A trail winds through the Ossipee Pine Barrens, a globally rare, fire-dependent forest type.
Ossipee Pine Barrens A trail winds through the Ossipee Pine Barrens, a globally rare, fire-dependent forest type. © Eric Aldrich/The Nature Conservancy

Places We Protect

Ossipee Pine Barrens

New Hampshire

Discover one of New Hampshire's most endangered ecosystems.

The Ossipee Pine Barrens are a magical place boasting New Hampshire’s last intact pitch pine–scrub oak woodland natural community, a globally rare forest type. Here in this fire-dependent ecosystem you’ll find a diversity of uncommon wildlife, including nearly two dozen threatened and endangered moths and butterflies, and several declining bird species like whip-poor-will, common nighthawk and Eastern towhee. Beneath your feet, the forest serves as a natural filter for one of the Granite State’s largest “stratified-drift” aquifers, which ensures a constant and clean source of water for the area’s families and businesses.

This place was shaped more than ten thousand years ago, when retreating ice age glaciers left behind a broad, deep sandy outwash plain. Too dry and nutrient poor to support agriculture or many of the more typical forests of northern New England, areas with these sandy-gravelly soil types became known as “barrens.” Despite the tough growing conditions, however, this area is hardly barren - a forest of pitch pine and scrub oak thrives here, rejuvenated over the eons by lightning and human-sparked fires.  It’s a patchwork of pine woods and scrub oak: dense and tangled in some places, open and airy in others, with an inviting bed of blueberries and ferns near the ground. 

Roughly 15,000 years ago, the last of the great continental glaciers melted away from the Northeast. In its wake, torrents of water carried debris embedded in the ice. While heavier rocks and boulders were deposited quickly in the uplands to form what is known as “glacial till,” the finer sands and gravels washed to the lowlands and were often deposited in “proglacial” lakes—large bodies of water that collected south of the melting glacier. For some time, Ossipee and Silver lakes were combined as a proglacial lake, extending across the present-day gentle plain lying between them. Today, this is where the Ossipee Pine Barrens are found.

Pitch pine barrens thrive in the dry, acidic and infertile soil conditions of these sandy plains. Evergreen needles enable pitch pines to save energy by not having to reproduce leaves each season. They are also uniquely adapted to withstand and flourish in the frequent fires that occur due to the drought conditions.

In addition to pitch pines, common plants found in the Ossipee Pine Barrens include scrub oak, black huckleberry, low-sweet blueberry, sweet fern and woodland sedge, as well as rare hairy hudsonia and slender-leaved goldenrod.

Early on, the Ossipee Pine Barrens were largely used for timber production. It was not until recent times that these lands began to be converted for housing, industry and other kinds of development—activities that continue to fragment the landscape each year. 

Only 2,000 acres of pitch pine-scrub oak barrens are left in the Ossipee region, representing the last viable occurrence of this forest community in the state. Furthermore, the Ossipee Barrens lie above the Saco-Ossipee Aquifer, the largest stratified-drift aquifer in the state. Undeveloped portions of the barrens serve as recharge areas for this important resource that provides clean drinking water for the towns of Freedom, Madison, Ossipee and Effingham.

Because of its importance for both people and nature, The Nature Conservancy has long identified the Ossipee Pine Barrens as a conservation priority. Since 1988, we have protected more than 2,700 acres of critical habitat here, including: large, excellent examples of the rare pitch pine-scrub oak woodland; a quartermile of undeveloped shoreline on Ossipee Lake; much of Cook’s Pond and a stream connecting it with Silver Lake, a popular destination for local paddlers. There are many opportunities for hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, hunting and snowmobiling.

Pitch pine-scrub oak woodlands depend on periodic fire to regenerate and thrive. Run your hand along the bark of a pitch pine and you’ll know instantly what sets it apart from other trees: The thick bark protects the living tissue of the tree during a fire, while the seeds germinate best on soils exposed by fire. Unlike other pines, pitch pines are also able to sprout from both roots and trunks.

Historically, it is thought that the Ossipee Pine Barrens burned every 25 to 50 years—far more frequently than other forest types. However, over time the effort to suppress fires to protect homes and property had virtually eliminated fire from this ecosystem.

In 2005, after thorough research, The Nature Conservancy launched a comprehensive project to sustain the Ossipee Pine Barrens using a combination of mechanical vegetation management and controlled burning. This effort restores and maintains the unique habitat found here and helps reduce the threat of wildfire to the surrounding towns. Carefully controlled burns eliminate dangerous accumulations of leaf litter and flammable vegetation that could burn out of control if set ablaze by a lightning strike. After a fire, scrub oak and blueberry produce vigorous new growth which provides a highly nutritious food source for wildlife, including rare moths and butterflies—five species of which are found nowhere else in New Hampshire. Like the plants, these insects have evolved with fire; some survive the burn season by burrowing into the soil.

7.5 miles of hiking trails in the preserve provide terrific opportunities to explore the Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve.  The 1.3 mile Pine Barrens Loop begins at the preserve parking area along Route 41 in Madison and offers an easy excursion through classic pitch pine/scrub oak barrens, while the 3.2 mile West Branch Trail is a popular snowmobile trail that begins just across from the boat access on the south end of Silver Lake, follows the West Branch, and traverses through pitch pine and hardwood forests before ending at the Camp Calumet Conference Center.  A trail leading from the Camp Calument Center parking area up to Jackman Ridge offers excellent views of the pine barrens, the Ossipee Mountains, and Ossipee Lake. Trails off of Leadmine Road provide access to Cook’s Pond and Cook’s River along with an interesting sandy esker.  Trails are easy to moderately strenuous.  Summer is prime time to visit the pine barrens when blueberries are plentiful and the songs of whip-poor-wills fill the nighttime air. Fall is beautiful as the scrub oaks and blueberry bushes in the understory turn a brilliant scarlet. You can also canoe or kayak on Cook’s River and Pond from the Town of Madison boat launch on Silver Lake.

Special Visitation Guidelines:
Please have your dogs leashed during the breeding bird season as many of the rare species nest on the ground from late May through mid-July.

Take a short (1.65 mile) loop hike along the Pine Barrens Loop Trail off Route 41. There are additional trails to explore here!

Check out the fire protection buffers along Route 41 and along the Pine Barrens Trail near the West Branch entrance. The Conservancy cleared these areas to mimic fire disturbance and protect nearby homes from wildfire.

In early summer, this is the best place in New Hampshire to hear whip-poor-wills and nighthawks; best after dusk. Later in summer, the blueberries are ripe!

Please enjoy the preserve responsibly:

• No camping or open fires allowed.

• Motorized vehicles (except snowmobiles along designated trails) and horses are prohibited.

• Keep pets leashed to avoid disturbance to birds, other wildlife and preserve visitors.

• Hunting is allowed on portions of the preserve. Tree stands and blinds are prohibited. Please obey all posted signs and contact NH Fish & Game for dates and regulations.

• No removal or destruction of plants, wildlife, minerals or cultural items.

• Carry in/carry out trash (and any you find).