I love dirt roads – they slow you down, all quietness and dust and the smell of warm forest in the summer. One of my favorite dirt roads around here is Jefferson Notch Road. Steep, smooth, curvy, it’s traverses over creeks and through forests, reaching 3000 feet at the top at Caps Ridge Trailhead. I always wondered what it would be like to ride on my bike. So Zack and I tried.
To make a day of it, we took the AMC Hiker Shuttle from Appalachia to Franconia. The shuttles run every day all summer long, and on weekend through the fall. They’re equipped with bike racks on the front, and at $19 are a great alternative to an hours-long gas-wasting car-staging expedition if you want to do one-way hikes or rides. With so little in the way of public transportation around here, it’s a welcome option. Our friendly drivers got us to The Flume by 10:30, and we started north on the Recreation Trail.
I was surprised at how difficult those first 9 miles on the Rec Trail were! It’s a roller coaster – a pretty one! – that had us shifting from min to max routinely, standing on pedals cranking up swoops and whizzing down the other side. It’s a beautiful trail, and well-used, full of cyclists and walkers.
At Skookumchuck where the Rec Trail ends, we hung a right onto Highway 3 into Twin Mountain. It was a fast 10 miles, with wide smooth shoulders and (yes!) gentle grades that let us crank out 25 mph effortlessly. After another right turn onto 302, we pulled over at the Bretton Woods Irving for a snack break where we met two other cycling groups – one from Gorham and one from Bartlett – doing traditional notch circuits. There were some raised eyebrows when we explained our itinerary.
Here, I got nervous. My legs already felt weak after the Franconia roller-coaster, and according to the vertical elevation profile of our ride, we hadn’t even started the climb. The next 10 miles would be tough at best, and possibly unwise and dangerous at worst. What would the climb be like? And what about road conditions – would we be dealing with washboards and loose gravel? But, what the hell, it was lovely day, and after all, when you know the outcome it’s not an adventure.
So on we went. Base Road was lovely despite it’s narrow shoulders, with views of Mt Washington and Jefferson…and before I was really ready we were at the base of Jefferson Notch Road. Majestic Dirt.
It was a dirt road dream: firm packed with very little loose gravel. And the grade was very manageable, I steadily cranked up some of the most beautiful terrain the White Mountains has to offer and was rewarded with increasing views of Mt Jefferson. The sun through the trees speckled the road bed, the air was filled with smell of dust of pine tree. Lovely! When we topped out at Caps Ridge Trailhead, I planted myself in a patch of moss for 20 minutes, reveling in the warm sunshine and success of the climb.
Now, the descent was another story. Entirely. We knew it would be steep, fast, rocky, and possibly slidey – so we went slow. Real slow. Our hands got sore from braking so hard, and we stopped several times to cool our brakes. Attempting that descent with rim brakes would have been hazardous. Or suicidal. But our disc brakes did the job, and after 5 miles of very cautious decent we were at the intersection of the Presidential Rail Trail. We opted to ride the Rail Trail east back to Appalachia instead of the roads, knowing it would be slower and quieter, and no messing with traffic zipping by us on narrow shoulders. It’s a great stretch of trail — flat riding, enjoying yet more spectacular views of Madison, Adams and Jefferson, and the Israel River.
It was one of those rewarding days on your bike that you could only knit together in the North Country. Over 40 one-way miles, we rode public shuttles to paved Rec Trail, road, dirt, and Rail Trail, met some friendly people, and earned our dinner.