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Rob Brook Redux an enjoyable visit with an old friend

A once-popular biking area has seen sunnier days

September 09, 2010
Riding fashions change. New trails gain popularity. Mountain bikers now head for the mega-trail networks in Vermont when they go outside the Valley. Rob Brook returns to the silence of the woods. Or is this just the way it seems to a Valley centric such as myself. I've ridden everywhere this summer, everywhere but Rob Brook.

So, on the last day of the big heat wave, as Hurricane Earl blew itself out to sea, Sally and I got off to an early start — to beat the heat — and drove over Bear Notch to ride Rob Brook. Let me clarify what Rob Brook is: The brook itself is a stygian still water affair, stagnating in a huge green swamp — a great place for beaver and moose. The road — Forest Road 35, or Rob Brook Road, as it's known — skirts along the northern edge of the green swamp, winding up and down for six miles before turning south to join Church Pond Road for two miles more to a shallow ford across the Swift River near Passaconaway Campground on the Kanc.

Rob Brook Road is a packed gravel double-track that offers excellent easy riding on a hybrid or mountain bike. There's ample parking near the signboard on the west side of Bear Notch Road, about a mile north of the Kanc. It's a great destination for novice riders, who can ride out as far as want, then turn around and cruise back to the gate. The hills are modest and can provide excellent opportunities to practice gear use and braking. On a hot day, the road is shaded for most of its length, making for a cool, laid-back ride.

For riders seeking more technical trails, Rob Brook Road provides easy access and egress to a variety of hiking trails, snowmobile trails and cross-country ski trails, all of which offer challenging, adventurous riding. Get yourself a copy of the Rob Brook Area Mountain Biking Trail Map and pick a route. The map is available at the Saco Ranger Station and at local bike and sports shops, including the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store on Main Street in Lincoln. The Mountain Wanderer is a great source of information for New England outdoor adventures. Check out the store if you're in Lincoln, or go to the website www.mountainwanderer.com.

OUR ADVENTURE LAST Friday started at the gate on the west side of Bear Notch Road, about 2.5 miles north of the Kanc. There's a great little poke hole parking spot on the east side of Bear Notch Road, just below the gate at the Old Railroad Grade trail. The Old Railroad Grade is the east end of the Meadow Brook Snowmobile Trail, which descends a mile and a half to Rob Brook Road.

At about a mile in, the trail enters a second clearing, where another trail branches to the right (look for a "no snowmobiling" sign on a tree). This is the Owl's Cliff Connector trail that winds pleasantly through new growth forest for half a mile to join the Owl's Cliff Climb Trail. We decided not to try the Owl's Cliff Climb, so descended to the left a quarter mile to Rob Brook Road. We cruised the gravel road west for a mile, passing the Brunel Trail on the right, then a grassy snowmobile trail on the right, then around the S-Turn to a second snowmobile trail on the right. Look for the snowmobile arrow on the right.

We turned right onto the Birch Hill Trail, which starts on flat ground, but soon begins to climb, gradually at first, then more steeply for a mile to an unmarked cross-trail junction on flat ground at the top of the hill. We ducked a huge hornets' nest hanging about eight feet over the trail on the way up the hill. Such nests deserve respect. We were lucky to get by without attracting the attention of the bees crawling over the outside of the football size nest. Hornet nests are to my way of thinking one of the true hazards of traveling in the New England woods.

Sally was waiting for me at the cross-trail junction with the Sawyer Pond Trail, a hiking trail that starts on the Kanc, and travels six miles north and west, past Sawyer Pond to Sawyer River Road. Sawyer Pond Trail is open to mountain biking, with the exception of the Scenic Area immediately around the pond. We turned left on the single-track hiking trail and climbed for a half mile up the gentle north ridge of Birch Hill. We had to clamber over several large blow-downs, otherwise the trail is very rideable, with a variety of interesting technical features. The second half-mile is moderately steep downhill to the junction with the Rob Brook Road. From the road crossing to the Swift River, a distance of a mile and a half, the hiking trail is wider and easier riding, mostly gentle downhill with the usual rocks, roots, and logs to keep it interesting.

The Nanamocomuck ski trail joins the Sawyer Pond trail on the right, about a half-mile from the river, then diverges to the left within sight of the river. It's worth the time to ride the short distance to the river crossing, especially on a hot, humid day, to dip your head in the cool waters. It's possible to cross the river to ride the Kanc a mile and a half back to Bear Notch Road. This is a useful escape in darkness or bad weather. We hopped back on the Nanamocomuck and rode east along the riverbank.

This section of the Nan is sometimes overgrown with low brush; we were happy to find it recently brushed out and in excellent riding condition. In about three-quarters of a mile from the Sawyer Pond Trail, the Nan turns to the left and enters a section of the trail that is obviously an old railroad grade. The trail travels straight north for a half mile with no junctions. It crosses Rob Brook on a wide board bridge. A short distance north of the bridge, the Nan turns right, while the railroad grade continues straight as the Rob Brook Trail. Look for a trail sign that's partly eaten away. We turned right at this junction onto the Nan, but ended up walking a quarter mile through the not-so-pleasant green swamp (and this is a dry season).

The green swamp can be avoided by riding a short way farther north on the railroad grade, past the Nan junction. A second junction on the right goes through the "root ball" section of the Rob Brook Trail. This short technical section goes through the root balls, over a low hill, and descends to join the Nan by a rickety bridge that crosses the green swamp. (Continuing on the railroad grade past the root ball junction will take you north a mile and a half through the heart of the swamp to Rob Brook Road. It's not a pleasant ride.)

Once past the swamp, the Nanamocomuck/Rob Brook Trail climbs steadily east on excellent trail for half a mile to the East Junction with Rob Brook Road. We turned left and rode a mile back, mostly uphill, to the Four Boulders junction with the Old Railroad Grade. Here we turned right and returned the mile and a half to the gate where we started at Bear Notch Road. The Four Boulders are not as easy to spot as they used to be. They have been pushed aside to open the way for snowmobiles. Look for a gravelly single track going right from the road, near the top of a hill.

This 10-plus-mile loop took us three hours of moderate paced riding, including a stop to cool off in the Swift River. Despite the walk through the green swamp, this ride is an excellent way to explore the woods and to return to scenes of past mountain biking adventures. If you haven't been there in awhile, it's worth a revisit. Never been there? Get yourself a map and get out there before the brush grows back.

Martin Lord Osman
Martin Lord & Osman
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