I’ve been looking for something different to ride. When a friend told me how much he and his wife liked riding the 12 mile Cotton Valley Rail Trail from Wakefield to Wolfeboro, I put it on my list to try. Monday, I decided to go for it.

The drive from my house to the trailhead was about 36 miles and took almost an hour, but I had time. There are several places to access the trail. I chose the Route 16 parking area right before Miss Wakefield Diner. The trail’s eastern end really begins at Turntable Park off Route 109 in Sanbornville and goes about a mile before it crosses Route 16 and reaches that parking lot. I decided to avoid that road crossing.

Unloading my mountain bike, I bundled up for the cold, windy ride. With a mountain bike, I could take a side trip if I wanted on mountain bike trails near Fernald Station. I also knew wider tires might help me negotiate numerous crossings of the rails to trails along the way.

Charles F. Martin in his 2008 edition of the book "New Hampshire Rail Trails," called the Cotton Valley Trail a “funky trail” that ”breaks all the rules but is both fun and scenic.” What makes it unusual is the rails and ties are still in place. In many places, the space between the rails is filled with hardpack covering the ties. This allows for a narrow (4½ foot) riding/walking surface but also keeps the rails exposed for rail car fans to use. In places where there is enough room, the trail goes off the railbed, to a separate, wider hard pack trail. When space narrows down over a swamp or causeway, the trail switches back to the railbed.

Multiple transitions from rail bed to side trail make this a tricky bike ride. These 90-degree crossings, marked with yellow caution signs, advise bicyclists to “please walk across all platforms.” Between the rails are mats that make those platforms. If you’re careful, you can ride across them. However, I’ve heard of many cyclists who have fallen crossing them. On my way back, I encountered a woman who took a “digger” riding her hybrid bike across. She chose to walk her bike back to the car.

That was my issue with this trail. The narrowness between rails makes it difficult to pass oncoming pedestrians or cyclists. Usually, someone has to step or get off. The closer I got to Wolfeboro, the more that was a problem.

Frequent transitions from railbed to trail became annoying. I’d just be getting my rhythm going when I had to slow down for a sharp turn ahead. These turns should have been marked with bright arrows that you could spot yards away. In the shadowy light, on leafy trails, it’s easy to miss them. I had to pay attention.

Despite the “funkiness” of the trail, I did find it interesting and scenic. At the Wakefield end, there are some fun roller coaster hills beside the tracks, uncharacteristic of rail-trails which tend to be flat and straight. On the 4-mile section from Clark Road to Cotton Valley Road, there are no crossroads, only woods and swamps. Judging from the signs warning of “Active Railcar Trail” and “operators sound horns” when approaching trail users, it seems this section is one the rail cars favor. Snowmobile junction signs also show this is a popular area for those winter trail users.

The swamps and beaver bogs still had some fall color and bittersweet berries brightened the cloudy day. The narrow trail cut across these, almost at water level. A rider I met told me when she rode it last spring, this section was underwater.

At Cotton Valley and Cotton Mountain Roads intersection, a kiosk explained how that area got the name “Cotton.” I had been wondering about that and my Google search had left me empty. The name came from the Cotton family that settled in this area in 1781. Before the railroad was built in 1872, Dudley Cotton gave the railroad a right of way across Cotton land and gave land for the station. Hence, the name for the station became “Cotton Valley.”

Riding on from there, I came to a sign for “Trails” on the right and saw a kiosk in the woods. Guessing these might be the mountain bike trails, I turned. The sign identified this as the “Willey Brook Conservation Area,” managed by the Wolfeboro Conservation Commission. A map of trails intrigued me. I decided to sample one, “Sunday Drive.” It was rocky, rooty single track that led me to a scenic spot by Willey Brook. If I’d had more time, I’d do the whole loop, but it was getting late, so I turned around.

At Fernald Station, I met 2 cyclists checking out the map. There was a porta-potty nearby and plenty of parking. After crossing Route 109, the trail continued.

At a small bridge crossing, I got my first peekaboo view of Lake Wentworth through the trees. Later, a side trail took me to Albee Beach where there were better views, picnic tables and a wide sandy beach along the shore. It was deserted, but I bet is busy in the summer!

Soon after Albee, I came to the first causeway over the end of Wentworth. Fall colors and mountain views made this area very scenic. Continuing on, I came to the second causeway, over Crescent Lake, and the Mast Landing boat put-in. After the dark railroad cut, I cycled into sunshine and came to Route 109/28 junction. Cars stopped for me to cross over to the “Bridge Falls Path,” the final leg of my journey to Wolfeboro. This trail is the best part of the ride. It’s wide and scenic, passing by Back Bay and parkland, before ending at the restored Wolfeboro Station. Wolfeboro’s bustling Main Street is right ahead.

Riders ending here will find lots of places to eat, shop and view Lake Winnipesaukee.

The Depot offers clean restrooms and information. I stopped there for both. A helpful person in the information center answered my question about the name “Cotton Valley” by showing me an excerpt from David Bower’s Volume III, The History of Wolfeboro, N.H. 1770-1994.

It was time to have my snack and turn around. I had over 11 miles to go to get back to my car. It was getting late, so I hustled back. Somehow, the ride back is never as fun!

The Cotton Valley Rail Trail is interesting but seems more suited to foot traffic than wheeled. There’s a lot to see and learn along the way through interpretive signs and water /mountain views. There are at least 7 access points, with parking, kiosks and some with port-potties. You can customize your walk or ride to your interest, time and energy.

For those with e-bikes, I emailed the Cotton Valley Trail Committee to ask whether they were allowed on the trail. This was their answer, “The governor signed a bill allowing e-bikes on trails. For the CVRT only Class 1 and 2 are allowed. Due to narrow sections of the trail, we remind riders to be courteous to all other users. And ride at safe speeds.”

If you want to know more about the Cotton Valley Rail Trail, go to cottonvalley.org or consult Charles F. Martin’s "New Hampshire Rail Trails," second edition, 2016.

Upcoming Events: “The Howler” Mountain Bike Race-Saturday, Oct. 30, Roger’s Crossing, Bartlett, time trial format, 11 a.m. The race benefits Attitash Alpine Education Foundation. Go to bikereg.com for details.

Sally McMurdo is a bike safety instructor and cyclist who lives in Conway.

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