The Sawyer River Trail near Bartlett, NH about 17 miles West of Conway is a White Mountains biking adventure through a remote and scenic river valley nestled within the heart of the White Mountains National Forest. It follows the path of the old Sawyer River Railroad, a logging line that operated along the Sawyer River in Livermore, NH for 51 years during the heyday of logging operations in the area. Already in decline by 1928, it ceased operations after a flood swept away most of its tracks the year before.
The 7.5 mile (one-way) Sawyer River Trail is not your typical Rail Trail. Half the route travels on Sawyer River Road, a lightly traveled, dirt woods road that is closed during the winter. The other half of the route provides mountain bikers with a more rugged experience over singletrack. Besides the grand scenery, signs of the old logging days can be discovered all along the trail, from ghost towns to logging camp artifacts… if you take the time to look.
Where to begin your mountain bike ride depends on whether you prefer to tackle the singletrack section first, from the southern trailhead (Kangamagus Highway), or to start off easy on Sawyer River Road, from the northern trailhead (Rt 302). Starting from the south requires crossing the Swift River (there is no bridge). You can pick your way across the wide Swift River on stepping stones fairly easily during the summer, when the water level is typically low. However, it can be treacherous during periods of heavy rain or in early Spring when the water is highest due to snow melt. No matter where you choose to begin your mountain bike trek, you are in for a great mountain bike adventure through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest.
Trail Highlights: Mountain peak views, rushing streams, ghost town, nearby waterfalls and a swimming hole to cool off in after your bike ride. Watch for wildlife, including moose, beaver, black bear, warblers, flycatchers and forest raptors.
Mountain Bike Ride Options
Sawyer River Road - Ride Option 1
We’ll start the ride from the north. From the Rt 302/Sawyer River junction, the wide dirt and gravel road follows the Sawyer River for 4 miles through the narrow Sawyer River Valley. Forested slopes rise above you, 1,600 feet from the valley floor. Although you’ll be climbing gradually and steadily, it is scenic and no sweat for most people.
At about 1.7 miles into the ride, begin looking for remnants of the town site of Livermore (incorporated in 1876) on the left. Livermore was once the nerve center of the Sawyer River Railroad with a sawmill, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, engine house and rail yard, grocery store, houses with porches that lined the river and even a 26-room mansion.
Today, the forest has reclaimed much of the land cleared by lumbering and industry. There is not much left except for scattered bricks covered by moss, shards of pottery and glass and concrete building foundations. The brick walls of the sawmill still stand as proof that a vibrant town once existed here. However, you can take your own trip back in time if you stop to observe and contemplate.
At about 2.1 miles the Signal Ridge Trail, an old access trail leading to the Mt. Carrigain Fire Tower branches off to the right just before the Whiteface Brook snowmobile bridge. You can see the Signal Ridge in the distance. Mt. Carrigain is the highest point in Livermore at 4,700 feet.
Cross Whiteface Brook. There is also a parking lot on the left across the bridge. At 4 miles you’ll arrive at the Forest Service gate marking the end of the Sawyer River Road portion of the ride.
For ride option #1 continue biking on Sawyer River Road for another .7 miles, turn around and retrace your route back to the start. This is an easy 9.4 mile round trip mountain bike ride with a total elevation gain of 300 feet.
Sawyer River Trail - Ride Option 2
For ride option #2 you will continue toward the Swift River on the Sawyer River Trail. Go beyond the metal gate, turn left at the fork and follow signs pointing towards Meadow Brook. At around a mile from the gate, look for the Sawyer River Trail trailhead on the right. This is the start of the more rugged singletrack section.
The narrow valley opens up onto an expanse of wetland habitat. The route continues to follow the railroad grade along brooks and streams, past wetlands, bogs and marshes teeming with wildlife. The scene is punctuated with the white and gray skeletons of both dead and living trees poking up out of the still water and fringes of waving reeds and grasses. You will encounter occasional detours around overflowing beaver ponds and blow downs and cross several streams.
Soon you’ll come to a junction marked by trail signs, where the Hancock Notch Trail branches off to the right and the Sawyer Pond Trail to the left.
Nearing the trail’s end a bridge takes you over Meadow Brook. The singletrack trail follows the brook and travels through a narrow corridor hemmed in by tall trees. Branches form a shady canopy overhead. The ride ends at the Swift River, the perfect place to relax and enjoy lunch. When ready, retrace your route back to the start for a 15 mile round-trip. After your ride, cool off in one of the nearby swimming holes we listed below.
Sawyer River Trail to Bartlett Experimental Forest - Ride Option 3
For ride option #3, instead of returning the way you came, you can continue on a 22 mile epic loop ride. It features mouthwatering views and a leg burning climb (elevation gain about 600 feet) up seasonal Bear Notch Road through the Bartlett Experimental Forest. The road closes in November.
Cross the Swift River and ascend 0.3 miles to the Kancamagus Highway and parking area for the southern trailhead. Take the time to admire the lovely series of cascades spilling over wide rock ledges right besides the trail. Make a left on the Kancamagus Highway and ride for 7 miles to Bear Notch Road. Turn left and begin the grueling climb up the dirt/gravel road through the Bartlett Experimental Forest and into Bartlett. Make a left turn on Rt. 302 and head back to your car.
After your ride take the opportunity to explore some spectacular White Mountain National Forest area attractions conveniently located on or very near the Sawyer River Trail.
Sawyer Rock Swimming Hole
Sawyer Rock Swimming Hole is just down the road from the Sawyer River Trail northern trailhead. Refresh yourself in deep crystal clear pools after your bike ride. The swift current makes for a natural Jacuzzi. There are shallow wading areas and a huge rock slab for sunning. Perfect after a long, hot bike ride on the Sawyer River Trail.
Visit our list of Best Bike Trails with Waterfalls in New Hampshire for more waterfalls and swimming holes near mountain bike trails in the White Mountains.
Russell Colbath House
Approximate GPS Location: +43.99620, -71.33992
In the early 1800’s, small farmsteads dotted the region. This is the only remaining 19th century homestead in the area and is listed on the Register of Historic Places. It is a wooden frame dwelling constructed between 1831 and 1832. The house has been restored to much of its original setting and today operates as an Historic House Museum, with an on-site historic interpreter. It is managed by the US Forest Service and open to the public seasonally.
Contact the Saco Ranger District for hours and more information.
Bartlett Covered Bridge
Built in 1851 and closed to traffic in 1939. The bridge is 166 feet long and spans the Saco River in Bartlett, NH. It was restored in the 1950’s and used as a storage shed for snow fencing. Later the bridge was sold and today is owned by private individuals who strengthened the structure and opened a Gift shop inside.
Swimming is not allowed, but the 25 ft. falls' beauty is well worth the easy .3 mile hike in.
Kancamagus Scenic Byway
The Kancamagus Highway, RT 112, is a designated scenic byway that runs east-west across the flank of Mt. Kancamagus, 34 miles from the Saco River in Conway to the Pemigewassett River in Lincoln. Affectionately known as "The Kanc", the two lane road climbs nearly 3,000 feet along its route, taking travelers to scenic overlooks, trailheads, picnic areas and swimming holes.
The Sawyer River Railroad was a small logging railroad that ran for about eight miles up the narrow Sawyer River Valley in the heart of the White Mountains, It was chartered by the Saunders family in 1875 to bring fresh cut logs from the vast old-growth forest they owned in the valley to the large sawmill in the town of Livermore, NH, the company’s base of operations. A major flood destroyed all but 4 miles track in 1927 and in the mid-1930’s the railway was disassembled by the Civilian Conservation Corp. It was one of the last logging rail lines to cease operations in the White Mountains.
Northern Trailhead: Take I-93 to Exit 35. Follow US Route 3 north to junction with US Route 302. Take US 302 east through Crawford Notch. Sawyer River Road is on the right about 3 miles before the town of Bartlett. Park by the gate along US 302 or at pullouts farther up Sawyer River Road.
Southern Trailhead: From the intersection of NH 16 and NH 112 (Kancamagus Highway) in Conway, drive west on NH 112 for 18.7 miles. Look for a small parking area on the right for the Sawyer River Trail.
From Kancamagus: To reach the Kancamagus Highway/Rt 112 trailhead, take I-93 to Exit 32 (Lincoln). Take Rt 112 east. Just beyond Kancamagus Pass, watch for a trailhead sign on the left. Park at the trailhead or along the road.
Saco Ranger District
Phone: (603) 447-5448
Phone: (603) 528-8721