Just as the sun hides the other stars in the sky, the White Mountains of New Hampshire often blind visitors to the fine scenery further north in the great, wild Coos county. I fall into this trap all too often– Franconia, Pinkham, and Crawford Notches are so easy to access, with plenty of post-hike restaurants and outfitters nearby. The thought of driving another hour or two to get to smaller mountains without the services of a National Forest rarely crosses my mind.
But there’s plenty to see up there. In the past decade, the 160-mile Cohos Trail has gone from barely more than an idea to a full-fledged hiking destination, thanks to the incredibly hard work of a small trail organization. The wilderness along this trail isn’t nationally designated, but you can expect to see a lot fewer people there than even the deepest wilds of the National Forest to the south. This is a different kind of wildness.
My first experience on the Cohos Trail was in the fall of 2009, when I walked south from the Canadian border into the White Mountains, and further down to Connecticut along the New England Trail (not exactly the new National Scenic Trail, but related). I came back for a week in 2011, and figure I’ll be back again and again over the years. It’s a wonderful area up there, and few people seem to know much about it.
What’s the Cohos Trail?
The Cohos Trail is a relatively new route through New Hampshire’s northernmost county (Coos, pronounced like co-op), created to show off the gorgeous scenery of the northern forest– an alternative for backpackers who want to escape the crowds in more popular White Mountains. It’s a great place to escape those crowds– in 2009, I saw two people, seven moose, and five loons on the entire trail. On the week-long trip in 2011 I ran into a total of three hikers. This is what the Cohos Trail is all about.
The trail starts in the heart of the White Mountains, at the trailhead for the Davis Path in Hart’s Location. The route follows established WMNF trails up to the Presidential Range, then north to Cherry Mountain, through the town of Jefferson, across the Kilkenny Ridge and down toward the town of Stark. The Forest Service doesn’t officially recognize the Cohos Trail within the National Forest, but that’s just fine– you can walk the trails anyway.
The heart of the Cohos Trail doesn’t really start until you cross Route 110 in Stark. From there, the trail heads up over the distinctive Percy Peaks, into the depths of Nash Stream Forest, over Dixville Peak and Table Rock into Dixville Notch. North of Dixville Notch, the trail goes over Sanguinary Ridge, through Coleman State Park, and into the Connecticut Lakes region, finally ending at US Route 3 where it crosses into Quebec.
North of Stark, you’ll see equal parts rolling mountains, quiet farmland, and crystalline lakes. None of these places are totally wild– there are plenty of logging roads, snowmobile trails, state park campgrounds, a wind farm, a small ski resort, a resort hotel, and boat launches– but you can bet they’ll be a lot quieter and more peaceful than the most remote stretches of wilderness elsewhere in New Hampshire.
Where Should I Hike First?
If you don’t have time to hike the entire 160-mile trail in one shot, I’d recommend a trip with lots of day hikes and short overnights, maybe with some car camping thrown in for good measure. The Cohos Trail is a fine trail for long-distance backpacking, but it’s equally well set up for weekenders and day hikers. In fact, Kim Nilsen (the founder of the Cohos Trail) recently wrote a guide book for the 50 Hikes Series (50 Hikes North of the White Mountains) about the area near the Cohos Trail, which is chock full of fine hikes and entertaining narrative about the region.
Kim’s knowledge of the area far outshines mine, but from what I’ve seen, I can recommend a few of the best day hikes:
-Take a steep and difficult two-mile trail to Sugarloaf Mountain for a nearly unparalleled 3700 foot viewpoint.
-Take a similarly difficult loop trail over Percy Peak, complete with a bald top and plenty of blueberry bushes.
-A short and steep climb out of Dixville Notch lands you on Table Rock, a vertigo-inducing 500-foot cliff high above the north woods.
-Mount Magalloway, while not on the Cohos Trail, is the iconic peak for the far north, with a fire tower and views of three states and one province.
For a different kind of trip, you could make a long loop around Nash Bog, with plenty of open views to the mountains above and the foliage around you. Coleman State Park and the town of Pittsburg both have plenty of lakes for paddling and boating, along with campgrounds for base camping. Even a car-bound trip through Dixville Notch, or up Route 3 in Pittsburg is mighty scenic this time of year. I can’t say enough about the landscape up there. You just have to go see it yourself.
What Difficulties Should I Expect?
For those of you expecting something just like the Appalachian Trail, you’d best get over that idea. The Cohos is relatively young, and not fully protected in the same was as the more famous National Scenic Trail. Much of the Cohos Trail runs through State Forests, but plenty of it traverses private property. Much of the tread is snowmobile trail or logging road, which may seem offensive to feet accustomed to dedicated foot paths. There are some very nice sections of trail built solely for hiking, as well, but you’ll want to hit the Cohos Trail with an open mind.
Much of the trail’s difficulty stems from its remoteness and relative youth. Camping is only allowed in designated sites, which are few (though the numbers are growing), and resupply points are equally sparse. The constant changes to the trail make the most recent edition of the guide book woefully outdated, so the best way to stay found will be to ask the Cohos Trail Association for trail directions and maps right before your hike, rather than relying on old information. None of these points make a through-hike anywhere near impossible, but you’ll need to plan ahead carefully and do your research. There’s a wealth of information on the Friends of the Cohos Trail Facebook page, so dig deep and ask lots of questions.
Most importantly, don’t expect all of the trail to be easy to follow. Logging operations and old signage might make the trail easy to miss, but don’t worry. If you give yourself a little extra time to walk through the forests up there, you’ll find plenty of fine scenery, even if you don’t happen to be right on the trail.
Check it out. There’s a lot to see once you get north of the Whites, and some of it can compete pretty well with other classic hiking destinations in New England.
Ryan is an avid ultralight backpacker and blogger at Guthook Hikes. After several through-hikes, he’s now focusing on exploring more of his home territory in the wilds of northern New England, and trying to turn his iPhone-based hiking guide apps into a full-time job.
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