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Bushwhacking Mt Paugus in Winter

Mt Paugus (3198') Summit Register
Mt Paugus (3198′) Summit Register

Mt Paugus is a 3000 footer in the Sandwich Range, adjacent to famous Mt Chocorua. Known as Old Shag for its shaggy, lumpish appearance, Paugus is quite a big mountain with formidable southern cliffs which make a fine resting spot in summer, providing an excellent view of the New Hampshire lake district to the south.

My friend Ken and I decided to bushwhack Paugus on a warm winter day, climbing up to the summit via the Big Rock Cave and Old Paugus Trails before heading off-trail for 0.3 miles to the summit canister. There was a lot of wet snow, about eight inches to a foot in the forest, making conditions very sloppy and requiring microspikes and snowshoes for additional traction.

We approached the peak from the Tamworth side of the forest, from Rt 113a along the Big Rock Cave Trail and the Old Paugus Trail. I’d never hiked these two paths in their entirety and wanted to see what they were like. That’s pretty much all the reason I have for most of the hikes I do!

Big Rock Cave
Big Rock Cave

The Big Rock Cave Trail climbs a small peak called Mt Mexico before descending to Big Rock Cave, a jumble of giant erratics with a serviceable cave amongst them…not that you could pay me to go inside. I’d visited the cave and the area around it a few summers ago when I was fact-checking a backpacking route in the AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England Trail Guide. 

Passing the cave, the trail drops to Whitin Brook, an easy water crossing, despite ice bridges along its banks. The water was shallow and the flow was low, so relatively safe. Ken and I broke out the ice ledges along the banks with our poles before crossing so we knew where terra firma was

Once on the other bank, we continued straight up the hill. There’s a tricky trail junction a short distance later with the Old Paugus Trail, which is quite easy to miss. We found the sign, but had difficulty following the trail afterwards because the blaze color changes from blue to yellow and the blazes are very old and faint. Ken could just pick them out, but I had a very difficult time seeing them.

Southern cliffs of Mt Paugus, seen from the Cabin Trail
Southern cliffs of Mt Paugus, seen from the Cabin Trail

The Old Paugus Trail leads to the base of the Paugus cliffs, before weaving through a gap in the cliff face and entering an area with a large number of blown down trees. The trail then hugs the northern face of Paugus running through another area of blown downs from whatever storm toppled them. This entire area was hit quite hard by Irene, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the damage is from that storm.

I lost one of my microspikes during this stretch of trail and was forced to switch to snowshoes for the rest of the hike. These were awkward to wear as we scrambled up the ice-covered ledges near the Paugus summit, but they provided reasonably good traction, biting well into the soft ice under the snow. We came to the trail junction where the Old Paugus Trail and Lawrence Trail intersect and conferred about the best route to the real summit of Paugus, which is off-trail in the surrounding trees and out of sight.

We had the option of dropping 200 hundred feet to the Paugus Spring marked on the map and then heading due north or trying to find a route that required less of an elevation drop. We decided to look for a good entry point higher up off the Lawrence Trail and found a broken out path in the snow where a previous bushwhacker, Brian Cuddihee, had bushwhacked Paugus earlier that same day.

The yellow blazes on the Old Paugus Trail are very hard to see
The yellow blazes on the Old Paugus Trail are very hard to see

We followed this broken out path which led through a short section of fairly open woods, right to the summit canister. That was a lucky break. When we reached the canister, we learned that five people (including Ken and I) had bushwhacked Paugus on the same day, which must be a new record, since winter bushwhacking is even less popular than three season bushwhacking.

Ken and I left the summit after leaving a note in the register and high-tailed it back down the mountain. There was no way I was going to be able to backtrack down the way we’d come with snowshoes, so we continued down the Lawrence Trail and the Cabin Trail, which form a big loop. It was a sloppy snowshoe back through the warming snow, but we were motivated to get back to our cars before dark.

Mt Paugus Bushwhack and Loop - Note some trails have been relocated due to damage (Click for map on Caltopo.com)
Mt Paugus Bushwhack and Loop – Note some trails have been relocated due to damage (Click for map on Caltopo.com)

Total Distance: 8.5 miles with approximately 3000 feet of elevation gain

I’ve hiked a lot of trails in the Paugus area during the past two years and it is a marvelous, uncrowded destination well worth exploring. The abundance of trails through this area makes it easy to construct good loop hikes and there’s plenty of water if you decide you want to backpack through the area and do a longer trip.

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  1. Just curious Philip, how does one “lose” a microspike? I started using microspikes a couple of years ago, for spring hiking when the trails ice up. I’d like to know, before it happens to me, what the common failure modes are.

  2. Fred Wijnen-Riems

    Philip, surprised you went up the Mt. Paugus trail, I found it safer to come around the Lawrence and Cabin and then at least I could slide my way down, not that that was easy by any means. In hindsight, I should have retraced my steps and this was in December.
    Funny that many people would be there the same day.

  3. Hey Philip, my brother and I are planning a 2 night trip to that area this coming Saturday thru Monday. We were thinking of hitting Paugus and working our way over to Chocura via the bee line tr. Have you made that cross over before? Looking for something on the moderate to easier side as my brother sprained his ankle a month back. he’s been doing day hikes just fine. Thanks and I enjoy your posts!

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