The Cohos Trail opens northern New Hampshire to hikers
BARTLETT — The extreme northern part of the state is known for its moose, logging, and snowmobile trails, but a new 162-mile hiking path, the Cohos Trail, might change that.
The trail traverses Coös County, the largest and northernmost county in the state, a region that averages 19 people per square mile.
“During the week you’ll see more moose than people,” said Kim Nilsen, the trail’s original architect.
That’s how Nilsen envisioned it back in the 1970s. “When I was out of college, the first job I got was in Lancaster,” he said, the county seat. He was a reporter at the Coös County Democrat.
When he wasn’t working, Nilsen tromped around the back country, wandering the logging roads and moose paths. “I was the only person out there for years. I never saw anybody,” he said.
Those adventures got him thinking: What if he stopped wandering on moose paths and built an actual trail? He wrote an editorial about it that ran in the Democrat in 1978. “I got absolutely no response,” he said.
That was the end of his dream, it seemed. Life happened, Nilsen moved, and for the next two decades the moose paths were left to the moose.
Fast forward to the 1990s. Nilsen was vacationing in Maine when a rainy week pinned him indoors. He spent his time poring over maps, and his old vision returned. This time, however, he knew he wanted to make it happen. In winter 1997 he set up a meeting and 44 people showed up.
From there the vision quickly turned into something tangible. By 2000 volunteers had linked sections from the town of Stark to Dixville Notch, the home of the Balsams Resort. Every year more pieces fell into place. “At first I was using old logging roads, moose trails, abandoned roads,” Nilsen said, but a small army cut miles of hiking trails. “We don’t walk on road at all anymore.”
Last year the trail became reality, running continuously from Crawford Notch to the Canadian border. Hikers can now follow yellow blazes and little wooden CT placards for the length of the county.
Why when there are thousands of trails around the state, including the venerable Appalachian Trail, do hikers need another? The Cohos is different — by design.
“The trail was laid out to be a remote system,” Nilsen said. It is meant to avoid crowds, not attract them.
That intention is obvious from the start (hiking south to north): Instead of sticking to the crowded ridgelines when it passes through the Presidential Range, it crosses perpendicularly, quickly returning to quieter tracks.
Farther north, however, the Cohos wanders through country not known for its hiking, the kind of places where outdoor shops sell shotgun shells and snowmobile parts, not canister stoves and fancy backpacks. This gives the Cohos an entirely different feel from the Appalachian Trail, which is continuously mobbed by hikers. On the Cohos it’s exceptional to share a campsite. The norm is to be there alone.
Much of the rest of the hiking in New Hampshire is similar to the Appalachian Trail. Even bad weather cannot keep the summit of Mount Washington crowd free. In winter it’s not unusual to share the summit with 20 other people. In summer it’s worse, with visitors driving and riding a train to the top. Many other peaks aren’t much lonelier.
But don’t let the lack of crowds make you think the Cohos doesn’t offer spectacular terrain. The whitewater on the Falls in the River Trail between First and Second Connecticut lakes is reminiscent of swimming holes along the Kancamagus Highway, only instead of being shared by a hundred tourists this spot is reserved for two or three. If you forget your swimsuit, don’t worry, it’s unlikely anyone will be along soon.
At the northern end of the trail, when you reach Canada, there are three choices: turn around, produce your passport and continue into Québec, or wander along the international boundary for three-quarters of a mile to Fourth Connecticut Lake.
That doesn’t require a passport, but you do have to walk past the US border station (a little disconcerting) into an unoccupied no man’s land. The road to the Canadian border checkpoint goes straight, but the trail makes a hard left just after the US Customs building. It meanders along the 50-foot swath of clearing that denotes the international boundary. Little concrete markers sunk into the ground mark the division: US territory on one side, Canadian on the other. It’s strange to wander back and forth over this line, but any excuse to amble over an international boundary is worth taking.
And if you do have your passport, there is the enticing option of continuing into Canada. The Cohos Trail ends at the border, but cross into Québec and it is possible to get on the Sentiers Frontaliers trail system for another 135 kilometers. It continues to Mont Gosford, the highest peak in southern Québec.
But the Cohos isn’t just for people looking to cross borders or hike 162 miles in one trip. There are hikes for those in search of an easy outing or a great overnight spot. The Old Hermit Shelter in Nash Stream Forest is a beautiful option for both, and unlike shelters farther south, it routinely is visitor-free on weekend nights. It sits a mile off the road, tucked among the trees on top of a hillside. A clear pool of water sits 75 feet away. The shelter was built in June, and like the rest of the trail it is both isolated and peaceful, a spot waiting to be discovered.
“The Cohos Trail is never going to be a thoroughfare,” Nilsen said. It might bring a few people to the northern part of New Hampshire who otherwise wouldn’t have visited, but that’s it. That’s significant for Nilsen. “It’s important for people to see that country before it disappears.”