Born and raised in Rhode Island, where the state’s high point at 812 feet would barely qualify as a hill in these parts, I’ve had a fascination with the mountains ever since I moved to New Hampshire about a decade ago. Claremont is lucky to be set beautifully amongst the hills, with Mt. Ascutney right next door. With a bit of luck from the weather, I can get eight or nine months of hiking there every year.
For those who don’t know, Ascutney is a great hike. Actually, it’s several great hikes. The State Park offers four trails up the mountain, with a couple side routes along the way. There’s also an additional trail up the mountain originating in the West Windsor town forest.
I read recently that Ascutney sees 30,000 to 40,000 summitings each year. The mountain isn’t especially tall relative to the White Mountains, for example, but I find that Ascutney punches above its weight as mountains go because it happens to sit right next to the Connecticut River, a regional low point. The river sits at about 300 feet above sea level around here.
If you start out from the Futures Trail (4.6 miles each way), you’re starting from about 550 feet above sea level; if from the Windsor Trail (2.7 miles), about 650 feet above sea level. This means you can ascend approximately 2,500 feet on a mountain that only tops out at 3,144 feet. For comparison sake, that’s about the same ascent you would encounter climbing the larger Mt. Killington (4,229 feet) or Mount Flume (4,328 feet). So if you’re looking to get the most climb out of your day, Ascutney is a great choice.
If you are someone who has hiked Ascutney in the past but maybe hasn’t been up there recently, several of these trails have recently received upgrades. Maybe it’s time to go back and check them out.
The State Park’s signature trail is probably the Weathersfield Trail, which features two waterfalls. Clocking in around 3.1 miles, the trail has been extensively manicured by the park rangers and the Ascutney Trail Association for convenience and safety over the years I’ve been climbing it, with natural stone steps being installed in several steep spots, water bars to control runoff, and even a little blasting taking place. All of this is with the aim of improving footing to make the hike easier and safer.
The Brownsville Trail (2.9 miles) has received similar treatment in its steep section. In the West Windsor portion of the mountain, which is maintained separately from the trails located in the state park, someone with dedication has slowly been making trail improvements to the Bicentennial Trail (2.1 miles) over the last few years, adding signage and working to create side paths (presumably to offer access to interesting viewpoints on the route when finished).
Anyone in moderate physical condition could do any of these trails. Fair warning, though, every one of them has steep sections. The first mile of Windsor Trail (2.7 miles) leaves my calves burning the first time I hike it every year. The middle mile of Brownsville is also very steep and requires a lot of scrambling rock to rock. In addition to the Futures Trail clocking in at over 9 miles round trip, its first mile is also quite steep. And the Bicentennial Trail, while short, is steep throughout, again leaving your calves to burn in places.
So please be safe and smart before you hike: research your route, know its length, estimate how long it might take, and read trail reviews online (there’s a review for everything online these days!). Bring food and water as needed, wear good boots (not sneakers). Make sure your phone is charged and someone knows where you’re going, etc — all common sense stuff, but you’d be surprised. The only good hike is the one that sees you safely back home at the end of the day.
At the top of the mountain, there are several spectacular viewpoints. Brownsville Rock and the hang gliding platforms are well worth going out of your way to visit. And of course, if you want the views without all the climbing, there’s always the auto road, which brings you up to about 2,800 feet.
All five of the trails have a donation box located somewhere near their respective parking areas. If you feel so inclined at the end of the day, and if you love the mountain as much as I do, please consider leaving a donation to help ensure that this mountain remains both loved and cared for.
Sam Killay is a Claremont resident and hiking enthusiast.