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

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.

Franconia Ridge, Abandoned

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Katie, my eldest daughter, on the Falling Waters Trail

Our plan was to climb to Little Haystack Mountain, follow Franconia Ridge north to Mount Lafayette (5,260’), then descend back into Franconia Notch via the Greenleaf and Old Bridle Path trails. Katie was very keen to see the stunning views across the Pemigewasset Wilderness that the ridge offers (I was too, although I had hiked the ridge before). From our camp in the Notch we could see mist blowing over the Franconia summits, but the forecast was for clear skies.

It was blowy at camp too, but for most of our climb to Little Haystack the air was calm. At about 4,000 feet, we were delighted to see rime frost coating the pines around us. After Shining Rock – a huge, steep ledge – we started to meet warmly bundled-up hikers coming down from the top. It was brutal up there, they said, the wind would knock you down. We pushed on.

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Rime frost on the Falling Waters Trail

Just below the ridge, among the last of the stunted pines, it was chilly in a thin mist, but not windy so that you would comment on it. But when we stepped onto the alpine summit we were hit straightaway by a fierce wind from the northwest. We learned later that it was busy channeling air from high pressure inland toward the low pressure of Hurricane Matthew out in the Atlantic.

If the sun had come out, the frosted summit would have looked beautiful. As it was, we hunkered from the wind in the lee of rocks. Just standing up to look around was to be shoved about, skin stung by the subzero wind. It was an easy decision to abandon our planned 2-mile ridge-walk. At the very least it would have required goggles and balaclava. 

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Chilled on Little Haystack Mountain

DATE: Monday, October 10th.
START & FINISH: Lafayette Place, Franconia State Park.
ROUTE: Falling Waters Trail, 3,000 feet up and down.
DISTANCE: 6.4 mi roundtrip.
TIME: 6-7 hours.

More from New Hampshire to follow.

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Falling Waters

The Great Autumn North Woods

Mt Washington from Mt Webster, decorated with rime, mid-October 2007.

Mt Washington from Mt Webster, decorated with rime, mid-October 2007.

I mentioned in Heading Back to Baxter that I’d visited that state park in 2006. The trip took place at the very end of summer (September 20-22), but it was definitely autumn up there. The following year – mid-October this time – I escaped the office again for a few days and based my hiking out of New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch. I was catching the bug for the Great North Woods in fall.

" ... but woke to a glorious dawn". Zealand Ridge, October 2012.

” … but woke to a glorious dawn”. Zealand Ridge, October 2012.

Work and other matters got in the way for a few years (although I did find time to get Lost in the Adirondacks with my youngest one September). Then, three years ago, I returned to the October White Mountains for a backpack from Crawford Notch to Zealand Ridge and back. I pitched my tent on the ridge in gloom and rain, but woke to a glorious dawn. It was likely on the trek back to the Notch that I decided to make a habit of a short fall adventure up north.

Thoreau Falls Trail, Pemi Wilderness, October 2013.

Thoreau Falls Trail, Pemi Wilderness, October 2013.

Two years ago, I circled and crossed the Pemigewasset Wilderness over the course of four days. Last year, I spent the same amount of time in and around the Wild River Wilderness. Both treks left inerasable and sustaining memories.

Which is why I am very reluctant to let this year’s expedition be scuppered.

Sunrise lights up the White Mountains, October 2014.

Sunrise lights up the White Mountains, October 2014.

The troublesome knee I talked about in my last post is still troublesome, very much so at times. The orthopedist did not offer a quick fix. There are, he thinks, several things wrong at once. He also said that, short of running a marathon or playing a lot of basketball, I cannot do it much further damage. That leaves pain as the limiting factor. Right now it is limiting me to getting around little and slowly. I am hoping that a cortisone shot will change that dramatically, and allow me to enjoy Baxter later in the month, even at the price of restricting myself to its lower, flatter, joint-friendlier parts.

Taking a Hike – January in Scotland

Loch Lomond from the Ben Lomond path

Loch Lomond from the Ben Lomond path

Southern Upland Way looking toward the Lowther Hills

Southern Upland Way looking toward the Lowther Hills

You would not choose to travel to Scotland in January to hike. Winter hiking, I suspect, is everywhere a local’s thing. Best to have years of experience of the terrain and weather, best to be able to head out at short notice when conditions are most favorable. I have hiked plenty in Scotland, but in the mild, light seasons.

Last month a family funeral took me to Glasgow – not as cold as the US Northeast, but windier, darker, and icy enough. “Taking a Hike”, my monthly newspaper column, is this month about some hiking I did after the funeral and family visits. The column was published this week in both The Hour (Winter hikes in Scotland) and at Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure (Winter in Scotland has its rewards).

The Wildcat River, New Hampshire, after rain

The Wildcat River, New Hampshire, after rain

November’s “Taking a Hike” – New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Nov – Wild River Wilderness” – or by clicking here).

Taking a Hike – Wild River Wilderness

Wild River Wilderness, NH, from North Baldface mountain.

Day Four – Wild River Wilderness from the Baldface Circle Trail

“Taking a Hike”, my monthly newspaper column, has now been published for November at both The Hour and Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure. I hope it gives a flavor of the four-day backpack I took in and around New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness in October.

One aspect of a hike like that which the article does not talk about is how very busy your mind is kept. You would think the absence of people, the internet, chores, and work would free the mind for the uninterrupted contemplation of nature – or at least for boredom. But I remember being endlessly occupied with not falling over; not getting lost; not running out of daylight; keeping my gear dry; keeping my camp in order; updating my plans as the weather changed … There were, of course, opportunities to admire the scenery – particularly on the last day – but they were fewer and further between than one might expect.

August’s “Taking a Hike” – mounts Pisgah and Mansfield in Vermont – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Aug – Vermont Peaks” – or by clicking here).