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Forest lookouts great for views

  • The fire tower atop Pack Monadnock. Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger Transcript file

  • Pawtuckaway State Park is home to one of the fire tower hikes. Courtesy

  • Foliage around the Monadnock region Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Reflections“Francestown foliage at its finest along Route 136, while on our way to the Town Forest for a hike with our dogs,” says Deb McGrath of Francestown.

  • Lebanon High School students begin the final ascent up Mount Kearsarge on Sept. 16, 2015. The mountain is popular for hiking but the summit can also be reached by carriage road and a shorter walk. Valley News file

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/27/2020 2:16:02 PM

There is just something special about spending time outside during a New Hampshire fall.

The cool, crisp autumn air partnered with the beautiful colors brought about by the changing of the leaves is a sight to behold. As the time passes and winter draws closer and closer, the great outdoors beckons as residents and visitors alike embrace the change of seasons and attempt to enjoy the final weeks of comfortable daytime hours.

The foliage is hard to miss, as you can see it just about everywhere you go. But there is no substitute for getting above the trees and admiring a bird’s-eye perspective that will leave even those who have spent their entire lives in the Granite State in awe.

There are no shortage of hikes that showcase breathtaking panoramas that look like they belong on a postcard, but there isn’t always enough time to make the trek up places like Mount Washington or even Mount Monadnock. So for those looking to get a little exercise and that all important scenic view of the red, orange and yellow colors of the fall, the state’s fire tower system provides great hikes and the scenery to match.

Fire towers in New Hampshire date back to the early 20th century and in the program’s heyday there were upwards of 70 towers in operation around the state. Currently, there are just 16 in operation, although the one on Croydon Mountain is on private property and not open to the public.

“Pretty much any high peak had an observation area for detection,” said Doug Miner, a forest ranger with NH Division of Forests & Lands. “And there’s definitely a lot of history.”

The remaining 15 range in elevation from 605 to 3,360 feet, with some accessible by car and others on foot. And the N.H. Division of Forests & Lands has the N.H. Fire Tower Quest Program to add a little incentive to get out and explore. Participants are tasked with visiting at least five of the 15 towers, recording when they visited and submitting a form with the information to the Division of Forests & Lands to receive a patch commemorating the completion of the program.

“You can basically get to the base of five of them with a short walk,” Miner said. “We’re getting a lot in each week. It’s been a great year for the program. Definitely a good thing to do when the best thing is to be outside.”

While only five are required, Miner said it’s worth visiting all 15 because each have a unique view of the New Hampshire forested landscape.

“Some people do the circuit as the foliage season progresses south,” Miner said. “And we want to encourage people to hike to the towers and enjoy the view and see the importance the system has.”

There’s the fire tower on top of Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park in Peterborough. Enthusiasts have two ways to get to the top, trek up one of the three hiking trails or drive your car along the winding 1.3-mile road on fall weekends.

Kearsarge Mountain is the most historic of the remaining fire towers still in use, Miner said. It is accessible from Warner by taking the toll road from Rollins State Park and making a short 0.6-mile hike to the tower, as “you can basically drive and park at the base of the fire tower,” Miner said. There is also access trails from the Wilmot side at Winslow State Park.

“Great views to both the south and the north,” Miner said. On a crystal clear day, Miner said, you can see the Prudential in Boston and up to Grantham Mountain.

“It’s one of the most popular location because you have both these two state park options,” he said.

Kearsarge is a part of collection of key locations within system, including views that cross with Oak Hill in Loudon, Belknap Mountain in Gilford and Mount Cardigan in Orange.

“They can all see fires in the area between them,” Miner said.

Conservation land surrounds Blue Job in Farmington and Magalloway Mountain is the northern-most one in Pittsburg, and at the highest elevation, the trails are steep at certain points. It’s also the most remote of the group.

Federal Hill in Milford is one of the shortest hikes and Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard, part of the Monadnock-Sunapee trail corridor, is a steep climb that provides spectacular views – and blueberries during the summer months.

Miner said the towers used to be seasonally staffed, but “unfortunately budget cuts took a toll on the system,” he said. Now the towers are typically just used when the fire danger reaches Class 3, which has been more often this summer given the drought conditions.

Miner said a number of the towers have observation platforms that give an elevated view, perfect for checking out the color changing landscape in the fall. Before COVID-19, if there was a tower watchman on site, they would allow people to come in and see what it all entailed. But now, Miner said the small space isn’t conducive to social distancing.

While a number of states had started to get rid of their fire tower systems, Miner said there has been a resurgence in their use over the last five years and the effort to preserve the history.

“The value of the towers has really changed a lot,” he said.

For more on the fire tower system, visit nh.gov/nhdfl/natural-heritage/fire-towers/index.htm. For fire towers and history of the fire detection system across the U.S., the Forest Fire Lookout Association is a good reference, firelookout.org.

Fire Tower HikesBelknap Mt., Gilford

Height: 2,384 feet

Directions: From Route 11A at Gilford Village. Follow Belknap Mtn. Road south for 2.4 miles to Belknap Carriage Road, forks left and leads to a parking area. Green Trail (0.7 miles) is short and fairly rough; Red Trail (0.8 miles) is slightly longer and more scenic.

Blue Job, Farmington

Height: 1,356 feet

From Route 202A, 5.4 miles east of the junction with Route 126 in Ctr. Strafford or 2.8 miles west of the junction with NH Route 202 near Rochester, take Crown Point Road 5.6 miles. Two trails lead a half mile to the summit.

Cardigan Mtn., Orange

Height: 3,121 feet

From Route 118 about 0.5 miles north of Canaan, turn east at the Cardigan sign and drive 4.1 miles to parking area. Westside trail from parking area (1.4 miles) to summit.

Federal Hill, Milford

Height: 690 feet

From Route 101A take Ponemah Hill Road south at the tower sign. Follow Ponemah Hill Road for about 1 mile. Tower Road is gated on the west side of the road. From Route 13 take Emerson Frontage Road past Hampshire Hills fitness center to the intersection of Emerson and Ponemah Hill for about 1 mile.

Green Mtn., Effingham

Height: 1,907 feet

For the foot trail, take Route 25 4.3 miles east from the junction with Route 16 in Ctr. Ossipee, then turn right and go south on Green Mountain Road 1.4 miles. Turn left onto Highwatch Road and go 1.3 miles to the trailhead (0.1 mile beyond the Lakeview facility). From there to the summit is 1.4 miles.

Kearsarge Mt., Wilmot and Warner

Height: 2,937 feet

The tower can be reached from the north (Wilmot) by a trail (1.1 miles) or from the south by the carriage road and trail. The trail side can be reached by following signs to Winslow State Park (I-89, exit 10 to Kearsarge Valley Road) or Route 11 to Kearsarge Valley Road for the carriage road, follow signs to Rollins State Park from Route 103 in Warner. The toll road goes 3.7 miles along the ridge to a small parking area. From this point, the trail to the summit is 0.6 miles. Park entrance fees will apply.

Magalloway Mt., Pittsburg

Height: 3,360 feet

From Route 3 north of Pittsburg, 4.7 miles beyond the First Connecticut Lake dam, take a woods road east (tower sign) and follow signs at several junctions. The tower access road leaves the main haul road to the right at 5.3 miles Follow this road approximately 2.5 miles to the trailhead. Two different trails lead to the tower and are designated by signs. Both trails are approximately 0.7 miles in length and include several steep sections with loose material.

Milan Hill, Milan

Height: 1,737 feet

From Route 110B west of Milan, the Milan Hill State Park road goes south to a parking area very near the base of the tower.

Pack Monadnock, Peterborough

Height: 2,280 feet

Located off Route 101 on Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park. Auto road access to the tower site. Three hiking trails. Park entrance fees will apply.

Oak Hill, Loudon

Height: 920 feet

From E. Concord (exit 16 on I-93) across to Shawmut. Continue to fork, take left onto Oak Hill Road into the town of Loudon. The Tower road (which has a sign) will be on your left may be gated, and is rough and steep. From Route 106 head west onto Route 129, take School Street to Oak Hill Road Tower Road will be at top of hill on right.

Pawtuckaway, Nottingham

Height: 908 feet

Take Route 107 from either Deerfield or Raymond to Reservation Road Follow the signs on Reservation Road which lead to a small parking lot at the base of South Mountain. At the parking lot you should follow the signs for trailhead #6 and the hike is about 0.4 miles to the tower.

Pitcher Mt., Stoddard

Height: 2,153 feet

Tower is northeast of Route 123 west of the town of Stoddard A trail and a gated jeep road provide access from a signed parking area just west of the height of land. The trail is part of the Monadnock-Sunapee trail corridor.

Mt. Prospect, Lancaster

Height: 2,059 feet

Tower is in Weeks State Park east of Route 3 between Lancaster and Whitefield. The road to the summit is gated when the park is closed, but it is an easy 1.5 mile walk.

Red Hill, Moultonboro

Height: 2,029 feet

Take Bean Road from near the junction of Route 25 and Route 25B in Center Harbor. After 1.4 miles turn onto Sibley Road (fire tower sign) to a parking lot at a gated jeep road. Distance to Red Hill tower 1.7 miles.

Warner Hill, Derry

Height: 605 feet

Off Warner Hill Road about 0.5 miles east of the intersection with Floyd Road Auto road access to the tower site.

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