Top Old-Growth Forests to Visit in New Hampshire
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Learn the unique characteristics of old-growth forests in Part 1, Finding Old-Growth Forests in New Hampshire.
Old-growth forests are unique, tremendously biodiverse, and unfortunately, very rare, with less than 1% of our forests now considered old-growth. By definition, old-growth forest hasn’t been disturbed by humans in any way, over hundreds of years.
Fortunately, New Hampshire is home to several unique old-growth forests with trail access.
If you visit one of these unique areas, please steward the area and protect it for future generations by practicing “leave no trace” principles:
- Stay on the trail. The bulk of the biota in these forests is below ground and the ground feels “squishy” compared to other forests, according to Tom Wessels, author and terrestrial ecologist. Old-growth forests are one of the few land uses where topsoil is created instead of destroyed. Like our gardens, walking on the soil compacts it, destroying ecological function.
- Don’t remove natural objects like moss, lichen and bird nests. Take photos instead.
- Respect wildlife. Numerous insects, fungi and other decomposers, reptiles, amphibians, rodents and mammals live in and on large-diameter hollow logs, stumps and standing dead trees. Keep your dog on a leash so s/he will not chase wildlife.
Here’s my list of ten great old-growth forests in New Hampshire, accessible by trail:
Randolph: Snyder Brook Scenic Area: Snyder Brook is one of my favorite old-growth forests because of its giant trees, cascading stream, and the opportunity to compare an old-growth forest with a second-growth forest adjacent to it.
This 36-acre forest was purchased by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in 1895 to protect the waterfalls and adjacent forests of Snyder Brook from being logged and is an early example of forest preservation. The AMC donated the tract to the White Mountain National Forest in 1937, and in 1961 Snyder Brook was designated as a Scenic Area. A Scenic Area is a unique U.S. Forest Service management classification to protect scenic and natural qualities.
Park at the Appalachia Trailhead located on the south side of U.S. Route 2 in Randolph. From the trailhead, follow the Rail Trail east for several hundred feet and turn right on the Fallsway Trail. The Fallsway Trail starts just before the Snyder Brook Pony Truss Bridge (1918). The Fallsway Trail goes under the Powerline Corridor and immediately enters a remnant of the original forest and includes trees nearly 400 years old. The Fallsway and Brookside Trails (yellow blazes) closely follow Snyder Brook and end at the junction with the Valley Way. The mile-long round trip hike climbs approximately 400 feet in elevation.
The Snyder Brook Scenic Area has exceptional large Hemlock, White Pine, Red Spruce, and Beech trees easily viewed from the trail. It is possible to make a loop hike of this old-growth forest by using the Brookbank Trail that runs along the east side of Snyder Brook. This trail is rougher than the Fallsway and Brookside Trail and requires a stream crossing that can be dangerous during high water.
Franconia: Old Forest in Franconia Notch State Park: This old-growth forest in Franconia Notch State Park features a paved bike path that runs through an exemplary northern hardwood-spruce forest containing trees over 250 years old. Some of the yellow birch trees are massive in size. Parking is available at a small trailhead near the Lafayette Place Campground. Larger parking lots are available at The Basin on both sides of the Franconia Notch Parkway.
Read more in the excellent interpretive brochure Old Forest in Franconia Notch State Park, created by the N.H. Natural Heritage Bureau.
The description starts at the Lafayette Place Trailhead. If you parked at The Basin, you can simply walk north to the starting point and work your way back. Be alert for bicyclists on this popular bike path. The paved bike path winds its way through the old-growth forest and is one mile long each way.
Hart’s Location: Nancy Brook Research Natural Area: The Nancy Brook Forest is the largest and most exemplary old-growth red spruce forest in the state.
The trailhead for this hike is along Rt. 302 in Hart’s Location. The Nancy Pond Trail is the most challenging hike on this list and is a 9-mile round trip involving a vertical elevation gain of 2,200 feet. The trail is rough in places and has several stream crossings. This forest was too remote for loggers to reach over a century ago. Today the 1,385-acre Nancy Brook Research Natural Area is protected by the US Forest Service.
Also of interest to hikers is Nancy Brook Cascades, approximately 200 feet in height, and Nancy and Norcross Ponds. Norcross Pond is beautiful from its viewpoint on the western shore. The forest is well known to birders to see spruce grouse, boreal chickadees, black-backed woodpeckers, and Canada jays. The old-growth forest starts above Nancy Brook Cascades.
Lincoln: Greeley Ponds Scenic Area: The Greeley Ponds Scenic Area contains old-growth red spruce and yellow birch, two small ponds, and towering cliffs nestled between Mount Kancamagus and the East Peak of Mount Osceola.
This 810-acre old-growth spruce-fir forest is a popular 4-mile round-trip hike. The Greeley Ponds Trail has an elevation gain of 350-feet from a small trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112), about 9 miles from Lincoln.
Greeley Ponds and Mad River Notch was the focal point of a citizen’s campaign to protect this idyllic forest from a planned logging railroad and logging. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests under the leadership of Philip Ayres and the citizens of Waterville Valley petitioned the U.S. Government to acquire this location in 1927. The U.S. Forest Service purchased the land in 1928. The 1938 and 1950 hurricanes damaged some of the old growth, but the area around the ponds remains wild, and many ancient trees remain. Greeley Ponds was designated as a Scenic Area in 1964 by the U.S. Forest Service.
Tamworth: Big Pines Natural Area at Hemenway State Forest: Big Pines Natural Area is one of the most spectacular white pine stands in New England. One national champion white pine contender is 58 inches in diameter and over 150 feet tall. Giant hemlocks between 250 and 350 years of age live here.
The 108-acre Big Pines Natural Area in Tamworth is part of Hemenway State Forest. Parking is available on Route 113A by a large sign 2.8 miles from the four corners in Tamworth Village.
The Betty Steele Loop Trail is 1.1-miles long and leaves from the trailhead sign and soon crosses a bridge over the Swift River. Take the right fork of the loop and go up the short but steep hill to see more of the big pines and hemlocks. At the junction with the Peg King Trail, take a left to return to the trailhead. The Tamworth Conservation Commission has excellent trail maps and guides.
Hanover: Pine Park: This is Hanover’s oldest conservation area and was purchased by residents in 1900 from the Diamond Match Company. This 95-acre forest along the Connecticut River is technically not old-growth by definition, although the hemlock and white pine trees are over 125 years old and up to 150 feet tall. There is no dedicated parking lot, but drivers can park near the Hanover Country Club and Dartmouth Outing Club. The Cliffside Trail (#48) connects the Ledyard Canoe Club with Girl Scout Brook and is on a steep hillside above the Connecticut River that can be icy and is best avoided in winter.
Bradford: Bradford Pines Natural Area: Several large white pines, including one 58 inches in diameter and 140 feet tall. The four-acre stand along West Branch Warner River is an easy quarter-mile walk. Some of the large white pine have lightning rods to protect them. The trailhead is on Route 103, about 1/10 mile south of Main Street, marked by a sign. The actual trail is a few hundred feet right of the sign. A map is available from the Bradford Conservation Commission. Another interesting natural feature in Bradford is the Bradford Bog, where you can see a quaking bog and the uncommon Atlantic White Cedar forest. View the Bradford NH Trails Overview Map.
Hillsborough: Caroline Fox State Research and Demonstration Forest: This is a fascinating forest in central New Hampshire to visit and contains two hikes of interest to old-growth enthusiasts.
- The Mud Pond Virgin Forest is a hemlock forest over 200 years old that was never logged. Take the Ridge and Mud Pond Trails to visit the virgin forest and 50-acre peat bog. The Mud Pond Hike is 3 to 4 miles long, depending on your choice of longer loop options.
- The Black Gum Swamp utilizes the Ridge and Swamp Trails to visit a rare red maple-black gum basin swamp with trees over 400 years old. The NH Natural Heritage Bureau has an excellent Fox Forest Black Gum Swamp interpretive guide.
The trailhead for both hikes is at 309 Center Road in Hillsborough. You can print the Fox Forest trail map here.
Wilton: Sheldrick Forest Preserve: Some of the hemlock trees here are over 200 years old. The habitat includes mountain laurel and an interesting glacial feature called an esker. This 227-acre old-growth forest, managed by The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire, is located at 26-198 Town Farm Road in Wilton. Explore over three miles of trails with the Sheldrick Forest Preserve Trail Map and Guide.
Chesterfield: Chesterfield Gorge State Natural Area: The 13-acre Chesterfield Gorge has 200-year-old hemlocks, some 36 inches in diameter and up to 100 feet tall. Parking and restrooms are at the trailhead on 1823 Route 9 in Chesterfield. An easy 0.7-mile trail winds through the shady forest along the picturesque Wilde Brook. Trail map and other info.
The Eastern Old-Growth Forest Conference is being held September 21-23, 2023 in Moultonborough, NH.
- Part 1 of this series: Finding Old-Growth Forests in New Hampshire
- Video: The Lost Forests of New England – Eastern Old Growth
- List: Oldest Eastern Trees and state/provice locations
- Non-profit organization: Old Growth Forest Network
- Book: Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. by Tom Wessels
- Book: Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape, by Tom Wessels
David’s professional background was with the U.S. Forest Service, where he worked for 33 years until retirement in various positions and locations across the country as a Forester, Silviculturist, and Forest Fire Management Officer. David worked for 20 years on the White Mountain National Forest. Since his retirement, he works for RAVEN Interpretive Programs as a Naturalist. David has also worked as an expedition ship naturalist in Alaska and Iceland. Among his many volunteer roles David is a UNH Extension Volunteer for NH Big Tree, Coverts, and Speaking for Wildlife programs.