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Hiking trails in land-trust nature preserves

A highlight within the Lakes Region Conservation Trust in New Hampshire, the 1914 Lucknow Mansion overlooks Lake Winnipesaukee. | Photo courtesy Castle in the Clouds Staff A highlight within the Lakes Region Conservation Trust in New Hampshire, the 1914 Lucknow Mansion overlooks Lake Winnipesaukee. | Photo courtesy Castle in the Clouds Staff

Go for a serene woodland ramble or a steep mountain scramble in Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont, and you’ll surely return feeling accomplished, refreshed, and full of appreciation for our beautiful backyard. In these pandemic times, such mood boosters are even more welcome. 

While you might want to choose a trail that’s challenging, finding a good place to hike will be easy, no matter where in the region you live. 

That’s thanks in part to an abundance of nonprofit land trusts and their many nature preserves. Set amid thousands of acres of protected wildlife habitat, they’re threaded with trails for all skill levels; many offer wheelchair-accessible paths.

There’s no charge to visit these sublime places, but do consider supporting a trust near you through membership or volunteering. These are some of Northern New England’s best preserves. Pick one and go explore your—or someone else’s—neck of the woods.

Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area

Moultonborough, New Hampshire

Dedicate a full day to this magnificent property. Covering 5,000-plus acres—as large as the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts—Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area stretches over several peaks in the Ossipee Mountains formed by an ancient volcanic eruption.

The more than 30 miles of trails vary widely, from steep hikes ending with 360-degree lake and mountain views, to gently rising old carriage roads and a short woods walk past 7 waterfalls that plunge up to 40 feet.

In the midst of this Lakes Region Conservation Trust preserve is the Lucknow Mansion, a stone- and timber-clad Arts and Crafts structure built in 1914 by shoe-industry millionaire Thomas Plant. The house is open daily from Memorial Day weekend through the third weekend in October (tours, adults $20), and features a restaurant with stunning vistas. The trails are free and remain open year-round.

Harris Center for Conservation Education

Hancock, New Hampshire

A dragon is carved into a fallen tree along the Harriskat Trail at the Harris Center for Conservation Education in New Hampshire. | Photo by Brett Amy Thelen

A dragon is carved into a fallen tree along the Harriskat Trail at the Harris Center for Conservation Education in New Hampshire. | Photo by Brett Amy Thelen

Visitors to the Harris Center for Conservation Education can try any of several techniques to deepen their engagement with their surroundings.

Before walking the Hiroshi Trail’s peaceful route beside the Nubanusit Brook and Dinsmore Pond, for example, guests are offered a choice between 2 downloadable playlists designed to accompany their explorations: One features Schubert, the other combines music with spoken poetry and stories.

While climbing the Harriskat Trail, hikers should keep an eye out for delightful large beasts—dragon, snake, salamander, and frog—carved into fallen trees. Forest-bathing sessions, held near the organization’s headquarters, focus on sensory awareness, gentle movement, and quiet reflection. Other programs delve into the area’s geology and natural history. There’s wheelchair-accessible birding, too.

Read more: Forest bathing: As easy as a walk in the park

Mount Major Reservation

Alton, New Hampshire

A sunrise view over Lake Winnipesaukee rewards morning hikers at Mount Major. | Photo by Emily Lord/Forest Society

A sunrise view over Lake Winnipesaukee rewards morning hikers at Mount Major. | Photo by Emily Lord/Forest Society

Expansive views of Lake Winnipesaukee and its islands await at the rocky top of Mount Major, some 1,100 feet above the parking lot. The property of the 121-year-old Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, a.k.a. the Forest Society, the mountain offers an invigorating outing for hikers of all ages.

The round-trip trek of about 3 miles is steep in places, though short alternate paths detour around some of the most challenging spots. At the summit, the crumbling walls of a century-old rock hut offer hikers a brief respite from the wind while they soak up the scenery.

Eshqua Bog Natural Area

Hartland, Vermont

A boardwalk leads to the Eshqua Bog in Hartland, Vermont. | Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy in Vermont

A boardwalk leads to the Eshqua Bog in Hartland, Vermont. | Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy in Vermont

Jointly owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in Vermont and the Native Plant Trust (formerly the New England Wild Flower Society), the Eshqua Bog Natural Area, a 41-acre gem harbors a peaceful, secluded 8-acre bog, or fen, which puts on a dazzling show every June with the blossoming of thousands of wild orchids, including lady’s slippers, northern green orchids, and white bog orchids.

It’s also home to numerous bird species and squadrons of dragonflies. A 460-foot-long wheelchair-accessible boardwalk with multiple viewing platforms leads to the bog; beyond, a short, wooded trail arcs around it. To protect the rare plants, pets are not allowed.

Equinox Preserve

Manchester, Vermont

Trilliums bloom along a trail at the Equinox Preserve in Vermont. | Photo courtesy Equinox Preservation Trust/EPT

Trilliums bloom along a trail at the Equinox Preserve in Vermont. | Photo courtesy Equinox Preservation Trust/EPT

Managed by the Equinox Preservation Trust, this 914-acre property on the edge of Manchester village can be accessed from the parking lot behind the Equinox Golf Resort & Spa. It features easy, flat walks, a short but steep climb to a lookout, and a challenging ascent to the top of Mount Equinox for a 360-degree panorama of nearby mountain ranges.

Keep an eye out en route for birds, small mammals, and white-tailed deer. A mountaintop visitors center offers information on the area’s natural history and on a nearby Carthusian monastery.

Not up for scaling the mountain? Reach the summit via the seasonal Skyline Drive toll road ($25 plus $5 per passenger older than 10). 

Mill Trail

Stowe, Vermont

This 1930s cabin is the headquarters for the Stowe Land Trust’s summer programs. | Photo courtesy Stowe Land Trust

This 1930s cabin is the headquarters for the Stowe Land Trust’s summer programs. | Photo courtesy Stowe Land Trust

Tracing the edge of the West Branch of the Little River, the Mill Trail’s wide, relatively flat path leads through the forest to Bingham Falls, which tumbles from a height of 40 feet.

Walking the trail, owned by Stowe Land Trust, makes for an ideal outing for families, dogs included. Bring a lunch to enjoy at one of the picnic tables.

A short detour leads to the site of an old mill and a blacksmith shop. Nearby, a restored log cabin, built in the 1930s as a rustic lodge for ski-in guests, serves as headquarters for the trust’s summer naturalist program, which presents free monthly educational programs.

Read more: 7 easy hikes and walks to see Vermont’s fall foliage

Bog Brook Cove Preserve

Cutler and Trescott, Maine

The Bog Brook Cove Preserve awaits hikers just a bit southwest of Lubec, Maine. | Photo courtesy Maine Coast Heritage Trust

The Bog Brook Cove Preserve awaits hikers just a bit southwest of Lubec, Maine. | Photo courtesy Maine Coast Heritage Trust

Rimmed by jagged headlands and swirling seas, downeast Maine’s Bold Coast is a wondrous realm. Set at its heart, the Bog Brook Cove Preserve—a 1,760-acre Maine Coast Heritage Trust property, among several area tracts owned by the trust—enchants hikers with woodlands, meadows, blueberry fields, granite outcroppings, and ridge-topping trails leading to 360-degree views of Passamaquoddy Bay and Grand Manan Island. There’s a chance of seeing whales, too.

At Bog Brook’s cobble beach, the receding tide reveals a swath of polished gray rock sculpted into unusual shapes by thousands of years of wave action. Among the preserve’s 5.5 miles of trails is a wheelchair-accessible 0.2-mile gravel stretch leading to the shore.

Libby River Farm Preserve

Scarborough, Maine

The Libby River Farm Preserve is one of several areas administered by Maine’s Scarborough Land Trust. | Photo by Seth Hanson

The Libby River Farm Preserve is one of several areas administered by Maine’s Scarborough Land Trust. | Photo by Seth Hanson

Nestled not far from Saco Bay, 3,000-acre Scarborough Marsh is a haven for great blue herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, hawks, otters, deer, and other feathered and furry wildlife.

At Scarborough Land Trust’s Libby River Farm Preserve, boardwalks and a raised observation deck create an ideal perch for monitoring all the activity in the marsh grasses. In spring and fall, migrating birds stopping to feed make this an even greater magnet for birders. Guided bird and plant walks are sometimes offered along a 1-mile network of gentle trails.

A second Scarborough Land Trust property, the Blue Point Preserve, hugs the other side of the marsh. To explore by water, rent a canoe or kayak seasonally at neighboring Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, which also offers a variety of boat and walking tours.

Rumford Whitecap Mountain Preserve

Rumford, Maine

A trail at the Rumford Whitecap Mountain Preserve in Maine. | Photo by Dirk McKnight

A trail at the Rumford Whitecap Mountain Preserve in Maine. | Photo by Dirk McKnight

While Western Maine offers great downhill skiing at Sunday River and Mount Abram, the 862-acre Mahoosuc Land Trust’s hiking trails on Whitecap Mountain present the option of ascending by foot rather than ski lift.

Moderately challenging with a few more difficult stretches, the loop of about 6 miles delivers grand views from the summit’s open ledges of the ski areas, the entire Mahoosuc range, the White Mountains, Oxford Hills, and the Androscoggin River Valley. Not up for the climb to the top? Connector trails allow for shorter up-down loops. This is a popular hike—arrive early for easier parking and fewer hikers.

Regular AAA Explorer contributor Mimi Bigelow Steadman admires New England’s land trusts and their hard work preserving wild places for all of us.

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