Looking for a place to ride with your family this Fourth of July weekend? Want a place that’s low or no traffic, relatively easy riding and scenic and shady? Try riding the gravel roads of the valley. There are many choices from National Forest service roads to town dirt roads and old logging roads. Match the road you choose to the abilities of the children you ride with and your time and proximity constraints. Take a test drive or ride to scope out the territory before you take your whole gang. Know the difficulties and points of interests and possible side trails ahead of time.
The advantages of riding gravel roads are many. They provide a safe place for novices to ride that’s scenic and easily managed with a touring, cross or mountain bike. For more experienced riders, they link trails. Town dirt roads offer a view of an area seldom seen from the paved highway, past old farms, orchards and graveyards, with low traffic, tree-shaded avenues and mountain and sometimes water views. Old logging roads will lead you on explorations and adventures. Be sure to have a map, compass, and maybe GPS handy.
One summer, we planned to ride our road bikes around Tamworth’s Wonalancet Loop. Hot pavement and Route 25 and 113 traffic were not inspiring. We ventured off on a dirt road, Pine Hill, and immediately felt relief from the heat and bustle. Shade and cool breezes greeted us, and we only passed one truck. Up the hill, an old graveyard indicated this area once had more people than the trees.
The climb to White Gate Farm was tough given our skinny tires, but what we couldn’t ride, we walked. At the top, a view of the Ossipee Range to the south and Sandwich Range to the west opened up across the pasture. Other dirt roads branched right and left.
We took the right fork and followed Cleveland Hill Road down the hill, on a combo of dirt and then pavement, back to the village. What did we get out of the ride? Shade, solitude, scenery and adventure — you never know where dirt roads might lead you or what you’ll see. Tamworth and Sandwich have many dirt roads to explore, but next time we’ll bring our fatter-tired bikes.
In June, we revisited a dirt road that we used for our mountain bike tours in the 90s — Rob Brook Road. This 8.5-mile gated WMNF service road (FR 35) is one mile up Bear Notch Road from the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) side and 8 miles from the Bartlett side. Park in the pull-off by the signboard. Grab your bikes and head down the road, looking for wildlife and wildflowers along the way.
That day, I saw moose prints, several bear “calling cards” and lady slippers. We were riding mountain bikes so we had the option of exploring side trails like Birch Hill snowmobile trail and the Sawyer Pond Trail.
That’s Rob Brook’s appeal. You can do rolling hill riding on a shady dirt road or venture out on some single track or snowmobile trails, some with technical challenges and climbs. It all depends on what your young riders are up for. Check out the map at the kiosk. If you go off-road, be prepared to encounter some blow downs, brushy trails and bugs. That all adds to the adventure.
When we biked it with our young kids, we set a turnaround time, stopped for snacks, then headed back-much of it downhill. The trick is to not go too far out so that the trip back becomes a chore.
What do you need for equipment? If you have a bike with wider tires like a touring or mountain bike, you can handle gravel and dirt roads. Most kids’ bikes are set up with wider tires and made for dirt. There are now specialized bikes called “gravel grinders” for riding dirt roads. The bikes used are similar to road bikes and cyclocross bikes, but have disc brakes for better braking in wet, dirty conditions, sturdy frames to take the dirt road abuse, a more relaxed geometry for more comfortable, upright positioning and stability and frame clearance for the wider tires you’ll want for traction. I have one, but find my mountain bike more versatile and comfortable for dirt/trail exploring.
Helmets will protect everyone’s heads should there be an impromptu fall. Bring sun screen and lots of bug repellent. Riders get hungry and thirsty so bring lots of water and snacks. Bring camera/phone in case you see wildlife or an awesome view. Tuck baggies in your pack for berry picking.
Cell phones are handy for emergencies, but you don’t count on cell service where you are. Be prepared to get yourself out of the woods. Have a map in some form — paper, GPS, in-your-head — so you can figure out where you are and where you want to go. Taking headlamps and first aid kits are good ideas. When you’re done riding, pack swimsuits for cooling off.
Outfitted with appropriate equipment for a family “gravel grinder” now where do you go? Here are some of my suggestions for family gravel road adventures:
WMNF forest service roads: 1. Gated Roads — Best choice — Rob Brook (FR 35) off Bear Notch Road-8.5 miles long, rolling terrain, no traffic. Single track and snowmobile trail options.
2. Ungated roads — may have car traffic: Slippery Brook Road (FR17) at the end of Town Hall Road in Intervale — 3 miles to Mountain Pond, Bartlett Experimental Forest Roads, Bartlett (FR44) — three entrances from west side of Bear Notch Road. First entrance is .75 miles for Route 302. Total from there to top of Bear Notch, 8 miles. Easy to moderate climbing.
1. Conway/Eaton — Potter Road — Best for older, more experienced young riders. It has some traffic, especially on weekends, but is very shady and has views of Conway Lake at south end. Turn off Route 153, 4 miles south of Conway, on dirt road. Park near bridge short way in. Ride east past end of lake, then turn north to ride slightly uphill along east side of lake. Look for old Potter family graveyard on the left. Ride to end at Mill Street/ Brownfield Road, Center Conway for about 4 miles.
2. Freedom — Freedom Town Forest is west of Freedom and east of Ossipee Lake. Families can ride on an extensive trail system of gated old logging roads and trails. Three kiosks and parking areas lie on the southern and eastern sides of the property where you can pick up brochures, including trail maps. From the westernmost kiosk/parking area, on the north side of Ossipee Lake Road, visitors can easily follow the Old Pequawket Trail to the abandoned airstrip and the Cold Brook drainage. We rode in from the Shawtown Rd access off Ossipee Lake Road to Trout Pond.
3. Other town roads — Madison, Eaton, Effingham, Freedom, Tamworth and Sandwich have many dirt roads to explore. Arm yourself with a gazetteer, drive or ride the roads first to check them out for interest, difficulty and safety. Try some out with your family.
Enjoy “grinding some gravel” away from Fourth of July traffic with friends and family this weekend.
2019 summer events
July 9-Aug. 27 (Tuesdays) — Great Glen Trails Mason and Mason Insurance Mountain Bike Race Series, 3:30-7 p.m., for all ages. Choose a distance, course and time that suits you and have some fun riding the Great Glen Trails.
July 13 (Saturday) — Tour de Borderlands-Stop #4 — Mahoosuc Pathways, Bethel, Maine, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Ride free or ride with barbecue for $20. For details, go to tinyurl.com/y22q4u9g.
July 20 (Saturday) — MWV Bicycling Club Mid-Summer Ride and Social. Choice of four rides of 13/30/40/50 miles. Meet at Twin Mountain Gazebo at 9 a.m. Following rides, at 4 p.m., barbecue at Steve Blum’s house in Bartlett. For information, go to tinyurl.com/yy52leex
July 20 (Saturday) — Bike Walk Alliance of NH (BWA-NH) “Bikes and Brews” celebration of cycling and craft beer, starting at Smuttynose Brewery in Hampton with ride loops of 15 and 30 miles. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/y3v7qp5o.
July 27 (Saturday) —Tin Mountain’s Mount Washington Century, rides of 40, 80, 100-plus miles. Rides start from 6-8 a.m. at Tin Mountain Conservation Center on Bald Hill in Albany. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/yygpjndo.
Aug. 10 (Saturday) — Tour de Borderlands — Stop 3 percent — Kingdom Trails, East Burke, Vt. For more details, go to tinyurl.com/yyxw8hfg.
August 17 (Saturday)/(Aug. 18 rain date) — 47th Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb benefitting Tin Mountain Conservation Center. Race starts at 8:30 a.m. For details, go to: mwarbh.org.
Sally McMurdo is a bike safety instructor and cyclist who lives in Conway.