10-29-2021 Basch-Cotton Valley Rail Trail

New rubber mats on the Cotton Valley Rail Trail make for a smooth transition. (MARTY BASCH PHOTO)

The elderly gentleman sized us up pretty well.

“You must be hardy folks to be out biking in this weather,” he said.

With temperatures in the mid-50s and crosswinds gusting in the high teens, he was right. Even on a blustery post-Columbus Day sleepy Monday, it was good to be out on a bike.

And equally good to be out of the busy valley in a more sedate summer lakeside community now seemingly shuttered until next season in the southern reaches of Carroll County.

Depending upon where you live in the area, the 12-mile long delightful Cotton Valley Rail Trail (cottonvalleyrailtrail.org) can be a good hour to hour and a half hour drive away.

Though relatively close, the multi-use hard packed trail allows riders an escape, cycling across causeways over Crescent Lake and Lake Wentworth with their beaches and docks, rolling under a comforting canopy, getting lost in railroad history with its many interpretive signs and enjoying well-spaced picnic tables and portable toilets along the often narrow rail with trail which has a minimal elevation gain of about 160 feet.

Though my wife and I have cycled it a few times, it’s usually been as flip-floppers, starting at one end, or in the middle, and doing an out-and-back before going to another spot to do the same thing to complete the trail.

This time, we decided to do the trail’s entire length between the Wolfeboro train station and Wakefield’s Turn Table Park for a 24-mile leisurely spin that had us stumbling upon a new accoutrement — rubber mats.

What makes the trail special — and at times a tad frustrating — are the narrow sections along the rail line where users are on a path as wide as the track. That’s because parts of the line are still active for rail car enthusiasts on select days.

Many times cyclists must cross over the rails to the opposite side. Weathered wooden slatted frames help them navigate across bumpy terrain.

But now volunteers from the Cotton Valley Trail Committee have begun to install rubber mats instead. The mats are smooth and look to drain well.

Also, we learned from a volunteer that when most of the leaves fall from the trees, others like him go out and rake the entire route thus making the passageway even more enjoyable and the trail gremlins hiding under the downed foliage no longer sinister.

The route, which took some 25 years to complete, was finally completed in 2017, thanks largely in part to volunteer efforts by the Cotton Valley Trail Committee and Cotton Valley Rail Trail Club.

The Wentworth Economic Development Corp. handles the fiscal side of things.

The origins of the trail date back to the early 1870s when the Eastern Railroad started a branch line to transport goods and passengers to the state’s largest lake — Lake Winnipesaukee — from the village of Sanbornville in Wakefield to the “oldest summer resort in America” aka Wolfeboro.

The line saw varied uses after that, eventually becoming a tourist destination. After the Boston and Maine Railroad bought it in 1892 it became a conduit to ferry visitors to the MV Mount Washington for passage to lodging along the lake. The railroad also served as a sort of school bus for local children. Then came the car and out went the railroad.

Eventually, the railroad line was abandoned in the late 1980s and now ironically continues to serve as something as a tourist destination and local exercise and social pathway.

The causeways are sublime and tree canopies glorious. The route also passes by the World War II-themed Wright Museum (closed to the public November to April) and the New Hampshire Boat Museum (closed mid-October-mid-May) and has a fine sampling of restaurants and markets at both ends.

About midway, the route leaves the tree tunnel and rock cuts for the openness of the marshland with its willowy vegetation, benches and beaver dams before handing off to a few large swells along the path, a crossing of Route 16 (take note, valley weekend warriors, as this spot is good entry for a pre- or post-days off spin) and then the picnic tables of Turn Table Park.

Although riders don’t use the turntable to turn around like the trains of yesterday did, they certainly can turn around themselves and chug their way back to Wolfeboro along a line with a wealth of water and woods along the way.

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