.”

Take a Hike Safety Checklist

There is no place more beautiful than New Hampshire in the fall, when the fantastic foliage gets you close to Mother Nature’s annual art show. Get outside for an unforgettable and enjoyable experience, but be sure to follow these 12 safety tips.

  1. Practice the buddy system and hike with another person.
  2. Tell a responsible person at home where you’re going and your planned return time.
  3. Wear proper footwear with good traction.
  4. Wear protective clothing that is weather-appropriate.
  5. Bring plenty of water and stay hydrated.
  6. Use sunscreen, even on a cloudy day.
  7. Apply insect repellent.
  8. Never touch or feed the wildlife.
  9. Carry a fully charged cell phone.
  10. In areas with spotty cell service, make sure to have a GPS enabled tracking device.
  11. Don’t walk off trail.
  12. Pack a fully stocked first aid kit.
Categories: Seniors