EASY Dayhike: 5.2 miles (3 hours) — starts at the Green!
The history of Dartmouth College is intertwined with the woods and streams of Hanover. Eleazar Wheelock’s first task in founding the College was to carve a clearing out of the pine forest that grew along the banks of the Connecticut River. Although the pine forest no longer crouches behind Dartmouth Hall, poised to reclaim the campus clearing, the trees and animals of the forest are still close at hand. Just down the street, Velvet Rocks remains our closest link to a wilder past.
Since its completion in 1937, the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100 mile footpath linking Maine to Georgia, has run through downtown Hanover. For many years, the AT followed East Wheelock Street up and over Balch Hill. In 1978, the Appalachian Trail Bill was signed into law by President Carter to expedite the purchase of a protected corridor of land for the Trail. The first relocation onto these lands in New Hampshire was the Velvet Rocks Trail in 1981.
How To Get There:
To appreciate how close the woods still are to downtown Hanover, start this hike on the corner of Main Street and East Wheelock Street in front of the Hanover Inn.
Starting south down Main Street, toward the Post Office, notice the white rectangular blazes on telephone poles and the backs of signs. These are the official markings of the AT. Turn left in front of the Post Office onto Lebanon Street. Following the blazes through town, hike past Memorial Field, Hanover High School, and finally the Hanover Coop Mobil Station.
At 07 miles, turn left just past the Mobil Station, and follow the gravel road along the south edge of the sports fields. At the southeast corner of the fields, the trail crosses a log bridge into the woods. After fifty feet, the trail swings left and slabs the hillside. The hardwood forest gives way to hemlocks and pines as the trail begins to switchback up over ledges. Stay alert here, as the turns are easily missed in the open forest floor.
At 1.5 miles, after gaining the ridge and continuing north, a trail junction is reached. The right fork is the AT proper, which continues north to moss-covered Velvet Rocks. The left blue-blazed side loop leads to Velvet Rocks Shelter. Take the left fork.
At 1.7 miles, arrive at Velvet Rocks Shelter. This shelter was originally erected in the fall of 1936 in front of Robinson Hall as part of the DOC’s annual membership drive. After traveling to Boston’s Haymarket Square as part of a New Hampshire outdoor exhibition, the shelter reappeared on the Green for winter carnival in 1937. Although several people offered to purchase it from the DOC, the shelter was disassembled, hauled to its present location, and reassembled to become an overnight stop on the Appalachian Trail. The large overhanging roof and log design of this “Adirondack” style shelter are typical of the accommodations found along the AT in New England.
Hikers interested in a shorter walk can return to town from here, retracing their steps for a 3.4-mile round trip. For those continuing on, the trail climbs the ledges directly behind the shelter. With occasional views through the trees back towards town, the trail follows this granite rib for a third of a mile before descending steeply into a hardwood col and rejoining the AT.
At 2.0 miles, reach a four-way intersection. To the left, north, a short side trail leads to a spring — the only regular water source on this hike. Straight ahead, east, the AT continues to the top of Velvet Rocks. To the right, south, the AT returns to Hanover, rejoining the shelter side loop in 0.5 miles. For now, continue straight ahead up the steep ledges.
At 2.6 miles, after rambling over two ridges and brooks, the trail ascends a third ridge and reaches a trail junction. A side trail leads north (left) down to East Wheelock Street, 0.6 miles away. Seventy-five yards beyond the junction, the AT arrives at the top of Velvet Rocks. Views of the countryside are limited through the thick softwood forest. The smooth ledges, mosses, and heath vegetation of the summit, however, create an unusual fairyland atmosphere. Elves, trolls, and imps would not seem out of place.
To return to Hanover, retrace your steps back to the four-way intersection. Turn left, south, and follow the white blazes on the AT proper back to town. (An even longer hike continues north on the AT from the summit of Velvet Rocks. After crossing a swamp on a boardwalk, the trail reaches Trescott Road in Etna at 4.2 miles. From there it is a 3.5 mile road-walk back to town.)