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Middle Mountain and the Green Hills of North Conway

The Moat Mountains and Cathedral Ledge can be seen from the Black Cap Mountain summit ledges
The Moat Mountains and Cathedral Ledge can be seen from the Black Cap Mountain summit ledges

Black Cap Mountain, Mount Cranmore, Peaked Mountain, and Middle Mountain belong to the Green Hills (click for map and information), a conservation area managed by The Nature Conservancy in North Conway, New Hampshire that’s part of the White Mountain Trail System. A favorite haunt of my friends Tom Ryan and Atticus Finch, the Green Hills were once town commons land where settlers had rights to hunt, graze their farm animals, and cut fire wood in the 1800’s.

In the early 1900’s, the Green Hills were the site of great fires from logging slash and lumber trains that clear-cut the hills of timber. The fires gave rise to a red pine forest, a hardy natural community adapted to the ravages or fire, wind, and ice and now home to black bears, bobcats, and rare and migrating birds.

When I decided to hike the Green Hills, I tried driving up Hurricane Mountain Road to the northern trailhead just below Mount Kearsage. This is twisty fire road that links North Conway to Evans Notch, and not for the faint of heart. However, I found the road gated for the winter when I arrived before dawn, forcing me to drive to southern end of the ridge in order to start at the Pudding Pond entrance on Artists Fall Road.

The Green Hills - Middle, Peaked, Black Cap and Cranmore Mountains outside of North Conway, New Hampshire - the trail system connecting them is not in the USGS maps at Caltopo.com.
The Green Hills – Middle, Peaked, Black Cap and Cranmore Mountains outside of North Conway, New Hampshire – the trail system connecting them is not in the USGS maps at Caltopo.com. Your best bet is The Nature Conservancy Map for the Green Hills Reservation. 

Despite being part of the White Mountains, the trails for the Green Hills aren’t incredibly well represented on any of the popular maps that hikers use, including the Appalachian Mountain Club’s WMNF map set. Many of the more remote White Mountain Trails are omitted completely from those maps, heresy in my opinion, especially by the organization that publishes The White Mountain Guide, the complete and definitive guide to the trail system. If it’s in the guidebook, it should be on a map. Grumble.

As usual, my car was the first to arrive at the Pudding Pond lot as I set out for my hike, just as the sun began to rise. I hoped to hike 18-20 miles that day and knew I’d need every ray of sunshine I could get during these short December days.

The Black Cap Mountain Trail head on Hurricane Road which is closed and inaccessible in winter unless you hike to it.
The Black Cap Mountain Trail head on Hurricane Road which is closed and inaccessible in winter unless you hike to it.

The four peaks and their summit loop trails, Middle Mountain, Peaked, Black Cap, and Cranmore are all linked by a common trail called the Black Cap Connector Trail which winds its way from the Pudding Pond at the southern end of the range to Hurricane Mountain Road, at its northern end. I headed off to Hurricane Mountain Road 5.5 miles distant intent on hiking its length before picking off the loop trails on my return. These long out and back hikes are typical when one hikes local trail systems solo, not that I’m complaining of course!

The trails were glazed with ice in places, but I managed to skirt these without having to put on my microspikes. The day was cool, but I was hiking fast and got by with a fleece pullover and a wind shirt for insulation.

My first stop was the summit of Cranmore Mountain, a mountain just outside of North Conway which has been turned into a ski resort. They were making snow when I arrived at the summit, trying fruitlessly to build up a ski base despite this December’s warm streak. Ugly, hideous places ski slopes. I climbed to the summit amidst microwave towers and chair lifts and made my exit.

The Black Granite Ledges of Black Cap Mountain
The Black Granite Ledges of Black Cap Mountain

Black Cap Mountain was far more to my liking, a wonderful place to visit with wide open rock ledges and a fantastic view of the Moat Mountain Range and Cathedral Ledge on the other side of the Saco River Valley. This would be a fantastic destination for kids in summer, hiking in from the Hurricane Mountain Road lot. I plan to file this one away for a possible excursion from Cold River Camp next summer.

The Red Pine Forest on Peaked Mountain
The Red Pine Forest on Peaked Mountain

Peaked Mountain was some four miles distant and by far my favorite. Covered with red pine, the trail climbs an extensive set of steep ledges to a riveting view of the valley below and neighboring Middle Mountain. I started to see hikers here, the first I’d encountered all day, who were joyfully scrambling over the sun drenched cliffs despite the waning day.

Middle Mountain
Middle Mountain

Resting at the summit, I thought about Tom and Atticus and wondered why they hold Middle Mountain so dear. “Onward, by all means,” I picked up my weary limbs and headed toward this final climb of my long march.

I was dragging as I reached the open summit and admired the view, but I didn’t fall in love with the mountain until I started hiking down. There is a lovely stream that runs down that hill and it was bubbling away, refreshed by the recent rains we’ve had in the mountains recently after such a dry autumn. I’m a sucker for streams and creeks and admired its drops and riffles as it plunges into the valley below. This was by far the best scene of the day for me, not the huge expanse of a valley view, but the rushing sound and smell of fresh running water, cascading through a shady wood.

Middle Mountain Summit Sign

I felt a loss as the trail left the stream and I arrived back at the Pudding Pond trail head. I’d had a long day, but that little stream had revived my sense of joy after a long hike. I walked to my car content, knowing that I’d discovered the secret of Middle Mountain and the Green Hills.

Total Distance: 18 miles w/ 2000 feet of elevation gain.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks Philip. Beautiful photos and story. Your writing always makes my morning commute disappear but this story today moved me to want to hop on a plane. You truly do live in a beautiful part of the world. Thanks for sharing and inspiring me to do more walking.

  2. I love your trail reports. They are well written and always make me want to get out on the trail more. They are a refreshing alternative to the endless gear discussions we all seem to love ( myself included.) Thanks for providing such evocative descriptions of the landscapes your hiking takes you through.

  3. Looks like a very nice hike, Philip. I agree with you about ski resorts – they are ugly. Better than a strip mine, though, I suppose…

    • Me, too. It’s why I like cross country skiing in the woods, breaking my own trail, or going for a hike. Commercial alpine ski resorts are a major turn off.

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