In the early days of mountain biking, riders used whatever trails and roads that existed on the ground to get where they wanted to go. Forest service and powerline access roads, hiking and even game trails were “ways into the woods.” Snowmobile trails were often thrown into the mix.
Epic mountain bike rides were cobbled together, using all these various woods corridors. The goal was to make it through, no matter how rough the travel, and to tout your conquests around the campfire.
That’s not what mountain bikers are looking for today. They want smooth, flowy single-track, machine-built trails with berms and jumps and well-laid out trail networks. Exploration has been replaced by exhilaration. Riders are looking for speed, not technical and navigational challenges.
Last week, Peter and I were looking for something different to ride. Our usual trails and dirt road choices seemed boring — we’d been there, done that. We decided to do some old-time exploring in Madison, using snowmobile trails to link places of interest. Peter’s a map guy so he pulled out all the maps he had of that area. We studied topo and gazetteer maps and then checked out the Scrub Oak Scrambler’s snowmobile map we’d purchased years ago. To buy a copy, go to tinyurl.com/y5z5w29y.
As I scanned the snowmobile map, a ride and an article topic came into focus — “link the lakes.” Could we combine trails and roads to make a loop ride from Silver Lake to Ossipee Lake? That was the challenge.
The limitation with maps is they are two-dimensional. Even topo maps don’t really tell you what’s on the ground. You can see how much elevation gain you’ll have to deal with and what natural features you’ll encounter. However, you can’t tell what the trail surface is going to be like until you ride it. That’s part of the attraction and adventure-the unknown. It can also be the flipside — discouragement and misadventure. We decided to try it anyway.
Bikes loaded in the van, we drove to Madison on 113, bore left on East Madison Road. Just past Durgin Pond, we turned right on the dirt Lead Mine Road which goes all the way to Silver Lake, except in winter. Where Lead Mine bears right and Black Brook Road goes straight ahead and dead-ends, we turned right, passing by Goodwin Town Forest on our left, with its several trail entrance points.
Looking for signs of the snowmobile trail, we spotted a large orange sign with an arrow pointing up the powerline. We’d found the trail! It looked “rideable” with a single track climbing up the hill. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered it was rough with ditches and tire-stopping rocks. It wasn’t much fun, but we stubbornly persevered.
After we crossed the Goodwin Forest trail, we spotted a “slow” sign ahead, indicating a turn ahead. The trail turned right and entered the woods, thankfully changing into a more rideable road. At snowmobile Junction D, we pondered our choices — .5 miles right to Silver Lake Landing or 1.5 miles left to Ossipee Lake. We took the shorter route. West Branch Trail was very rooty, but short, and brought us out directly across Lead Mine Road from the boat launch and dam.
The day was very windy and the lake water choppy. We weren’t surprised no one was out on the lake. We stopped there to identify the many mountains we saw across the lake and plan our next move. The rough ride back to Junction D didn’t appeal to us. Using his maps, Peter suggested an alternate course. He spotted a snowmobile trail on the map that was just up the road and suggested we try that.
We turned right from landing and rode East Shore Drive until we found the snowmobile trail heading toward Ossipee Pine Barrens. The Pine Barrens Trail is .7 miles of Class VI town road. It’s very rideable and soft. It took us into the Ossipee Pine Barrens, a very unusual place. According to the Nature Conservancy that has managed and protected over 2,700 acres here since 1988, this is “New Hampshire’s last intact pitch pine-scrub oak woodland natural community.” It’s a “globally rare forest type.”
Peter and I had never been in the Pine Barrens, though we’d passed by it on Route 41 and Ossipee Lake Road numerous times. We avoided it in summer, thinking it a hot, dry and ticky place. The snowmobile trail took us right into it. Tall stands of Pitch Pine framed the road. Blueberry bushes turning red lined the road. On a cool fall day, it was a beautiful and peaceful place to ride.
At the kiosk and parking lot, we turned left. A newly created 1 mile “Accessible Trail” went right. This 5-foot wide, mostly flat trail covered with compacted crush gravel can be used by walkers, strollers and wheelchairs. It gives people of all ages and abilities a way to explore and enjoy the forest.
At the powerline, we met a dog walker who suggested we take a short connector trail to the platform at the end of the accessible trail. It looks over West Branch River and has views of Mount Whittier. It was a worthy diversion.
Back on the powerline, we followed the snowmobile trail to the Fred Jones Memorial Bridge over the river. Looking up and down the river, we spotted trees already changing to bright colors. Just past the bridge, we saw the Junction 41 E sign. A right turn there would take us eventually to Ossipee Lake, but it was too late in the day for that. We opted to turn left and head back toward Silver Lake, saving that for another day of exploration.
Back at Junction D, we chose to take West Branch Trail back to Lead Mine Road for a quicker, easier ride back to the car. We finished the ride with 5.7 miles showing on the computer.
Was the ride worth it? Yes and no — parts of it were rough and unpleasant, but the Pine Barrens part made up for that. I’d love to go explore more of that area. We did see new territory from a unique perspective and that made it worthwhile.
When you go out mountain bike exploring, you have to take the good with the bad. That’s part of the challenge. Even rough rides can make for interesting stories — if you survive.
When tackling new territory, make sure you’re prepared. Take a map and compass, plenty of water and snacks, tools for repairs and tire changes, extra clothing if the weather changes, a headlamp if you get stuck out after dark and first aid supplies, just in case. Pack in a little intestinal fortitude to get you through the rough places. You never know what you’ll encounter out there in the woods. Go explore!
Sally McMurdo is a bike safety instructor and cyclist who lives in Glen.