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Take the Kids

Take the Kids: Five kid-friendly hikes

  • View from Swope Park in Concord

    View from Swope Park in Concord

  • Jarred Gaffney, 12, fishes with his cousin, Jayde Gaffney, 12, at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, NH. Their families were visiting from Methuen, Mass.<br/>August 23, 2006<br/>(Concord Monitor Photo/Preston Gannaway)

    Jarred Gaffney, 12, fishes with his cousin, Jayde Gaffney, 12, at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, NH. Their families were visiting from Methuen, Mass.
    August 23, 2006
    (Concord Monitor Photo/Preston Gannaway)

  • View from Swope Park in Concord
  • Jarred Gaffney, 12, fishes with his cousin, Jayde Gaffney, 12, at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, NH. Their families were visiting from Methuen, Mass.<br/>August 23, 2006<br/>(Concord Monitor Photo/Preston Gannaway)

Even if your family spends every winter weekend skiing or snowshoeing through deepest backwoods, you have to admit there’s something special about the first true hike of the spring: the smell of pine needles baking in the sun, the feel of newly soft dirt beneath your shoes, the first chirping chickadee. Does a name like “Mud Season” do justice to all that? We don’t think so.

Early spring is a great time to explore the outdoors with young children. We’ve found that the best early-season hikes don’t require much uphill climbing – you can always work your way up to those 4,000-footers as the summer progresses. In fact, any patch of woods will serve to reintroduce you and your kids to the pleasures of the outdoors.

Here are five short spring hikes for families: one in Concord and one for each of the compass points beyond. They’re all within a half-hour or so the city. We’ve also suggested a few pit stops for snacks. Of course, trail and weather conditions can be unpredictable this time of year, so be sure to dress appropriately when you head out.

1. Marjory Swope Park, Concord – We’ll start close to home. Concord has tons of great trails, but our favorite might be the newest addition to that network. Marjory Swope Park was dedicated last July to the memory of a well-known Concord environmentalist. It’s a beautiful spot, covering a sloping, densely wooded parcel near Penacook Lake with several well-graded trails perfect for children. But you have to get to higher ground to really appreciate this gem.

A cheery red sign decorated with an owl marks the entrance on Long Pond Road. Hit the trailhead and follow the right-hand fork. The trail is a steady uphill climb, but nothing too steep for young legs. After about 20 minutes, you’ll reach the stunning, can’t-believe-you’re-in-Concord view. Penacook Lake lies before you, its undeveloped shoreline stretching below a low ridge of distant mountains. There are hardly any houses within view at this angle and, other than the occasional car passing on Long Pond Road below, no sounds besides the wind and rustling leaves. The woods clear out here, leaving plenty of space for scampering and acorn collecting for the younger members of your party.

Even if you turn around and head back downhill at this point, your efforts will have been well rewarded with the view alone.

You can cap your outing at Beech Hill Farm, which opens May 1 and is just a 5 minute drive away on Currier Road (right off Pleasant Street toward Hopkinton). Here you’ll find an ice cream barn and a petting zoo, complete with a pair of peacocks. Need we say more?

2. North: Boscawen Town Forest

The trails in the relatively small Boscawen Town Forest actually cross the town line into Penacook at some points, but the forest itself feels far removed from Concord. This is a modest, mostly wooded tract with some nice features, including an interpretive nature path, a side trail to a marsh, a beaver pond and the remains of the old farmstead that occupied the land when it was open fields decades ago.

Midway along the main trail you’ll come upon an open, gently sloping meadow. Though the hillside looks pleasant now, until about 15 years ago this land was covered by 20-foot-tall piles of industrial scraps from nearby leather tanneries. The waste is long gone, and the soil appears to have made a steady comeback – an interesting lesson in environmental rehab.

To find the Boscawen Town Forest, head north on North State Street. About half a mile after crossing into Boscawen, turn left onto Queen Street. The forest entrance is off Weir Street, which is on your left about 1 mile up. (A small wooden sign marks the turnoff).

In the mood for a snack on the way home? Stop at Summer Freeze, a near-perfect roadside ice cream stand on Fisherville Road in Penacook. You’ll find a good variety of flavors, including sundaes and shakes.

They also have a children’s menu and plenty of burgers and fried dinners if the hiking party is craving something more than sweets.

3. West: Fox Forest, Hillsboro

This is a lovely, expansive parcel of woods just a short drive from downtown Hillsboro.

There are 22 miles of relatively flat walking paths through dense forest, though you’ll have no problem building your own short loop.

Fox Forest is the forest research station for the state, and, as such, it’s full of varied terrain and geological features. One highlight is the Mud Pond Bog, where a narrow boardwalk extends over the layer of peat moss atop the water’s surface to a tiny cabin that offers a private view of the pond. (It also provides secure refuge from black flies.)

You’ll also find a 200-year-old grove of virgin hemlock trees and a Black Gum swamp. This is not a hike for sweeping views – most of the trails are packed in dense woods.

But Fox Forest’s flat, quiet trails make a perfect destination for a relaxing family outing. Check out the brochures at the main parking lot for detailed trail maps.

The forest entrance is located on Center Road in Hillsboro, about 25 miles from Concord.

Follow Route 9 to downtown Hillsboro, and turn right onto Center Street at the main intersection (look for signs to Fox Forest.)

The forest trailhead is about 2 miles up the road on your right.

4. East: Boulder Field, Pawtuckaway State Park

If you’ve never visited the Boulder Field in Pawtuckaway State Park, put down this newspaper, get in your car, and go – now. It’s just that amazing.

This collection of house-sized boulders, eerily situated in the middle of a Middle-Earth-like forest, always feels magical. It takes some navigating to find the spot and – as a result – it’s often relatively quiet, even on pleasant weekend days. But once you find your way there, it will all seem worth the effort.

The official term for these boulders is “glacial erratics,” large chunks of rock left behind as glaciers receded from New England millions of years ago. Older kids will likely want to scramble over these giants, or they may just stand in awe.

This entire area around Pawtuckaway State Park, in fact, seems rather mysterious: abandoned cemeteries emerge from the undergrowth and names like Devil’s Den and Dead Pond dot the landscape.

The trail to the boulders is relatively flat, and when you’ve had enough of the towering rocks, continue along toward Round Pond, just a few hundred yards away, for less imposing scenery. Just past the pond is a short but steep hike up to a nice lookout point.

One word of caution: The road to the Boulder Field is unpaved and often rough going. We almost considered not including it in this listing but decided that such a unique spot is worth any journey. Please take care, however, especially in wet weather when the dirt road can turn into a mud pit.

To get to the Boulder Field, take Route 107 south from Route 4.

Follow Route 107 for 10 miles and turn left onto Reservation Road. Follow this road for just over 2 miles, then turn left onto Round Pond Road. This is little more than a widened hiking trail, so go slowly. It may well be impassable for some vehicles, depending on the time of year and weather conditions. But if you keep going, you’ll see the trail to the boulders on your left, at a hair-pin turn about a mile and a half up.

On the way home, stop at the Lazy Lion Cafe, just a couple of miles north on Route 107. It’s a cozy restaurant with an extensive menu, though your kids may require nothing more than a hot chocolate after an afternoon of bouldering.

5. South: Bear Brook State Park

Bear Brook State Park is certainly well-known, especially among mountain bikers, campers and picnickers.

But this sprawling park in Allenstown also has a fine network of hiking trails. One Mile Trail, the central artery, is a broad, flat path lined with evergreen woods – just perfect for younger hikers. You’ll find numerous turnoffs along this trail.

For a bit of an uphill climb, take the Catamount Trail, which leads to an open hilltop with an impressive vista across the rest of the park. The Cascades Trail, accessible further along One Mile Trail, runs along a picturesque stream and through dense woods.

In fact, almost every trail in this section of Bear Brook is worth a detour and, aside from Catamount Trail, they are all relatively flat and easy-going.

To get to the One Mile Trail from Concord, follow Manchester Street (Route 3) south through Pembroke and turn left on Route 28 in Allenstown. Follow Route 28 for 3 miles to Deerfield Road (you’ll see a sign for the park entrance.) The trailhead is located right at the park tollbooth. You can park in the nearby lot.

Lang’s Ice Cream, on Route 3 in Pembroke, makes a nice post-hike stop. Just look for the giant pink cone by the side of the road.

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