I always make a point to go on a backpacking trip in April, even though it’s a chancy time for an overnight trip in New England. Winter is officially over but its remains still linger. Spring is officially here on the calendar, but you only catch glimpses of its bounty. This weekend was certainly no exception.
I was joined on the first half of this trip by another hiker whose trail name is Cross-country Mom. She’s completed major sections of the Long Trail and it turns out that we know some of the same hikers from that trail. She’d also been doing backpacks in the Whites over the past winter and has been an active day hiker and backpacker for years. We got along pretty well from the start, and as I was to discover, she’s about my age and we have a lot of things in common. Whenever she speaks, I’d swear she sounds like Joni Mitchell.
This was the first time we had met in person: I was leading this hike as an organizer for the New England Hikers and Adventurers Meetup group. It was the first hike in a series of Appalachian Trail section hikes, I’ll be leading during the year including a 4-day hike over the Mahoosics to Grafton Notch, and a 9 day trip through the 100-mile wilderness in Maine ending with a summit of Mt. Katadhin.
I was also doing a trail maintenance survey on this trip for the Dartmouth Outing Club which manages 73 miles of the Appalachian Trail including the section we were going to be hiking. The club’s AT coordinator, who is also a member of our meetup group, asked me to see to record the location of dangerous blowdowns and parts of the trail that required re-blazing, brushing, and water bar maintenance.
Our intended route was a 36-mile hike from Hannover over Moose Mountain, Smarts Mountain, and Mt Cube. However, weather, safety conditions, and gear failure required both of us to drop off the route at different points. There’s a lesson here: you have to know your limits, hike your own hike, and come back another day in more favorable conditions if that’s what you have to do.
Day to Day mileage looked like this:
Day 1: Hike Hannover downtown parking garage to Moose Mountain Shelter: 11 miles
Day 2: Hike Moose Mountain Shelter to Smarts Mountain Shelter: 12.5 miles
Day 3: Hike Smarts Mountain Shelter to Jacobs Brook, South Branch. Bushwack west to Quinttown Rd, Hike Qunittown Road. Hitchhike to Gilmans Corner. Hike Gilmans Corner to Atwell Rd.: 9 miles.
Day 1: Hannover, NH to Moose Mountain Shelter (11 miles)
I met Cross-country Mom off NH 25-A at 8:30 AM in Wentworth, NH and we drove up to the Atwell Rd Trail Head where we left my car. From there we drove south about 35 miles to Hannover, NH, home of Dartmouth College. I had found a parking garage where we could stash our other car that was half a block from Lebanon Street, which coincides with the path of the AT, so it was easy for us to get to the trail. Parking violations in Hannover are vigorously enforced, so if you start in town its best to leave your car in the garage unless you can arrange for parking elsewhere. You can park there overnight, but you need to pay in advance. Sunday parking in free.
We started hiking at 10:30 AM and already the day was starting to heat up. We hiked through Hannover and passed between a school and a Mobil station to reach the AT, which bordered a baseball diamond. The white blaze is painted on the corner of the fence surrounding the field. Not exactly obvious, but spotting town blazes is an acquired skill that I’ve developed. I guess it’s the hiker’s equivalent of reading gang graffiti.
From there we climbed 2 miles to the Velvet Rocks shelter trail, ascending about 750 ft.The area between Hannover and Velvet Rocks is heavily wooded and the trail blazes are surprisingly hard to follow. The area, just outside of town is clearly hiked a lot and I kept getting suckered into following the tread way, only to have to backtrack periodically to white blazes. A little more paint would be helpful.
Despite the grade, we walked at a slow but steady pace, though temperatures would heat up to the mid-80s later in the day. We were both tired on this first day of the trip, having had to wake up early (5 AM) to meet and run the shuttle. Our destination for the day was 11 miles away, at the Moose Mountain Shelter, a fairly level walk over rolling meadows and woods until a 1,200 ft. climb up the Southern Peak of Moose Mountain, where we enjoyed a fine view.
It was still pretty early in the season for black flies, but they were just beginning to appear. I had a few land on me, but they weren’t biting just yet and I wasn’t bothered at all by them after that first day.
After another half mile, we stopped for the day at Moose Mountain Shelter, a nice log lean-to with a most unusual open-air privy.
Cross-country Mom took the shelter and I set up a tarp tent on one of the tent sites. I’ve found that loud snoring is not a good way to cement a new friendship. After taking care of our chores and getting fresh water from the stream just north of camp, we cooked up a nice dinner. I had brought along some decadent experimental food on this trip, including Nutella sandwiches for lunch, and Trader Joe’s boil-in-the-bag Indian food for dinner. It was heavy carrying this all day, but it made my first night’s meal really special and yummy.
After dinner, I sat in my Squall 2 and wrote one page in my journal before zonking out for the night a little past sundown. I was exhausted but slept very well on my Exped Downmat 7 pad. I normally bring a 4 season tent on my April trips but chanced using the tarp tent because the temperature was expected to be unseasonably warm. This worked out fine and I was warm all night, despite the higher air circulation through the tent.
Day 2: Moose Mountain Shelter to Smarts Mountain Shelter: 12.5 miles
The next morning we broke camp by 8:10 AM and were on our way. Our hike started with a short 1.5-mile hike up the Northern Peak of Moose Mountain. At the summit ledges, we took in the view of Smarts Mountain (middle top), almost 12 miles north and requiring 4,000 feet of combined elevation gain. A non-trivial hike in the heat.
By luck, Cross-country Mom had turned out to be a great trail companion. She was easy to chat with but also comfortable with walking alone with a 10 minute or so separation between us. Hiking 20 or 30 miles is a lot different from a day hike where often the emphasis is on socializing as a group, instead of hiking your own hike, and meeting for meals and breaks. That’s one reason I keep my group limits so small on overnight hikes when I’m not doing a solo.
The 1,300 ft descent down North Moose was pretty easy walking and we came across carpets of little white and purple flowers on the forest floor. At Goose Pond road, we came to a marshy area with old beaver ponds. We could tell that the beavers had left because the damns were broken and leaking. Resident beavers would be too diligent to let that happen.
Log bridges traverse the marshy bits in this area, but there was a bit of spring muck to contend with. I used an old trick I learned on the Long Trail to probe the mud with my hiking poles to find the rocks in it, and hopped from one rock to another to get through the worse spots.
Next, we started the first ascent of the day, about 1,200 feet up to Holts Ledge over a smidge of a mile in distance. I consider anything over 1,000 feet per mile with a full pack, hard. We slogged up Holts and the temperature continued to climb, as well, breaking 85 by mid-day. Both Cross-country Mom and I use the same trick on ascents like this, which is to look at your feet as you climb and not at your destination. This helps eliminate the feeling of hope, and its friend, despair, on a steep ascent with false summits.
When we crested Holts and started down the other side. I was out of water and looking for a stream. The Trapper John shelter was coming up in a mile or so I was confident that I would find water nearby. By this time, the day was really heating up and we were both feeling it. Cross-county Mom was having a hard time with the lateral stabilization on her pack and the heat was clearly wearing her down, so we stopped at Trapper John’s for a long rest, lunch, and coffee.
The Trapper John shelter is old but serviceable. It has a huge stone fireplace and chimney in front of it, I presume for winter fires. The water source is a stream that flows close to the shelter and there are some nice tent spots behind the shelter itself. However, the shelter trail is in need of some maintenance. It is difficult to find and I ended up walking down an old jeep trail when we left, only to backtrack and bushwack to find the right blue blaze route back to the AT.
After Trapper John, our next stop was the base of the Dartmouth Skiway, which is a ski slope for the students of Dartmouth College. Nice huh? Middlebury College also has its own private ski slope that you have to hike past if you ever do the Long Trail. After that, we headed toward Lyme-Dorchester Road at the food of Lambert Ledge and Smarts Mountain.
But the heat and the ascent up Holts Ledge had really done Cross-country Mom in. At 2 PM, she was hurting and after some discussion, she decided to bag the rest of the trip and get a ride back to Hannover. She encouraged me to carry on and I knew she meant it, so I decided to try to finish the hike solo. I knew she’d be ok because she had a cell phone, she’d hiked other long-distance trails, and had plenty of food, water, and shelter to make it to town. In fact, I got a voice mail from her less than 2 hours after she dropped off the trail while she was driving on her way home from Hannover. A trail angel had given her a ride right to her car. Thank you New Hampshire Trail Angels. (Make sure you read to the end of this trip report – there’s a second happy ending to this story.)
Knowing when to quit is important.
After separating, I continued to the Smart’s Mountain trailhead. However, the 2-mile section trail from the Dartmouth Skiway was very hard to follow and needs to be cleaned up and re-blazed. I ended up bushwhacking a significant amount of it and following a compass bearing to get to the other side of this wooded area.
I arrived at the base of Smarts at 3:45 PM. I filtered 3 L of water and then decided to climb the AT trail up to the summit figuring I had 4 hours of daylight left to hike 4 miles and climb 2,250 ft of elevation. I actually made it to the summit by about 7 PM. The other option was to climb up the AT alternate route on the Smart’s Mountain Ranger Trail, which has a more gradual ascent but meets up with the AT just below the summit. If I had less daylight, I would have used that option because that trail parallels a stream, providing an easy water source for a stealth camp below the summit.
I started climbing up to Lambert Ridge at 4 PM. It was steep and I had to pause frequently to catch my breath, but the high heat of the day was really cooling off. The views of Smarts were magnificent from here and I paused at 2,300 ft to have a big snack and take a rest. I was getting pretty tired.
Lambert Ridge climbs up the western side of Smarts and once you summit it, you need to walk through another mile of woods to reach the foot of Smarts proper. Those woods have lots of other water sources this time of year, so I could have stopped here at any time and made camp if I ran out of daylight. That was a comforting thought at the time. I considered it but decided to go for the summit which was another 1,000-foot climb in a mile.
Luckily, I had been humping a pair of strap-on crampons with me on this trip after a tip from a friend. She had told me that there was still 4 feet of ice on Smarts and that I’d need traction when I got above the intersection of the AT and the Smarts Ranger Trail. She was right. While the past week’s heatwave had melted a lot of the ice pack off, there was still a lot of ice left making the footing very precarious. Everywhere there was no ice, there was a lot of water pouring down the trail and hiding the black ice underneath. Nasty, Nasty. But I blasted right up the peak with my Black Diamond Contact Strap Crampons. That was a good call. Thanks, Sandy!
There is a fire tower on top of Smarts but I was too tired to care. My only thought at this point was to pitch my tent, eat, and crash for the night. Tomorrow’s planned hike over Mt Cube was also going to be tough. There was a lot of snow on the summit still, so I considered camping in the Firewarden’s cabin at the summit, but instead pitched my tarp tent alongside it on a bare patch of ground I found. I post-holed to the spring, filtered some water, cooked dinner, hung my bear bag, and fell asleep by 8 PM.
Day 3: Smarts Mountain to Atwell Rd, with Detours (9 miles)
The next morning I woke up at 6AM and stayed in my sleeping bag for about 30 minutes. I had slept well and the temperature on the summit was in the 50’s. But it was clear from the cloud cover, that rain was in the air. I broke camp by 8 AM and proceeded north along the AT down Smarts Mountain.
I had hoped that this descent would be an easy 3 miles. It wasn’t. The top of Smarts is sort of flat and there was still a lot of snow on top, so I had an hour or so of post-holing until I made it down to about 2500 feet. This was very exhausting, plus I snapped both of my hiking poles along the way, within 2 minutes of each other. That was a complete bummer and made me question whether I could make the ascent up Mt Cube, about 6 miles to my north. If you hike with poles, you know what I mean.
Once I got below 2,500 feet, which I reckon is snow line around here, I picked up the pace and made it to the South Branch of Jacob’s Brook, one of two stream crossings I would need to make before climbing Mt. Cube. It was a lot bigger stream than I expected. From the summit of Cube, it was another 5 miles to my car on Atwell Rd. But, the river was in spring flood and I was not about to hop across it at the designated AT stream crossing point above a chute and a waterfall. I hiked up and down the stream looking for an alternate crossing and could not find one where I had a reasonable chance of crossing and staying dry. Not having poles anymore for stabilization eliminated some good possibilities, too.
I checked out the weather again and Mt Cube was completely shrouded in mist. It had started to sprinkle rain and I decided to call it a day and bushwhack out to the highway, hitchhike around Mt Cube, and pick up the last two miles of my hike on the AT from there on. I was disappointed but I knew I’d be back for a strenuous day hike later in the season to make up the mileage.
I simply followed Jacobs Brook west to Quinttown Rd. This is a dirt road that parallels Jacobs Brook and meets up with NH-25A in a few miles. My 2001 ATC map is a bit out of date because the roads in the area have changed, but I knew that I’d eventually make it to NH 25-A if I walked next to the brook. This is a pleasant walk down a gravel road and Jacobs Brook gets wider and larger the farther west you travel, accepting water from feeder streams and Mousey Brook. It’s not boatable by whitewater kayakers, but it looks like a great place to cool off during the summer if you are visiting the area.
Once I got to 25-A, I started walking up east. There wasn’t much traffic on the road, but I got a ride after about 10 minutes that took me all the way back to the AT north of Mt Cube and I was back on the trail again by 12:10 PM. This was a stroke of luck since I had a problem getting a ride in New Hampshire when hitching back from a section hike up Mt. Moosilauke, last year. The guy who picked me up was a local who said he hunted bears, moose, and deer in the area. Nice guy and he didn’t seem to mind that I smelled really bad. I asked him whether the bears were awake yet, and he said they were out and hungry.
At this point, it was just a 2-mile hike back to my car through a forested section with about a 500-foot elevation gain. Easy walking really, except for a lot of mud, and pretty sporadic blazing.
Just before I got to Atwell Rd, I sat down for a rest on a log and I heard a car pull up behind the trees and park. I was surprised that I was so close to the road, so I shouldered my pack and hiked up the trail a few yards and saw 2 cars parked on Atwell Rd, mine and Cross-country Mom’s. She had just pulled up to wait for me, with cold beer no less, and was coming round her car when I popped out of the woods in front of her. We were both amazed and it was a happy reunion.