foliage

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Last weekend wasn’t the best weekend for getting distant views from mountaintops in New England, but I found some hikes in the White Mountains that proved that even in the dense “green tunnel” you can find a totally satisfying wilderness trip. I had climbed a few mountains on Friday and Saturday, with few views up top and plenty of views down low, but I’ll leave those stories for another day. Here’s how it went down on Sunday.

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My high-school classmate, Cass, and her fiance, Mark, had just finished a through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail a few weeks earlier (they have a wonderful trail journal). We had reconnected when Cass found out about my Pacific Crest Trail apps before their hike, which I thought was a pretty cool coincidence. My high school has less than 300 students, so chance meetings between students aren’t very common, let alone chance meetings by Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Cass and Mark had returned to Maine only a few days earlier, so we all got together for some classic foliage hiking near the Wild River.

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The forecast called for almost certain rain, and chilly autumn temperatures. We figured any mountaintop views would be blocked by clouds, and it would be cold enough that we wouldn’t want to hang around in exposed areas, anyway. With that in mind, we started up the Stony Brook Trail near Gorham, NH, walking along the brook through deep woods for several miles. The leaves of the forest canopy were just at the right level of color to make the overcast sky seem as bright as a sunny day. What leaves had already fallen added extra color to the brook beside us, and kept our footsteps nice and loud, shuffling and crunching over the trail.

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We did have one open view at the crest of the Carter-Moriah range, where the Stony Brook Trail crosses the Carter-Moriah Trail (the Appalachian Trail, also) and the Moriah Brook Trail continues down the other side. We could only stay on the ledge for a minute, since the wind was biting cold, but we did get a nice look at the overcast sky, with Caribou Mountain and the Moriah Brook valley below us.

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From there, we dropped down into the Wild River Wilderness on the Moriah Brook Trail, which bore some similarities to the Black Angel Trail I’d been on in the same wilderness area only a few weeks earlier. Maybe it was the foliage, but I have to say the Moriah Brook Trail was one of the most beautiful trails I’ve walked along all year.

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Heading down the trail, we immediately began to follow Moriah Brook, which started out in a pleasantly moss-covered spruce forest with giant boulders choking the waterway. The trail had some tricky footing, due to hidden mud under the leaves, but considering the condition of many Wilderness trails in the Whites, we did pretty well. Just as many wet feet came about as a result of gawking at the foliage as came from well-hidden mud puddles.

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As we wound our way down along Moriah Brook, it went from a tight, jumbled mountain brook to a wide, rocky river. We passed too many fine swimming holes to count (not in this weather, though. We’ll have to come back in the summer), cascading waterfalls, and river-smoothed boulders that would make for dozens of amazing picnic spots.

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After many miles of steady descent along the brook, the trail joined with the Highwater Trail, which runs along the west banks of the Wild River all the way from Evan’s Notch into the heart of the Wild River Wilderness. Where we joined the trail, the Wild River was many times larger than Moriah Brook, and it still showed signs of wear from the flooding in 2011. In a few places, the Highwater Trail disappeared over the banks of the river, forcing us on short (and pretty easy) bushwhacking adventures. No complaints here, though. The giant, rocky river is a beauty.

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We decided to cut the hike short by a few miles, as it was getting pretty late in the day, so we forded the river at the Shelburne Trail and walked along the Wild River Road back to the second car. Our timing was impeccable– a bitter cold rain started to fall just as we climbed into the car, and didn’t let up much until Monday night. It’s hard to imagine a better autumn foliage hike than this one, and we timed everything just right.

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Last Friday, I craved a shorter hike than what I’ve been doing recently. I’d moved to Portland, Maine, at the end of the summer, which put me very close to the eastern White Mountains and the Mahoosuc Range, so I decided on Puzzle Mountain near Grafton Notch State Park. I’d hiked over Puzzle Mountain four times in the past, while hiking the Grafton Loop Trail, but every time it had been enclosed in dense clouds, so I’ve never had a view from the mountain’s open ledges.

Friday seemed like a guaranteed change to that trend. After a leisurely drive from Portland, including a stop at Hungry Hollow Country Store in West Paris (a place I haven’t been in over a decade, but is every bit as quirky and delightful as I remembered it), I made my way into the woods from the Grafton Loop Trail parking lot.

A lower ledge on Puzzle Mountain looks up to Old Speck and Baldpate, still a little cloudy.

A lower ledge on Puzzle Mountain looks up to Old Speck and Baldpate, still a little cloudy.

The Grafton Loop Trail is one of my favorites anywhere. Much of it is quite new, no more than ten years old, so walking the trail still feels like walking on the forest floor, rather than an eroded old track. And as it traverses such a gorgeous set of mountains, the trail quickly finds some great places. The first stop was a wide ledge that looked up Grafton Notch to Old Speck and Baldpate Mountains, morning clouds still clinging to both. Leaves are just beginning to change color, and the early autumn air showed not a hint of haze. Visibility was perfect.

A new sign for the new Woodsum Loop trail on Puzzle Mountain.

A new sign for the new Woodsum Loop trail on Puzzle Mountain.

I took the newly-blazed Woodsum Loop to spice things up a bit, walking along a trail so new that much of it was still covered in thick beds of moss and lichen. The loop trail leaves the GLT just below the southwest summit of Puzzle Mountain, and wanders over many open slabs of bedrock with views out to Sunday River ski resort, the Presidential Range, and much of the area near Bethel. My hat is off to whoever came up with the idea of adding that loop to an already fine trail.

Sunday River ski resort, with the Presidential Range peeking out of the clouds behind.

Sunday River ski resort, with the Presidential Range peeking out of the clouds behind.

Once up top on the southwest peak of Puzzle Mountain, back on the GLT, I had panoramic views all the way from Mount Washington to Sugarloaf Mountain. Best of all, it was still pretty early in the day. I had seen two people just after reaching the summit, but for the next hour I had the peak all to myself. It was one of those rare times where there was absolute silence and sublime views. I stayed put for almost two hours, not wanting to break the spell. After a while, I was joined by a local woman and her dog, and we had a nice chat about the area and its delightful mountains.

Southwest Peak of Puzzle Mountain, finally with a view of the Mahoosuc Range and Grafton Notch. Well worth the wait.

Southwest Peak of Puzzle Mountain, finally with a view of the Mahoosuc Range and Grafton Notch. Well worth the wait.

A two hour lunch break was enough for one day, so I had a mellow trip back down to the parking lot, not passing a single person on the way down. I stopped about a dozen times during the walk down to just close my eyes, listen to the rustling leaves, and smell the changing of the season. Without trying to make big miles or interact with other hikers, it was the most peaceful four miles of hiking I’ve had in many months. Sometimes I enjoy hiking because I can wear myself out physically and feel wrecked at the end of the day, and sometimes I enjoy it for the pure relaxation. Friday was definitely the latter kind of hiking day.

Over the weekend, I met up with Philip (of Sectionhiker.com) and Steve, both Appalachian Mountain Club trip leaders, for a two-night backpacking trip through one of the wildest regions of the White Mountains. The Wild River Wilderness is one of my favorite parts of the National Forest, though I spend very little time there. The Wilderness is a densely vegetated valley around the Wild River, walled in by the Carter-Moriah Range to the west, and the Baldface-Royce Range to the east. Both of these ranges are very popular with peak-baggers and day hikers, but deeper into the middle it gets wild in a hurry.

Steve and Philip at Zeta Pass.

Steve and Philip at Zeta Pass.

We started on Friday morning at the trailhead for the Nineteen Mile Brook trail, one of the most popular trails in the Whites since it leads directly to Carter Notch Hut. We had an early start on a sunny, cool day, but it was still a weekday, so the crowds were small. Most of the people we passed on the way up to the Carter-Moriah Range were peak-baggers, probably heading up to Carter Dome rather than Mount Hight, which was our destination. Hight, technically a shoulder of Carter Dome, doesn’t count as a 4000-footer, though the views from the peak are the best in the entire range.

From Mt Hight, looking at the Presidential Range.

From Mt Hight, looking at the Presidential Range.

Philip fords the Wild River.

Philip fords the Wild River.

From Hight, we walked up the Carter-Moriah Trail a short distance and then started down the Black Angel Trail. Black Angel goes all the way down to the Wild River, then back up to the other side of the Wilderness toward Meader Mountain. As soon as we turned off of the Carter-Moriah Trail (which is also the Appalachian Trail) it was obvious that we’d entered a more wild area. The trail was less eroded, thick with duff and soil, choked with roots and fallen twigs, surrounded by dense moss beds– everything felt more like a wild forest than like a well-trodden hiking trail.

Philip getting water at Blue Brook (with Steve up top).

Philip getting water at Blue Brook (with Steve up top).

Being three well-heeled hikers, we made faster time than expected, even with a ford of the Wild River. We pushed a few miles beyond our planned to camp, ending up for the day at the Blue Brook Campsite high on the shoulder of Mount Meader. Blue Brook, along with several other campsites in the Wild River Wilderness, once housed a lean-to, but has now been converted to a tenting site that I think is a lovely little area. The fifteen foot waterfall for a water source sure doesn’t hurt. We had an early evening, and I was asleep by 8 PM– I especially love backpacking in the fall, since early sundown means more sleep.

Undercast clouds hugging the Royce Range.

Undercast clouds hugging the Royce Range.

On Saturday morning, we awoke to a misty trail. We quickly gained the Rim Trail near Mount Meader, and walked the ridge along to Eagle Crag, then North and South Baldface, returning to Eagle Crag for the descent. As we walked along the ridge, the thick clouds broke, showing a welcome sight: to the east, as far as the eye could see, dense clouds hugged the ground below, while the land and sky to the west were perfectly clear. As we walked across the open saddle between the Baldfaces, the clouds shifted and swirled around us, but generally left a beautiful view all around. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking, but they don’t do the views the least bit of justice.

Steve on Eagle Crag, heading to North Baldface.

Steve on Eagle Crag, heading to North Baldface.

Steve and Philip climb North Baldface. The Carter Moriah Range and Mahoosuc Mountains in the background.

Steve and Philip climb North Baldface. The Carter Moriah Range and Mahoosuc Mountains in the background.

After the Baldfaces, we dropped into the Wilderness once again, this time on the Eagle Link Trail. Just like all the trails from the rim of the Wilderness, the Eagle Link heads down to the river, through dense vegetation with little sign of humanity. This time, rather than continuing across the Wild River back up to the mountains, we turned south on the Wild River Trail, walking along the headwaters of the river, crossing many heavily eroded tributaries. Part of the erosion and overgrowth is due to damage from Irene a few years ago, but there’s also a lack of trail maintenance here. Most people say that as a negative thing, but a place that gets little traffic and maintenance is great as far as I’m concerned (lots of traffic with little maintenance is the bad thing). Like I said before, it just feels more wild.

Looking down the ridge of South Baldface, into the sea of fog.

Looking down the ridge of South Baldface, into the sea of fog.

We moved on to Perkins Notch for the night, another campsite on the site of a removed shelter. I’d stayed at Perkins Notch in winter a few years ago, so the terrain looked familiar, but things are very different in summer. Perkins Notch is a beautiful spot, but not so great as a campsite. The campsite is a wind funnel, and the water source requires a swampy bushwhack. Luckily, we arrived just minutes before the rain started, so I was able to pitch my tarp in a decent spot. Philip and Steve, having more experience tenting in this area, warned me against pitching on the official tent pads. In the morning, they looked like swimming pools, so I was glad for that advice.

Descending into the wilderness again.

Descending into the wilderness again.

A friend in Conway described the rain on Saturday night as “epic,” and I’m willing to agree. It rained hard throughout the night, and for the first time in eight years my silnylon tarp didn’t hold up. Part of that was my own fault, for not getting up in the middle of the night to tighten the guylines– silnylon stretches when it gets cold and wet. After tightening the lines a little too late, a stake pulled out due to softening ground, and some of the saturated ground flooded beneath my ground sheet. Still, I got enough sleep and stayed dry enough that I could have stayed out another night if I’d needed to.

Steve crossing one of many tributaries to the Wild River.

Steve crossing one of many tributaries to the Wild River.

In the morning, we got an early start toward Carter Notch, stopping at the AMC Hut for a quick snack. It turned out to be the final day of the season for the crew, so we helped get blankets and food stores ready for helicopter pickup in exchange for leftover pancakes and good conversation. It turns out I’d even met the hut master on my AT hike in 2007, which was a big surprise.

A wet morning at Carter Notch Hut.

A wet morning at Carter Notch Hut.

The rest of the hike out was a mellow walk down the 19 Mile Brook trail, passing the turnoff where we’d headed up to Mt Hight two days earlier. By noon, it was another cool, sunny day with a brisk wind. I dried out some of my equipment in the parking lot, then headed home with my sanity-recharge (aka backpacking trip) complete.

Yesterday, I did a day-hike that ended up being a lot more punishing than I thought it would be, but it was one of the most rewarding I’ve been on in years. The hike was two full loops in the Tumbledown range near Weld, ME, each of which makes for a challenging full-day hike. The weather this week has been phenomenal for hiking, and I’d been itching to get back to Tumbledown after my last visit, two years ago. After this trip, I’m pretty confident in saying that Tumbledown (along with Little Jackson Mountain) is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Looking out at Tumbledown from Little Jackson Mountain.

Looking out at Tumbledown from Little Jackson Mountain.

I arrived at the trailhead a little late due to missing the first turn onto the road around Webb Lake, and then taking a detour around a washed out road. But I was on the trail by 9:30, choosing to go up Little Jackson Mountain first, since I hadn’t been up that mountain before. The trail was like many trails in Maine– rocky and rooty, and generally beautiful, crossing a bunch of brooks and streams that might make for good head-dunking in warmer weather. Soon enough, the trail started to climb a fairly steep grade, becoming a long stair-master as I approached tree-line.

Mount Blue and Webb Lake from Little Jackson Mountain.

Mount Blue and Webb Lake from Little Jackson Mountain.

Once above tree-line, though, I could tell this was going to be an amazing day. For almost a mile from the junction with the Jackson Mountain Trail, the Little Jackson Trail walks on completely exposed granite with sweeping views in all directions. It’s not a terribly high mountain, at 3400 feet, but it had a similar feel to Saddleback Mountain (which was visible nicely just to the north). A stiff, icy breeze kept me nice and cool, while the clear skies gave me a pretty good sunburn. The views from the mountain were just extraordinary– aside from the unique perspective on Saddleback Mountain, there was also a clear view to Mt Abraham and Sugarloaf, and in the other direction I could see much of the Mahoosuc Range, the Presidential Range, and the Bemis Range. I’m sure there was a lot more that I couldn’t identify, but that’s plenty right there.

Little Jackson Mountain as seen from a ledge on Jackson Mountain.

Little Jackson Mountain as seen from a ledge on Jackson Mountain.

After some time up top, I got cold enough that I had to descend, then take a quick trip up to Jackson Mountain. The taller of the two peaks doesn’t have an open summit, and the trail looked like it didn’t get much use. There was an interesting installation up top, with a small building and a large set of solar panels. I couldn’t tell what the purpose was, but either way I’ll stick with the shorter peak next time.

A few fly fishermen were having a good time at Tumbledown Pond, despite the wind.

A few fly fishermen were having a good time at Tumbledown Pond, despite the wind.

Next up, the Pond Connector Trail to Tumbledown Pond. This trail was also somewhat overgrown, but it went through a pretty stand of birch that was starting to change color, so I can’t complain. And when I arrived at Tumbledown Pond (one of three highlights of the entire area– how can you get much better than an alpine pond with a view all the way to Mount Washington?), I saw the first two people of the day. They were fly-fishermen rather than hikers, and both were having pretty good luck despite the brisk wind blowing their lines around. By now it was about 1 in the afternoon, and I’d already gone about 8 miles. I was pretty tired. But why stop now?

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

I descended along Parker Ridge Trail, which has some more amazing views as well as some really astonishing geological features. On the way down, I passed a group of four folks hiking up to the Pond, one of whom gave me a tasty apple by way of greeting. Taking food from strangers? Don’t mind if I do! I ended up back at my car by 2:30 PM, finishing the first of two major loops. The Little Jackson-Tumbledown Pond loop would be a fantastic day hike on its own. But I had other business.

Some neat striations in the rock on Parker Ridge.

Some neat striations in the rock on Parker Ridge.

Next up, I walked a mile and a half down the road to the Loop Trailhead. This was where I’d hiked during my previous trip to Tumbledown, and I knew it would be a rugged, difficult trip, especially starting so late in the day. After a fairly straightforward climb to the base of the cliffs of Tumbledown, the trail first jumps up 500 feet in a quarter mile, takes a break by walking along an exposed ridge, then climbs another 800 feet in 0.4 miles, before reaching the ridge of the mountain. The temperature wasn’t much more than 60 degrees, but I was pouring sweat and aching all over by the time I got to the top.

Looking across Tumbledown Mountain from Tumbledown Ridge. Mount Washington and other are visible in the distance.

Looking across Tumbledown Mountain from Tumbledown Ridge. Mount Washington and other are visible in the distance.

Best of all, the last short climb to the top goes through one of the most entertainingly-named features I’ve seen on a trail– Fat Man’s Misery, a spot where you have to climb straight up through an overhead chimney, using iron rungs and squeezing through a tight opening in the rocks. It’s a funny name, but pretty apt. I’m a scrawny guy, and it was a tight squeeze even for me.

Back to Tumbledown Pond with Little Jackson Mountain above.

Back to Tumbledown Pond with Little Jackson Mountain above.

I ended the day by walking across the ridge of Tumbledown, with fine views across to the giant cliffs that make the mountain so spectacular. I got back to Tumbledown Pond around 5. By now the anglers had headed home, or to camp, but I was able to have a nice chat with a local lady and her very affectionate German Shepherd. One of my favorite parts of this mountain is that the local area is so sparsely populated. Being able to meet a local who hikes the mountains gave me some great ideas for coming back in the winter, or just visiting other parts of the region.

In the end, I had to get moving to beat nightfall. I got to my car at 6:30, with a long two-hour drive ahead of me. The full tally for the day was 17.6 miles, 6800 feet of elevation gain, and 200% daily value of aches and soreness. I’m still aching a lot. It was absolutely worth it.

It’s been real nice getting back to a routine and life in New Hampshire in the past few weeks, but I quickly became a little overwhelmed with how much I need to do in order to get back on track. Even though I mentioned I’d be cutting down on my schedule of blog posts, I managed to let it go a little further than planned– with all the work on other projects, and avoiding the Internet time, my plate is feeling quite full.

The trail to Ethan Pond, with the Bonds far away in the distance.

Last weekend, I forced myself out of Keene for a few days. First, I went back up to the White Mountains with my pal, Clint (who seems to be my newest victim, I mean hiking partner, since our meeting on a Backpackinglight hike last year). We punished ourselves on a very cold couple of days in the Zealand valley and the Willey Range. Saturday night we ended up hiking late into the evening to find a campsite, having forgotten just how early the light now dwindles. Sunday morning was bitter cold– below 40, easily– but a crystal clear reminder of the coming autumn.

Walking alongside the Pemigewasset River.

The next day, I brought Yvonne up to Mounts Abraham and Ellen in Vermont to introduce her to the area. It was a much hotter day, with thick haze, and the leaves are starting to look like they might skip “bright” and go straight to “dull”, but it was a lovely hike anyway. Driving up Route 100 is beautiful enough without even the exciting drive up Lincoln Gap and the walk along the ridge. And to top it all off, we finished the day with baked goods at Sandy’s in Rochester (this place is effing amazing, especially considering it’s in a town that’s tiny and out of the way even by Vermont standards), then had a post-hike dinner at Fritz’s in Keene (one of Yvonne’s and my favorite places in town, with really tasty burgers, fries, and big fat salads).

Looking up the Whitewall Brook valley to Zealand Falls Hut.
Looking into the Pemigewasset Wilderness on a cold morning from Mount Tom.

Rather than a blow-by-blow report, I’ll just load you up with pictures from the weekend. And then I’ll get back to working on my other stuff. These books aren’t reading themselves, and there are some big changes coming in the world of Guthook’s Hiking Guide apps….

Bretton Woods and Mount Washington from Mount Field.
Mt Abraham and smiles.
Lincoln Peak, and not smiles!
From Mount Ellen, into the haze toward Camel’s Hump