Nestled beneath the mountains north of the Presidential Range, Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge has often been called one of the “crown jewels” of New Hampshire’s landscape, and visitors to the site will easily understand why. The ponds, wetlands, and forests of this refuge support a wide variety of significant ecological features. The sweeping views from the wetlands and ponds are truly unique, and the hiking trails through lowland spruce – fir forest provide an easy way to experience this characteristic natural community of New Hampshire’s North Country in person.
Pondicherry is a Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and it is owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with New Hampshire Audubon and the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game (166 of the 6,450 total refuge acres is under NH Audubon ownership). A local Friends group also plays a role in the management of the refuge, and the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails has specific jurisdiction for the rail-trails. The refuge was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1972 by the National Park Service, and it was named the first Important Bird Area in New Hampshire. The Little Cherry Pond Trail and Mud Pond Trails were named National Recreation Trails in 2006 and 2011, respectively, by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Trailhead address: Presidential Rail Trail, 289 Airport Road, Whitefield, NH 03598.
The Pondicherry Rail Trail is the most popular trail at the refuge and leads in 1.5 miles to Cherry Pond and Waumbek Junction. Following the former bed of the Maine Central Railroad, the approximately 8 foot wide, gravel-surfaced trail has very smooth footing with minimal elevation gain and is suitable for walkers, bicyclists, wheelchairs, and others with mobility challenges.
Leaving the Airport Road parking lot, the trail heads northeast and, in 0.3 miles, passes an opening on the right where the National Champion White Spruce can be seen. Continue along the trail, passing through a wide power line corridor, and, 1.4 miles from the parking lot, reach a spur trail on the right and a sign for the observation deck.
From this junction, the 0.1 spur trail to the right leads to the Tudor Richards Viewing Platform on Cherry Pond. The viewing platform is reached via a 90 foot long, 3.5 foot wide boardwalk. From the approximately 12 x 12 foot platform, there is a magnificent view of Cherry Pond, the Northern Presidentials, and the Pliny Range, and it is a wonderful spot for birdwatching. The platform honors Tudor Richards, a longtime member and leader of NH Audubon, who was instrumental in the acquisition of the land that created Pondicherry in 1963.
From the junction instead of taking the spur trail, continuing a short distance straight ahead on the Pondicherry Rail Trail leads to Waumbek Junction. Waumbek Junction is where the Boston & Maine Railroad (formerly the Whitefield & Jefferson Railroad) met the Maine Central Railroad (formerly the Upper Coos Railroad). Although little evidence remains today, the Junction was the site of a passenger station, freight house, station agent’s house, and ball signal. A short trail called the Waumbek Link connects Waumbek Junction and the Tudor Richards Viewing Platform.
A portion of the Presidential Rail Trail (which runs from Gorham to Whitefield) heads west for 2.6 miles from NH-115A to Cherry Pond, meeting up with the Pondicherry Rail Trail at Waumbek Junction. Following the former bed of the Boston & Maine Railroad, this trail passes through two marshes and a variety of habitats and offers a scenic approach to the pond. This section of trail was resurfaced in 2020, with 3/4 inch ledge pack (a mixture of stone, sand, and fines that forms a hard, erosion-resistant surface) graded and rolled to create a hard surface. Like the Pondicherry Rail Trail, this level, 8 foot wide, hard-surfaced trail is good for walkers, bicyclists, wheelchairs, and for others with mobility challenges.
As the Presidential Rail Trail leaves NH-115A, the trail heads west, passing the junction with the Slide Brook Trail and crossing the Giant Trestle bridge over Stanley Slide Brook in 0.7 miles. From here to Waumbek Junction, the trail is also part of the long-distance Cohos Trail. Continue walking or riding from the bridge through a lovely spruce fir forest and, in 0.9 miles, reach Cedar Marsh and, shortly beyond that, Moorhen Marsh. Both of these marshes have scenic views of the mountains and are excellent areas for birdwatching. From Moorhen Marsh, the trail bends to the northwest and reaches the Tudor Richards Viewing Platform.
The Presidential Rail Trail coincides here with the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail, an 83 mile scenic route for bicyclists from the Connecticut River to Maine.
North of Waumbek Junction are the trailheads for the Shore Path, Rampart Path, and Little Cherry Pond Trail. On these trails walkers will encounter exposed rocks and roots, narrow bog bridging, and a couple locations with side slope issues.
The Shore Path and the Rampart Path are short trails along the western edge of Cherry Pond with good views of both the pond and the surrounding mountains. Both are part of the long-distance Cohos Trail that runs from Crawford Notch to the Canadian border. These trails follow what is known as an “ice push rampart,” an unusual geological feature created over the last 11,000 years when ice in Cherry Pond has pushed gravel and small boulders onto the shore of the pond, creating a low berm (or rampart).
The Shore Path leaves the railroad tracks on the right just north of the bridge over the Johns River, reaches the shore of the pond (where there is a short spur trail to the right), and then turns left. Following along the shore past several viewpoints, the trail soon reaches a bench and a National Natural Landmark plaque before returning to the railroad tracks.
To reach the Rampart Path, walk north from the Shore Path along the railroad tracks. The trail leaves the tracks on the right and runs for about half a mile before meeting the Colonel Whipple Trail. Partway along the trail a short spur leads across the tracks to the Little Cherry Pond Trail. There are several viewpoints along the Rampart Path, including an open area at the edge of the pond that offers a sweeping view of the pond and the mountains. In Cohos Trail descriptions, the Rampart Path is referred to as the Ice Ramparts Trail.
The Little Cherry Pond Trail (designated a National Recreation Trail in 2006) has relatively smooth footing with minimal elevation gain and offers opportunities to view a variety of wildlife and vegetation, including carnivorous plants. An excellent guide compiled by the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau details the vegetation found along this trail.
The trail leaves the railroad tracks about 0.3 miles north of Waumbek Junction, opposite a short spur trail to the Rampart Path. In 0.2 miles the first loop junction is reached. Turn left here (arrow) and follow the southern loop of the trail for 0.4 miles to the second loop junction. Proceed straight here for 0.2 miles, crossing a long stretch of bog bridges, and reach the shore of Little Cherry Pond where there is a small viewing platform and a bench. Return to the second loop junction, turn left (arrow), and follow the northern loop of the trail for 0.3 miles back to the first loop junction, passing through a black spruce and tamarack forest on more bog bridges. Proceed from the first loop junction back to the trailhead. Total mileage for the trail is 1.5 miles.
Just over 2 miles in length, the Colonel Whipple Trail is named after Colonel Joseph Whipple, the founder of Jefferson, and runs from Whipple Road in Jefferson to the northern end of the Rampart Path near Cherry Pond. Part of the long-distance Cohos Trail, it is a bit rougher than some of the other trails at Pondicherry with wet footing in spots and is good for someone desiring a more remote hike. Although the trail corridor is fairly obvious, be alert for yellow blazes on trees and occasional posts to guide you.
Leaving the trailhead on Whipple Road, the trail heads west and then trends south through a relatively young forest that was logged in 1998. Just over a mile from the trailhead, the trail starts to bend west and soon reaches an extensive area of blowdowns with bog bridges at the edge of a large wetland. The trail then bends south with more bog bridges and soon reaches the junction with the Rampart Path. If you proceed about 100 yards on the Rampart Path, you will reach a bench at the edge of Cherry Pond with an extensive view of the surrounding mountains. In the winter, this bench makes a nice destination for a moderate snowshoe hike.
The Slide Brook Trail is just over half a mile in length and leads from NH-115 to the Presidential Rail Trail. It is part of the long-distance Cohos Trail and is blazed in yellow. Leaving the trailhead off NH-115, proceed a short distance to the edge of a large field. This field was the terminus of the famous Cherry Mountain Landslide, which occurred on July 10, 1885 (see the state historical marker in the Owls Head Trail parking lot). Head in a northeasterly direction across the field, following the blazed posts. The trail then enters the woods and soon crosses an old beaver dam from which there are views of Cherry Mountain and Owls Head. Care should be taken when walking on the dam as it is narrow with uneven footing. The trail then returns to the woods, crosses a powerline corridor, and soon reaches the Presidential Rail Trail. Turn left if you would like to proceed on the rail trail to Moorhen Marsh and Cherry Pond.
Photo, top: Pondicherry sunrise, by Phil Brown.
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