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Appalachian Trail – Etna to Hanover

December 30, 2018

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This 8.7 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail is pleasant but unremarkable. It’s a walk in the woods, over rolling terrain, that ends in downtown Hanover, NH (where you can eat gelato).

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Appalachian Trail: Etna to Hanover

The hike begins in shady, muddy woods. Below: AT benchmark; Ewww… mud; There were lots of swampy, buggy spots along the trail.

Marker Mud on the Appalachian Trail Swampy Appalachian Trail

Christine Says…

The summary above doesn’t make this hike sound very exciting – it wasn’t. You might ask, “Why bother to hike this piece of trail when there are so many other amazing hikes in the area?” Well – it was convenient, we had a shuttle ride from my parents, and it let us add to our mileage toward one day completing the entire trail.  Not every mile of AT is sweeping vistas and babbling brooks. A lot of it (ok… most of it) is a long green tunnel. It’s not always thrilling to walk the trail, but it’s rewarding to take little steps toward completing a goal.

We hoped to get out on a three-day backpacking trip like we did in Vermont last year, but with a new puppy (Indy) to care for and a long run of unusually hot, stormy weather; we settled on just day hikes for our 2018 NH trip.  Adam found this stretch of trail in our AWOL AT Guide and figured it would be easy to knock out on the same day my mom had an all-day baking class in Hanover.  We left our car parked in a small lot along Three Mile Rd. near Etna, NH.  From there, we walked south toward Hanover.

This section of trail was much easier than what you imagine when you think of typical Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire (granite slabs, boulder scrambles, 4,500 foot climbs, exposed cliffsides, and violent storms that blow up out of the blue). This piece of trail had soft footing, gentle hills, and barely more than 1,200 feet of climbing over the entire 8.7 miles.  It was extremely muddy in places and there was one extremely steep but brief climb and descent near the midpoint, but the challenges were few and mild.

Meadows Along the Appalachian Trail

There are many meadows along the AT. Below; We saw so many indian pipes; the cemetary on Etna-Hanover Center Rd;  Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC) signage.

Indian Pipes Cemetery at Road Crossing 

There’s really nowhere to get lost on this section, either.  There are some road crossings, junctions with other trails, and parts of the trail have two names. The Dartmouth Outing Club maintains the trail and shelters in this area, so they’ve given club names to parts of the AT.  You’ll see bright orange signs with the DOC logo and names like the Hanover Center Trail and the Velvet Rocks Trail.  They’re both still the Appalachian Trail, and as long as you keep following the white blazes, you’re going the right way.

We stopped for lunch at the top of the only steep uphill climb of the hike. It was along part of the trail known as ‘velvet rocks’. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the name was given due to the abundance of huge, moss-covered boulders all along the trail. They really do look like rocks covered with plush green velvet. There was no view at the high point, so we settled for eating lunch on a big flat rock right along the trail. I had a poorly-chosen lunch of crackers, cheese, and pepperoni for lunch. I know sealed pepperoni stays fresh and safe even in hot weather, but there’s something so unappealing about sun-warmed meat. I ate it, but I also gagged a bit. I should have known better – I can’t even look at beef jerky without being nauseated, so pepperoni isn’t all that different. We also brought a HUGE lemon-blueberry whoopie pie from a local bakery to share. That was much more palatable than the slimy meat.

The descent from our lunch spot was really steep and muddy. There was even a rope tied between a few of the trees to act as an assist, but I was able to manage it by crab-walking downhill.  About a three quarters of a mile past the lunch stop, we reached the blue-blazed northern access spur to Velvet Rocks Shelter. The spur trail to this particular shelter has both northern and southern arms. Hikers that use both arms of the spur miss a .6 miles the AT (missing any of the AT is a big deal to ‘purists’.) The sign at the northern spur said the shelter was .4 miles away. The northern spur also went straight up a very steep, rocky hillside, so we decided to continue south on the AT and access the shelter at the southern arm instead. The shelter was an easy .2 mile walk via the southern arm of the spur.

Old Stone Walls

Much of the AT in this area is a narrow corridor through private land. You’ll see many old stone walls. Below: One of the many pretty small streams we passed; Pine forests are nice; Orange DOC signage.

 Pine forest 

Velvet Rocks shelter was very old and dingy-looking. There was an old tarp slung over the wall and lots of dumb graffiti. There was no sign of a shelter log, either.  I think if I were thru-hiking or on a long section hike, I’d skip this shelter and just stay in Hanover.  When we visited, there were a couple south-bound thru-hikers already stopped for the day around 1:00 p.m.  They both said they were hot and fatigued and didn’t feel like hiking anymore. It really was a sweltering day, and we knew we only had about a mile and a half to go before we were in downtown Hanover.

The next .75 miles was all downhill through shady forest. The trail exited the woods in Hanover right behind Dartmouth College athletic fields.  We walked along the fenceline and turned right onto NH 120.  There was a Co-op Grocery store right on the corner, so we got a couple cold drinks and sat in the shade. The last three quarters of a mile of ‘hiking’ were just a stroll through town. We had to pay close attention to find white blazes marked on lightposts along the road. There was no shade and the mid-day sun was beating down on us. Despite being completely flat, this was probably the hardest part of the hike because it was just so hot! We finally got to our meet-up spot.  I had time to wash my face and wipe the mud off my legs in the Dartmouth bookstore. No one even looked at me funny – a sure sign that a town is used to hikers and backpackers.

My dad picked us up and took us to Morano Gelato – so good! After that, we went to the Cabot factory store and ate free cheese. Then we went to King Arthur Flour company and ate cookies while we waited for my mom’s baking class to end. And then we went out for a proper dinner.  It’s a lot of eating, but I think we earned it. After dinner, my parents drove us back to where we had parked our car earlier in the day. Then it was home for showers and relaxing!

Adam Says…

Hiking is often about changing plans for us.  As Christine mentioned, we had initially came up with some plans for doing a multiple day backpack of the Appalachian Trail.  But, with a new puppy, we didn’t want to subject the babysitting grandparents to the attention he needed (he has been an extremely high-energy puppy).  So, I looked up some possible day hikes we could do to still cover a tiny bit of New Hampshire AT miles.  It is a goal of ours (we will see how attainable, ultimately) to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail in sections.  Working full-time with limited time off, we have to do what we can for now.  We will hopefully finish what we have left when we retire, so this hike was a way to knock off a very tiny percentage of the trail and connect to our trip last year with a few more contiguous miles.  We coaxed Christine’s dad to pick us up in Hanover and drive us back to our car, so the change in plans worked well for us.

Velvet Rocks

I’m pretty sure the Velvet Rocks area is named for these huge moss-covered boulders. Below: This pond was so full of cattails, we couldn’t even see the water; Our lunch spot at the top of the only big climb of the hike; Side trail to Velvet Rocks Shelter.

 Our lunch spot Velvet Rocks Shelter

It took us a little while to find our start point for the trail on Three Mile Road with questionable GPS service that made it difficult to navigate some of these backroads.  But, we ultimately got to the correct road and found the AT crossing and a place to park our car on the side of the road.  We started off at the road crossing and headed south on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  The initial trail marker showed we had 8.6 miles to reach Hanover, NH.  The trail started off through the fern-covered woods heading slightly downhill through a muddy area.  Green was all around us in this lush forest setting.  At 2.5 miles, we crossed over the paved Etna-Hanover Center Road (heading east under a mile would lead you to Etna, NH), where there was a cemetery on the opposite side of the road.  We crossed the road and continued on with this trail marked by the DOC signs Christine mentioned above.

Shortly after crossing the road, you walk over a couple of footbridges carrying you over a stream.  The trail opens up a bit after this where you cross over a field before entering back into the woods.  You cross over the paved Trescott Road at 3.9 miles and then pass over a boardwalk over a marshy pond at 4.6 miles.  From here, the trail begins to climb up and does reach a very steep section that will reach its peak at 5.4 miles.  At the peak, we took a break and ate some lunch before pushing on.  The trail descended and then we reached the junction with the north shelter loop trail at 6.2 miles.  At this point, we did start seeing some people that were hiking about on this loop trail to check out the Velvet Rocks area.  We saw the many mossy boulders that give the area the name ‘Velvet Rocks’.  We passed the northern spur to the shelter and decided to stay on the AT.  At 6.8 miles, we reached the southern shelter sidetrail and took a break to go check it out.  While the sign said it was only .2 miles away, that was the longest .2 miles we have ever seen (it felt more like .35 miles).  When we got to the Velvet Rocks Shelter, we were able to talk with a few people that were staying there and doing some larger sections of the AT.  We went back the way we came to rejoin the AT (I didn’t include this side trip in the mileage totals).

From the junction with the shelter sidetrail, it was a steep downhill climb until we came out of the woods near a Dartmouth sports field.  The trail continues along the back wall of the field and comes out by a convenience store onto NH 120.  We took a right at the road and walked by a Food Coop and got a fresh drink.  It was just a short walk from here into town to meet up with Christine’s dad, but the exposure into the sun made for a hot walk back into town.  We did cool off a bit with some nice gelato.  This was a great hike to do if you can have two cars or a pickup plan like we did.  The terrain was relatively easy and it is always good to end a hike at a town with lots of amenities.

Velvet Rocks Shelter

Velvet Rocks Shelter. Below: Pretty pine-needle forest floor; Some minor rocks on the final descent into Hanover; The trail comes out of the woods behind a Dartmouth Athletic Field.

 Hike into Hanover We Reach Town

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.7 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1204 feet
  • Difficulty –  2.  This is a really easy stretch of Appalachian Trail – especially for New Hampshire. Our only real challenge was the heat.
  • Trail Conditions – 3. The trail is in nice shape, but was quite muddy when we hiked.
  • Views –  1. There are a few minor views in small meadows, but nothing grand.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 2. There are lots of small streams that provide adequate water sources.
  • Wildlife – 2. Squirrels, birds, and chipmunks!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. Just follow the white blazes.  The only misdirection might come from the dual-named DOC trails.
  • Solitude – 2. Expect to see a good number of people when you’re close to a large college town.

Trail Map:

Click to download full size trail map.

Click to download full size elevation profile.

Directions to trailhead:

Parking coordinates are 43.718 -72.176. There are two parking areas along Three Mile Road near the Appalachian Trail Crossing.  This is a gravel road.

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