Featured Trail Town: Exeter, New Hampshire

Written by ATRA board member Chris J. Dunn, owner of acidotic RACING, LLC.

Welcome to our second in a series of American Trail Running Association “Trail Town” articles!  Every month we’re going to feature an article about a great small city for trail running.  This month we’re headed East to Exeter, a small community just North of Boston in the Granite State.

Trail Town

Exeter, New Hampshire  is located in Rockingham County in Southern part of the state just an hour North of Boston. With a population of just over 15,000 full-time residents, Exeter is a former mill town situated on the Exeter River. Exeter has a running connection as it was home to the Miliken Manufacturing Company which sold its buildings to Nike for shoe research & development in 1981. While Nike has long since left Exeter, you will find lots of great local trails where you can put your favorite brand of trail shoes to good use.

Photo by Ri Fahnestock

Photo by Ri Fahnestock

Exeter Trails

The primary system of trails in Exeter is the Henderson-Swasey Town Forest which connects to the Oaklands Town Forest in Newfields. These trails wind around through the forest in large and smaller loops, over rolling terrain, under powerlines, past housing developments, through a tunnel under the highway, and across elaborate foot bridges through wetlands. There are some main loops that are well marked, that vary in distance, but once you become familiar with the woods, there are so many more trails to be explored. There are also smaller trail systems throughout the town that are great for short runs 1-3 miles, many of which are popular spots for locals to run out of their back door, walk their dog, or take a slower family tour. Check out the Phillips-Exeter Academy trails which can be accessed from the end of Gilman Street on campus or Drinkwater Road.

Parking & Transit

As a small rural community, Exeter has limited public transit options. For resident of Boston or Portland, Maine, Exeter is served 10 times a day by Amtrak’s Downeaster trains with a travel time of just over 1 hour. The Exeter Amtrak station is less than a mile from Henderson-Swasey Town Forest. For trail runners arriving by car, there are a variety of entrances for the Henderson-Swasey, Oaklands & Phillips-Exeter systems.  Many of the parking areas are dirt/gravel and can park only between 8-12 cars so you may want to plan alternate parking on busy weekends or during races.

Historic Exeter Train Station



Exeter is really the epitome of community. The trails are all managed by the Exeter Trails Committee, which is a subcommittee of the Exeter Conservation Commission. Many of the trails have had management involvement from community members and local organizations including Boy Scouts and the Northeast Mountain Bike Association who help maintain the trails, bridges and signage. Larger scale management including logging and closures for regeneration or wildlife take place regularly as scheduled by the Conservation Commission.


While Exeter isn’t as well known for its outdoor recreation lifestyle as towns like Boulder, CO or Taos, NM, the people who live in Southern New Hampshire have an appreciation for all of the small properties that are protected for recreation use. Unlike running or skiing towns in the inter-mountain West, Exeter’s history of European settlement dates back almost 400 years. Much of that history can be seen in the smaller scale development as well as narrower, meandering roads & trails which flow with natural terrain features. To learn more about Exeter’s long history check out the American Independence Museum, the historic Gilman Garrison House or learn about the more recent Exeter Incident, a highly publicized UFO sighting that occurred on September 3, 1965.

Photo by Ian MacLellan

Photo by Ian MacLellan


Like most New England locals, Exeter has more Dunkin Donuts than you can shake a stick at but while in town consider one of the fine local coffee shops. While relatively new to the scene D Squared Java is Exeter’s most traditional style coffee shop. You can also get a good cup of joe at a number of other downtown restaurants offering a small town feel and delicious food throughout the day including, Me & Ollie’s Bakery and Cafe, The Green Bean, and Laney & Lu’s Cafe.


Neighborhood Beer Company is located directly across the street from the trail network and their beautifully designed tasting room is a great place to enjoy one of their German-inspired ales and lagers after a run.  Looking for a trail runner approved craft beer to go?  Most convenient & grocery stores will have tall boys from Moat Mountain a restaurant & brewery in North Conway in the heart of the White Mountains.

Moat Mountain


In addition to the coffee stops that also serve breakfast and lunch options, you can’t go wrong with the River Tavern for a nice dinner and good beer, or Blue Moon Evolution, Exeter’s own organic farm-to-table restaurant. For those of you who get a hankering for BBQ after running trails, consider a short drive West on Rt. 101 to Goody Cole’s Smokehouse  in Brentwood. Their pit-smoked meats & Southern-style sides are the specialties at this casual eatery with kitschy decor.

Goody's Smokehouse

Local Knowledge

If it is shoes and running gear to you want, check out George and Phillips, but if it’s local knowledge and more of an adventure you plan to go on, you really must stop in to see Rob at Travel and Nature. The nicest thing about all of the locations mentioned is that they are all located on a 1/2 mile stretch of Water Street, which is the main drag through town and runs parallel to the Squamscott River that flows out to Great Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Trail Sharing & Cooperation

Trail runners abound in the summer months, but they are not alone. Henderson-Swasey also known as Fort-Rock is a popular mountain biking mecca in the New Hampshire/Massachusetts region. Winter brings skier and snowshoers alike into the woods, and year round you can find families and dog walkers going for casual strolls. You might even see a few people hauling crash pads between the many large boulders that are scattered throughout the property.

Exeter River


Since June 2009 the Exeter Trail Race has offered 2 courses, a 4.5 and a 10 mile distance for experienced and new trail racers alike. The 10 milers love the challenge of all the small rollers throughout the course, while the 4.5 mile distance attracts a lot of runners who are entirely new to trail racing – though they often state that the distance feels more like 6 miles. The race has remained relatively small which allows it to maintain that hometown feel that promotes camaraderie in addition to competition. It also has the added feature of attempting to have as low an environmental impact as possible including composting, recycling, food made by racers and volunteers, and conveyance of information about the forest’s maintenance by the Exeter Conservation Commission and the Southeast Land Trust. Visit www.acidoticRACING.com for more information.