The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

Last weekend I took a trip far into the north woods, almost to the Matagamon Gate of Baxter State Park. Rather than entering Baxter, though, this trip went into the adjacent, and less well-known, Elliotsville Plantation trails along the Penobscot River. You may have heard of Elliotsville by other names in recent years– particularly in reference to a Maine Woods National Park. For this trip, I joined a group from the Natural Resources Council of Maine to cross-country ski several miles into the northern portion of the Katahdin Woods & Waters park and see what the area had to offer.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

The drive into Matagamon highlighted the reasons that this area would be ripe for increased tourism. Along the road to Patten, we were treated to stunning views of the entire range of ice-crusted mountains in Baxter Park, from Katahdin all the way to the Travelers. As we neared the gate, the Traveler Range loomed high above. We passed dozens of snowmobile trails and several businesses that catered to snow travelers. They seemed plenty busy on this cold, clear winter day, but the group of skiers added several customers to their ranks.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

It was a fairly late start from the northern trailhead, but skiing along groomed trails directly beneath Billfish and Bald Mountains made for speedy travel. The trails were originally logging roads, and are now modeled after Acadia’s carriage roads in terms of recreational opportunities (biking, horseback riding, and walking in summer, skiing and snowshoeing in winter), so the views are a little different from what you’d be used to in Baxter State Park. Rather than high mountain views, we looked up at the mountains from old clear cuts, and at the river from campsites along the banks.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Some of the oppositional commentary I’ve heard about the National Park idea has focused on the fact that the most spectacular scenery in the region is already in Baxter, but those ideas seem curmudgeonly and stubborn once you’ve had the opportunity to lose yourself in your thoughts in the deep woods here. I, for one, would love to walk the length of the Katahdin Woods, then paddle back along the Penobscot for a woods and waters version of a loop. I can imagine thousands of other visitors benefiting from the same kind of experience. For the long-distance hiker, there’s also the possibility of a sixty-mile loop, combining the International Appalachian Trail in Katahdin Woods & Waters, and several trails in Baxter. This would take some advanced logistics and planning, but would make for a lovely week in the woods.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

The trek ended at Haskell Hut, one of several campsites within the park. This was a renovated logging camp at the edge of a deadwaters on the river, complete with bunks, wood stove, and a fine view over the marsh. I imagine that in the summer and spring, this place would be prime for watching birds and other wildlife. For winter, it’s a great spot to stop in and warm up before heading back to Matagamon.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

The ski out was just as pleasant as the ski in, with more views of the Travelers and Bald Mountain, and the sun dipping low to the horizon as we neared the cars. The day’s miles had extended a little further than planned, which made for either the longest or second longest day of cross country skiing I’ve ever done. The gentle grades of the old logging roads, and the freshly groomed trails certainly helped, but I still needed a few days of rest after this one. I am still a little exhausted, but it was worth every second of aching muscles to be out there.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

It's more snow, now, than tree...

It’s more snow, now, than tree…

For Sunday’s hike, Siren and I headed to Crawford Notch and the Mt Willey Range. Siren has been living deep in the mountains of western New Hampshire for the winter, before she heads west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which you’ll be able to read about at her blog!). In the meantime, she’s checking off 4000 Footers in the White Mountains, one snow-covered trip at a time.

Such smooth ground cover, it's like walking on clouds.

Such smooth ground cover, it’s like walking on clouds.

Another three to six inches had fallen in the mountains overnight, giving us yet more deep powder to trudge through right out of the parking lot, and coating the trees so thickly that they often resembled strange creatures from a Tim Burton film. I guess there had been relatively little wind around there recently, because many trees had tall snow piles balanced precariously on top of long branches. Occasionally a brush of a backpack on a low-hanging branch would send snow falling from the trees in such large dumps that our entire snowshoe track would be obliterated. I can’t remember the last time I had such wonderful snow conditions in the White Mountains.

Foster the Mountain Dog, through the marshmallow forest.

Foster the Mountain Dog, through the marshmallow forest.

The climb to Mount Tom, the northernmost of the three peaks of the Willey Range, is a mellow hike by local standards, but we saw no one until we neared the summit. Signs and blazes on the trees were set low to the ground, giving a good impression of the snow’s depth, but otherwise there was little sign of humanity. Just the way I like it.

Siren threads the needle through precariously perched snow piles.

Siren threads the needle through precariously perched snow piles.

As we traversed between Mount Tom and Mount Field, the snow covering the trees became denser, like we were walking through a garden of giant marshmallows. With the corridor of the trail mostly below our feet, the marshmallow trees squeezed into the trail much tighter than one would be used to in summer, and breaking trail in the virtually untouched ground cover slowed us to a fairly slow pace. But there’s nothing to complain about in that. This was some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve had in a long time. With the mountains in the clouds, we could focus on closer views of snow mounds.

On Mt Tom, walking in the clouds.

On Mt Tom, walking in the clouds.

Atop Mount Field, the sky cleared a little bit and we ran into a few other hikers. For such a nice day on a fairly popular mountain, I was surprised to see so few people on the trail, but certainly not disappointed. There’s something of an enchanted forest feel to the mountain when it’s so quiet and buried like this. We may have never been more than three miles from the nearest road, but it never felt like we were anywhere near civilization.

On the descent. Notice the height of the blaze, which is normally about eye level.

On the descent. Notice the height of the blaze, which is normally about eye level.

After Mt Field, we decided that two peaks were good enough for the day (it was a long drive back for each of us), and so we descended along the Avalon Trail, with a brief stop for the only views of the day on Mt Avalon. Though it’s the shortest peak we hit that day, I often get the best views from there because it is short enough to keep its head out of the clouds, unlike the higher peaks of the range. And, as an added bonus, the steepness of the trail heading down allowed for some long and exciting butt-sledding– the icing on an already wonderful cake of a day.

Looking down Crawford Notch from Mt Avalon.

Looking down Crawford Notch from Mt Avalon.

Last weekend had much better conditions than the previous one, so I tried to make up for the few days I’d taken off in the poorer conditions by doing two great day hikes. The first was a late start to the iconic (and difficult to pronounce) Mt Chocorua. Chocorua is one of the southernmost peaks in the White Mountains, and not particularly tall at only 3500 feet, but it has one of the most distinctive shapes in the area, with a snaggle-tooth rocky peak jutting up from the ridge. That rocky peak, battered by high winds and totally exposed, is similar to many much higher summits, which makes it a great place for epic views and some exciting scrambles.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

Hiker Box, Badass, Siren and I set out late in the morning on the Piper Trail, which is one of the more popular trails up the mountain. For winter, the trailhead isn’t plowed, but an old couple who share a driveway with the trailhead allow hikers to park in their yard for $3 per car. I’m happy to pay the small price, since they’re friendly folks and seem perpetually amused by the crazy people walking up the mountain behind their home.

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Despite the clearly broken-out trail, the low temperatures and frequent powdery snow from this winter kept the ground soft, making snowshoes a must for the entire ascent. In most winters, microspikes would have been more than sufficient, but they work best after a few freeze/thaw cycles turn the packed trail into something between ice and snow. There hasn’t been any thawing this winter, which is just the way I like it.

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Walking through the woods for most of the approach, we could see the jagged summit through the trees most of the way. The sky was mostly overcast, but once we broke above tree line the clouds proved to be just high enough to allow some grey views of several mountain ranges, from the Sandwich Range to the Presidentials.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

The last half mile to the summit is entirely exposed ridgeline, walking on rock and ice. We probably should have switched to microspikes or crampons for this section, but rugged snowshoes worked well enough if we slowed down and took care in our footing. There were plenty of other hikers out this day, though no one spent more than a few minutes getting buffeted by wind on the summit.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

We snapped a few pictures, then booked it down the trail for dinner at the Yankee Smokehouse in West Ossipee. It was a late night once we included the drive back from the trail, but even with a 11 AM start on the trail, we managed not to hike in the dark at all. A great start to a great weekend!

Philip starts the day with a climb into the new powder.

Philip starts the day with a climb into the new powder.

Another week of heavy snow in New England meant the mountains were ripe for exploration. My friend, Hikerbox, had one 4000 Footer left on his peakbagging list before he heads out west, so he proposed an overnight hike to Mt Moriah for last weekend. Philip and I gladly joined in for the opportunity to do some alpine snow camping.

Entering the Wild River Wilderness, the trail disappeared into the snow within 100 feet.

Entering the Wild River Wilderness, the trail disappeared into the snow within 100 feet.

Though the trail up to the Carter-Moriah Range’s ridge was broken out by a few sets of snowshoes before us, the snow was still so fresh and fluffy that we needed snowshoes the entire way. I find this to be a rare luxury in the White Mountains, where for the past several winters I’ve seen only snow that’s so packed down by hundreds of pairs of feet that snowshoes become nearly useless. Once the snow falls in the Whites, the trails get packed so quickly that most people leave their snowshoes in the car and go out with just Microspikes or similar light traction.

Squint real hard and you can imagine granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

Squint real hard and you can imagine granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

With a couple hours listening to the soft swishing of our snowshoes, we were at the top of the Stony Brook Trail, where all previous tracks turned north toward Mt Moriah. Instead, we took the path not traveled at all, and dropped down the Moriah Brook Trail, wading through several feet of soft powder until we decided we’d had enough and stopped to make camp. This was only around 12:30 in the afternoon, so we used the time to dig a kitchen pit, gather firewood, and build ourselves a nice home for the afternoon and evening.

Home sweet home for the night.

Home sweet home for the night.

One of many great things about winter camping is that you can build as elaborate a camp as you like without as much worry about Leave No Trace as summer. We dug down close to five feet into the snow to make a fire pit, added benches, a counter, and a wind wall before we were finished. When we left camp the next morning, we knocked much of the snow wall down into the pit, and by summertime there will be no evidence we were ever there.

Beginning the ridgewalk along the Carter-Moriah Range.

Beginning the ridgewalk along the Carter-Moriah Range.

We had a long, relaxing evening with plenty of hot cocoa and snow melting, and a late winter bedtime of 8 PM. I especially love backpacking in winter with fresh snow because of how wild and lonely the world becomes. The snow mutes all sound, and the blackness of the forest closes in around you in ways that you don’t get in other environments. It’s as peaceful as can be, and in many ways the most remote you can get.

Sheltered below the summit of Moriah.

Sheltered below the summit of Moriah.

In the morning, with a few new inches of snow and more coming down, we met the rest of our group back at the trail junction, and proceeded to hike through the snow and clouds to Moriah. There were few, if any, views from the open ledges on the way up the mountain, but that didn’t make the trek any less delightful. We pushed through deep snow drifts, and into marshmallow forests, occasionally blasted by a bitter east wind. The summit was too windy for lengthy celebrations when Hikerbox finished his final NH4K summit, but the trudge back to the cars was reward enough.

Hikerbox celebrates quickly on the summit.

Hikerbox celebrates quickly on the summit.

With more snow falling throughout the week, it looks like this delightful winter will continue. I’m hoping for many more overnight trips in the near future.

Descending into the ice and fog.

Descending into the ice and fog.

Is it too early for 2015 PCT hikers to make a High Sierra hiking plan? Probably. We took a look at historic High Sierra snow pack data, as gathered by the California Department of Water Resources  (Station ID: BGH) at Bighorn Plateau. The snow depth at the Bighorn Plateau station (Google map) has been measured since 1949.

The chart below plots snow depth each year from 1990 to February 2015. You will see 4 bars in each group (except 1996, which is missing March data), representing the snow depth in February, March, April and May for that year.

Sierra Historic Snow Pack

Although February snow level tends to be a decent predictor of May snow, you should notice that you cannot reliably predict the May snow level based upon the February data. Just take a look at 1991 and 2013 to convince yourself of that.

So far 2015 looks like it may be a low snow year, but it’s too early to tell.

For your entertainment, here is all data, from 1949, taken from the Bighorn Plateau station. If you tackled the High Sierra in 1983 or any of the other big snow years, it would be interesting to hear from you in the comments.

Sierra Snow Pack 1949-2015