Kim Nilsen is leading me into a buzzing marshland, a couple of klicks northwest of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, when he suddenly nods toward a heaping pile of animal pellets.
“One time,” he says, “I was up near Dixville Notch in my sleeping bag, on the ground, and I woke up around midnight just in time to see this big bull moose coming straight toward me.”
A tall fellow with an enviable flow of salt-and-pepper hair and a well-worn Indiana Jones-worthy hat, Nilsen moves through the thick undergrowth of this grassy path with an intimacy that might seem improbable in such a dense, sparsely visited stretch of New Hampshire forest. Occasionally, he’ll stop to clear some stray branches from the trail, or to adjust one of the yellow trail markers nailed to trees along the trail. Why does he do this? Furthermore, why had Nilsen been sleeping all alone in the backcountry, attracting the attention of a moose?
The answer is simple yet epic. We’re hiking a tiny fragment of the Cohos Trail, a rugged and scenic 162-mile-long trail that snakes from the heart of the White Mountains to the border where New Hampshire and Canada meet, and where the Connecticut River begins. Nilsen, a former reporter for the Coos County Democrat, is the guy who cooked up the idea for the trail. Named for New Hampshire’s northernmost county, which contains the mysterious territory north of the White Mountains, the Cohos Trail—its extra “h” a nod to how Coos used to be spelled—is the result of civic pride and countless hours of volunteer labor. More than 2,000 people enamored with the idea of a long trail through the Granite State’s most overlooked wild places spent years slashing tall grass, building bog bridges, and carving connector paths between ancient pre-existing trails and roads in the backcountry, from 1998 to 2011, when Nilsen and his colleagues declared the “first draft” of the Cohos Trail finished.
And now here I was, hiking on America’s newest long trail with its creator and hearing how it all came to be—curious moose and all.
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It began one summer night in 1969, when an ecological disaster in the Nash Stream Forest shook the ground just north of the White Mountains. The logs and packed dirt from an old timber crib dam collapsed after heavy rainfall and unleashed the contents of Nash Stream Pond—a boggy, 223-acre body of water—upon the woodlands below. One municipal worker from nearby Northumberland, who had been performing maintenance on the dam just before it broke, survived the flood by scrambling up a tree. The floodwaters made it all the way to a local paper mill and permeated the building, but the story barely made it beyond Coos County. It wasn’t until 1972 when Nilsen heard the tale from a New Hampshire Fish and Game officer named Arthur Muise. He hopped into his Datsun and drove from his home in Dalton to the dam site to see the devastation. But it was the quietude and expanse of the Nash Stream Forest that stunned Nilsen. “I began to roam around up here and see places people weren’t going to, except for maybe loggers,” Nilsen says. “I went to the fire watchman’s cabin on Sugarloaf Mountain, had lunch with the watchman—and his porcupine—and from there, I was able to look out across this vast, quiet landscape.”
Nilsen’s early forays into the Nash Stream Forest were a gateway to a greater realm of under-explored wilderness. Beyond the northern limits of the highly trafficked White Mountains lie some of the Granite State’s most serene destinations: the roller coaster passageway of the Kilkenny ridge, the craggy cliffs of Dixville Notch, and the fishing grounds of the Connecticut Lakes at the steeple of New Hampshire, directly north of White Mountain National Forest. As Nilsen’s hikes took him deeper into forlorn territory, on forgotten, grown-in trails and dirt roads used by logging trucks and all-terrain vehicles, he had an idea. What if you could follow a single trail through the quiet splendor of far northern New Hampshire—from the heart of the White Mountains to the Canadian border?
Nilsen pitched his idea at a meeting with several state representatives, who gave him an informal greenlight, if not the material support, to pursue the project. The trail would pass through a handful of overlooked state parks and private lands in an economically challenged part of New Hampshire, and Nilsen suspected that the lawmakers were intrigued by the idea of a new thru-hiking trail in Coos County that would bring more hikers and their wallets to the region. As word spread, Nilsen began to cultivate a dedicated volunteer trail crew and each year beginning in 1998, the Cohos Trail builders would complete a new section of trail, carrying shovels, pickaxes, and occasionally a chainsaw into the Coos County backcountry and work amid clouds of black flies and constant encroachment of ticks. Since much of the trail is routed through conservation and public land, only a handful of private landowner permissions were needed. The last hurdle, completed between 2007 and 2011, was linking several older trails between Clarksville and the Canadian border, thereby removing most of the road-walking that hikers would have to endure up there to finish their journey. (New connector paths are still being built today, to eliminate the short portions of road walking that remain.)
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To better appreciate the work it takes to manifest a trail where there’s none, I’ve met up with Nilsen and his daughter, Willow Nilsen—who thru-hiked the Cohos Trail in 2019—for a day hike along an especially arresting stretch of the trail. Our destination is the Pondicherry Wildlife Sanctuary, a sprawling wetland owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and popular among birders and black bears alike. Most people access this space by walking or biking the Presidential Rail Trail. But the Nilsens and I are approaching the wetlands from the North, on a sliver of the Cohos Trail intriguingly called the Colonel Whipple Trail. (“I believe Whipple was a Civil War officer from the region,” Kim says.)
We set off from the edge of Whipple Road, in the forest near Jefferson village. The bumpy, yellow-blazed trail winds through deciduous woods in which the floor can be surprisingly spongy and wet in places, foreshadowing what’s ahead. The Pondicherry Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the basin of what was an enormous glacial lake 11,000 years ago. This presents one of the most foundational challenges for a trail builder like Kim: determining where exactly a trail can physically exist. It could mean several days and nights in the woods, inspecting the topography of the region and the durability of the ground. “You might start on an old trail built by a logging company, but then it might suddenly end,” Nilsen says. “From there, you just take out your compass, check your maps, and follow your nose. Eventually, the trail suggests itself.”
For those who’ve wondered what it might have been like to take a ramble on the Appalachian Trail or Vermont’s Long Trail in their infancy, before the trails were beaten in by hordes of hikers, the Cohos Trail offers this experience. The immense plant growth on the trail can make for slow going, the resupply stops become limited as the trail leaves the tourism circuit of the White Mountains behind, and the low hiker traffic in Coos County can make for a disarming level of solitude. “When I did my thru-hike in 2019, there were times when I was walking through chest-deep grass right here,” Willow recalls as we pass through a corridor of flora that tickles our knees. “People will often come back here with their weed whackers to trim the trail,” Kim adds. “With Facebook, we’ve been able to get a sense of how many folks are using the trail. Over the last year, it’s just exploded.”
“Exploded” is a relative term, as the Nilsens and I have yet to encounter another soul, other than a couple of grouse that flutter off through the undergrowth as they hear our footsteps. But as the forest transitions to marshland, crossing many chicken wire-wrapped bog bridges, I start to hear the distant murmur of other humans. A brief, stony climb through a thicket of spruce trees and a right turn onto a path called the Ice Rampart Trail reveals where the echo is coming from.
We’ve reached the western edge of Cherry Pond, the crown jewel of the refuge, which offers a breathtaking view of the Presidential Range. On a clear day, the mountains reflect on the pond’s immense glassy waters. Across the pond, I can just make out an observation deck on which two cyclists are savoring the vista. That’s where we’re heading, but to get there, Kim leads us along an odd ridge-like land formation that snakes through the pond’s edge waters. This is the “Ice Rampart” for which this part of the Cohos Trail is named. “Here you have a flat-bottomed lake full of mud and sediment that’s been deposited by glacial streams that run down the mountains into the valley,” Kim says with a nod toward the Presidentials. “Slowly, all of that stuff is pushed across the pond to a spot where it can’t expand anymore, and that’s what we’re walking on.”
As thunderheads congregate overhead, we pass a beautiful little bench that’s been placed along a section of the rampart with a perfect view of nearby Owl’s Head, a summit of Cherry Mountain. I ask Kim if he and his colleagues placed the bench here. They didn’t, but the Cohos Trail Association (CTA), which Kim founded in 1998, has installed backpacker shelters along the more remote sections of trail near Dixville Notch and the Connecticut Lakes. “The first Cohos Trail shelter was quite literally a donation,” Kim says. “I got a phone call from a fellow named Thomas Abbott, a sawmill owner, and he said, ‘I’ve got this lean-to shelter that I built. Do you want it?’”
The CTA is also adding new connectors which will allow short portions of the trail that follow dirt roads to be moved into the woods. This will further “complete” the trail, in the sense of the Cohos Trail being entirely in wild spaces. But the project about which Kim sounds most excited is a forthcoming Cohos Trail headquarters, which will serve as a clubhouse or hiker hostel where Cohos Trail adventurers can regale each other. A feasibility study is underway. Ideally, the CTA will buy a plot of land near Stark or Dixville Notch and then promote its vision more publicly. “I’d love to walk into that building, welcome everyone to an open house, and then I’d just sit back, have a beer, and say, ‘My life’s over. I can die in peace now,’” Kim says with a resonant laugh.
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Sitting back is Kim’s endgame. He turned 73 in June, and after more than two decades of trail building, he’s happy to watch the Cohos Trail continue to evolve in the hands of the CTA’s current leadership and its ever-growing ranks of volunteers and trail adopters. “In our social media profiles, we try to create a ‘persona’ for the Cohos Trail that feels conversational and interactive,” Kim explains. “We call it ‘the mighty Cohos Trail,’ we source most of our photos from photographers who were out on the trail recently, and we don’t do official releases.” The logic is twofold: if the Internet can be a gateway to using the Cohos Trail, it can also be a portal to becoming a volunteer and taking ownership of the trail. “You can’t hold onto something like this trail forever,” Kim says. “You’ve got to give other people a chance to carry it into the future.”
When we reach the Cherry Pond observation platform, the cyclists are still hanging out. As they ask us which trail we came in from, I expect Kim or Willow to give them the rundown. They’re the experts, after all. But they’re looking at me. I launch into a wobbly history of the Cohos Trail, sharing what I’ve learned about the trail—particularly the ice rampart that we walked across. As I finish, I look to Kim, seeking something. A correction, perhaps, or a brief introduction to the effect of, “By the way, I came up with the Cohos Trail idea.” He just smiles and readjusts his hat.
If You Go:
1. CHERRY POND | Jefferson, N.H.
The crown jewel of the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge offers a stunning waterside vista of the Presidential Range and ample opportunities for birding. Park at the Owl’s Head trailhead on NH 115, cross the road, and briefly walk northeast on the shoulder to the Cohos Trail information kiosk, where you’ll pick up the yellow-blazed trail as it descends past a beaver dam to intersect with the Presidential Rail Trail. Turn left on the rail trail and follow it west through a vast marshland to the Cherry Pond observation platform. To continue along the Cohos Trail, take the Rail Trail to the railroad tracks just beyond the platform and follow them northeast to the signed cutoff for the Ice Ramparts Trail, which bumbles northeast along the pond before meeting up with the Colonel Whipple Trail.
Distance: 7 miles out and back to the Ice Ramparts/Colonel Whipple junction or 11 miles to the end of Colonel Whipple and back
Info: Cohos Trail Association
2. THE PERCY PEAKS | Stark, N.H.
Rising out of the Nash Stream Forest like volcanic cones, North and South Percy Peaks (3,430 and 3,234 feet, respectively) are among the most visually compelling sights in the vicinity, and the Cohos Trail goes right up and over them. The ascent begins by the Christine Lake recreation area off of Christine Lake Rd. Park here and pick up the Old Summer Club Trail. Climb through a mossy forest, passing a spur trail for the Devils Rest shelter built by Cohos Trail volunteers, before the trail steepens to reach the saddle between the two peaks. An out-and-back cutoff from here reaches South Percy Peak, while the Cohos Trail continues over North Percy Peak. Exercise caution when tackling North Percy, whose steep exfoliated granite slabs can be extremely slippery when wet.
Distance: 5 mile out and back
Info: Cohos Trail Association
3. HUNTINGTON CASCADES AND TABLE ROCK | Dixville, N.H.
A towering pinnacle of stone overlooking Dixville Notch awaits hikers brave enough to climb to Table Rock, whose peak is barely 6 feet wide, with stomach plunging vertical drop-offs. But en route to the top of Table Rock, the Cohos Trail also visits the Huntington Cascades, a series of horsetail falls that range from 18 to 50 feet tall. Park in the Cascade Brook Picnic Area off NH 26. (It’s marked with a sign that reads “Dixville Notch State Wayside.”) From here, pick up the Huntington Cascades Trail (blazed with the Cohos Trail’s standard yellow markers) to reach two sets of waterfalls in 0.25 mile. The trail then transitions into the Three Brothers Trail and climbs steadily through boreal forest to reach the precipice of Table Rock.
Distance: 2.8 mile out-and-back
Info: Cohos Trail Association
4. THRU-HIKING THE COHOS TRAIL
According to the Cohos Trail Association website, most thru-hikers manage to finish the Cohos Trail in roughly two weeks. It’s noted, however, that most of these thru-hikes were done in sections: not as one sustained journey. North of the White Mountains, resupply points are few and far between. Hikers may have to catch a ride to return to their vehicle if bringing only one car. Early fall can be an especially pleasant time to hike the Cohos Trail, as the summer heat can yield robust deer flies and more limited water sources. Just be sure to bring plenty of layers: the chill of winter arrives earlier in Coos County. The Cohos Trail guidebook, published by the CTA, is an essential for thru-hiking the trail.