Horse Hill Nature Preserve

Often when I want to get outside, I don’t want to drive a long way to get there. That’s one of the reasons this web site exists. A preserve that I feel is important, especially for southern NH which can seem awfully crowded, is the Horse Hill Nature Preserve in Merrimack. It is over 500 acres of diverse features including beaver ponds, steep hills, cellar holes, winding brooks and many wetlands.

I’ve been there in winter, but spring is when I feel it really shines. Wildflowers proliferate including fringed polygala, wild oats, pink lady slipper and indian pipe (a personal favorite). Sheltering under the mixed hardwood and pines are also many, many ferns. Having been logged many times over the decades, the forest is young and the trees relatively small. That’s why it seems beavers love it there, creating new ponds and trimming saplings all over. Hidden deeper in the preserve is White Pine swamp which plays host to many water fowl.

Motor-vehicles are prohibited on most of the trails, but horses are not. Just be careful of some of the bridges – there are signs warning that they may not be safe for your mount. Also, if you’re planning to hike the Loop Trail, give yourself a lot of time and when you cross back over the power lines, continue along that path (to the right) until the Loop Trail sign appears on your left. I’ve missed it a few times and ended up with a much shorter outing than I’d planned. Other than this bit, it is well signed, blazed and posted. There is also plenty of parking on Amherst Street.

How to get there –

Head for the town of Merrimack, NH

From Route 3, Everett Turnpike take exit 10. If coming from the north, turn right off the ramp and straight through the intersection onto Amherst road. If from the south turn left off the ramp and right onto Amherst Road. Continue until you reach the main parking area on the right at 184 Amherst Rd. Merrimack, NH 03054

Additional info here and check out the map and trail guide here.

More photos can be found here.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs! Also please respect local rules and regulations.

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Posted in Merrimack Valley (South)

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp Preserve

Tucked into a much larger network of some 15,000 acres of protected land, the Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp preserve provides another opportunity to get up close to the rare and always beautiful Atlantic White Cedar. Even though its much farther for me to drive, I like this swamp because it has fairly extensive boardwalks that allow deep access to the swamp (although some of them were in need of repair the last time I went out). Stewarded by The Nature Conservancy, I attended a botanist-led walk through the swamp that taught me a lot about the symbiotic relationships that exist only in an Atlantic White Cedar Swamp; most prominently with the Hessel’s Hairstreak butterfly which cannot survive without it.

In addition to the swamp, there are trails that take you along the North Branch of the Contoocook river, one of the most beautiful rivers in New Hampshire. As the name implies, there was a mill on this site, lately named Loverens and originally built in 1798. Over the years the mill (under different ownership) produced staves for buckets and barrels, shingles, siding and other building products for nearby towns. As you continue to follow the river upstream you may get lucky and get a glimpse of the resident otters.

Wildflower lovers will rejoice here in spring where you’ll find bluebeard lily, sheep laurel, pink lady slipper, trillium, goldthread and more. In the swamp there are dense stands of cinnamon fern and the peat moss mat is thick and lush. Please take care not to step off the boardwalk though as you can seriously damage the peat layer.

How to get there –

Head for the town of Antrim, NH

From Route 9 between Routes 123N and 31S, turn north on Loverens Mill Road, cross the bridge, and park in the area on the right. The preserve is located along a dirt road across the road, and slightly north of the parking area. It is marked by a sign. Follow this road 0.25 miles to the preserve trailhead, which is marked by a sign.

Additional info here and trail guide with map here.

More photos can be found here.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs! Also please respect local rules and regulations.

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Posted in Merrimack Valley (South)

Fox Forest

It’s full name is The Caroline A. Fox Research and Demonstration Forest and it’s a treasure. I’ve been there several times and in all seasons. Enough so that I found my favorite beech tree (off the path, but visible and tremendously large). Since 1933 it’s been the forest research station for New Hampshire. Its area is approximately 1445 acres with miles of trails over differing terrain. Here’s a list of some of it’s diverse features –

  • Black gum swamp – these trees are some of the oldest and rarest in New England.
  • Surface streams – non- or barely tannic, these streams play host to frogs and other wildlife, occasionally slowing and widening into ponds.
  • Kettle bog – also known as Mud Pond, this is a typical kettle bog hosting many distinct plants such as tamarack pine, black spruce and pitcher plants. There is a small boardwalk and a screened in house which is not ideal for viewing, but a relief from insects.
  • Beech groves – the Ridge trail will bring you into one of the largest beech groves I’ve seen, especially wonderful in the fall when they’re at their golden best.
  • Family cemetery – with only five markers, the Gearry graveyard is tiny and picturesque.
  • Tree identification trail – a great way to learn about the many trees growing here and in other New Hampshire forests – includes some amazing Douglas Firs.
  • Tons of wildflowers and ferns – lots of Christmas fern and many species of wildflower including purple and painted trillium, bluebeard lily, lady slipper, jack-in-the-pulpit and wild iris.
  • Boulder fields and exposed ledge
  • Unlogged, virgin forest tract – this small strip of unspoiled forest hosts some enormous hemlocks.
  • American chestnut restoration – the Fox Forest is one of a select group of sites participating in a controlled project aimed at producing trees capable of resisting the disease that nearly wiped out this entire species in North America.

If you’re a fast hiker you can probably walk most of the trails in a single day, but if you’re a photographer or like to really explore it will take you a few days to cover it all. There is a handy information kiosk by the parking area with great maps and information about what projects and initiatives are underway. Please pay attention to trail closures!

Also you can attend the Cottrell-Baldwin Environmental Lecture Series which is hosted at the Fox Forest headquarters and is co-sponsored by the NH Division of Forests & Lands and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire’s Forests. For more info call (603) 224-9945. The 2015 spring schedule is on the link below.

How to get there –

Head for the town of Hillsborough, NH

From Route 9/202, turn onto Center Road past a small downtown, schools and a large orchard and farm. There is a sign on the right and ample parking.

Additional info Here.

More photos can be found here.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs! Also please respect local rules and regulations.


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Posted in Merrimack Valley (South)

Ponemah Bog

The work of the glaciers that covered New Hampshire during the last ice age is apparent all over the state, mostly in the form of exposed granite ledge and boulders ranging from the size of bowling balls to your house. One of the more subtle features left behind by the giant walls of ice are kettle bogs. There are a few still left in New Hampshire, but none more accessible than the Audubon Preserve in Amherst.

Grass pink orchid in the dawn light

A kettle bog is named for its basic shape and they are delicate ecosystems that host plants that do not thrive in any other environment. They are formed during the glacial retreat when enormous chunks of ice separated from the main sheet and became stranded. As they melted they made large depressions in the earth that filled with the melt-water. Over the centuries, that water was added to by rain. Unlike other ponds, kettle bogs get water from no other source except precipitation and they have little or no outlets for runoff, creating a nutrient-poor environment. Eventually, bogs fill in with vegetation, most notably peat moss, that accumulates on its borders.

The Ponemah bog is thought to have been formed 12,000 years ago and its central pond has been reduced to 3 acres. The plants that have adapted to live in bogs are fascinating and beautiful. Most notable are the carnivorous plants such as pitcher plant, bladder wort and sundew. Because the soil has so little nutrients, the plants rely on insects and other small invertebrates to survive. Also present are bog rosemary, rhodora, tamarack pine, black spruce, bog cotton, leatherleaf, blueberry and grass pink orchid.

The preserve is beautiful in any season, even winter. There are often geese, ducks and heron in the pond and if you’re stealthy you can spend a morning with them as I have done once or twice. The trail begins in woodland but soon emerges into the bog proper and follows narrow boardwalks. Please be careful to not step off them, not only because the peat mat is deceptive in covering deep water, but also because it’s very fragile and takes decades to repair once torn. There are three viewing platforms on the pond and another off a side trail. They’re perfect spots for sitting quietly listening to the many songbirds that call the bog home including tufted titmice, chickadees and woodpeckers. There is an informational kiosk detailing the features of the preserve and a picnic table. Trail guides are often available or you can download one here.

Ponemah bog winter sunrise

How to get there –

Head for the town of Amherst, NH

From Route 3, Everett Turnpike take exits 10, 11, 7 or 8 to Route 101A west. Turn left onto 122N at the intersection and then take an immediate right onto Stearns Road. Drive 1.1 miles to Rhodora Drive on right and drive straight ahead to the parking lot.

Additional info Here and Here.

More photos can be found here.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs! Also please respect local rules and regulations.

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Posted in Merrimack Valley (South)

Oaklands and Henderson Swasey Town Forests

Someone once said that the United States and England are two countries divided by a common language. The Henderson Swasey and Oaklands Town Forests in Exeter, NH are two nature preserves divided by a common highway. Falling on both sides of Route 101, the two properties are connected by a tunnel under the busy road. Both are worth visiting and have some distinct features.

I visited each property separately and during different seasons, but enjoyed both. Let’s start with Henderson Swasey which can be accessed directly from its own parking area or after a short walk from the Oaklands side.

In the past it looks like there was granite quarrying on the Henderson site which is full of granite boulders and ledges. Of the two, this preserve has the greater degree of difficulty with the trails because of the ledges, but it’s not too bad. I found several areas where people had built fires. There are also many vernal pools to explore and which provide much needed breeding habitat for many woodland creatures such as turtles, salamanders, frogs and toads. Trails maps located at the major trailheads and they are well marked.

Henderson Swasey tool-marks on granite

The Oaklands side appears a bit different and there was less exposed ledge and fewer boulders. The trails include many wooden walkways to keep hikers’ feet out of the mud and to reduce physical degradation of the trail and the terrain. Many of them are constructed of slices of whole trees cut lengthwise so you can see knots and other features of the tree like where the branches were. It adds a lot of character.

Wooden walkway at Oaklands Town Forest

One of the most surprising features at Oaklands is the deep marsh that is made cross-able with an extended network of walkways and bridges.

Oaklands Town Forest wetland


I ended up in a suburban neighborhood during this part of my walk and the trail goes from one side of the road to the other, hugging tight to some backyards. That must be a great perk of living there for sure – almost like having a gigantic backyard or estate. Because I went in October, there were tons of mushrooms and other little forest floor gems. I am always drawn to the small sphere and hope that people will stop and take the time to discover the tiny wonders at their feet.

How to get there

Head for the city of Exeter, NH – Exit 10 on Route 101 will get you to either preserve and you can get to both properties from the other via the tunnel under Route 101.

For Henderson Swasey Town Forest head south on Route 85 (Newfield Road) – where you see a low railroad trestle there is also an unmarked dirt driveway on the right just before it (touching it actually) which will bring you to the parking area and information kiosk.

For Oaklands Town Forest head north on Route 85 where you will see a well marked parking area on the left.

Official site with trail maps and more info.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs! Also please respect local rules and regulations.


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Posted in Seacoast

Manchester Cedar Swamp

Sounds romantic, right? Who wouldn’t want to spend time in a swamp? Well, I would – I love swamps (my favorite Talking Heads song is Swamp, too, if you want more proof). I’m not the only one. All over the state efforts have been made to set aside and protect vulnerable wetlands; marshes, bogs and swamps included. While the Manchester Cedar Swamp isn’t the only Atlantic White Cedar swamp in the state, it does have a bonus – Great Laurel, or as it’s sometimes called, Giant Rhododendron. This is a surprisingly large preserve (600+ acres) jammed between huge condo developments, some commercial operations and an abandoned-before-it-was-built college campus. I’m sure the citizens of Bow and Manchester are pretty glad UNH decided to expand campus operations in the Amoskeag Mills instead.

There is a parking area that can hold 10 cars or so and a kiosk that gives you some information about the types of flora and fauna you’re likely to see if you keep your eyes open. The first part of the trail leads in through woods with some large boulders and tons of mushrooms and Indian Pipe wildflowers. On trips to the property in late summer I found a lot of newts too, so be careful not to squish these little guys!

Oh, hai!

Then the trail splits into a loop that navigates more woodland and also comes close to a stream and vernal pools. If you take the right path it will lead you to the Cedars and then onto the Great Laurel. Both branches of the trail are loops, but there is another trail leading off from the Cedar trail that leads to more of the preserve and the section that allows hunting, so be aware of the seasons and wear your blaze orange – that includes dogs, which of course you should keep leashed!

There are only an estimated 550 acres of Atlantic White Cedar in all of New Hampshire and this preserve has 42 of them. There are many mature trees (Atlantic White Cedars can live over 300 years) as well as a single Black Gum Tree (that live even longer), and that, alas, I have never found. One of the reasons the habitat is precious is because of the Hessel’s Hairstreak Butterfly which only lives in these environments. The adults eat from the various flowering plants in the swamp such as dwarf raspberry, rhodora, sheep laurel and mountain holly, but their caterpillars only eat cedar leaves. And with so many of these beautiful wetlands disappearing, so are the butterflies. On a Nature Conservancy walk in another cedar swamp (NH has several, so stay tuned for more articles about them) a botanist reported that these rare butterflies have been found in NH, but they are difficult to find because they are tiny and often quite high in the canopy.

In and among the cedars you’ll find cinnamon fern, sphagnum moss, mountain and great laurel, skunk cabbage and a host of other water-loving plants. Once you complete this loop, you can head toward the Great Laurel grove which is beyond the power lines. The forest in between changes a bit and hosts a lot of different wildflowers including lady slippers and wintergreen. Milestone brook also flows though the preserve and has a really kick ass bridge built by, I think, a local Boy Scout troop. In all my wanderings and hikes I’ve never encountered Great Laurel anywhere else (except some cultivated plants which might be variations on the wild species).  And they are giant, ghostly and faintly primordial trees.  Much bigger than mountain laurel they can grow to 35 feet high. They bloom in early July and are amazing.


Great Laurel flower cluster

Cedar swamp loop trail

How to get there

Head for the city of Manchester, NH

Take Interstate 93, then Exit 10 and head south on West River Road (a.k.a. Front Street), drive approx. 1 mile then turn right at the light onto Hackett Hill Road, drive approx. .7 miles then turn left onto Countryside Blvd. In approx 1/2 mile you’ll see the parking area on your left. The kiosk is somewhat buried in brush, but it’s there.

Official site with trail map and more info.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs!

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Posted in Merrimack Valley (South)

Brennan Falls Reserve

Recently a joint venture between the Piscataquog Land Conservancy and the Francestown Land Trust resulted in the acquisition of 149 acres of land under easement and protection from development. The official name is Diane and John R. Schott Brennan Falls Reserve, but I think folks will refer to it as The Brennan Falls Reserve or Brennan Brook Forest. Either way it’s a lovely addition to the conservation efforts of both groups. I love it when this kind of thing happens and opens new, natural spaces for people to enjoy. I especially love it when there’s a brook or a waterfall involved and Brennan brook has a lovely 20-foot cascade.

Brennan Falls

This is an out-and-back hike ending at the falls. If you were to continue up Bullard Hill Road, you’d eventually get to a long-abandoned village dating to about 1700, now reduced to cellar holes. Farming isn’t easy in New England! Between the time I headed into the preserve and when I headed out, 3 hours later, a kiosk had been erected for maps and other information about the property. Very exciting. Thanks, Ben!

Note: during dry periods, it should be easy to drive in to the kiosk area on Bullard Hill Road where there is parking and turn around space. Otherwise it’s safer to park on Campbell Hill road and walk in (maybe 1/2 a mile). Bullard Hill road is on the left, right where the pavement ends and turns to dirt. There is a sign for Bay State Forestry Service there currently.

The first thing you’ll come upon is a pond that’s created by an old dam, presumably for mill operations. The beavers appreciate it I’m sure.

Brennan Pond

The light is kind of harsh and was difficult to deal with, but because Pat Nelson helped me out so much with finding my way to the new preserve, I wanted to get some photos the PLC can use to highlight this little jewel. I have a feeling this view will be shot over and over as people explore the area.

Just on the other side of the dam, I found this little cascade reflecting the intensely green canopy and so I had to see what I could do with it. I think a faster shutter speed would have better captured the sparkly green-ness of the reflection better. Maybe next time.


Once again I was dealing with direct sun filtered through canopy. Not the ideal conditions for moving water photography, but I took it as a challenge and tried my best to make the light work for the subject. One way I find effective is to isolate details of larger views or change composition/perspective to eliminate as many distracting highlights as possible – basically to do landscape slices. And if you can’t eliminate a highlight area (where the human eye naturally goes to first), I think the best course of action is to try to make that highlight work for the overall flow of the image. With the two falls shots, I think there’s balance and cohesion to the images. Definitely the improved dynamic range of my GH3 helped manage the difficult light. For the wide shot, I waited until the earth rotated a bit so the hot spots got smaller, but in the first I didn’t. More experimentation is definitely needed.

Not far from that little cascade are the falls themselves. I love how the sound of the crashing water starts as part of the background noise, but then I become consciously aware of it. That’s when a little flicker of excitement flares in my stomach. I get closer and the roar gets louder. Anticipation builds. What will I see? What new and fantastic construction of granite ledge will I find? How will I shoot it? It’s all part of the magic of the woods for me. And who doesn’t love a waterfall?

I spent about an hour with the falls, watching the light change and finding a friend to hang out with.

Brennan Falls

Ladies who Lunch

With the naked eye, I couldn’t figure out why this orb weaver looked so strange. When I got the macro lens on, I saw that she was just finishing a meal. Her jaws were still actively working and she completely ignored me. Only in post did I see that it looks like there’s still an eye staring back at you out of its misery of being eaten alive. Shiver. This wasn’t the only spider making a good living beside the falls, but it was the biggest.

Later I found this little beauty –

Nothing to see here

Although I’ve encountered plenty of wood frogs before, I have no good photos of them because they’re so fast and wily. Luckily I had the 35-100mm lens mounted and when this little one froze I thought how wonderful was the camouflage and managed to get this image before it darted off into the hollow of a tree.

So that’s my 3-hour tour of the new Brennan Falls Reserve aka Brennan Brook Forest. It’s no doubt a vital part of the Piscataquog watershed and very thoughtfully managed.

How to get there –

Head for the town of Francestown, NH

From the SOUTH – Route 136 N to Route 47 North to Campbell Hill Road (Left), just when the pavement changes from asphalt to dirt there will be Bullard Hill Road on your left, it is also dirt and may not have a road sign. The trailhead, kiosk and parking area is approximately 1/4 of a mile down Bullard Hill Road, but during mud season it may be impassable for all but the highest-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles. Park on Campbell Hill Road and walk down if you don’t want to chance it. Please do not block driveways of the neighbors.

From the NORTH – Route 202 W to Route 47 South to Campbell Hill Road (Right) and proceed as above.

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Posted in Merrimack Valley (South)

Kuncanowet Natural Area

As you might have noticed, I like finding and exploring conservation land. Something I’ve been toying with is a project on nature preserves in New England, with a focus on New Hampshire. It seems many towns in the state, and particularly in the southern portion, are actively setting aside wild spaces. Some are doing it on their own (and for quite a while), but some are working together and with independent conservation groups to acquire and preserve natural habitats for both wildlife and humans. This is my first post in what I hope will be a continuing series about these wild areas. Whenever possible, I’ll link to maps and other information about the properties as well as give directions and any ‘gotchas’ or peculiarities I noticed either getting to or spending time there. Wish me luck and any feedback on this project is absolutely welcome. I may break it off from this blog eventually and put it on its own, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.

Although a lot of the terrain in Southern New England is similar, most green spaces have been set aside to preserve some distinct feature or group of features. Some are done to cushion sensitive ecosystems and the KNA is part of the Piscataquog watershed and comes under the auspices of the Piscataquog Land Conservancy. I can’t tell you how many times I must have driven right by the sign and parking area getting to Clough State park or the Everett Dam. Even when I was looking for the entrance, I blew by it, noticing it only at the last minute and had to turn around. But if you’re looking, you will find it. You can park on the Everett Dam road or up the slight incline to the parking area under the trees. There you’ll find a typical gate and a large sign. What you won’t find are maps, trail guides or any other info about the preserve. I’d love to have those things because a couple of times I lost the trail in heavy brush and eventually it seemed to peter out altogether. In future I’d like to explore more because there is a lovely lake on the far side of the property and the streams that feed it.

This preserve is in a larger area known as the Kuncanowet Hills which generally translates as “Bear Mountain Place”. The hills stretch through parts of Goffstown and Weare which abut Dunbarton where the Kuncanowet Natural Area is located. Another construct I’ve seen applied to the word Kuncanowet is “near the long sharp places” which may refer to this chain of hills. I really love how so many of these place names are still used, even if we don’t quite know what they mean anymore.

Anyway, what I did find was typical lovely woods with the largest beaver dam I’ve ever seen. It was next to what I believe to be a naturally occurring marsh. The two are separated by a narrow strip of forest. Here’s the marsh then the beaver pond.

Surely not forget

Altered scapes

While on the edge of this enormous new pond, I took the time to play with reflections and came up with a semi-abstract that I think works despite the somewhat harsh light. Hey, you work with what you have, right?

Above heaven

Of course there are plenty of small things to enjoy in the woods and the KNA was no exception. This poor little guy zipped away from me in fright, but then let me get exactly one shot (even allowing me to change lenses!).


Indian pipe were all around in various stages and a couple of little clusters really caught me –


Orpheus and Eurydice

As I said, the trail seemed to peter out, so at the end I sat on a rock and just absorbed the stillness and quiet. Whenever I take the time to do this, the forest reveals itself to me more fully and look what I found –

In the presence of death

I think it might be a Destroying Angel (amanita virosa), one of, if not the most, poisonous mushrooms known. Another likely candidate is amanita bisporigera which is just as deadly. Both are gorgeous though and so how could I resist a shot of it near its sheltering eastern hemlock. The background was just ideal.

So that’s my time in the Kuncanowet Natural Area (or the Kuncanowet town forest as it’s sometimes called).

How to get there

Head for the town of Dunbarton, NH 

From the NORTH take RT 13S, Right onto Mansion Rd, Left onto Evertt Dam Rd, property on left, sign well into the trees so is difficult to see, but you will spot a turn-out like area that marks the spot.

From the SOUTH do the same except you’ll turn Left onto Mansion Rd from Route 13.

If I remember correctly, the trailhead is before the official Clough State Park entrance and it is well before the Everett Dam.

Happy trails and remember to carry out what you carry in (and pick up after those who don’t) and please leash your dogs!

Posted in Merrimack Valley (South), Uncategorized