09-Oh My! – Odiorne Point SP

Originally the plan was to visit Odiorne State Park with our bicycles and bike all around the park for a few hours.  But after studying the map and website I realized that the bike path within the park was just a straight path for a not even a mile alongside Route 1A, and that only the walking paths actually went by the seaside.   So for a family bike ride, I chose to do the NH Department of Transportation recreational loop 702, which starts in Portsmouth and loops through New Castle Island, past two state historic sites, which, like Odiorne Point, were military installations designed to protect the port of Portsmouth before ICBMs made them all obsolete.  It was a good choice.

The bike loop is about 7 miles but by adding stops at Fort Constitution and Fort Stark State Historic Sites the whole loop extended to nearly 10 miles, which was perfect for the family.  The traffic was light and there were plenty of other bikers too.

Lighthouse at Fort Constitution with the Isles of Shoals in the far distance.

There’s really not much at either fort other than solitude and a picnic table or two amid rather interesting surroundings.  From chatting with a volunteer we learned that most of the cleanup of Fort Stark has happened in just the last 5 years thanks to a dedicated group of local volunteers.  What a job they’ve done!  Both forts are sorely lacking in educational displays and most of Fort Stark’s buildings are fenced off, but in a way the lack of investment also means you and the kids can see the real thing, warts and all, without the sanitized, everything’s-safe, let-the-kids-run-wild forts that you might see in a national park.  Here you would still need to supervise the kids.

Inside Fort Constitution

An old harbor control building at Fort Stark. Note the fencing. I’ll bet the architecture was pretty interesting when this was new.

It would have been interesting to see pictures from when these forts were still operational (through World War II), but all-in-all they are both worth a brief stop if the weather’s nice, as it was for us.  Thanks go out to the volunteers who are working to keep things clean.

Finishing the loop could have meant visiting another state historic site: the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, but since this was still mid-May, it was not yet open.  As global warming kicks in, I wonder if the state has plans to open sites earlier or make other changes?  Surely they ought to, especially at those parks where they could really bring in some income.  Every park I’ve been to so far (April & May) has had a decent number of visitors, even though it generally meant the inconvenience of parking outside the gates.

After lunching in the bustling Portsmouth downtown, we headed down to Odiorne Point, and I must admit there was more to it than I expected.  It’s true that the paved bike path only extended about a mile, but the reality is that there were plenty of bikers enjoying the walking paths.  In fact, the walking paths were a pleasant surprise, with someone making a real effort to improve them.  From the appearance of things, it looks like much of the park was overgrown  since being acquired from the federal government in 1961.  The story of the park is quite interesting, as told here.

I have to admit it: I’m the person who tends to read all the historical signs along the road and all the educational displays in parks.  So I really wish there was more information available here.  Most of the signage looked pretty worn and dated.  Maybe others don’t feel the same way, but if you want people to be enthusiastic about some of the subtler features of a park, such as its history or natural habitats and such, you’ve got to get the word out.   Afterwards I found some information about the natural communities on the NH Division of Forests & Lands website and about the fascinating Sunken Forest offshore, but documentation in the park was pretty sparse.  I hope the state agencies can coordinate more of their information since they both have a lot to say.  I’d love to learn more about Pannaway Plantation, the first settlement here in 1623 (just 3 years after the Mayflower), or about the families who lived here before the land was taken over by the government in 1942.   The park is also the site of the Seacoast Science Center, which we did not visit.  It’s possible there was more information to be found there.

Granite monument celebrating the first settlement in New Hampshire

Biking through a gun emplacement in Battery Seamen, one of three large structures in the park’s grounds that once held massive guns to protect Portsmouth during World War II.

Speaking of 1942, the point was used to build 3 large batteries to protect Portsmouth harbor when it was decided that the forts mentioned above were inadequate for the times.  These still remain: hulking cement mounds covered with earth (and now forest, too).  I’d love to see old photos or hear old stories of what they were like during the war.  I’ll bet a few who served there are still alive and I hope their stories are being recorded and saved.  It would be really cool if one could be opened or if more pictures of the inside were available.  So I’m sure you get the idea that in my opinion the cultural and natural history of this park could be better exploited.

Former gun emplacements on the shore are now manned by picnic tables and benches

The view where one of the trails (a former road) emerges from the forest.

Finally it’s time to get back to the trails.  Because the park was a neighborhood of farms, homes, and even a hotel before being converted to the nation’s defense, it is crisscrossed by stone walls, cellar holes, and other remains of the past.  A network of trails has been laid out somewhat randomly throughout the park, sometimes following these ancient roads or the coastline, or even through, over, and around the huge concrete casements.  There are no signs or maps but since the park is just a mile long it’s pretty hard to get lost.  Going off-trail is almost impossible because the woods here are quite dense and overgrown.  Someone has been working to clean things up and they are greatly to be encouraged.

I’ve often thought that one of the problems of the state park system is lack of focus and identity, which is actually a result of its diversity.  Because each park is so very different it’s hard for a visitor to know what to expect.  It may pay for each park to identify 2 or 3 activities and focus on those – and then build that into the advertising.  I can imagine Odiorne Point would be a great center for biking if a few changes were made to promote it.  The nearby roads already seem popular and the park could be easily integrated into a larger bike trail network if it proves popular.  Maybe it’s a pie-in-the-sky vision but why couldn’t this be a biking destination?  Upgrade the network of trails, separating the pedestrian paths from the (paved?) bike paths.  As crowds increase, add paths in the south side of route 1A, maybe even a boardwalk path.  Maybe a bike path can be added along the shore, outside of the park, along route 1A.  Who knows, there’s great potential to make a 4-mile bike lane loop of 1A, Brackett Road, and Parsons Road.  Finishing the vision, a vendor could be licensed to rent bicycles from the parking lot and, if the idea truly takes off, the parking lot could easily be doubled or even tripled in size.  Would such commercialization spoil the park experience?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I think it would enhance the park’s reputation…and the bottom line, too!

Try Odiorne Point – I think you’ll like it.  Happy travels!

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