Gentian Pond and Dream Lake are on the Appalachian Trail close to the border between New Hampshire and Maine. They’re fairly remote and off the beaten path, but become extra difficult to access in winter when the Mahoosuc Range, north of Shelburne NH, is buried in snow. This section of the Appalachian Trail, from Gorham, NH up to the beginning of the 100 Mile Wilderness, is probably the most challenging section of the trail, even harder than the White Mountains.
Rather than hiking up the AT, my friend Josh and I hiked two blue-blazed side trails up to Gentian Pond and Dream Lake, the Austin Brook Trail and the Dryad Fall Trail, which passes Dryad Falls, New Hampshire’s highest water fall. We really lucked out with the weather for this hike, with bright sunny skies and temperatures that climbed up to 25. At the start of the day, the temperature had been just 5 degrees, with a -25 windchill. We were hiking in forest however, so we were reasonably well protected from the wind.
Trail conditions were also good, a bit of a welcome surprise, since no one hikes these trails in winter. Despite substantial snow depths, between 1 and 2 feet, the snow had an icy top crust which could hold our body weight. That meant we were able to wear microspikes for most of the 10 miles hike w/3000 feet of elevation gain, only having to wear snowshoes for about 2 miles.
The Austin Brook Trail to Gentian Pond
We began this hike along North Road at the Austin Brook Trail head near Gorham, NH. There’s a wooden turnstile at the gate leading to the trail, a local joke, since this trail doesn’t get anywhere near the same use as the trails farther south in the White Mountains. The Austin Brook Trail is a part of the Philbrook Farm Trail System, a delightful network of moderate interconnecting trails that are included in the White Mountain Guide and the AMC’s White Mountains Waterproof Map Set.
The Austin Brook Trail follows old logging roads most of the way to Gentian Pond, only running steeply uphill in the last half mile. There was one stream crossing of consequence (on a frigidly cold day), but we were able to hike upstream and find a better crossing point after a short bushwhack. Otherwise, the trail is well blazed (in blue) and easy to follow up to that last half mile, but we lost it toward the end and had to pull out Gaia GPS to reacquire it and follow it up to the shelter. This last section is not blazed and the route is very hard to discern when covered with snow.
Once we arrived, we ducked into the shelter and out of the wind, while admiring the view of Mount Moriah in the distance. Gentian Pond is located right outside the shelter and was frozen solid. This wasn’t my first time visiting this shelter. I’d stayed here when I section hiked this part of the Appalachian Trail in November of 2009. God, that seems like an eternity ago. Nevertheless, the shelter and its surrounding didn’t look like they’d changed one bit.
Josh, it turns out, loves visiting ponds, so he was thrilled to make it up here. He’s working through the list of backcountry ponds in Steve Smith’s Ponds and Lakes of the White Mountains: A Four-Season Guide for Hikers and Anglers. While not yet an angler, I hope to temp him to take it up next year.
We’d made good time up to the shelter and pond and decided to continue up the Dryad Fall Trail to Dream Lake. Rather than hike to it via the Mahoosuc Trail, which follows the AT, we descended the Austin Brook Trail to its junction with the Dryad Fall Trail. I’m still not exactly sure why we did that instead of a lollipop route – probably lack of planning – because it wasn’t a given that we’d hike the second trail when we started. This was also the first time I’d ever hiked with Josh or even met him in person, so I also chalk it up to unfamiliarity with each other.
While twice the effort, at least in terms of elevation gain, the hike up the Dryad Fall Trail was totally worth it. About 0.5 miles up the trail, we stopped at the top of New Hampshire’s highest waterfall (Dryad Fall) which has a 300 foot drop. It has a very small feeder stream however, so you have to catch it after a substantial rainfall to see the waterfall in action.
From there it was another mile up to dream lake, hiking up a very eroded trail. We had to put on snowshoes for this section of the hike, since the snow was too soft from this point to the lake to hike with microspikes alone. The route is a bit difficult to follow as you near the lake, due to the presence of yellow blazed trees, which are probably property line markers. We made the mistake of following some before we backtracked and picked up the blue-blazed trail to Dream Lake.
Having been here before, again back in ’09, I knew we’d be able to see Mt Adams (2nd highest peak in the White Mountains) from the lake. Josh was amazed, by that view, as well as the entire frozen lake spread out before us. We walked out along the shore and got an even better view of Mts Madison and Adams from the lake. It was special. Definitely worth a trip back to this point with a hammock, packraft, and fishing rod in hand. I had to pretty much drag Josh away from that view!
From there, we hiked back the way we’d come in, at a fast clip, and then home. Three great destinations on one hike, and ones that’s don’t actually require much effort to get to.
Total distance: 10.2 miles with 3000′ of elevation gain.
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