And Safety Steps to Take While There
by Ryan Smith
Considering more than a quarter of the United States population lives within a day’s drive from the Mt. Washington Valley, it’s no surprise that many of these people changed their vacation plans in 2020 due to the pandemic, from traveling long distance to seeking close-to-home adventures in the White Mountains.
The influx of visitors this summer and fall buoyed small businesses whose sales plummeted during the state’s stay-at-home orders, but U.S. Forest Service rangers observed disturbing consequences in the wake of this mass exodus to the mountains. Trailhead parking lots were filled to capacity, resulting in vehicles spilling onto the shoulder of the road and creating traffic hazards. Litter, including everything from candy wrappers to diapers, was irresponsibly discarded on trails and summits, leaving rangers and volunteers to clean up the refuse. And the most concerning outcome: search and rescues rose dramatically, straining the NH Fish and Game Department, the agency responsible for leading these efforts in the state, and the volunteer rescue groups that support them.
Now that winter is here and tourists will be gearing up for winter hikes, local officials, guides, and other experts are wary that a large wave of inexperienced hikers hitting the trails will lead to more search and rescues, straining the program even more.
To prepare, a group of skilled professionals are already on the move educating new and experienced hikers alike to keep them safe and healthy on the trails. Organizations such as the New Hampshire and Massachusetts chapters of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hosted some online winter hikes workshops in late fall and early winter, and the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation moved their in-person Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop to a three-day virtual conference in mid-November.
One North Country legend who is no stranger to educating hikers is Steve Smith, editor of the AMC’s White Mountain Guide and the owner of Mountain Wanderer bookstore in Lincoln, NH. For decades, Smith has shared his wealth of experience with others in the many books he edits and writes and at the store he runs. But as more people catch the hiking bug, he thinks that a growing number of inexperienced adventurers on winter hikes could be lured into situations they haven’t planned for—some life threatening.
Smith says that the margin for error in winter decreases significantly as daylight hours are shorter and weather conditions tend to deteriorate faster.
“If something goes south on you [while one winter hikes]; say you get hurt,” he notes. “It’s a whole different ballgame than if that injury happened on a warm summer day.”
Smith is referring to the challenging trail and weather conditions that Fish and Game officers and volunteer rescuers would face if they were called on to assist a person out of the woods. Rescue times are longer in winter, and despite the exceptional skill level of these groups, time and again, these individuals are put into harm’s way at the expense of an unprepared hiker.
Smith, who has hiked New Hampshire’s 48 4,000 footers in winter, among many other accolades, advises new hikers to research a trip “inside and out” before they ever step foot on the trail. “It’s best to start with an easier hike, maybe one you’ve already done in the summer,” he notes. “If you can, and I know it’s hard with COVID, find an experienced person to hike with.” He says hikers should invest in the proper gear and take the time to learn how to use it before their trip.
For trail conditions, he recommends websites such as www.trailsNH.com and www.newenglandtrailconditions.com. These forums tend to be updated daily with trip reports, including advisories about river crossings, which can be challenging during winter hikesz, or notices about whether parking lots are plowed and Forest Service roads are open.
As for the weather, he checks the Mount Washington Observatory’s higher summits and Valley forecast before he leaves his house and adjusts his trip’s itinerary accordingly if the forecast has changed.
QUIET WHITE MOUNTAIN HIKES WITH AMPLE PARKING
For winter hikes, popular trailhead parking lots, including those in Pinkham and Crawford notches, typically fill up faster on weekends and vacation weeks due to the limited number of plowed spaces in the lot and on the road. For a quieter hiking experience, try the following hikes. The trip descriptions aren’t meant to be exhaustive. Hikers should do their homework ahead of time, referencing the White Mountain Guide and online trip reports, checking the weather forecast, and planning their trip with an experienced friend, organization, or guide service.
Also see our recent article on Ten Essentials of Safe Winter Hiking in the White Mountains
Easier Winter Hikes
Cave Mountain | Bartlett, NH
Trails: Mount Langdon Trail to Cave Mountain Path Mileage: 0.8 mile round-trip to outlook Parking: Mount Langdon Trailhead parking lot on Cobb Farm Road; additional parking available in lot on the corner of Yates Farm Road and River Road Features: This short hike offers big rewards from an outlook boasting views of the Saco River Valley and the Attitash Range. Trail Notes: Hike 0.3 miles on the Mount Langdon Trail before turning left on Cave Mountain Path (marked by a small wooden sign). Hike 0.3 miles on the path (blazed in blue) to the cave and another 0.1 to the overlook.
Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge | Jefferson, NH
Trail: Pondicherry Rail Trail Mileage: 3 miles round trip to viewing platform Parking: Small parking lot signed as Presidential Rail Trail on Hazen Road (also signed as Airport Road)
Features: Winter hikers will appreciate easy walking on this abandoned railroad grade and views of the Pliny, Crescent, and Presidential ranges from picturesque Cherry Pond. Trail Notes: Hike 1.4 miles on the rail trail to a spur trail signed Observation Deck. Hike 0.1 mile to viewpoint.
Great Gulf Trail to The Bluff | Green’s Grant, NH
Trail: Great Gulf Trail Mileage: 5.7 miles round trip Parking: Great Gulf Wilderness Trailhead on Route 16 Features: One of Steve Smith’s favorite lesser-known hikes, The Bluff is a small outlook on the Great Gulf Trail where hikers are rewarded with “dramatic views of the northern Presidentials that rise from the depths of the largest glacial cirque in the Whites.” Trail Notes: The Bluff (not signed) is located just before the junction of the Osgood Cutoff (Appalachian Trail). If you pass this trail, you have gone too far. A scramble up the large glacial erratic offers even better winter hike views.
INTERMEDIATE WINTER HIKES
BOULDER LOOP | ALBANY, NH
Trail: Boulder Loop Trail Mileage: 3.3-mile loop Parking: Albany Covered Bridge parking lot on Passaconaway Road Features: Smith says that “for a modest climb of 1,000 feet, accomplished at relatively painless grades, you are rewarded with a spectacular clifftop view of the Swift River Valley and Sandwich Range peaks to the south and southwest.” Trail Notes: From the parking lot, turn right and cross the Albany Covered Bridge. Then, turn right and walk 0.1 miles on Passaconaway Road (closed to vehicles in winter) to where the Boulder Loop Trail leaves the road on the left. The loop can be hiked in either direction, though a hike in the clockwise direction ascends a steep portion of the trail, which could be a slippery descent if hiked in the other direction.
UPPER INLOOK AND DOME ROCK | RANDOLPH, NH
Trails: Howker Ridge Trail to Kelton Trail to Inlook Trail Mileage: 3.6 miles round trip Parking: Randolph East parking area (0.2 mile south off Route 2) on Pinkham B Road (Dolly Copp Road) Features: Views of the Crescent Range to the north, Pine Mountain to the east, and the imposing northern Presidentials to the south. Trail Notes: Steep in some sections, the Kelton Trail rewards hikers for their efforts with views north and east from the Overlook and west from the Upper Inlook. From the trailhead on Pinkham B Road, hike 0.8 mile on the Howker Ridge Trail and then turn right on the Kelton Trail. Take in the views from the Overlook and, at the end of the Kelton Trail, the Upper Inlook. Turn right onto the Inlook Trail and hike 0.1 mile to Dome Rock for views to the north.
NORTH SUGARLOAF | BRETTON WOODS, NH
Trails: Zealand Road to Sugarloaf Trail to North Sugarloaf side trail Mileage: 5.4 miles round trip; includes a total of 3 miles of road walking Parking: Ammonoosuc Lower Falls Trailhead parking lot on Route 302 Features: North Sugarloaf offers fine views of Mount Washington, the Rosebrook Range, and Mount Tom from an open ledge near the summit. Trail Notes: The large winter parking lot is on the north side of Route 302. Turn right out of the parking lot and walk 0.5 miles on the shoulder of Route 302 to Zealand Road (Zealand Picnic Area). Walk 1 mile on Zealand Road (watch for snowmobilers) to Sugarloaf Trail on right just after crossing the Zealand River bridge. Hike 0.9 mile to split between North Sugarloaf and Middle Sugarloaf and turn right to ascend North Sugarloaf. Hikers can opt to extend their hike by a mile by climbing Middle Sugarloaf.
STRENUOUS WINTER HIKES
SOUTH MOAT MOUNTAIN | CONWAY, NH
Trail: Moat Mountain Trail Mileage: 5.2 miles round trip Parking: Moat Mountain Trailhead on Passaconaway Road Features: Stunning views of North Conway and the Mount Washington Valley to the east and the Kancamagus Highway and Swift River Valley to the southwest. Trail Notes: The upper portion of the trail climbs steep ledges that can be slippery when it rains or when there is ice.
MOUNT PAUGUS | WONALANCET, N.H.
Trails: Old Mast Road to Lawrence Trail Mileage: 8.4 miles round trip Parking: Ferncroft parking area Features: One of his favorite off-the-beaten-path hikes, Smith notes that “… the challenging trek to this low but rugged peak is a memorable adventure in the backcountry of the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Highlights include expansive views from a broad ledge on the south summit of Paugus.” Trail Notes: Trails such as Old Mast Road and the Lawrence Trail tend to see less traffic in winter, which means the snow on the trails might not be packed down as much as it is on more popular trails. Following Smith’s mantra of starting early will ensure a greater chance of finishing this arduous