Friday, August 9, 2013

What makes a fine rail trail?

Which rail trails would you like to pick out for your next bicycle or walking trip? Here are some quality factors to help you select:

Trail Surface
For bike riding, you will probably want a trail that is not so bumpy that your hands feel like they are being shaken to pieces. Examples of problems include stony gravel, ballast rock used by the railroads, tree roots, and exposed railroad ties. In addition, sand deeper than a half inch can make the trail hazardous and difficult to make good progress.

If you are walking, the trail can be rougher, but you still will not appreciate ballast rock, railroad ties, or heavy sand.

Ballast rock and tree roots make it hard to enjoy the trail.

Applying hardpack makes a fine surface covering up problems.

A solution to many of these problems is to apply crushed granite (hardpack) material. Four inches of material, graded and compressed with a vibratory roller, can cover up a multitude of problems. However, it is important to have a proper mixture of course, medium, and fine material, so it will “knit” (hold together) well. The Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County have a specification that works very well for rail trails. Contact

Of course, you may want a paved trail for inline skating, kids' tricycles, or road biking.  In that case, you'll need to go to one of the paved trails in the heavily populated southern end of the state.  Examples are the Derry and Windham rail trails, the south Manchester Trailway, and the Nashua River Rail Trail.  Pavement doesn't last forever, and cracked pavement can make it hard to skate.  Fortunately, New Hampshire's paved rail trails have been surfaced recently, so cracks are not yet a problem.

Your ride will be much more pleasant if you have good scenery to look at.  ideally, the scenes should be varied, so you don't get the feeling you are seeing the same view over and over.  Most of our rail trails have stream and wetlands views, as those areas were the easiest for the railroad engineers to use to chart out a near-level corridor.  I particularly enjoy trails like the Northern Rail Trail; where a passage through the woods opens up to occasional nice views of Mount Kearsarge, wetlands, rivers, and lakes.

History and Railroad Artifacts
New Hampshire was a manufacturing state in the 19th Century, held together by a rich network of railroads.  You can still see some of the old water-powered factories on trails like the Ashuelot Rail Trail.  Some trails, especially the Northern Rail Trail, are rich in railroad relics, such as mileposts, whistle posts, and telltales.  The Cheshire Rail Trail--Northern Section has remains from a very early automated signaling system.  These items are a reminder of the key role the railroads once had in our state.

The early railroads (built in the 1840s and 1850s) made extensive use of masterful stonework.  Be sure to admire the bridges and culverts constructed in this manner.  The Cheshire Rail Trail--South Section is especially noteworthy for its stonework.  The northern end of this section is the incredible double-track stone arch bridge over The Branch, just south of Route 101 in Keene.  Generally the railroads liked to work with granite that was available near the railroad corridor.  Try to guess where the stone came from when you admire these structures!


 Stone arch bridge in Keene over The Branch

Enjoy our rail trails!

Charles F. Martin