For the second backpacking trip that I led for the summer camp, it was going to be a much larger group. Fifteen of us, which is way too big for proper LNT ethics. With that in mind, I planned four nights on the least crowded trail I could think of, the Cohos Trail. Of course, I wanted to get back to the CT for selfish reasons, too, but I figured it would be a good trip for the kids.
It was a long drive up to Stark and into the Nash Stream Forest from Keene, but we finally made it down the dirt road to the pull off for the Percy Peaks Loop trail. We didn’t spend much time getting our things together before we hit the trail– I was ever conscious of time, knowing that we needed to move at a steady pace to get up North Percy and down to our campsite before dark.
The climb up to North Percy Peak was steep and arduous, starting out as an easy walk through dense forest and quickly turning into a scramble to a saddle between the two peaks. The group moved slower and slower, since this was a new group of kids who had never carried full packs before. A mellow overcast had settled in the sky above us, making me a little nervous since I was determined to get a view from North Percy.
|The view from North Percy Peak– the town of Lancaster is far away behind the mountains.|
The sky was clear enough to see in all directions from the top of Percy Peak, although most of the kids were more interested in the vast blueberry fields on the summit. I managed to identify Sugarloaf Mountain to the north, which we would hopefully summit the following day, as well as the Presidential Range and the Pilot and Pliny ranges to the south. Fine views all around, despite the partly grey skies.
We dropped back down from the summit, slowly making our way down to the Percy Loop tent site. From past experience I knew that this campsite would barely hold my group, and if anyone else planned to camp there tonight it would be a mess of an overcrowded site. All I could do was cross my fingers and hope nobody else was there when we arrived. Sure enough, the reputation of the Cohos Trail for being uncrowded was correct tonight. Though there is only one tent platform at the site, we managed to fit our four tents in the small clearing and bedded down for the night.
The clouds seemed to have cleared in the morning, adding to our streak of good luck with the weather this summer. From the Percy Loop tent site, we had a very mellow walk down an old logging road that was now the Cohos Trail, then a few miles along the dirt Nash Stream Road to start the day. Not the most exciting hiking, but far from unpleasant.
At the end of our walk along the Nash Stream Road, we were able to drop packs and take a small detour to Pond Brook Falls, a gorgeous cascade over smooth rocks leading to a sizable pot hole with good swimming. Another bonus.
|A fine swimming hole at the bottom of Pond Brook Falls. The falls go on for quite a ways above this.|
After Pond Brook Falls, the trail went from dirt road to snowmobile trail. The last time I’d been on the Cohos Trail, I’d found that walking on snowmobile trails was a very unpleasant experience. Since there is no well-defined footpath on the snowmobile trail, grass tends to be high and can quickly soak your feet if it’s been doused with rain. Today, however, the tread was hot and dry, so no problem. We had a few views of Percy Peak to our south as we climbed up over Sugarloaf Arm, and the trail meandered into dense forest with just enough shade to keep us cool.
To finish our day with a view, we found the side trail up Sugarloaf Mountain. This would add a total of four miles onto our hike, and it was already pretty late in the afternoon. The sky was mostly clear, though, and I’d skipped the side trip on my previous hike on the Cohos Trail, so I was eager to get up there. The trail wasted no time in pointing straight up the mountain, climbing approximately 2200 feet in just two miles. Since it was an out-and-back trail, we left our packs at the bottom, and thank goodness we did. The steep walk was tiring enough without the extra weight.
|Looking north from Sugarloaf into the Nash Stream Bog and beyond.|
At the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, the trail emerged onto an open cliff where a fire watchtower had stood until sometime in the 1970s. The view was quite possibly the best on the entire Cohos Trail. To the south I could see all the way to Mount Washington and a little beyond. The bald cone of Percy Peak stood out like a sore thumb just a little to the south, and it amazed the kids to see just how far they had walked today. To the north, I pointed out Baldhead Mountain, where we would camp the next night, and Dixville Peak, which we would camp near the night after. The view from Sugarloaf encompassed more than half of the entire Cohos Trail. We hung out on the cliffs for over an hour, soaking in the sun and the views.
A seemingly quick trip back down to our packs, and then a mile or so more to camp at Camp Kirk, the Cohos Trail Association’s old cabin where they stage work trips into the Nash Stream Forest. We camped out on the lawn, thoroughly exhausted and happy with our day.
After two days of hitting big peaks, today would be a relatively uneventful day, although we would travel further and see more than in the past two days. The morning started with a walk along the East Side Trail, tracing the perimeter of Nash Bog. From my previous trip on the Cohos Trail, I knew that this was one of the finest sections of trail as far as footpath goes. While much of the CT is on dirt roads or snowmobile trails, the sections that follow dedicated footpaths are pretty superb. The Percy Loop is a fine example, but the East Side Trail provides a nice, mellow walk through gorgeous forest. Thick moss covered much of the ground, and the occasional cluster of boulders spiced up the trail while we made our way around the bog.
The slog started once we exited the deep woods at the north end of the Nash Stream Road, and then turned onto the Gadwah Notch Trail. Now we were back on snowmobile trails for a while, and it was brutally hot out. While the footpath of the snowmobile trail wasn’t half bad, the openness of those trails meant there was little shelter from the heat of the day, so we trudged along, sweating like crazy, looking for any shady spot we could find for a lunch break.
|Cathedral Meadow makes for a nice picnic spot if not for the insane heat.|
We passed Cathedral Meadow, Moran Meadow, Muise Bowl, and then Bulldozer Flat– four open meadows with views of the surrounding mountains that we’d looked at from Sugarloaf the evening before, but shade was hard to come by. We didn’t have a proper lunch break until late in the afternoon when we finally re-entered the woods near Gadwah Notch and Mount Muise. At this point the trail had returned to footpath, and one that was much finer than I’d remembered. We walked along Gadwah Notch through a dense forest of fir and spruce, climbing steeply at times, until we found the first semi-open area to stop for a break.
From there it wasn’t much further to the top of Baldhead Mountain, where the Baldhead shelter awaited. We didn’t plan to sleep in the shelter because it can barely fit six people, and once we looked at it we realized it’s seen better days. Luckily, Kim Nilsen of the Cohos Trail Association had warned us that there was some flat area just past the shelter where we could tent. It turned out to be a fine tenting area in an open fir grove, well cushioned with moss. The fresh and large pile of bear scat right nearby was a little worrisome, but we had no nocturnal visits this night.
|Some views were available from the blasted out summit of Dixville Peak.|
From Baldhead Mountain we headed downhill toward Kelsey Notch, along more of that fine Cohos Trail footpath. The descent was steep, to be sure, but I’d forgotten how pleasant the forest on Baldhead could be. Though the sky was thick with clouds, I walked along merrily. Even a little sprinkling of rain that fell on our heads at our brunch break couldn’t dampen my spirits. The brunch break was a must, by the way, since Baldhead is dry. The spring there is very unreliable, so we had to wait until Kelsey Notch to find a water source.
After Kelsey Notch, we had the ascent of Dixville Peak to keep us busy. This was easily the low point of the trek, as the trail is a massive access road up the peak for heavy machinery. The landowners are busy building a massive wind farm on the mountain, so we had a walk up steep, blasted out rock and loose dirt. The clouds were still thick as we climbed, so the views from the open road were mostly obscured. Once we arrived at the peak, which looked like a bomb had hit it, the clouds started to clear and gave us somewhat of a view of the area near Colebrook.
|Vermont’s Monadnock with the town of Colebrook, NH below.|
From the peak, it was another few miles down more access roads until we arrived at the top of Mount Gloriette, the Balsams Wilderness ski area. This would be our home for the night, camping next to ski lift towers and ski patrol warming huts. Again, no water at this campsite, but the views of Vermont’s Mount Monadnock above the town of Colebrook were a fine trade off. We watched the sun set over Monadnock, and had an early night.
Plenty of rain in the night on top of Mount Gloriette. We awoke inside a dense cloud, our views from the previous night nowhere to be seen. With a little more drizzle starting to fall, we tried to pack quickly and get on our way, but this was our first morning of being really wet. For a bunch of kids who aren’t used to this sort of thing, it’s difficult to get them excited about walking another few miles inside a cloud.
|A dizzying drop to Dixville Notch as seen from Table Rock.|
We got on our soaking way eventually, pushing through chest-high bushes on the access path between Mount Gloriette and Table Rock. We were all thoroughly soaked by the time we got close to Table Rock, but our luck rejoined us as we arrived. Just as we stepped into the clearing next to the giant cliff, clouds began to part, and we had a magnificent view of Dixville Notch and the Balsams Grand Resort from one of the tallest cliffs in the Northeast.
The trip down to the Notch went by quickly, since the kids now knew that the bus was waiting. The trail down is a magnificent piece of work, going over several waterfalls and gorges. Someone apparently fell to their doom from one of these cliffs earlier in the year, so I told the kids to be a little more careful than usual. I don’t think I needed to tell them. The trail is mighty scenic, but you can tell where a missed step will send you on a long fall.
I was at the back of the group when I heard the first screams of joy that meant the kids had spotted the bus. Another successful trip, and effectively the end of the summer camp season.