Why are New England’s hiking trails so beat-up?

The next time you find yourself cursing as you stumble and sweat up a steep, rocky trail in New Hampshire, here’s one target for your wrath: Horses. Or, rather, lack of horses.

“Out West, trails like the Pacific Crest Trail were graded for horses, so the incline never goes above 5 percent. That’s a major reason why they’re smoother and less steep,” said Roger Moor, whose 2009 hike of the Appalachian Trial led him to experience New England hiking.

The situation is different in New England, said Laurie Gullion, coordinator of the outdoor education program at UNH.

“Most trails here were created through hiking, not horse-packing,” Gullion said when asked to explain why New England trails have a reputation for being surprisingly difficult. “The conditions out West have always allowed using horses – the forest canopy is much more open than here.”

This has long been recognized by Appalachian Trail through-hikers, whose pace slows considerably as they cross north into New England.

“The generalization that New England trails are rockier and steeper than elsewhere in the country is true-ish. The Long Trail in Vermont and certain New Hampshire trails definitely have that reputation,” wrote Dennis Lewon, editor-in-chief of Backpacker magazine. “These are also some of the oldest trails in the country, I believe, and so perhaps they are rougher than elsewhere because of the standards when they were built.”

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