Taking a Hike – Franconia and Wildcat

It has been a good autumn’s hiking, with four days in New Hampshire with my eldest the definite highlight. Three of those days were the subject of my November Taking a Hike column:

Fall in the White Mountains at Hersam Acorn
Enjoying fall in the White Mountains at The Hour

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Mount Washington from Bear Notch Road, Bartlett NH

Now I am left trying to shake off the feeling that the best hiking is over for a while. Part of it is, whatever the calendar may say, fall is over. The days are short, the leaves are gone, and temperatures, in fits and starts, are heading for cold. I am starting to accept – perhaps I shouldn’t – that a planned short backpack in the Adirondacks will not happen this year. There are plenty of reasons, or excuses, not to go – desk work; yard work (the leaves, in fact, are not gone; they are in my gutters); the hassle of packing; the hassle of unpacking afterward. Then there is the prospect of a night out in a pre-winter wilderness, although I resist the thought that this should be a discouragement.

Everything does not hang on the Dacks though. Except when there is deep snow or dangerous cold, winter is the second greatest hiking season around here. I need to buy a new pair of gloves and pull ideas together for some winter day-hikes to look forward to.

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Carter Notch Hut beneath, and in the shadow of, Wildcat Mountain

Day Hike Notes – Three Lakes Trail

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Unfinished beaver work on the Three Lakes Trail

I don’t fully understand what the beavers of Fahnestock State Park are up to. On this hike, Katie and I saw evidence of their gnashing away at some fairly substantial trunks, trees a foot and more in diameter (see photo). The trees were not right at the water’s edge either, and they were chewed only halfway through. My only guess is that the beaver will return and topple the trees so that their thinner, topmost branches end up in the pond, and there become beaver food and beaver construction materials. Clever critters if this is so. And we felt like clever critters for taking this Black Friday hike – not the brightest weather, not the widest views, but a good trek among lakes, swamps, brooks, and beaver ponds.

DATE: Friday, November 25th.
START & FINISH: Parking area beside Canopus Lake on NY Route 301, 1 mi SW of intersection with Taconic State Parkway.
ROUTE: Three Lakes Trail (blue-blazed) to Dennytown Road; return via Three Lakes again, Sunken Mine Road, and Appalachian Trail.
DISTANCE: 7-8 miles
TIME: 4.75 hours (9:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Mostly easy going, with a few short, steep-ish ups and downs
MAP: NYNJTC East Hudson Trails (Trail Map 103)

WEATHER: Cloudy, high in the upper 40s.
WILDLIFE: Evidence of beavers – gnawed trunks, dams – but no sightings.
PHOTOS: Here

BREAKFAST: McDonald’s, Cortlandt.
LUNCH: Pastrami sandwiches, sat on a ledge near the old Denny iron mine.
UPS: Getting a post-Thanksgiving workout.
DOWNS: None.
KIT: We took waterproofs in case, but did not need them.
COMPANY: Katie, plus a few other hikers and dog-walkers.

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Hidden Lake

Day Hike Notes – Mount Frissell

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The highest point in Connecticut

As far as I know, Connecticut is unique among US states in having a high point that isn’t the top of anything (Nebraska might share the distinction). Even Florida’s Britton Hill – at 345 feet the lowest highest point of the 50 states – is higher than all the land immediately around it. Connecticut’s high point is 2,379 feet above sea level, a respectable 36th out of 50. Trouble is, it ain’t a mount, a peak, a butte, or a hill. It’s just a point on a slope. Take a step north from it, and you’re on higher ground in Massachusetts. Never mind; our high point on the south slope of Massachusetts’ Mount Frissell sits amid fine, remote hiking country. Here’s one route to take it in.

DATE: Friday, November 18th
START & FINISH: Undermountain trailhead, CT Route 41, 3mi north Salisbury
ROUTE: Undermountain Trail, Paradise Lane Trail, Northwest Road, and Mount Frissell Trail to lookout on South Taconic Trail just north of Brace Mountain. Return by same route.
DISTANCE: About 12.5 miles
TIME: 8 hours (7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Everything from flat and even to steep and rough. Starting trailhead 800 feet above sea level; Mount Frissell summit at 2,453; turnaround lookout at 2,100.
MAP: NYNJTC South Taconic Trails

WEATHER: Perfect; high close to 60 degrees
WILDLIFE: Nothing of note
PHOTOS: Here

BREAKFAST: Coffee, croissant, muffin from Cornwall Country Market
LUNCH: At the lookout, my turnaround point. Great view over the Hudson Valley to the Catskill Mountains (40 miles west as the crow would fly).

UPS: The big-sky views from Round Mountain, Mount Frissell, and my turnaround lookout.
DOWNS: None.
KIT: I took a wooly hat, a fleece, a jacket, and gloves, and did not need any of them.
COMPANY: None on the outward trek. While I was eating lunch overlooking the Catskills, voices – or rather one voice in particular – approached from the north. It seemed to want to fill the entire landscape, and did not sound like great company. The voice  turned out to belong to James, half of a backpacking duo. James and his buddy, young guys, sat down next to me. They proved excellent company, and we had a right good natter.

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Looking into Massachusetts from Round Mountain (Mount Greylock – MA’s highest summit – in the far distance)

Day Hike Notes – New England Trail (10)

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Crossing CT 80 in Guilford

For nearly all of our hike down from Massachusetts, Katie and I were never off the Metacomet Ridge for long. Sure, it disappeared here and there; but sooner or later we were walking along the traprock ridge again. This continuity was broken on this, our tenth hike. From Bluff Head, the Metacomet Ridge runs southwest as Totoket Mountain and Saltonstall Ridge. The New England Trail, in contrast, heads pretty much due south. It led us into woodland; undulating, but without the uniting presence of the long ridge. Even so, it was some of the most attractive land we had hiked through, and it went by evocative, even enigmatic names – Broomstick Ledges, The Genesee, Cockaponset forest. Long Island Sound is now a half-day’s hike away.

DATE: Friday, November 4th
START: Route 77, Guilford
FINISH: Willow Road, Guilford
ROUTE: Mattabesett/NET for 1.5 miles, then the NET alone (the Mattabesett turns northeast to reach the Connecticut River in 27 miles).
DISTANCE: 10.5 miles.
ACCUMULATED DISTANCE: 103.5 miles (excluding side trails and wrong turns).
TIME: 5.75 hours (8:15 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Easier with every mile south; a short, steep climb to Broomstick Ledges, then gentle ups, downs and levels.
MAP: AMC/CFPA New England Trail Map & Guide.

WEATHER: Near perfect; mostly sunny with a high of 59 degrees.
WILDLIFE: A bird of prey or two.
PHOTOS: Here.

BREAKFAST: Coffee and bagel at Little Store, Guilford.
LUNCH: The usual stuff, sat on a boulder beside Upper Guilford Lake.
UPS: Spectacular fall woods.
DOWNS: None at all.
KIT: I forgot my poles, did not miss them, but hope my knees won’t suffer later.
COMPANY: Given the beautiful day, fall colors, and gentle country, very, very little apart from Katie.

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Upper Guilford Lake

Taking a Hike – Back to the Den

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Rustic trail bridge, Devil’s Den, Weston CT

You can tell it’s autumn; we had snow flurries last week, but t-shirt weather yesterday. I doubt we’ll have many more t-shirt days this year, but I do hope the serious snow holds off. I still have hiking and even backpacking plans. More about those next, but first – belatedly – my October “Taking a Hike” column.

The column, not for the first time, is about the Devil’s Den in Weston CT. The Den is my nearest hiking place, and my family has visited it frequently for almost 18 years. The Den is not Yellowstone or even the Litchfield Hills, but even so it has its “wow!” places. The article is not about those places. It’s about a few of the Den’s unsung, quietly rewarding corners.

The Den’s big little places at The Hour.
The Den’s big little places at Hersam Acorn.

Those hiking plans:

My eldest daughter, Katie, and I still have a day and a half of hiking to do to reach Long Island Sound, and so complete our north-south traverse of Connecticut on the New England Trail. I am confident we will get it done in November.

Back in July, I wrote that I would be “off to the Dacks in August, or September, or maybe October”. It didn’t happen, on account of work projects. The idea was to backpack in Silver Lake Wilderness. I have not given up on the plan entirely, but recognize that the weather will need to cooperate. No part of the hike is much over 2,000 feet in elevation, and grades are gentle. But we are talking Upstate New York, so who knows what the weather will do? I am not bothered, within reason, by cold; it’s deep snow that would make me call a halt. Short days, too, may cause a cut-back on distance.

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The gully on Ensor’s Trace, Devil’s Den

Two Short Hikes in the Whites

After two days of lung-testing climbs and painstaking, knee-jarring descents, Katie and I wanted something gentler for our last day in the White Mountains. The night before, our garrulous campground ranger had said something like “the last thing the Whites need is more trails”. He’s probably right. Trails crisscross the map densely, and all Katie and I needed to do now was find one or two flattish, shortish ones that led somewhere pretty.

Sawyer River, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Sawyer River, rainfall needed

SAWYER POND TRAIL: Sawyer Pond is at least a nine-mile roundtrip hike from the Kancamagus Highway, but from the north, Sawyer River Road (smooth dirt) leads to a trailhead just 1.5 miles from the pond. Elevation gain from trailhead to pond is a modest 300 feet. This looked just right for Katie and I, and we arrived at the trailhead soon after 8 a.m.

Sawyer Pond Trail ran through mixed deciduous-conifer woods, the hardwood foliage running the gamut from green to already littering the forest floor. The trail was a breeze – no scrambles, no boulders, no unbridged brooks. We covered in 35 minutes as much distance as took us several hours yesterday. At Sawyer Pond, a young couple was camped at the rustic campsite, and it felt like we had gatecrashed their backcountry idyll. The pond – a quarter-mile across – lies beneath a spur of Mount Tremont and the distinctive hump of Owls Cliff, both splashed in yellows, oranges, and reds. It was grand scenery, but it felt a little flat (no pun intended) so soon after Wildcat Mountain.

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Mad River Notch and a spur of Mount Osceola

GREELEY PONDS TRAIL: If Sawyer Pond inspired me less than it should have, Greeley Ponds risked ending our Whites trip on a low. By early afternoon, the Kancamagus Highway was busy with visitor traffic, and we only managed to squeeze into the trailhead parking lot. But perhaps because rain was expected, most of the walkers we met were heading back to their cars, and we soon had the Greeley Ponds Trail mostly to ourselves. We had picked it for two topographic features – Mad River Notch and the ponds themselves. On the map, the notch is a steep cleft between spurs of mounts Kancamagus and Osceola, but we hardly noticed it from the trail itself. The upper pond – the first we came to – was nice enough, but it was the lower pond I really liked. The northern end was swampy, opening up a view of the notch. And under the arriving rain clouds, there was something raw and wild about that swamp – its blowing rough grasses, the dead stumps and dead trunks. You could forget that a tourist highway lay just two miles to the north.

More photos from these hikes can be found here.

Wildcat Mountain Backpack

Presidential Range from Wildcat Ridge

From left, Huntington Ravine, mounts Adams and Madison.

Yesterday, the Falling Waters Trail to Franconia Ridge had been busy, well past the tipping point for “too much company” – Columbus Day, decent weather (off the ridge), leaves to peep at down below. After we finished our hike, Katie and I decided we wanted more solitude, and we wanted to backpack. We chose, after a cursory glance at the map, the Wildcat Ridge Trail to Carter Notch Hut. Two years ago, I spent a memorable night at the hut (In and Out of the Wild River Wilderness). Now as then, the hut was in self-service season, meaning we would get a bunk, use of the stove, and none of the hullaballoo of an AMC hut in full-service mode.

It is 5.1 miles to Carter Notch Hut along the Wildcat Ridge Trail. The map showed several steep bits. Even so, after we had stepped across the stones in the Ellis River to get started at about 10:30 a.m., we thought we would reach the hut hours before sunset at 6 p.m. We climbed and scrambled steeply for an hour, enjoying magnificent views of Mount Washington to the west. The day was cloudless, and every crease in the mountain was visible in sharp focus. We reached a ledge with huge views and thought we had broken the back of the 1.9-mile climb to the first of Wildcat Mountain’s summits (romantically called E Peak). In truth, we were barely half way there.

The next section was tough for being unanticipated – short ups and downs, followed by the slow, steep slog to E Peak and, just beyond it, the top of Wildcat Mountain’s ski runs. It had taken us four hours to cover 1.9 miles. Even allowing for a long break, some shorter ones, and a water-pumping stop, it was slow progress. We met a hiker near E Peak who said that the descent to Carter Notch was steeper than the climb we had just completed. He had not attempted it himself.

After a leisurely lunch, we set off along the forested ridge, a walk of significant ups and downs over Wildcat’s rough D, C, and B summits. We reached A Peak – Wildcat Mountain proper, 4,422’ – about 4:50. Notwithstanding the intimidating prospect of the descent to come, we were elated to finally see Carter Notch and the hut nestled in it 1,100 feet directly below.

In the end, getting down to Carter Notch proved the easiest part of the day. The trail descended 1,000 feet in little over half a mile, but the footing was mostly firm and straightforward. We pushed open the door of the hut a little before sunset. Then we ate, slept, rose for sunrise, and did the whole thing again.

DATE: Tuesday/Wednesday, October 11-12.
START & FINISH: Glen Ellis Falls parking area.
ROUTE: Wildcat Ridge Trail to Nineteen-Mile Brook Trail to Carter Notch Hut and back.
DISTANCE: 10.2 mi roundtrip.
TIME: About 7.5 hours each way with long breaks.
MORE PHOTOS: Here

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West view of the Carter Range from Wildcat Mountain.