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Backpacking a Willey Range Lollipop

Zealand Valley Beaver Meadows
Zealand Valley Beaver Meadows

Pungent. That’s the best way to describe the smell on the Zealand Trail as you approach the Beaver Ponds. They’re an essential part of the Zealand Valley ecosystem providing open space for migrating flocks of birds to land and rest while accelerating the decomposition of the trees and grasses they flood. I’ve never seen a beaver there, but their terraforming work has had a profound influence on the area.

I was hiking into the Zealand Hut for a quick snack before backpacking around the Wiley Range, a sequence of 3 four thousand footers that overlook Crawford Notch. I planned on climbing them from north to south, ascending from the east side by the A-Z trail and the following the ridge bagging each summit in turn.

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Autumn was in full swing in the Pemigewasset Wilderness as leaves fell around me like fresh snow. I’d slipped just slipped into “the zone”, where I stop thinking about myself and all my to-dos when I spied a member of the Zealand Croo hiking towards me with a backboard on his back. We’d just had a big national holiday and I imagine he was hiking out some trash from the guests for a pickup. Except for early spring helicopter drops, all supplies and refuse from the huts must be carried in and out by the crew (spelled locally as “croo”) on wooden packboards weighing up to 80 pounds.

“Philip Werner, what are you doing out here?”,  he called out. My name is Chris. I was on one of your hikes a few years ago. I said, Mt Tom, right? “I was just looking at a picture of us both us a few days ago”, I said, when we’d posed together for a summit shot. Back then, he’d told me his ambition was to join the AMC crew and it was nice to see that he was working in one of the huts. I detailed my trip plan, which included a stop at the Zealand Hut, and he said: “When you get to the hut, tell them Chris said you can have a free baked good or soup.” I felt honored. The baked good of the day was carrot cake and I ate two large pieces when I arrived, leaving the crew a nice tip and payment for the second piece of delicious cake.

Chris, a member of the Zealand Hut Croo, hiking out to the roads with a back board
Chris, a member of the Zealand Hut Croo, hiking out to the road with a backboard

I left the hut and hiked to the A-Z trail junction, a short distance away, which climbs up to the Willey Range, a series of three peaks named Mt Tom, Mt Field, and Mt Willey. It’d been many years since I’ve hiked this section of trail and I found that I’d forgotten a lot of it. It begins with a gradual climb through forest and over bog bridges, before becoming a rocky scramble near the Mt Tom/Mt Field col.

I took a break when I reached the trail junction and planned my next move. My plan was to climb Mt Tom which was 0.6 miles away, before hiking back down the range to Mt Field and Mt Willey. I was very conscious of the time because the sun sets so early now, at just 6:10 pm. It’s getting late in the year for backpacking trips and I wondered if this would be my last solo trip of the year. A frost was expected that night and it gets a little lonely camping by yourself when the sun goes down so early.

I headed up to the Mount Tom summit. It looked a lot different from what I remember when Chris and I had posed at the summit. The trees were taller and the trail was wider, probably because of all the hiker traffic it gets. The summit views have mostly grown back in since my last visit, so I headed back down to the col and started making my way to Mt Field where there is a good view of Mt Washington.

The hike to Field was longer than I expected but pretty uneventful. The biggest challenge was keeping my trail runners dry with water streaming down the rock ledges on the trail. I summited but was met by a huge black dog who only understood French, I was told by his owner. I didn’t feel like dealing with the dog or anyone for that matter, so I exited left at the cairn and continued on to Mt Willey.

The day had started sunny but had gotten cool and gloomy, so I layered up with my low-tech rain jacket which can double as a wind shirt, with torso length pit zips to help regulate and vent heat. There were two false summits before I finally made it to the top of Willey, but I felt strong although I was conscious of running low on water and knew I’d have to filter more soon.

Autumn splendor from the Mt Willey Summit Ledge
Autumn splendor from the Mt Willey Summit Ledge

I reached the viewless Mt Willey summit by about 3:30 pm and then dropped down to the outlook ledge below it where you can see the lower half of Crawford Notch, some 2500 feet below. The valley was awash in red autumn color, a sight that never ceases to fill me with wonder when I see it year after year. I chatted with two other hikers on the ledge about hiking and backpacking in the Whites. This was their second 4000 footer and you could tell they were hooked and eager to climb more.

The descent from Mt Willey back down to the Ethan Pond Trail is super steep, dropping over 1500′ in less than a mile. Part of the descent or ascent if climbing is on ladders, which is why I wanted to climb Willey before winter. I didn’t know if the ladders are removed in winter or not and didn’t want to risk them not being there later in the season. I walked down them like stairs rather than turning around and backing down them like house ladders, leaning slightly backward so I’d fall on my butt if I slipped.

Escher-like Series of Ladders on Mt Willey's South Side
Escher-like Series of Ladders on Mt Willey’s South Side

There’s a stream at the bottom of the climb, just before the Ethan Pond Trail junction where I filtered some water with my BeFree 3L water filter. I’ve been using this filter and soft bottle system for over 200 miles of backpacking this year and it’s super speedy for filtering large quantities of water. The soft bottle has held up to all kinds of abuse and hasn’t torn, which was one of my early concerns with the system. It’s virtually eliminated my use of Aquamira drops, even for purifying larger quantities of water. The BeFree is so fast, I just use it instead of waiting the 5 minutes for the Aquamira drops to turn yellow before use.

The sun was beginning to set when I started up the Ethan Pond Trail towards the Ethan Pond Shelter and back around to Zealand Hut. I decided to check out the shelter but didn’t really want to camp there because they’ve had a lot of bear activity at the campsite. The pond below the shelter was high and the wind starting to pick up across the water. I stopped at the shelter and surveyed the scene, taking in the sign warning of bear visits. I’d arrived a day after the Columbus Day weekend and figured the campsites were probably still trashed from the crowds that descend on the White Mountains. I often wonder if I’m partially to blame for the increased popularity of hiking and backpacking in the White Mountains, but my friends assure me that it’s the result of social media instead.

The Ethan Pond Lean To on the Appalachian Trail
The Ethan Pond Lean-To on the Appalachian Trail

I headed back to the Ethan Pond Trail and started hiking west with the intent of camping somewhere off trail along the North Branch of the Pemigewasset River which parallels the trail. I wanted to get a mile away from the shelter to minimize a bear encounter and to find a stealthy site the required distance from the trail according to local camping regulations and where no one could see me. It was slim pickings though and I got discouraged after three off-trail detours to check out possible sites. That area of the trail is a wet, mossy realm full of brambles and downed wood.

The clock was ticking when I finally found a barely passable site to pitch the tent I’d brought (a NEMO GoGo Elite), which thankfully has a very narrow footprint good for sites like this. I bushwhacked to the river to cook away from my tent, and stood on a gravel bar in the middle of the stream where I cooked up a pot of Ramen noodles with olive oil and chunks of summer sausage. It was dark by the time I started digging into my food, eating by headlamp. After I cleaned up, I hung my Ursack bear bag and bushwhacked back to my tent for the night.

I cooked dinner on a gravel bed in the middle of the North branch of the Pemigewasset River
I cooked dinner on a gravel bed in the middle of the North Branch of the Pemigewasset River

It was cold that night. Really cold, reaching into the low thirties but I was bundled up in my Feathered Friends 40 quilt-style sleeping bag, augmented with a down Montane Featherlite Jacket and Possum Down Gloves. I was so comfortable, I slept in the next morning, only leaving camp at 9:30 am. I also wasn’t in a rush, intent on enjoying the autumn colors for a few more hours. I’d done the hard work of climbing mountains the previous day.

I broke camp and continued past the Shoal Pond and Thoreau Pond Trail junctions, that I’d backpacked past just a few weeks ago on a Shoal Pond Loop. The Ethan Pond Trail turns northward as you approach Whitewall Mountain and approach Zeacliff, the eastern prow of Zealand Mountain. I thought about climbing it then and there, but I was feeling deliciously lazy and decided to punt it to a future trip.

Zeacliff on the northern border of the Pemigewasset Wilderness
Zeacliff on the northern border of the Pemigewasset Wilderness

The morning sun helped intensify the autumn colors and I was perfectly happy to enjoy the view from below. It’d been many years since I hiked this trail, back when I was section hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2009. Time flies, I guess. I remember having an amusing encounter with territorial Spruce Grouse on that hike or one on an adjacent section. The Appalachian Trail follows the Ethan Pond Trail through the valley here.

The forest obscures the view of eacliff and Whitewall Mountain that loom above
The forest obscures the views of Zeacliff and Whitewall Mountain that loom above

My route continued through the narrow valley between Zeacliff and Whitewall Mountain, though they were both hidden by the trees that border the trail. I soon passed the spur trail to branches off to Zealand Hut and retraced my steps from the previous day back to the road and inner Zealand road lot. Soon, the Forest Service Road to this parking lot will be closed for the duration of winter, making the natural wonders of the Zealand Valley harder to reach on foot. I felt lucky to squeeze this short trip in before the big freeze arrives, although winter brings its own pleasures and rewards with it.

Total distance: 18 miles with 3200′ of ascent.

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  1. Just did this same loop Columbus day weekend but in reverse, was beautiful foliage. weather could have been more cooperative but…. Absolutely amazed by the Ethan pond trail views, makes ya feel awfully small. other than the amount of hikers on willey and field and slipping off the end of a bog bridge and going knee deep in some back pond muck on a-z trail sat afternoon very peaceful hike. could have sat and gazed for days on Ethan pond trail, blown away with the rock slides. cant wait for this weekends adventures!

  2. This looks like a great trip, thanks for sharing these photos!

  3. What a great trip! Thanks for sharing. I’m getting out on the AT this weekend with the youngest scouts in our troop. I’m really looking forward to the scenery and their enjoyment of the experience. (Don’t tell the Quartermaster, but we’re leaving that silly 4-1/2# dining fly behind!)

    • Just gotta share this. A parent passed this along to me today about last weekend’s hike on the AT. His son told him “…one Scout who was considering dropping out of Scouts said he will probably stay in it because that trip was such a great experience.” That brought a tear to my eye and added a spring to my step all day long!

  4. Funny to see those stairs! When I hiked there last winter they were completely covered in snow.

    Thinking of lollipops, last weekend I looped together the Tripyrimads, Osceolas and Tecumseh. Great hike with slides, summit views, abandoned trails, streams, ponds, a small bushwhack, 24 miles and 8720 feet gained. I highly recommend it! The crowds on the peaks weren’t the best but the solitude outside of Greeley Ponds was amazing.

  5. Great write-up with beautiful photos…… We stopped at the Zealand Hut on our traverse last year. The folks at all of the huts are tremendous!! And Carrot Cake…….

    The weather certainly does get cold a lot quicker in NH than Virginia. :)

    Our backpack into the Roaring Plains Wilderness this weekend is like stepping into another world. Roaring Plains and Dolly Sods are amazing places. So peaceful and beautiful…..

    Have you forayed into this part of West Virginia, Philip?

  6. The pics are great especially the first one. Wish I was there right now but can’t give up my place in line at REI garage sale.

  7. Can you fish at ethan pond?? me and brother are looking for a trip with some peaks and some fishing along the way

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