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Mine Falls Park

Nashua, New Hampshire.

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Mine Falls Park

Nashua, New Hampshire.

Mine Falls Park is a large woodland between the Nashua River and the Nashua Canal. Here and there are sports fields and a playground, but mostly it is nearly natural forest. It is quite popular for walking, biking, and fishing, but not so popular as to ruin the place. Yes, it is a bit noisier and somewhat more littered than the mountain trails in most of New Hampshire's state parks, but it is so easily accessible - just a five-minute drive from my house - and provides enough of a peaceful, nature experience that I go there very frequently.

In spring and summer, when there is enough light before I go to work, I take my morning jog around the Mill Pond about three or four times a week. I'm not exactly a health nut, but I try to stay in some shape other than potato-shaped. When I was in the Naval Reserve, my main fitness goal was to get a reasonably good score on my semiannual "Physical Readiness Test" and not die. Since the Navy kicked me out for getting too old, my main fitness goal is to stay in good enough shape that I can take an all-day hike once in a while without becoming too exhausted to enjoy it. And jogging in the woods is more of a treat and less of a chore than jogging along suburban streets, so I actually keep with the program. Exercise machines? Running inside a gym? No, I just don't get it.

Most weekends when it's not too cold, my wife and I take a long, brisk walk in the park at least once. All year long, come rain or snow or sleet or hail, I take a walk in the park by myself on the weekends when I'm not taking a more serious hike in the mountains. These "walks" by myself don't involve much walking, but a lot of observing the wild things that are practically in my back yard.

Mine Falls is a rather large park for such a small city. (Nashua is the second largest city in New Hampshire, ... It's a small city.) As I prepared to write this description, I began to wonder how it compares to other large and famous city parks in the U.S. So, I looked up a few parks and their host cities and came up with the following comparisons.

City/Park City Area (U.S. Census, acres) Population (U.S. Census, 2005 est.) Park Area (Wikipedia) Park Area % People per acre of Park
Nashua, Mine Falls 20,352 86,986 325 1.60% 267.65
New York, Central Park 300,096 8,143,198 843 0.28% 9659.78
Philadelphia, Fairmount Park 91,264 1,463,281 4,100 4.49% 356.90
San Diego, Balboa Park 238,144 1,256,509 1,200 0.50% 1047.09

As a percentage of the area of the city it's in, Mine Falls Park is over three times as large as San Diego's Balboa Park, and nearly six times as large as New York's Central Park. Only Philadelphia's Fairmount Park (the largest city park in the U.S.) is larger, by a factor of nearly three. But in terms of city residents per acre of park, Mine Falls Park is the largest of the four I've compared here.

The park gets its name from a natural waterfall that used to exist where there is now a dam on the Nashua River. People used to mine there for a low-grade lead ore.

The dam was built in the nineteenth century to divert water through the Nashua Canal to Nashua's mills. The mills are long since converted to retail stores and apartments, but the dam still diverts enough water into the canal to keep it from getting stagnant.

Unusually for a "mill pond," this one is below the dam that feeds it. By the time the gentle outflow of the canal gets to the millyard, it is over 30 feet above the Nashua River.

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How to Get There

Mine Falls Park is accessible at many points in Nashua. I usually park in the parking lot of the Conway Arena, just off West Hollis Street along Riverside Street, where a small ramp provides non-powered boats access to the Mill Pond. A driveway along the same parking lot leads to Stellos Stadium, behind which is a larger boat ramp to the Nashua River above the dam.

There is also a parking lot at the end of Coliseum Avenue in western Nashua. Here you park in Lincoln Park, but there is a footbridge across the river into Mine Falls Park.

You can also park in the millyard, or walk from anywhere in downtown Nashua and find the trails behind the old mills. It's a rather unsavory-looking area, but not as dangerous as it looks. This is New Hampshire, after all.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Mine Falls Park is mostly second-growth forest, but there are a few stands of old trees. The higher ground is mostly pine, with some admixture of hardwoods. The river bottomland along the three main distributaries running from the Mill Pond back to the river are dominated by hardwoods. There are a few swampy areas along the river that have only brushy growth, and a few swampy hardwood forests.

The part of the park I know best, right around the Mill Pond, is a mixed forest of pine and hardwood. It is mostly second-growth, but there are a few truly old pines beside the pond. Wildlife here consists of many familiar back-yard creatures, plus quite a few genuine wild animals such as mink, muskrat, beaver, great blue heron, belted kingfisher, and a surprising array of other birds. The pond is home to fish, turtles, frogs, and many aquatic invertebrates.

The Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

Looking northeast across the narrow western neck of the Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

There is a rather incongruous wetland right near the millyard. An old "oxbow" pond and marsh beside the river prevented early settlement, so the city just grew up on the bluffs around this unusable land, leaving the pond, the river, and the marshy ground between them in a nearly pristine state. You can face one direction and see rusting abandoned vehicles, graffiti on decrepit brick walls, and crumbling asphalt with weeds growing in the cracks, then turn around and see a sweeping vista of ducks, swans, great blue herons, and other wildlife in a stunning green marsh dotted with islands of hardwood trees and an ancient red pine forest in the background.

A branching set of high-tension wires passes through the park. This provides a wide area that is kept clear of trees. While not at all natural, these brushy "meadows" provide habitat that otherwise would not be there. These places have infinitely greater biodiversity than a grassy soccer field, and there are few other open areas in the park.

In the early days of the environmental movement, the Nashua River was a rallying point, one of the most polluted rivers in the country. It has recovered quite nicely, and native fish stocks have returned in impressive abundance.

Mind you, there is still a pollution problem. You wouldn't want to swim in the Nashua River, less still in the Mill Pond, nor to eat the fish you can catch there, but it has come a very long way. The biggest current problem appears to be overfertilization from lawn runoff. Aquatic plants grow in unnaturally high density in the Mill Pond and the Nashua Canal, but not so bad as to deplete the oxygen and kill the fish.

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Trail Description

All of the named and mapped trails in Mine Falls Park could serve as roads. They are wide and smooth, and where they climb the grades are gentle. Some, including the steepest one, are paved. You could take a powered wheelchair on any trail you see on a map of Mine Falls Park.

The Millpond Trail, Mine Falls Park.

Looking west along the Millpond Trail, Mine Falls Park.

There are many smaller trails which, while not named or shown on the maps, are marked with official blazes and maintained to prevent erosion, so these are real trails. Most of these are too narrow and rugged for a wheelchair, but not so challenging that you couldn't walk there, even if you have a moderate mobility problem. None of these trails are very steep, and even the moderately steep grades are not very long.

The trails I know best are the two that form my jogging circuit. The Millpond Trail runs along the north side of the Mill Pond and the west side of the Nashua Canal from the dam to the high school, where there is a bridge across the canal. Then, a small unnamed trail runs along the east side of the canal and the south side of the pond, back from the high school to the dam. I begin my jog at the boat ramp near Conway Arena. I walk briskly along the unnamed trail - it's usually too dark to run on such a rugged trail - toward the dam. From there, I jog the Milllpond Trail to the high school. Then, I walk back along the unnamed trail to the Conway Arena. (At this point, dark or not, I'm too tired to jog anymore!) The whole circuit is just under three miles.

The Millpond Trail is what remains of the access road for crews that maintained the canal. It is wide enough to drive on, though motor vehicles are prohibited, and almost perfectly level. With few exceptions, it hugs the banks of the Mill Pond and the Nashua Canal. Past the high school, in areas with which I am less familiar, it continues to follow the canal all the way into the millyard.

The unnamed trail on the east side of the canal and the south side of the pond is typical of the lesser trails in Mine Falls Park. It is barely wide enough for two people to pass, and it follows the natural contours of the land rather than the artificial contour of the canal. It rises and falls from the shore of the pond to as much as thirty feet above the pond. Some grades are as steep as 30 percent, but never for more than 20 feet or so. The longest grade is about 20 percent for a length of maybe 100 feet. If you have real mobility problems, stay with the named and mapped trails.

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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things you might see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there.

Mammals

  • Squirrels. Mine Falls Park is one of very few places I know where gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), and chipmunks (Tamias striatus) all share the same habitat. I don't just mean they all live in the same park, I mean they cross paths and gather nuts from the same trees.
  • Raccoon (Procyon lotor). I see them occasionally on my morning jog.
  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Tracks are very common in the winter snow, but I've never seen the foxes themselves, except as roadkill along West Hollis Street.
  • Mink (Mustela vison). There is a pure black mink that lives near the dam, but the other mink in the park are the more typical dark brown.
  • Mink leaping through the undergrowth, Mine Falls Park.

    A mink (Mustela vison) scurries through the undergrowth near the Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

  • Beaver (Castor canadensis). There has always been old sign of beavers in the park. In the spring of 2006, they came back and built a new lodge in the Mill Pond. Later, they moved down into one of the distributaries, but they can still be seen in the pond once in a while.

Birds

  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Frequently seen soaring over the park. Once in a while I see them, especially immature ones lacking the adult's red tail, being mobbed by grackles or crows.
  • Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). I usually only see one adult at a time, though supposedly the pair both feed the young. For some years, a lone female nested at the east end of the Mill Pond. This year, I've only seen a lone male, and only occasionally. He hunts mostly at the east end and occasionally at the narrow west end.
  • Great blue heron (Ardea herodias). It doesn't appear to be resident, but it stops by to hunt in the Mill Pond fairly often. Usually along the southeast corner, but sometimes in the northwestern area. Once I saw two together, and they appeared to be involved in a territorial dispute.
  • Great blue heron in the Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

    A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) stalks the shallows of the Mill Pond in Mine Falls Park.

  • Woodpeckers, including hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) and the large pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus). Pileated woodpeckers make one of the "wildest" sounds to be heard in Mine Falls Park, worthy of a Tarzan movie.
  • Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Very abundant throughout the park.
  • American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Almost any visit to the park includes a ruckus from the crows.
  • Nuthatches, including white-breasted (Sitta carolinensis) and red-breasted (S. canadensis). Frequently heard, sometimes seen. They walk on the vertical trunks of trees, like woodpeckers, but usually face head-down. The white-breasted are generally more common in Mine Falls Park, but the red-breasted are more common in the pine areas.
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). There are always a couple of breeding pairs in the Mill Pond, sometimes several pairs, and the young stay with their parents until winter. Many mallards have begun overwintering in the park in recent years, feeding in the running water of the distributary streams.
  • Mute swan (Cygnus olor). I've been told there's a pair that breed in the oxbow pond every year. In the early part of 2007, one young swan, probably one of that pair's 2006 brood, lived in the Mill Pond, but he's gone now.
  • Mute swan in the Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

    A mute swan (Cygnus olor) in the Mill Pond in Mine Falls Park.

  • Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). One is a rather frequent visitor to the Mill Pond, but he doesn't live there.
  • Black vulture (Coragyps atratus). They don't live in the park, and they get most of their food from the city landfill a couple of miles west of the park, but they often soar over the park while they wait for the garbage trucks to unload.
  • Gulls, including Herring gull (Larus smithsonianus) and great black-backed gull (L. marinus). These are also denizens of the dump. They roost in the Mill Pond in fall and into the winter until it freezes over. It may be surprising to see a sea bird so far from the ocean, but they live all along the Merrimack River, even as far as Concord. The black-backed are rare visitors to Mine Falls Park, but they roost among the more common herring gulls.

Other Creatures

  • Bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus). The most abundant fish in the park, and lots of fun for young kids to catch.
  • Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides). The quarry of the old kids, the only real gamefish in the Mill Pond and canal.
  • Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta). Frequently seen basking on logs on a summer afternoon.
  • Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Never seen basking. You have to watch the water carefully to see one. Most are on the small side, perhaps five to ten pounds with a carapace length under ten inches. On two occasions, I have seen a truly monstrous individual with a carapace length easily over 18 inches and probably weighing over 60 pounds. This might even be "Guinness World Record" material.
  • Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). Easy to hear, but you have to look closely and stalk carefully to see them. As you approach, they fall silent, and if you get too close, they disappear underwater. Sit quietly, and they'll forget that you are there, and start calling again.
  • Green frog (Rana clamitans). Even harder to see than bullfrogs.
  • Water strider (Gerris sp.). Found throughout the mill pond and canal.
  • Water spider (family Cybaeidae). Very hard to see, but if you watch carefully, you might see one hiding under the overhanging vegetation at the edge of the pond. You might even be lucky enough to see one "galloping" over the water to investigate a fallen insect.
Water spider in the Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

A water spider (family Cybaeidae) hiding under overhanging leaves in the Mill Pond in Mine Falls Park.

Trees

  • Pines, including white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (P. resinosa). There may also be hybrids of these two species. I'm doing a little more study to learn to identify them unambiguously. As of now, I think the red pine is dominant in all evergreen areas, and the white pine is common. The ones I suspect to be hybrids might turn out to be more numerous than the pure white pine. Stay tuned.
  • Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Small numbers among the pines.
  • Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). The most common hardwood in "my" corner of Mine Falls Park.
  • Cottonwood (Populus deltoides). A few individuals along the river. I always think of this as a southern tree, but it can also be found in New Hampshire.
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Nearly as common as the oaks, but not the dominant hardwood.
  • White birch (Betula papyrifera). Not common, but very visible.
  • Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica). A few individuals here and there. Small trees are common in the understory, and often overhang the pond.
  • Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). Abundant along the power lines, where they don't grow tall enough to be cut down regularly.

Shrubs

  • Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense). The signature rhododendron of New England is very common in the understory and along the edges of the woods in Mine Falls Park.
  • Juniper, either creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) or eastern juniper (J. virginiana). I know of two dense but isolated stands, and one lone individual plant. Not clear if these are native, or the remnants of some earlier "artificial" landscaping.

Wildflowers

  • Pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Somewhat rare in the park, as they are generally. Blooms from late May until the middle of June.
  • Blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis). Here and there along the trail, especially in the denser hardwood areas. Blooms in May, but the "blue bead" berries ripen in late July and last until September.
  • Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense). All over the place, carpeting the ground, especially under the pines.
  • Fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata). Flowers throughout the summer in the shadier coves of the Mill Pond.
  • Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata). Another aquatic flower that blooms in the sunnier shallows of the Mill Pond. Sounds like an ugly name for a rather beautiful plant.

Other Plants

  • Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Very abundant along the trails.
  • Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Its odd flowers can poke through the last ice and snow of winter, and its pale green leaves decorate the swamps until the first frost.
  • Skunk cabbages in a small swamp

    A patch of skunk cabbage in the leaf-covered mud in early spring.

    Skunk cabbage blossom

    The odd green-flecked purple flowers of a skunk cabbage beside the emerging spikes of new leaves.



  • Wild grape (Vitis sp.). Mostly along the banks of the river, pond, and canal, but not very abundant.
  • Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Once uncommon, it is spreading widely along the sunnier north shore of the pond and west bank of the canal. Here, the open area between the Millpond Trail and the water provides the abundant sunshine it needs at these latitudes.
Poison ivy climbing a pine beside the Mill Pond, Mine Falls Park.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) climbing a pine beside the Millpond Trail, Mine Falls Park.

Notably Absent

  • Phragmites (Phragmites australis australis). This invasive old-world reed has come to dominate nearly every marsh, swamp, and puddle from Nova Scotia to Mexico and west to the Mississippi, but there is none of it in the Mill Pond or the Nashua Canal. There is some phragmites along the banks of the Nashua River, but I suspect that these small, isolated stands are the less aggressive native form, P. a. americanus. The wetlands around the oxbow pond have the usual infestation of phragmites.
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