Where The Wild Things Reign - Hiking The Cohos Trail

Jun 11, 2015

With more than 4000 miles of hiking trails, it's not too hard to get away from it all here in New Hampshire. But if you want to get even further away, you could head out on the Cohos Trail, one of the wildest, most remote trails in New England. I recently went for a hike on the Cohos with trail founder, Kim Nilsen.

In the dirt lot at the base of Owl's Head mountain, 68 year old Kim Nilsen pulls a weaved pack basket, made by his daughter, over his shoulders.  

"I use it as a work basket, I throw saws and tools in it.  I love the old stuff."

Nilsen, wearing the pack basket his daughter made.

If his daughter made the pack, Nilsen, in many ways, made the trail we're walking on.

"The Cohos Trail is a 165 miles long approximately. It utilizes new trail, moose paths, existing trails, old ways, old rail beds and it gets you where you have to go I guess."

The Cohos Trail

The trail begins on the Davis Path in Crawford Notch and ends in Pittsburg at the Canadian border customs stop.  Bring your passport and you can hike another 70 miles into Quebec.

"Certainly in the New England region, this is the longest trail in generations. It's also one of the most remote trails in generations. It'll get you into the arctic, above timberline. It'll get you on the shores of huge lakes, the tallest cliff in the state. And of course a lot of woods walking. It is a woods trail by and large."

Huge lakes and tallest cliff aside, what really draws hikers to the Cohos Trail...is the lack of other hikers.

"That's its appeal. People want to be in a woods in a wild area that is not frequented by much of anything. Where humans don't reign.  Where the wild things reign." 

Which is the reason Nilsen conceived of the trail in the first place. In 1978, he was 30 years old and working as a reporter for the Coos Country Democrat.  An avid hiker, he'd grown tired of crowded trails and began to look for places he could explore alone.

"So once in a while I would take a logging skidder road up into the ridgelines and walk around and see country that nobody was ever in."

He began to keep track of the wild places he'd discovered.

Nilsen first pitched the idea of the Cohos Trail in 1978, but got no response.

"And it dawned on me that there could be a way to thread some of these beautiful places together if there was just a trail up here."

At the time local groups had begun to lay out what Nilsen describes as a massive snowmobiling trail network.

"I was somewhat envious of their activity. I thought, they are in this county doing this why isn't somebody on foot doing this? I'll do this. So in 1978 I decided I'd find out if there was any interest in it. I wrote an editorial.  Got no response at all. So I just let it go."

But twenty years later, on vacation in Maine, Nilsen unfolded his old map and began to look at the trail he'd long ago laid down in pencil.

"And I got all excited about it. And eventually called a meeting up in Lancaster and 55 people showed up and the rest is history."

The Cohos Trail is yellow blazed and bears a "CT" sign.

While the proposed route made use of existing trails in the Presidentials and Kilkenny Range, about half of it would have to be newly found on foot. So Nilsen set off into the woods.

"Where the trail could be almost talks to you. You get that sense like the trail wants to go here and you just have to follow it and it really is almost like a sixth sense or spiritual sense about where it lays."

By 2000 with the help of dozens of volunteers, the Cohos Trail was no longer just a pencil scrawl on a paper map but a yellow blazed - if barely there - trail on the ground.

"We had a guy the first year follow a moose path. The moose path actually looked better on the ground than our path cause our path wasn't well trampled yet."

15 years later and the trail is a solid rutted path with five shelters and an official guidebook written by Nilsen,

We stop by the Moorhen Marsh. Nilsen looks north along the path.

"I'm the founder of the trail and I've never hiked my whole trail end to end!  But I retire in August and one of my own goals in retirement is to hike my own trail end to end."

Stopping in the Moorhen Marsh.

  Another retirement goal is to build another trail that the Cohos Trail makes possible.  A 700 mile hiking system that threads together existing trails:

"That goes from Long Island Sound to Québec City.  So you would have what I call the N.E.W. Trail. The New England Walk. One system that takes really a small amount of threading new stuff together."

Only 30 or 40 miles of this new stuff in the form of freshly cut trails, could draw all the disconnected trails together.

"The Cohos Trail was the big blank in all this. Now the blank is filled in. And now there could be a rival trail to the AT in New England that gets you all the way from the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence."

But there are still things to finish on this trail. By 2020, Nilsen expects the major work on the trail to be complete. And at that point:

"We can hang out our shingle and say this is the Cohos Trail by God."