Cross-Country Skiing on the Northern Rail Trail (Boscawen Section)

This excursion on the Boscawen section of Northern Recreational Rail Trail turned out to be an excellent cross-country ski trip. It passes through cornfields, next to farms, through the woods and offers spectacular views up and down the Merrimack River along the way. Bird watchers, rail road historians, runners, hikers and snowmobilers alike will find much to appreciate here.  The trailhead is easily accessible off I93 at exit 17 and the trail stretches all the way to Lebanon, NH so you can make your trip as long or short as you like. This blog describes a trip from Hannah Duston Memorial to Gerrish Depot and back.

The first few miles of the Northern Rail Trail travels along side cornfields and farmhouses of Boscawen, NH.
The first few miles of the Northern Rail Trail passes by cornfields and farmhouses of Boscawen, NH.

Northern Recreational Rail Trail (Boscawen Section) Info:

Distance from Hannah Duston Memorial to Gerrish Depot  – 7 miles (14 miles out and back)
Elevation Gain – 75 ft
Difficulty – Easy (flat, straight terrain with few road crossings)
Additional Comments: I used waxless cross-country skis but the trail would also be great for long runs or fat biking. Permitted uses include snowmobiling, horses and mushing. Snow surface was packed (mostly by snowmobile), ungroomed and also had a few thin spots at the time of this trip.
Hiking time: 1.5 hours on skis or 2-2.5 hours on foot (each way)

Parking is available at the Hannah Duston Memorial just off exit 17 on I93 (you can also park at Gerrish Depot off Route 3). The start of the Northern Recreational Rail is just a short walk from the Hannah Duston Memorial parking area but it’s definitely worth checking out the memorial site before starting your trip. This Historic Site sits on a small island just below the parking area on the shores of the Merrimack River and there are some spectacular, open views of the Merrimack River from here.

Parking area at Hannah Duston Memorial Site off of Route 4 (exit 17 I93)
Parking area at Hannah Duston Memorial Site off of Route 4 (exit 17 I93)
Hannah Duston Memorial
Hannah Duston Memorial
View of the Merrimack River from the Hannah Duston Memorial Site
View of the Merrimack River from the Hannah Duston Memorial Site

You’ll need to walk about a half mile up River Road (there are signs pointing the way) to get to the start of Northern Recreational Rail Trail from the Hannah Duston Memorial. There’s very little traffic on this road and it’s an easy walk. Look for the orange gate on the right side of River Road where the trail begins.

A small blue sign points the way to the start of Northern Rail Trail from Hannah Duston Memorial.
A small blue sign points the way to the start of Northern Rail Trail from Hannah Duston Memorial.
After a short walk up River Road, you'll see this orange gate where the Northern Rail Trail begins.
After a short walk up River Road, you’ll see this orange gate where the Northern Rail Trail begins.

From here, the trail sets out along open cornfields, passing small farm houses before it comes up next to the Merrimack River for views of the icy water. These first few miles were my favorite part of the trail and probably the most scenic. Looking out across the long, symmetrical rows of corn stalks, I could really appreciate NH’s agricultural heritage. As I paused next to a dairy farm, curious cows even came out of their barn to greet me. Following the Merrimack River as it twists and turns next to the trail, I also spotted several hawks and egrets making use of the river for fishing.

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Cows came out to greet me from a small dairy farm next to the trail.
Cows came out to greet me from a small dairy farm next to the trail
Hawk perched high above the Merrimack River
Hawk perched high above the Merrimack River

With the trail being so straight and flat it was nice to be able to alternate between pushing yourself to get a good work out and slowing down to appreciate nature and reflect on your surroundings. Since I didn’t have to focus on which way the trail was going, I could put my head down, lock my eyes on the vanishing point and really get my legs cranking, then slow down, stop for photos and dawdle along other sections.

This section of the Northern Rail Trail follows alongside the Merrimack River.
This section of the Northern Rail Trail follows alongside the Merrimack River
Open views of the Merrimack River from the trail
Open views of the Merrimack River from the trail

After about 2.4 miles you come to Jamie Welch Memorial Field where you’ll have to cross Depot Street to continue down the trail. There’s a trail information kiosk here and some parking for the town’s recreation center. I noticed a few snowmobile trailers parked here for trail access as well.

Depot Street crossing at Jamie Welch Field
Depot Street crossing at Jamie Welch Field

The trail becomes more wooded after this point but there are still several places where you can peek through the trees to the Merrimack River. There was an abundance of smaller birds in these wooded sections and I spotted several robins and woodpeckers among the birches, beeches and pine trees. As this trail is also used by snowmobiles there are also several ‘exits’ where you can veer off the main trail to access gas stations, convenient stores and restaurants up on Route 3. Further on there is also a junction for a trail loop at the NH Veteran’s Cemetery.

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Eventually the trail comes out of the woods and up next to Route 3 where you’ll find the Gerrish Depot. This old railroad depot was recently taken over by the state’s Bureau of Historic Sites. While it’s currently in marginal condition, the bureau has plans to further restore the site as funds become available. There’s another trail kiosk (and parking space) here with some info about the history of this rail line and a map showing the current trail and areas where trails may be extended in the future.

Gerrish Depot
Gerrish Depot
Gerrish Depot and parking area on Route 3
Gerrish Depot and parking area on Route 3

Friends of the Northern Rail Trail is the group dedicated to maintaining this trail and helping raise funds for improvements. They are a not-for-profit organization that hopes to provide a 4-season rail trail for recreational use from Lebanon to Boscawen on the old rail bed of the Northern Railroad. Two friends organizations are responsible for the promotion, building and maintenance of the almost 60 miles of uninterrupted trail.

Map provided by the Friends of Northern Rail Trail at the info kiosk
Map provided by the Friends of Northern Rail Trail at the info kiosk

58 miles of resurfaced rail trail extend from just north of Concord to Lebanon, NH for year-round use by walkers, bikers, horseback riders, wheelchairs and dog walkers. Snowmobiles and cross country skiing is allowed in Winter. As always, 4 wheel motorized vehicles are not allowed as they interfere with the ambiance of the trail and harm the surface.

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Grant Klene

Digital Marketing Manager for New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation

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