Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bushwhack Hike of Vermont's Mendon Peak: New England 100 Highest

Mendon Peak is the highest peak in Vermont without an official trail. Its a sought out peak for those trying to complete the 100 highest but its a magnificent peak in itself which has a somewhat unspoiled wilderness. For a bushwhack, the summit has great views.
Mendon Peak, Vermont
I'm never sure what I should be expecting on some of these bushwhack hikes around New England. I've seen some pretty fierce and thick spruce in the past and wondered how anyone could get through them. Bushwhacking peaks up north requires a certain persistence and ambivalence towards getting soaked, muddy, covered in bug bites and spruce cuts. Of course, sometimes its actually fun too. Mendon Peak would be my first "real" bushwhack I suppose, although hiking Fort Mountain in Maine wasn't exactly easy either. 

Getting to the summit of Mendon Peak isn't an entire bushwhack but it does require navigation along a bunch of unmaintained logging roads and abandoned trails. There's pleanty of online and written resources about the hike but if you're doing it for the first time, it can be confusing. I'd almost expect that you're going to find yourself turned around or confused at some points. I certainly did. 

View Mendon Peak Bushwhack Map in a larger map

The parking lot for Mendon Peak is the same that serves for parking on the Killington Peak Trail. Its at the big hairpin turn on Wheelerville Road. Last I checked, the bridge was washed out on the southern side of Wheelerville Road- the better way to get there is turning off of Route 4 from the North. The parking lot has capacity for 12 vehicles, I suppose.

The logging road begins just to the right of the Killington Trail and is gated. There's no driving past this point, but I've seen people on ATVs there before. I think people cross-country ski in to this area in the winter as well. Regardless, I took off on foot on the logging road. There is a camp which appears shortly after the start and the trail continues on, roughly paralleling eddy brook. Just past that camp, it forks- bear left. If you go right, you will find another camp/house under contstruction. As of May 2014, there was some pink fluorescent tape on the trees marking this turn-off, but no distinct markers after this point. 
Deteriorating logging road leading to the bushwhack
As a good rule of thumb, the trail doesn't venture too far away from Eddy Brook after that turn-off although there are numerous tempting side roads which look in better repair than the road you're on. I did get turned around a few times. Again, don't stray too far from the brook. 

Different trip reports have different accounts of the crossings. I counted four river crossings but others have reported 3-5. The road makes it pretty obvious where and when you cross and I didn't find any of the crossings to be too difficult. The first one at the bottom was somewhat slippery but I was too lazy to take off my boots- I made it across without problems. The road deteriorates significantly after this part but its easy to follow. The third brook crossing brings you to a small ridgeline between two forks of Eddy Brook and follows up that ridgeline briefly before making the final crossing. There are signs that warn of tree skiing in the area, strangely enough.

After making that final crossing, the trail begins ascending the steep north-eastern flank of Mendon peak. There is one switchback shortly after crossing the brook and gaining elevation. The sharp turn banks lef has the 1st cairn-
It's dealer's choice as to whether you begin your bushwhack here or further up. Most elect to pass by here, continue past a second and third cairn before heading off towards Mendon. I think this is the preferable option- saves less time ascending through steep and thick areas of spruce. After the third cairn, I did my best to make a b-line to the summit.

I should note that the third cairn was not as noticeable as the second and first, however there was a curiously abandoned ski stretcher past the third cairn which served as another marker (especially on the way down)

It was pretty much a bushwhack to the summit. There are numerous herd paths which are helpful in cutting through the spruce, but most of them are moose-paths that eventually dead end. It didn't take me more than 40 minutes to reach the summit from the trail, but there were some dicey sections here and there. Most of them were towards the middle 1/3rd of the bushwhack; as the summit became closer, a herd path appeared and made the going very easy. The Eastern Peak had excellent views from a bare granite knob and there were ledges between the east peak and the true summit which also had views. It was unexpectedly enjoyable-
Some sections had a herd path
Great view of Killington from Mendon Peak
View of Rutland from the Summit
Mendon Peak Summit Canister
 Other famous Vermont Mountains were visible from the summit-
Stratton Mountain, clearly visible
Dorset Peak with Mt Aeolus to the left
So the summit was surprisingly enjoyable. Not only were the views panoramic, but it was nice to have a very alpine summit all to myself without the company of a ski resort. Most bushwhacks are only to a heavily wooded spot on a map with a canister; this one felt like a real mountain

Coming down is always harder when you're bushwhacking and it took almost an hour to find the trail again (no GPS here!). Nonetheless, I eventually made it back down and I headed over to Pico Peak for another climb. 

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

New Hampshire Hike: Mt Smarts via Lambert Ridge and Ranger Trails

Smarts Mountain is located sufficiently far away from the main hub of the White Mountains to see much less traffic than the 4,000 footers. It is crossed by the Appalachian Trail via Lambert Ridge Trail which offers nice, ledge-y views along the whole trip up. A local favorite!
View from the summit of Smarts Mountain, New Hampshire
It was a perfect week for some spring hiking! Last week I did some comparatively colder hiking in the Baldface-Royce Range which still had significant snow on its northers slopes and cols. Further south and at lower elevations, I was hoping to catch that ideal window of opportunity for spring hiking where the day temps are pleasant and the evening temps are mild but cool enough to keep down the bugs. The metropolitan crowd hasn't descended upon the mountains yet and they are ours for the taking. Hence, I hit the road for a four day tour of southern New Hampshire and Vermont Mountains. The first on that list was Smarts Mountain, New Hampshire.

At just 3,238ft, Smarts Mountain is hardly a high summit by Appalachian standards. However, it rises 2,000ft above the surrounding topography making for a great view and well-earned places on New England' 50 Finest and New Hampshire 52-with-a-view list. The latter is a great list for people looking for accessible hikes all across the state while the former is a list that hold little meaning to anyone save for a couple dozen folks like me. Regardless, there's enough reason for anyone to climb it.

Smarts Mountain, as viewed from the Lambert Ridge
Options for hiking Smarts Mountain include the frequently hikes Lambert Ridge Trail which is part of the AT, the Ranger Trail which is less maintained and has less views but is still straightforward, or making a very long day hike coming from the North from Rt 25A over Mt Cube (a 20+ mile day if you're going out and back to Smarts or 16 miles if you have a car spot). 

Most people, as far as I can tell, like to hike up the Lambert Ridge Trail and hike down on the fire warden's trail. The trail begins just past the Dartmouth Skiway, 1.8 miles east on Dorchester Road. The road is unpaved but easily passable by any vehicle. The parking lot has capacity for 6 cars or so. 
Spring on the Appalachian Trail
I'll provide my brief synopsis of the trail, but the mountain and trail have been extensively written about at this website

The climb of Lambert Ridge from the parking lot is not too strenuous but it is a pretty steady climb. It is just about 4.0 miles to the summit. The ledges were accessible within the first mile of the hike and this made the ascent more enjoyable. There's nearly a full miles of the ridge line which allows for uninhibited views and allows for some enjoyable water/lunch breaks. After reaching the high point of the ridgeline, the trail dips down 200' to the col between Smarts and Lambert Ridge. Then it makes a comparatively steep climb almost directly to the summit. 

At the summit is a 40 foot fire tower with access to the cab on top. You really have to push hard on the wooden trapdoor which allows access though!
Anybody who's hiked Lambert Ridge will put it on their favorites of New Hampshire Hiking
Wish I could have camped here!
View North towards Mt Cube 
Dartmouth Ski way and Mt Ascutney, I believe
There is an AT campsite at the summit as well as remnants of the fire warden's cabin. While on the summit, I happened to run into Chuck and Cheryl who are in the process of climbing all the former and currently standing New Hampshire Fire Tower Mountains. Sounded like a great challenge!

After spending a sufficient amount of time contemplating the meaning of life at the summit, I came down the Ranger Trail which was 3.6 miles down to the parking lot from the summit. It didn't have the views that the Lambert Ridge did, but it had a certain wilderness appeal nonetheless. Total distance with Lambert Ridge up and Ranger Trail down was about 7.6 miles and could be easily done in 2/3rd-3/4ths of a day. If you're getting tired of hiking the White Mountain classics, I recommend this hike.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Maine Hike: Speckled Mountain of Evans Notch

Another Evans Notch favorite which involves a loop hike of Blueberry Mountain and Speckled Mountain in the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness Area. Yet another excellent alternative to the crowded hikes in Crawford, Pinkham and Franconia Notches. 
Speckled Mountain hike looking towards Evans Notch
At this point it must seem as if I have something to financially gain by all this promotion of Evans Notch; this will be my 5th post on the area? I think I'll continue talking about Evans Notch to anyone who will listen. Such a pleasant place...

Speckled Mountain, the namesake of the wilderness area, is another somewhat low summit but with a significant alpine feeling and great views. The entire hike is nice too- there's waterfalls, cascades, blueberries, an exposed ridgeline and a good summit; what else do you need? This 8.6 mile loop is moderately strenuous but worth the trip. Here's the map:

The hike begins at the Brickett Place Parking Lot just across the Maine/New Hampshire Border on Rt 113. It is accessible in the winter, unlike anything else north of this location on Route 113. Starting elevation is roughly 600' and it ascends to Speckled Mountain at an elevation of 2,906'. It makes for a good day long hike or for some hikers about a 1/2 day. 

The trail gently ascends 0.7 miles to the turnoff for the Bickford Brook Trail which heads north and the Blueberry Ridge Trail which heads east. We elected to hike the Blueberry Ridge Trail up and Bickford Brook Trail down. From this turnoff, the trail winds by the bickford slides which are a great opportunity for photos:
The Bickford Slides
Nice cascades on the trail up Blueberry mountain
Moving past the slides, the trail begins a somewhat steep ascent of Blueberry Mountain in about 0.8 miles. There are several open slides and ledges which offer views of the Baldface Range to the West. Blueberry Mountain in itself is a good resting spot but it isn't really a mountain as much as it is an exposed part of the Speckled Mountain ridgeline. Continuing on, the Blueberry ridge trail goes down and then up to the Speckled Mountain turnoff in 2.2 miles. There are views along the entire ridgeline and abundant signs of owls and moose. The ridgeline was the most enjoyable part of the hike.

At the end of the ridgeline, the trail turns eastwards to make the final 0.5 mile to the summit of Speckled Mountain. There used to be a fire tower here but it was removed a long time ago. Nevertheless, there is an adequate clearing with views to the North.
Blueberry Ridge Trail, Speckled Mountain Wilderness
Directional views from the summit of Speckled Mountain
View of Evans Notch from near the summit. Baldfaces are on the left
Hiking down from the summit involved going back on the 0.5 mile connector trail and then continuing west past the turnoff for Blueberry Ridge. The trail stays on the ridgeline for 0.7 miles before coming to another fork. Heading south on this fork (left), takes you down the Bickford Brook Trail for 2.4 miles. The trail heads down the mountain at a somewhat steep rate but it parallels the Bickford Slides towards the bottom. After this, it meets the turnoff for the Blueberry ridge trail again before covering the final 0.7 miles to the parking lot. 

Overall, its a great loop hike which is not as difficult as the Baldface Loop but is just as interesting. As I've said many times, its the perfect place for an uncrowded summer hike in the White Mountains!

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Hiking Caribou Mountain, Evans Notch, Maine

The Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness of the Maine White Mountains hides several shorter summits which have remained relatively untouched from any logging or development save for a few hiking trails. Located near Evans Notch on Rt 113, Maine.
Caribou Mountain Summit looking towards the Carter Range and the Presidentials
After hiking West and East Royce Mountain, I wanted to get the most out of my trip out to Evans Notch area so I crossed the height-of-the-land and made my way down the Androscoggin side. I had no idea that this road was so well paved and maintained, especially because its a bumpy ride up until the Maine border! 

Caribou Mountain interested me in particular because it is the namesake of the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness which is part of the Maine slice of the White Mountain National Forest. Speckled Mountain is another excellent hike in the area with similar views. Here's my map of the loop hike-

View Caribou Mountain Hike in a larger map

The parking lot for Caribou Mountain is just over 3 miles from the height of the land and is located at 963' of elevation. The parking lot holds about a dozen cars and I don't think it ever really fills up except on massively busy summer holidays. The hike is almost always done as a loop hike of both the Caribou Trail and the Mud Brook Trail. I'm under the impression that most people hike in a clockwise fashion, I just happened to do the opposite. Trail sign distances differ from both the White Mountain Map distances and the Maine Mountain Guide distances but as far as I could tell, it was about 3.0 miles to go up the summit using the Mud Brook Trail and 4.0 miles to go up using the Caribou Trail

The Mud Brook trail heads south, paralleling Rt 113 briefly before turning east and following Mud Brook. I was expecting a name like "Mud Brook" to be pretty damn muddy this time of year but the trail was actually clear. As it parallels the brook, the trail is well marked and only moderately steep. At about 1.4 miles into the hike, the trail crosses into the actual Wilderness Boundary, marked by the instantly recognizable Wilderness area polygon-

You are now entering wilderness!
The Mud Brook Trail was not muddy at all, even in the early spring
After getting into the wilderness, the trail ascends more steeply but there are some great ledges with views of the entire range and wilderness area. The trail becomes slightly more ambiguous towards the top, especially once you get into the alpine zone. Its funny to think that a summit that scarcely breaks the 2,800' mark would have such an extensive alpine area. There were plenty of bare ledges with views in all directions. It was reminiscent of a 4,000 footer. In fact, I can think of a dozen 4,000 footers with less desirable views-

The summit area itself was almost indistinguishable from the other bare granite knobs but it was a great place to have dinner-
Caribou Mountain had a pretty extensive alpine area for a 2,840' summit

Looking towards Evans Notch in the late afternoon

The high summits of the Whites off in the distance
I could have stayed on the summit all afternoon but I had to come down. The trail dips back below tree line and reaches the fork of the Caribou Trail. This trail takes you down the mountain's northern side and parallels numerous unnamed waterfalls and cascades, some as high as 50 feet. Had this hike been in the Crawford Notch or Franconia Notch area, it would surely be overrun but I had them all to myself in this infrequently hiked part of the Whites. I hiked slowly- there were waterfalls ever tenth of a mile it seemed. 

Eventually the trail flattens out and returns to the Caribou Parking Lot. Although there was almost 2,000' of elevation gain, it really wasn't quite as difficult as one would expect. Evans Notch has pleasantly surprised me with numerous hiking opportunities that involve low summits with expansive views. The Baldfaces, Royces, Speckled Mountain and now Caribou Mountain were all in my list of favorite hikes in New England. Evans Notch is an excellent alternative to all the 4kers which can be a traffic jam in the summer. 

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hiking West Royce and East Royce, Evan's Notch Maine/New Hampshire

Two mountains on the Maine/New Hampshire border without any of the crowds that are often seen in other parts of the White Mountains.
Spring hiking in the White Mountains
Was that winter ever going to end, New England? I've only been here less than 5 years but everybody said it was the worst one in decades. I can't really complain; there are too many opportunities for winter trips. However the real season which gets me down is the post-winter/pre spring season when trails in the mountains are almost impossible to hike. Its about this time of year that we restless hikers get tired of waiting for better conditions and hike through the slop. While it may be the middle of spring at the lower elevations, the mountains are just barely getting out of winter.

Today I decided to hike some lower-ish elevation mountains in the Evan's Notch area. Both East and West Royce were perfect to that end. Here's a hiking map-

There are a half-dozen ways to get to the summits of the Royces. The easiest and most direct route is mapped above; the East Royce Trail and Royce Trail bag both summits in 6.6 miles. The other popular option is the Laughing Lion Trail which is equidistant to the summits but does involve a drop down in to the Mad River Valley before ascending both summits. The Royce Trail from Brickett Place adds 3.2 miles to the total distance but has the advantage of going by Mad River Falls which is frequently included in White Mountain photographer's favorite places. The summits can also be hikes from the Wild River side which is infrequently completed. For the extremists, there's the Baldface-Royce Traverse which tags all the summits of the entire range in a very long and strenuous day hike. 

So there you have it- you can hike them in a pleasant half-day or an extremely long day. As for me, the spring conditions pretty much limited me to the half-day option.
The Royce Trail... in May
So this will be the third year where I have the deluded idea that the trails will be perfectly clear and glorious. When will I learn? As it turns out, East Royce was easily hiked without much snow. It was about a mile from the Evans Notch parking lot to the turn-off to East Royce. This involved a few small spring crossings a little snow but nothing too bad. Mud prevailed at the higher elevations. The 0.5 miles of trail to the summit of East Royce could be hiked without traction although I did get some pretty muddy and wet boots. I was too focused on the fact that I was finally outdoors for the first time in months. East Royce was a great view but there's a great lookout 0.2 miles past the summit which can't be missed-
Misty and spring-y day on the Royce trail
Back down to the Royce turn-off, I continued on through the notch between the two summits and towards West Royce. As cols usually go, the area was completely snowed in. The snow was about a half-foot deep and probably won't melt until mid June. It was a muddy and snowy mess but I didn't have much trouble with good boots and gaiters.

The last 0.7 miles up the summit of West Royce were completely icy and snowy- I'm glad I brought along traction. Micro-spikes were fine; there was no need for snowshoes or full crampons. Nevertheless, it was slow going. The summit of West Royce had only directional views. If you're hiking for views only, I'd recommend East Royce and the northern viewpoint over West Royce. 
West Royce, as seen from East Royce
Overall, the conditions are very much "early spring status". I wouldn't want to hike anything this season without some adequate traction. There were some sections that were completely free of snow and ice with others that were as icy as they would be in November/December. Classic for this time of year! 

The Evans Notch area has some fantastic summits that are much less crowded than the other summits of the White Mountains. I've been impressed with some challenging but rewarding hikes on both sides- Speckled Mountain and Caribou Mountain are less than 3,000 feet but have better views than many 4kers. The well-known Baldfaces, Meader, Eagle Craig, Eastman and Royces are low to mid 3,000's and equally glorious. I look forward to continuing to explore this area of the Whites.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!