The Trails Less Traveled
As the weather gets warmer and students flock outdoors, one writer reviews the local hiking trails.
At a school as outdoorsy as Dartmouth, it sometimes feels like you need to be summiting mountains and backcountry camping in the wilderness of the White Mountains every weekend in order to call yourself a hiker. While some Dartmouth students do live up to this generalization, climbing a 4,000-footer is not everyone’s idea of fun. For those looking for less strenuous, closer-to-home hikes, there are plenty of trails for all skill levels. After conducting extensive research and braving these hikes myself, I’ve compiled my personal ranking of the Upper Valley’s best hike locations — from least to most enjoyable.
6) Holt’s Ledge
Located 13 miles from campus in nearby Lyme, N.H., Holt’s Ledge is part of the Appalachian Trail. Though the trail is moderately steep, other hikes on this list feel far steeper. At the top of the trail, a clearing opens up to a view of the valley below, with the Skiway silhouetted against the nearby hills. I completed this hike during the first week of spring term when many of the trees were still bare from the winter, so even though the elevation made for an impressive view, it was not jaw-droppingly beautiful. As a non-skier, my favorite part of this hike was getting the chance to see the Skiway without actually needing to ski, although what I remember most about this hike is that I did it from 4:50 to 7:55 p.m. on a Saturday evening — during the time that I would normally be eating dinner. By the time that the hike was over, I was famished. Not sure if I actually didn’t like the hike, or if my hunger influenced my perception of it.
Final rating: 5/10
5) Balch Hill
I attempted to trail run the entirety of this hike, which was a dire mistake. Not only was the hill longer than I expected, but also much steeper. Personally, I would argue that the name “hill” is misleading to describe any trail with over 500 feet of elevation. Furthermore, getting to Balch Hill from Dartmouth’s campus inevitably involves a trek down East Wheelock Street, infamous for its rolling hills; by the time I reached the actual trailhead, my calves were already screaming for mercy.
However, if you’re willing to brave the elevation gain, once you reach the top there’s a large, open meadow whose peacefulness makes up for the pain of the trail. One of my goals for future warm weather terms is to hike Balch Hill more often; the meadow would be perfect for meditation or as a spot to make dense class readings more bearable. Perhaps the scenery is worth the elevation; as I was running up this trail, I saw an owl sitting in one of the trees, which temporarily distracted me from the pain in my calves.
Final rating: 6.5/10
4) Pine Park
An easy walk from campus, Pine Park is located near Occom Pond and the former golf course. There are multiple different entrances, ensuring that no matter how much time I spend there, I’m rarely following the same route. Pine Park checks many of the boxes of what I’m looking for in a hike: it’s easily navigable, yet provides a peaceful escape from the stresses of campus. Most importantly, it’s accessible in all seasons; in the winter, the snow glistening on the pine trees turns it into a winter wonderland. The views of the river, lack of elevation gain and proximity to my dorm make Pine Park a nearly perfect location for a local hike.
Final rating: 8/10
3) Velvet Rocks
Part of the Appalachian Trail, Velvet Rocks is a short walk from main campus, with the trailhead located next to Dartmouth’s softball fields. The hike is around 3.6 miles round-trip, and while the elevation gain is spread out over the course of the trail, the first two miles were just steep enough that I regretted my decision to hike in Converse.
I tend to head to Velvet Rocks when I’m looking to spice up my life; every single time I’ve ventured onto it, I’ve ended up lost. Though the trees adjacent to the trail are marked with white blazes, the markers are spaced out just far enough that for those unobservant travelers like myself, it is far too easy to lose the trail. When hiking Velvet Rocks with my parents recently, we wound up lost after a mere 10 minutes and spent the next half-hour tramping through the woods attempting to find the trail again. These navigational errors may seem like a negative, but they always make the hike exciting; Velvet Rocks is perfect for those looking for adventure.
Final rating: 8.5/10
2) Gile Mountain
Located in Norwich, Vermont — about a 20 minute drive from campus — Gile is a relatively short, easy hike best completed during peak foliage season. The actual hike is nothing special, but climbing the fire tower at the end of the trail provides a 360-degree view of the Upper Valley. During late fall, as the trees turn fiery orange, red and yellow, there is nothing more stunning than standing at the top of the fire tower with an explosion of color surrounding you.
Hiking Gile is a classic fall activity at Dartmouth, and provides the perfect opportunity to take an obligatory Instagram picture. While social media posts featuring Gile are almost overdone at this point, there’s no denying that the view from the top is incredible. However, I’m convinced the fire tower will topple over at some point — climbing the tower on a windy day is a terrifying experience.
Final rating: 9/10
1) Mink Brook Nature Preserve
Mink Brook is my personal favorite Hanover trail. While it’s slightly farther from campus than Pine Park, walking through Hanover to reach the trailhead provides an ideal change of scenery. It’s also located near Nathan’s Garden, a tranquil enclave with a pond and a swing that instantly puts me at peace and reminds me of my backyard at home.
Mink Brook has peaceful trails perfect for running or hiking, with barely any hills. Best of all, there’s multiple spots to swim that include tiny, slightly sandy beaches which make me feel like I’m somewhere tropical instead of chilly Hanover.
Final rating: 10/10
Despite my various qualms about these trails, each one provides a different vista for experiencing the nature that makes Dartmouth so special. When I need fresh air after spending too many consecutive hours in the library, these routes are the ones I look to first.