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Hiking into the Past with Historic Maps

1950 Crawford, NH USGS Quad, Southeast Corner
1950 Crawford, NH USGS Quad, Southeast Corner

When I plan hikes in the White Mountains, especially off-trail hikes, I try to research the history of the area that I’ll be hiking in before my trip. One of the richest, but rarest forms of information is in the form of old maps of the region, which often show abandoned trails, logging, or ski trails that are no longer maintained in the White Mountain National Forest trail system OR they’re not included in hiker-specific recreational maps. That’s why I recommend that off-trail hikers use several maps when planning a route, including snowmobile route maps and historical maps, to find the best or most “interesting” route to their intended destination.

2014 Caltopo Map of Bear Mountain Trail System
2014 Caltopo Map of Bear Mountain Trail System

For example, I’m planning a bushwhack to a New Hampshire 3,000 footer called Bear Mountain, located in the Crawford Notch, NH USGS quadrangle. Here’s what the trail system looks like today in 2014 in Caltopo (above). I’ve drawn a red line over the only trail still remaining in the area. I presume all of the others have been officially abandoned due to lack of funding or to help return them to their wild state.

1950 and 2014 Historical Composite of Bear Mountain Trails
1950 and 2014 Historical Composite of Bear Mountain Trails

Click on an interacttive version map of this on

As part of my planning process, I’ve drawn all of the trails in BLUE on the 1950 map on my 2014 Caltopo map so I can refer to them during my bushwhack. My Bear Mountain hike is part of a longer overnight off-trail adventure I have planned in the area which includes trying to find and hike along some of these old trails.

You on-trail hikers are probably wondering why anyone would go to such lengths to do this much planning before a hike, but one of the reasons I like off-trail hiking so much is because I like planning. It’s even more fun when you add in a historic element and set out to hike into the past.

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  1. Really interesting post, especially for me being outside the US and not being familiar with any US maps. Moving to Norway I’ve become interested in books at the library which identify old paths and routes – which, different to the UK, include those for refugees fleeing from the German invasion in WWII.
    Nice post – thanks!

  2. Neat! I wonder if this will inspire anyone to “blue line” the white’s (hike all the abandoned trails)!

  3. My brother in law and I used an ancient map to find a route on a bushwhack and 800′ descent in the Ozarks of Arkansas last year. The old trail wasn’t visible from the main trail so we set a heading that allowed us to intersect it and did so within a hundred feet of leaving the maintained trail. The old route guided us to the historical homestead we wanted to visit in the valley below. The old map saved us about eight miles of hiking and allowed us to get to several other places we wanted to see that day.

    USGS has historical maps for free download at their map store (which is a bit of a misnomer because pretty much all of the maps are available at no cost). The map store link follows:

  4. I tried using this method once to look for old trails to try and mountain bike on. I had no luck. You are much more skilled than I am.

  5. Good article….I have also noted on the newer maps that the USGS has also “disappeared” the majority of natural springs, as well as entire Lakes, Ponds and streams too..And I have also noted on Satelite Photos from a number of sources the Government has deleted or ordered deleted a goodly number of features and entire land sections and I know that because they deleted a Mining Claim my father and I owned from their photos…But I know what is there……

  6. I noticed some things disappeared on more recent maps of Big Bend National Park and asked a Ranger about it. He said some springs, trails, and historical locations were removed from the map to preserve them from over visitation and abuse.

  7. Excellent post. I too enjoy reading up on the history of the 4,000-footers and certain locations I adventure to in the White Mountains before heading out. The old railroad map of the Pemi was so interesting to follow on our recent trek off the Franconia Brook Trail. I’ve been reading up on a winter bushwhack expedition in the Pemi that took place in 1963, and it would be really cool to re-create their attempt and see what happens.

  8. It is really interesting to look at old topos of the Smokies since there were lots of small communities that left cemeteries, old roads, homesites,… Then when you add in the creation of Fontana Lake it gets even more interesting to think what is under all that water.

  9. Hoping a NH500 member can help! The 4 peaks around the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest has me drooling…resource recommendation? Almost would seem a backpack around the forest limits would be fun…

    • The only resource I’d recommend would be Caltopo/Usgs map which shows where the height or land/watershed boundary is. I’ve been thinking about backpacking peaks up north of stark in this manner, but honestly, these four are all so close to the road….that I plan to hike them as day hikes. I’ve backpacked pretty extensively in the 3 ponds area. It’s great, but it is really late in the season for an adventure like this that requires many hours of daylight.

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