Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Other Side of Highland (September 2016)

A hint of Fall on the trail.
It was all starting to look the same.  I muddled along a trail I was hoping would lead me northward and onto my planned route, but discovered yet another dead end as the trail began to loop back in on itself.  Gunshots echoed in the distance and the forest began to darken in the mid afternoon light. Freshly fallen twigs crunched under my tires as I rolled downhill and back to a familiar looking trail junction.  I loosened my elbows to absorb the logs and rocks hidden in the tall grass that had sprouted up under the break in the forest canopy.  As I watched the sharp broken stub of a branch roll under my tire, it occurred to me that my spare tube was sitting miles away in the back of my truck.   My anxiety level, already high, was now thick and suffocating.  I was running out of time.

All to myself.
Highland Mountain Bike Park is known across the country as a premier East Coast destination for downhill mountain biking and free-riding.  While the masses throng to the lift assisted trails on the mountain, a network of lesser known rough singletrack and doubletrack circumscribes the playground of meticulously maintained downhill offerings.

On a late September morning I rolled into the nearly empty parking lot at Highland.  The lifts were silent, and the mountain calm as a handful of employees moved about absorbed in their quiet and invisible tasks.  The relaxed atmosphere was in contrast to my last visit, when boisterous crowds massed noisily around the the lift and the buff single track hummed under the wheels of dozens of riders.  Just a hint of autumn color kissed the trees under a gray sky that threatened rain.  I tied my rain shell onto the top of my backpack and  rolled the fat tires of my Scott Genius Plus through the lot and to toward the entrance to the cross country trails.

I had planned a route using Strava Global Heatmap and Open Street Map, that would take me around the wooded backside of Highland.  Starting on Highland's cross country trails, I would link up with a snowmobile trail that loops east then north toward the town of Belmont. Just outside Belmont, I would cross some wetlands on road, and link back up with trails, riding all the way down to the Winnipesaukee River.  Following the river, a bike path runs through downtown Tilton and onto Northfield.  From there I was planning to visit a web of trails known as Spaulding Woods , just on the other side of I-93, and continue onto the snowmobile trail back to Highland.

I rolled out of the parking lot and about 100 yards down the road to where a kiosk marks the entrance to Highland's cross-country trails.  Starting on Moose Tracks, I turned onto 820 which provided a slow and steady climb up the mountain until just after the intersection with Stumpline.  I climbed up an increasingly steep doubletrack until the terrain leveled, and I passed the entrances to Hey Joe and Ye North.  I continued onward, following the snowmobile trail and passed a sign announcing my departure from Highland's trail network.

Almost immediately my perfectly laid plan went astray.  Barely a hundred yards from Highland the snowmobile trail was completely blocked by a large gate, and a sign announced "POSTED: NO TRESPASSING".  I could tell from the fresh patchwork of fencing to both sides of the gate, that I wasn't the first to contemplate intrusion, and that whoever owned the land must have grown weary of being invaded by armor clad, energy drink fueled free riders with their fifty pound bikes, full face helmets and excuses about getting lost.  If ever a fence could scream out, "I'm sick of your shit, next time I'm getting my shotgun!"- it was this particular fence.

Despite the fact that Strava clearly showed bike traffic passing along this section of trail, I wasn't going to be the one to push this poor fellow over the edge.  And so I improvised.

A dozen yards before the gate, the snowmobile trail had branched off to the south.  I backtracked and followed it, hoping it would eventually yield a passage around the posted land.  After descending, it branched again, with another well traveled trail heading eastward.  As I followed it east, it climbed upward, continuing for over a mile until I popped out onto a dirt road.  I followed the road as it started to turn northward, and my hopes were high as I rolled up to another gate.  This time with no signs to ward me off, I skirted around the edge of the gate and back into the woods on fresh doubletrack.  The trail ran downhill until it crossed a nearly dry streambed between two small ponds.  From there it branched every hundred yards into the woods on both sides.  I happily explored the first north running branch  as it took me along the shore of a large pond, and abruptly ended at a hunting camp.  No dice.

Classic doubletrack.
As I rolled back to the main logging trail, I resolved to stay on the trail that looked the most well-worn.  I figured that if it got the most traffic, it probably went someplace interesting- or at least someplace.  And that could be enough.

The doubletrack snaked onward, slithering deeper into the woods, gently rolling on a relatively flat trajectory as it cut along the side of a hill.  I could see from my GPS that I was still well south of my planned route.  But the hill and one nasty bushwhack stood between me and my original plan.

As I pushed further along the trail, the woods closed in from both sides.  I began to battle more blowdowns until the track was barely discernible under a thick leafy cover.  At last I reached a stone wall  likely marking the end of the property where the track abruptly ended.  I crossed the wall and scouted a few hundred yards into the woods on the far side, but the only trail I could discern held a sharp southward tact, a full 180 degrees from my planned route to the north.

And so with my tail between my legs, I backtracked until I came to one of the unexplored branch trails that headed north.  Unfortunately, north also meant "up".  While I had hoped to skirt around the big hill, it became clear that I needed to go up over the top of it to reach the snowmobile trails. And so I climbed.
Disappearing logging trail: now you see it...

As I ascended, large chunks of exposed bedrock broke the surface of the forest floor,  rising high above me on both sides.  For a moment I caught a glimpse in the distance of mountains, and realized I had likely reached the top of the ridge.  And then the trail curved back in on itself, running up against that damn stone wall again, and headed back downhill: back south and away from my planned snowmobile route.  It was another dead end.

I continued working back along the logging trail, exploring other spurs that promised access to the north, but each and every one either ended in a mass of felled trees or looped back around to the main logging trail.  And as the sky grew darker, gunshots grew closer and the woods more claustrophobic, I decided to turn tail and retreat to Highland's trails.

Thankfully, as consolation prizes go, extra time on Highland's cross country network was a pretty good deal.  From the top of the hill I descended on Ye North.  A puzzle of eroded rock and roots, this was no sculpted flow trail: it is real deal New England gnar and I loved it.  Bursts of descending are punctuated by short climbs as you wind your way through the forest and slowly down the mountain.

Back on the Highland cross country offerings.
I followed that up with a short descent on doubletrack to Pass the Buck. This is another raw beauty- a mix of rocks, roots and packed dirt that frolics its way back toward Moosetracks.  Hungry for more I climbed up one end of Doctors Orders and then descended the other side.  Again, you won't find any sculpted berms or table tops on this trail, but you will get your fill of rock gardens and root clusters.

Somewhat satisfied, I rolled back into the Highland lot.  A quick change of clothes and I headed down the hill and into Tilton where I wandered into Rio Burrito, located on the main stretch.  As I devoured one of their steak burritos, the friendly server asked if I was leaf peeping. When I told her that I had been up to Highland to ride she mentioned she didn't see many bikers in downtown Tilton, and added "But yeah, I hear people come from all over the place to go up there."

And they do.  And maybe someday they'll find their way around the mountain and down into Tilton.  But for now, the trail that brings it all together will remain a mystery.

Good eats.

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