A bicycle tour through eleven historic New Hampshire villages from the Sky Bridge Café in Wilton and back again.
Summary: This blog entry is the first of three intended to capture my impressions, and more, from a cycling tour of New England and New York that I completed from 9/5 to 10/8/2017 amidst lots of days off the bike to spend quality time with friends and family. My primary goal for this three-part impressions series is to inspire others to explore the regions rural routes, quaint villages, and scenic landscapes by bicycle. In this entry, I recall impressions from a day of cycling through eleven historic villages in southern New Hampshire's picturesque hill country starting and ending at the Sky Bridge Cafe in downtown Wilton. The entry is written as if you, the reader, are following my route on a bicycle and I'm a voice in your head providing directions along the way including suggestions for satisfying your inevitable food and caffeine cravings. I've also inserted a touch of history as it relates to the land and the villages on the route. From Wilton and the Sky Bridge, my eleven-village tour proceeds west, clockwise (see map below), first to Temple then Peterborough, Harrisville, Nelson, Hancock, Bennington, Greenfield, Mont Vernon, Amherst, Milford, and ultimately back to Wilton and the Sky Bridge. With the exception of Peterborough and Milford, both "towns" by any measure legal or otherwise, the word "village" provides an appropriate visual cue for the other nine. Within the villages and the much larger town centers of Peterborough and Milford are some wonderful opportunities for the curious food and caffeine motivated traveler. Among them the Sky Bridge Cafe of course, but also the English-inspired Birchwood Inn and London Tavern in Temple, the Harrisville General Store, the Local Share by Plowshare Farm in Wilton, and the Union Coffee Company in Milford. Between the villages you'll find a bit of Alice's Wonderland, a patchwork landscape of hills, forests, and farmlands. I hope my blog entry will inspire you to explore, by bicycle, this relatively undiscovered region in New Hampshire. If you can't make the trip on a bicycle then carpool with a group of lucky friends and family!
Before delving into the ride, my impressions, and more, let me start-out with some details that will be helpful for anyone wanting to repeat this ride as I completed it, all eleven villages in a day including stops for photos, snacks, drip coffee (Harrisville General Store) and a latte (Union Coffee Company, Milford). In this opening section, I'll include details about road surfaces you'll find on the route and some tips to keep in mind including tire pressure and bike choice for maximizing the fun factor on dirt with minimal loss of efficiency on pavement. The route, including out-n-backs for coffee and town-center visits, is 78 miles (126 km). Along the way, you can expect to climb, according to Strava, about 5850 feet (1783 meters). My time on the saddle, moving time, was five hours two minutes. Elapsed time, including two stops for food and coffee, was six hours thirty-four minutes. Here's a link to the route on Strava where I go by the alias Lava Monkey.
I used Ride With GPS to assemble and save my route in a format (GPX file) that could be read by my Garmin eTrex20 GPS device. Turns along the way were informed by previous rides I've done in the area. I favored roads-less-traveled and avoided, whenever possible, state-maintained "highways" such as the 101 and 31. As their designation implies, these routes are the primary corridor for high-speed traffic including freight. I'd advise staying off of them especially the noisy, busy 101, an alternative route connecting Milford, Wilton, and Peterborough. Among the roads-less-traveled, I favored paved routes mostly, but not exclusively, for this tour because I knew I would be advertising and recommending the ride to a wide-readership on my blog. On other rides I've done through southern New Hampshire's hill country (see links at the end of the blog), I favored a higher percentage of mixed-surfaces including dirt roads and rail trails (bike paths built on former rail beds). My eleven village tour is close to 90% paved vs. non-paved, so I'd advise tire pressures that favor paved roads with only modest softening for the few dirt roads that you'll encounter.
With the proper bike, "dirt" roads, sometimes referred to as "gravel" roads, a highly varied road surface, can add immensely to a cycle tour. With modern "hybrid", alternatively "gravel", bikes and the features they offer, such as tubeless tires and steel frames, these surfaces can be ridden safely and comfortably at much higher speeds than a road bike with 90-120 psi tire pressures front and rear. When preparing my Niner RLT 9 Steel gravel bike (50-36 rings, 32-11 cassette), the bike I used on this ride, for non-paved surface such as gravel roads, cobble stone, and non-technical single track, I inflate my tubeless Hutchinson Sector 28 mm tires to 85 psi rear / 75-80 psi front. Over a calendar year, my body weight varies from about 150 (race fit) to 160 (off-season) pounds (68-72 kg). You'll want to factor in your own body weight when softening your tires. Too low and you could easily damage your rim or pinch a tube if you're not rolling tubeless. There is also the trade-off to keep in mind between decreasing efficiency on the paved roads with gains, as you drop tire pressure, in efficiency and safety on the mixed-surfaces.
Unless you know a garage code in Wilton or another town nearby, where you can bunk for the night as I did, then you'll likely drive into Wilton center with your bike on a rack. You'll find ample parking in the town center. Given that you'll be gone most of the day I advise parking off the main street. The Sky Bridge Cafe is close to the west edge of downtown, a short spin from any parking option. Depending on which day and time you decide to set-out on this tour of eleven villages, or any other ride that starts in Wilton (see suggestions below for more routes), you may find that the Sky Bridge is either closed or not yet open the morning that you arrive. An excellent alternative is the Local Share by Plowshare Farm, quality drip coffee and espresso, organic baked goods, locally made art, and even local produce when in season. To find the Local Share cross the street from Sky Bridge and take a left, a few doors down, across from the historically significant and locally celebrated Wilton Town Hall Theater, you'll find the Local Share.
If you drove in then you likely arrived off the 101 from Milford. On your way, you may have noticed that the roads were essentially flat as you made your way from interstates to the 101 eventually to Milford and then Wilton. You were driving across a former, mostly flat, outwash plain comprised of sands and gravels left behind by receding glaciers, ca. 11,000 years ago (from the most recent cold period of the ongoing Quaternary Glaciation) Alternatively, if you came from the west on the 101 then you came through hills associated with the extensive and geologically ancient Appalachian Mountains, a landscape feature easily seen from space whose origins date back ca. 480 million years to the so-called Age of the Fishes, well before the evolution of reptiles and mammals. From Peterborough heading east towards Wilton, the 101 climbs up-and-over a section of Temple Mountain (2,045 ft (623 m)). Like all of the hills in the region, the bedrock of Temple Mountain is mostly metamorphosed schist and shale, rock layers that record the former existence of a sea of an antiquity even older than the Appalachians.
As this overview of the geography of southern New Hampshire implies, from Wilton heading north, towards Greenfield, west back towards Peterborough and Keene, or south towards the village of Temple you can expect to encounter a region dominated by hills and valleys and the watersheds that divide them including those drained by the Souhegan and Contoocook Rivers, each a tributary of the much larger Merrimack River. Some of the hills are significant such as Mount Monadnock (3,165 ft (965 m)), which is part of the divide between the Connecticut and Merrimack River watersheds, and the already mentioned Temple Mountain. However, don't underestimate the smaller, lesser known hills. My eleven-village tour samples not exclusively, but nearly so, this region of hills and valleys found south of the more widely known White Mountains of central New Hampshire.
From Sky Bridge or the Local Share, with plenty of caffeinated cycling fuel in your body, saddle-up and point your whip west. Just after the Sky Bridge Cafe, take a left. At this point, you're very close to the confluence of the Souhegan River, a tributary of the regionally significant Merrimack River and the locally valued Stony Brook. Cross the bridge over the Souhegan and take the first right. Here you'll begin your ascent into southern New Hampshire's hill country. A few hours later, as you approach Amherst, you'll roll-out of the same hills onto the former, glacial, outwash plain on which sits Amherst, Milford, and the eastern edge of Wilton among other towns and villages in the area.
As you begin to ascend from the banks of the Souhegan River, grades will initially approach 15% but the majority of the climb, over about 3.5 miles including false flats and short descents, is far less steep. At a casual pace I climbed to the top in about 18 minutes. You'll gain a modest ca. 550 feet on this climb. Despite your proximity to the busy 101, just to the south, you'll already be getting hints of what lay ahead in southern New Hampshire's hill country. From the summit, you'll drop-down to the 101, turn left at the intersection, coast a few tenths of a mile, then make a right onto a country road. Over the next ca. 1.5 miles you'll gain another 400 feet in two back-to-back climbs. The second is impressive, for its steepness from the vantage of a bike saddle, especially with the initial climb already in your legs. From the top, you'll descend comfortably, possibly on a section of dirt road but I can't recall for sure, to the village of Temple, the second village on the tour. Temple was first settled in 1758.
This early in your tour it wouldn't be advisable to drop-into the Birchwood Inn and London Tavern for a pint. But I would advise that you take a few photos and make plans to return to the village when you can stay longer. Scroll through the photos of the rooms available at the Birchwood Inn, they are impressive, cozy, welcoming, and a short walk to a "proper" British Imperial pint in the adjoining London Tavern. Temple is perhaps best known for the New England Glassworks Company (more commonly referred to as "Temple Glassworks"). The furnace and associated infrastructure from the factory were operational from just 1780 to 1783. Glassworks forged in Temple during this time are highly sought-after collectibles.
From the village of Temple you'll pick-up state highway route 45 and head north. Not to worry, this short section of highway, less than six miles, does not attract high speed wackos like the 101. However, you will have to climb out of town, up-and-over the western slopes of nearby Mount Howard. Settle-in, this is hill country after all, they'll be much more climbing ahead. As you approach the 101, at the top of a steep descent where you can see the highway below, take a left onto a gem of a dirt road, smooth, wide, lightly traveled. It's a false flat most of the way to the next junction with the 101. When you get there, cross the highway (with care) and make a left into the cycle lane.
This is the most dangerous part of the ride because you'll be sharing a busy road with high-speed motor-vehicle traffic. Stay as far right as possible as you ascend this part of Temple Mountain. The climb is less than a mile, about 5-6 % grade on average. The exit point, a right turn, off this cycling-unfriendly road is less than a half mile from the summit. When you reach the right turn off the 101, remember to return to normal breathing. I assure you, this short tour of the 101 is worth the risk for the opportunity to tour the villages and hill country west and north of Wilton.
From the right turn off the 101, you'll enjoy a fast, flowy, paved road for a handful of miles before turning left onto a dirt track. Unlike the previous dirt section, the day I rode this section I encountered moderately deep ruts from water erosion as well as small patches of loose sand and gravel. Be prepared to ride your road or gravel whip like a mountain bike at times. If you're like me then you'll enjoy the challenge of riding this section at a sensible speed, but not too sensible. Note, part way down the initial descent off the paved road you'll come to a sharp left, take care not to overshoot the corner. To recap so far, from Wilton center to Temple you'll ride ca. seven miles with 1000 feet of climbing; then another ca. nine miles with 775 feet of climbing from Temple to Peterborough center.
Peterborough is a popular destination for visitors and locals and the downtown area, primarily for tourists, is the center of that activity. Busyness aside, Peterborough offers a variety of shops set in an attractive New-England-style setting of bygone days. You won't be able to settle-in to every village on this tour, including the popular town centers of Peterborough and Milford, but you should at least do a roll through of the main tourist loop for future trip planning. If you're following my route and intend to complete the full eleven-village tour then it'll will be too early for lunch when you arrive to Peterborough. Regardless of your priorities, at some point you should stop-into Twelve Pine for a multitude of delicious sandwiches, salads, and other options. You might also enjoy Little Duck Organics, a grocer, or Aesop's Table, a wonderful combo bookshop and cafe. Be sure to save some time for my first recommended coffee stop at the Harrisville General Store.
From Peterborough, you'll ascend the west bank of the Contoocook River onto a modest climb as you make your way out of the downtown area. Not far from the top of the climb, you'll make a right off the main road back into the forest. You're now on your way to Harrisville and the coffee-stop that I mentioned. As you make your way, you'll ride along narrow, lightly traveled, paved routes through rural, picturesque, hills and farmlands. Amidst the landscape scenes will be plenty of old stone walls to send your mind wandering back into New England's recent past when European settler's and their harness animals laboriously transformed continuous forests into patchwork farms.
Although they'll be much more to see ahead, the section between Peterborough and Harrisville is certainly as scenic and peaceful as any other on the tour. Take your time, allow the natural smells and sounds to settle-in. Along the way, you'll encounter no hill climbs of any significance and no dirt sections (on my route). Shortly before climbing into the village of Harrisville, you'll ride for a few miles along the shoreline of Skatutakee Lake, the source of Nabanusit Brook. The Nabanusit converges with the Contoocook River not far from downtown Peterborough. We'll revisit the Contoocook one more time in the village of Bennington.
At the end of Hancock Road, which parallels the north shore of the Skatukakee Lake, you'll turn right (north) onto Main Street in Harrisville. With less than a half-mile to cover before my first, suggested, coffee and food stop, I encourage you to unleash the athlete inside you and pedal hard up the 100 foot climb into town! You'll see the short climb into the village shortly after making the right turn off Hancock Road. The Harrisville General Store is on the left at the top of the climb. Many of the old mills from the town's earliest European settlement are on the right side of the road as you come into the village. Between the centers of Peterborough and Harrisville you'll pedal about 12 miles and climb a modest 1000 feet. In Harrisville, you'll be 27 miles into the route with 2700 feet of climbing already behind you.
Stash your bike somewhere in front, next to, or perhaps even behind the General Store, there is no need to lock it in this part of the World. Once you're inside, allow your eyes to adjust to the bountiful food and drink options that surround you. Stare wide-eyed into the glass cases at both hardy and sweet options. Breath in the smell of quality drip coffee and imagine the satisfaction of a bottomless cup for a few dollars. Once you've performed a thorough-ish inventory of your options head to the counter and start ordering. If you're lucky you'll encounter a man with a strange ascent, that's the owner. I was told his dialectic roots sprouted in Zimbabwe. However, don't be dismayed if a lady or a non-funny speaking man greets you, I found only genuine smiles in this little shop perched above and beside "a unique, well preserved, 19th-century mill town" (more at Wikipedia).
In fairness to those that performed the preservation, "a unique, well preserved, 19th-century mill town" really doesn't do the extent of the towns preservation justice. Coffee-in-hand from the porch of the General Store, so much has been preserved that a spandex-clad (or otherwise) visitor can easily hearken back to an era when "work", referring to the term as it applies to Physics, was produced exclusively in this and other mill towns by the "force", more physics, of gravity pushing water downhill. You'll absolutely want to come back for a foot tour of this town, including a visit to the original Harrisville train depot and the Cheshire Mills. In the meantime, check-out this Virtual Tour of Harrisville Village.
Next-up on my clockwise tour of eleven villages in southern New Hampshire's hill country is the exceptionally sleepy village of Nelson, New Hampshire. It's so sleepy in fact that unless there is a contradance underway in the village town hall, a tradition dating back 200 years according to the locals, you could easily roll past without realizing you'd been there. As you make your way to Nelson you'll be reabsorbed by the land- and sound-scapes of southern New Hampshire's hills and valleys. The ride to Nelson from Harrisville won't take you long, it's only about five miles with 550 feet of climbing. Along the way you'll roll past Tolman Pond where, apparently, one of New England's first ski hills was established in the 1920s.
At the junction of Nelson and Old Stoddard Road take a left into the village-center of Nelson for nostalgia and photos. When you're finished, return (back-track) to the junction and proceed east on Old Stoddard. My memory suggests that this is initially a smooth, no ruts and other inconveniences for tires and schedules, dirt road. After a short climb out of Nelson, you'll descend about four miles to state-highway 123 where you'll turn right towards Hancock, the next village on the tour. You'll follow the 123 for about six miles, nearly all descending, at which point you'll encounter a large white church and a post office on the left, both signs that you've entered one of New Hampshire's historic villages. Total climbing on this section is just ca. 580 feet, most of it on the initial climb out of Nelson that I mentioned.
As any American might guess, the namesake of Hancock is the man that signed the Declaration of Independence with fifty-five other delegates to the Continental Congress. And namesakes withstanding, this short quote from Wikipedia paints a picture that should motivate you to visit and perhaps return again to the quaint village of Hancock, "Almost every building on Main Street in downtown ... is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Hancock Village Historic District. Hancock's Meetinghouse is home to Paul Revere's #236 bell, which chimes on the hour, day and night. The town does not have paved sidewalks, [instead] gravel paths [lead] from home to home." Hancock was first settled, by European invaders, in 1764.
When you're ready to ride-on from Hancock, follow state-highway 137 out of town. Neither route 123 nor 137 present any concerns as far as traffic and proximity to fast moving vehicles. Neither road is heavily used and those that do use the road don't seem be late for their dinner reservation, which too often seems to be much more important than safety concerns for a nearby cyclist. Follow the 137 for ca. one mile then turn left onto Antrim Road. From this junction you're only 3.5 miles, with about 330 feet of climbing, from Bennington, the next historic village on my clockwise tour from Wilton and back again.
If you've been scribbling down numbers and arithmetic then you may have noticed that "feet of climbing" per mile cycled has been declining in the last few miles of my description. That's because as you make your way east from Nelson you'll be riding out of southern New Hampshire's hills and into the region of the former outwash plain that I mentioned earlier in this blog entry. You'll descend off the last hill onto sands and gravels distributed by flowing glacial melt water, ca. 11,000 years ago, and later covered-up by invading plants, such as White Pine (Pinus strobus), as you approach Amherst. On Antrim Road (named for a village to the north) you'll find yourself in a space that should be familiar to you by now, the smells and sounds of southern New Hampshire's hill country. Ride on and enjoy the solitude.
The village of Bennington is located at The Great Falls of the Contoocook River, the same river we encountered to the south in Peterborough. The Great Falls drop 70 feet in 1.2 miles (more details at Wikipedia). Attracted by the Great Falls, industrialists and their mills were already established in this town by 1782 not long after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Because I wanted to visit Bennington, a village north of both Hancock and Greenfield, I wasn't able to include a wonderful feature of the region known as the Hancock-Greenfield Bridge. On your future visits to the area, many I hope once you discover or perhaps rediscover, as I did, what you've been missing, I suggest making the bridge a part of one of your itineraries. The bridge lies about half-way, on a roughly east-west line, between the two villages in its namesake. All of the details that you'll need, are available at the Hancock-Greenfield Bridge Wikipedia page.
From Bennington, my route heads south and then east to the village of Greenfield, about six miles with 400 feet of climbing on paved country roads. Amidst it's list of current and historical factoids, one fact, an accomplishment in this case, about Greenfield truly stands-out in my humble opinion. From Wikipedia, "Greenfield is home to the Yankee Siege, considered the most powerful ... trebuchet in the world. [The Yankee Siege] has participated in the annual World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' Contest in Sussex County, Delaware since 2004." Also from Wikipedia, "A trebuchet is a type of siege engine which uses a swinging arm to throw a projectile at the enemy." No doubt there is much more to see, eat, and drink in Greenfield, a town established in 1753 in part because of the distance to the nearest church and school and the "Monadnock hills" along the way, but don't let that stop you if your preference is to seek-out the "most powerful" pumpkin thrower, aka, the Yankee Siege!
Once you're satisfied with your visit to Greenfield, roll east out of town on the main street. You'll spend only a minute or two on state-highway 31 before making a left turn onto a friendly cycling alternative. Enjoy the next six miles as you continue east towards the oddly named road "2nd New Hampshire Turnpike S". At the turnpike, a mellow road despite its name, turn right. The turnpike will take you directly into Mont Vernon, village number nine on my tour of eleven.
Mont Vernon really is spelled without the "u" as in "Mount". But spelling aside, which they got wrong relative to its namesake, the town founders were apparently fond of George Washington and so they chose the name of his country residence, a plantation in Virginia, for the name of their town shortly after 1803 following a dispute with residents of nearby Amherst. There was a time when Mont Vernon was a favorite for travelers coming-up from the south, especially members of privileged societies from Boston. Hotels from that time, including the Grand Hotel, must have been a sight to behold, each of them sparing no detail for their elite guests. But sadly, none of them survived to the present (more details at Wikipedia). However, you can still view images of these old hotels on display in a museum on the second floor of the Town Hall, courtesy of the Mont Vernon Historical Society. If you need a snack before continuing on to Amherst, consider a quick stop at the Mont Vernon General Store, you'll roll past it, on the right, as you leave the village.
Less than a mile south of town turn left on Amherst Road and follow this just three miles to the village center of the same name. Amherst, for white settlers, began as a land grant to soldiers that participated in King Phillip's War (1675-78), a war brought to Metacom (aka, "King Phillip"), then the leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, by selfish puritans among others. An accurate telling of history aside, it's nonetheless fascinating to think that this part of New Hampshire was settled by soldiers from so far back in American history. At that time, New England remained a dangerous frontier for both natives and settlers. For an excellent, historically accurate, and unbiased account of the settlement of New England, including wars and other skirmishes, I strongly recommend Mayflower: the story of courage, community, and war, a book by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Amherst has a wonderful central park, with a ring road around it, that is perfect for a short break, especially to take advantage of shade trees if you happen to ride on a warm day. The same park also provides an excellent vantage for capturing images of the park itself with historic buildings in the background. If you're feeling peckish, then I recommend a visit to Moulton's Cafe, on Main Street, they are apparently New Hampshire's original "soup bar" (see their webpage for more details). You'll find plenty more to eat at this location including a handsome menu of fresh sandwiches, baked goods, and groceries. When you're satisfied with your Amherst visit then pick the route back up and continue, just three miles on flat roads, to the last village on the tour.
Hopefully, you'll have some time, before riding the six miles back to downtown Wilton, to drop-into the Union Coffee Company for your favorite espresso-based wake-me-up. They serve an excellent latte in a proper cup, visualize a soup bowl with a handle. Like Peterborough, Milford has a lot to offer the curious traveler. No doubt, if you need something you'll find it somewhere around the central oval (a ring road) found in this busy yet attractive, old New England-styled town. Milford's namesake was a mill, perhaps one of the mills still standing, built close to a ford over the Souhegan River, the same river we encountered not far from the Sky Bridge Cafe, in Wilton. Despite it's size relative to sleepy Amherst, Milford actually separated from Amherst, not vice versa, in 1794. I encourage everyone to visit Milford's Wikipedia page for a more thorough read of this communities rich history. For example, prior to the emancipation proclamation (1863) and the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861-1865), "Milford was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves".
With whatever gas you have left in the tank, supplemented by a caffeinated beverage from the Union Coffee House, from Milford head north from the ring road across the same bridge you came in on, over the Souhegan River, and turn left, to the west. From here you'll follow the Souhegan on a gently rolling, lightly trafficked, paved road. At the junction of North River and Purgatory Road take note of Fitch's Corner Farm Stand, you may want to return for fresh veggies on your way home. Take a left onto Purgatory Road then take your second right back onto North River Road and enjoy the last few miles back to where you started earlier in the day, downtown Wilton.
If you were able to postpone your inevitable rendezvous with a hearty meal then you really should sample some of Jorge's, the owner of the Sky Bridge Cafe, locally famous paella. And although his espresso machine is modest by industry standards, Jorge's talent for preparing an espresso will nonetheless impress you and your taste buds. Depending on when you arrive to the Sky Bridge you may be able to sit in the shade, outdoors, with your feet up. Regardless of where you land when you step off your bike, be sure to let all that you've accomplished settle-in before you return to your busy life. Once you're back home and drifting-off into a well earned sleep, I anticipate that you'll dream about the hill country of southern New Hampshire; and when you wake, you'll consider plans for your next trip to Wilton for a day or part of a day of exploring the hills, valleys, and villages nearby.
Strava links to other rides in the area from the Lava Monkey,
Native American name translations and other details from Wikipedia,
Souhegan River: Algonquin, "waiting and watching place." Prior to European settlement, salmon, alewives, sturgeon, and eels all migrated to and from the river. The name for this river reflects a time when Native American's sat and waited, with nets across the river, to capture fish. Today, these fisheries are either gone (e.g., Salmon) or greatly diminished (e.g., American Eel),
Merrimack River: Algonquin, "the place of strong current."
Contoocook River: Abenaki, Pennacook Tribe, "place of the river near pines."
Skatutakee Lake: No translation available.
Nabanusit Brook: No translation available.
Wampanoag: "People of the Dawn."
For questions about this tour and any other inquiries please send me an email from my webpage. I'd enjoy corresponding with you.