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Backpacking a Willey Range Loop

Backpacking a Willey Range Loop in May

The Willey Range includes three peaks: Mt Willey, Mt Field, and Mt Tom.  All three peaks are located along the same ridgeline, so you can climb them all at once. Most people start in Crawford Notch and hike this route as a lollipop climbing Field first, then Willey as an out and back, before heading to Tom and back down. I’ve been hiking that route all winter since it’s the only feasible approach given snow conditions, so I was ready for a change when spring arrived.

  • Trails
  • Zealand Trail
  • Twinway
  • Ethan Pond Trail
  • Ethan Pond Campsite Spur
  • Willey Range Trail
  • A-Z Trail
  • 4000 Footers
  • Zealand
  • Tom
  • Field
  • Willey

The best time to backpack in the Whites is the week before a major holiday and right after one. That is if you like solitude, of which I am a fan. So I designed a loop during the week before the Memorial Day holiday that would let me climb Mt Zealand, which I need for May on my White Mountains 4000 Footer Grid, before looping through the northern Pemigewasset to the south end of the Willey Range, over Willey, Field, and Tom and back down to where I’d started. This made for a short 1-night 25 mile loop that visited several trails that I hadn’t visited for a few years. There was a time when I shunned hiking trails that I’ve hiked before. But I’ve found that I enjoy visiting them after a few years to rekindle my memory of them.

The start of the Zealand Trail
The start of the Zealand Trail

I parked at the Zealand Trailhead at the end of Zealand Rd, which just reopened a week or so ago after being gated closed all winter. The last time I was at this trailhead over the winter, we’d had to walk three miles down that road in the snow to climb some mountains deep inside the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

I started up the Zealand Trail with the goal of stopping at the Zealand Hut to get fresh water before climbing to a viewpoint called Zeacliff on the way to Zealand Mountain. The Zealand Trail is flat and passes through an extensive beaver wetland before reaching the Zealand Hut which is perched on top of Zealand Falls. There’s a bridge that runs over the wetland now so hikers can keep their feet dry and not disturb the wildlife, but I can still remember before it was built and you had to splash, hop and jump through the mud to get to the other side. The beaver ponds kept getting larger and larger until they had to build a boardwalk across the whole area.

The boardwalk over the beaver ponds
The boardwalk over the beaver ponds.

The Zealand Hut is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club and it’s one of the huts that’s open in the winter for self-service use. You can sleep under a roof in the unheated cabin but you have to bring your own bedding and food, although they do have fresh potable water that’s usually hot on the hut stove. Since Covid, the AMC has put water taps on the outside of the huts in warmer weather, so hikers can refill their water bottles without having to come inside the hut to do it, which was the case in pre-covid days.

I got a liter of water from the tap and drank it outside the hut before starting up the Twinway to Zeacliff, which has one of the best views in the White Mountains, as long as you’re willing to climb the 1100′ of elevation required to reach it, The last time I climbed this trail, I remember thinking that it was much easier than on previous trips. Such was the case on this trip too and I was up in good time without being gassed in the process.

Appalachian Mountain Club's Zealand Hut
Appalachian Mountain Club’s Zealand Hut

I hung out on the cliff for a while and picked out some of the peaks I hope to visit later this year, including Whitewall, Lowell, and Twintop which are all off-trail bushwhacks on the New Hampshire 500 Highest list. I’d have a chance on my hike to scout the north side of Whitewall for a good bushwhack entry point near the end of my loop.

Sated by the view, I packed up my stuff and headed back to the Twinway (which coincides with the Appalachian Trail) to Zealand Mountain, which is an easy walk along rolling terrain. Once there, I hiked down the 0.1 mile trail to the summit sign and then started back toward Zealand Hut, retracing my footsteps.

The view from Zeacliff. One of the best in the Whites
The view from Zeacliff. One of the best in the Whites

Back at the hut, I refilled my bottles again and sat down to enjoy the cold water, chatting with a few hikers who recognized me from my website. Rehydrated, I said my goodbyes and headed back to the Ethan Pond Trail to continue my adventure. This next section of the hike was quite flat so I was able to pick up the pace a bit.

Mt Zealand summit sign
Mt Zealand summit sign

The Ethan Pond Trail, which is the local name for this portion of the Appalachian Trail, runs parallel to Whitewall Brook which flows into another stream (the North Fork). The first part near the hut runs below Whitewall Mountain, which has one of the best views in the Whites, or so I’m told because I still have to bushwhack it. This side of Whitewall is heavily scarred by avalanches and covered in boulder fields from the summit all the way to the trail, which passes along their base. While you can climb these boulders and scramble to the summit, my preference is to bushwhack up from the north through the forest, rather than dealing with 2000′ vertical feet of dynamic moving boulders underfoot. Much less dangerous and exhausting that way.

This is Zeacliff from the Ethan Pond Trail
This is Zeacliff from the Ethan Pond Trail

After passing Whitewall, the trail continues past the Thoreau Falls Trail which has a fantastic waterfall, and the Shoal Pond Trail which has a beautiful pond with Mt Carrigain as a backdrop in the distance. I hiked past both although I would have liked to hike down them – perhaps I’ll get to revisit later in the summer on a trip out to bushwhack TwinTop.

Boulder fields (avalanche debris) below Whitewall Mountain
Boulder fields (avalanche debris) below Whitewall Mountain. The climb is over 2000′.

This section of the Ethan Pond Trail runs uncannily straight, so I suspect it follows an old logging road built when the area to the south was called “Desolation” after it’d been logged out and then beset by forest fires that burned the remaining slash. The trail alternates between rocks and boardwalks, running alongside the North Fork of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River which is stained red by tannins from the surrounding forest.

The red tannic water of the North Fork of the East Pemigewasset River
The red tannic water of the North Fork of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.

I finally came to the spur trail for the Ethan Pond Campsite with its adjacent pond. This campsite has an old Appalachian Trail lean-to which is in pretty bad shape these days, five wooden platforms for tents, a common sitting and cooking area with several bear boxes, and apparently has a caretaker to oversee things, a bit later in the season. He/she wasn’t there now, which was fine by me because I didn’t feel like paying $15 to camp.

The roof of the Ethan Pond Lean-to is looking in need of a repair
The roof of the Ethan Pond Lean-to is looking in need of a repair

I hadn’t brought a tent that was particularly suitable for setting up on a platform, so I hiked uphill behind the campsite and found a nice pre-existing tent site surrounded by trees where I could set up on dirt. Only there was one problem which was a spruce grouse, who was quite agitated by my presence. He flew around for a bit trying to intimidate me, but I just ignored him and set up my X-Mid 1 before going back down to the kitchen area to cook dinner and stash my food for the night.

This spruce grouse was perturbed by my tentsite selection
This spruce grouse was perturbed by my tent site selection

After dinner, I went back to my tent, crawled into my sleeping bag, and started to doze. The spruce grouse was still strutting around, but after sunset, the campsite was quiet and it sounded like he’d disappeared.

I found a nice tentsite for the X-Mid-1 V2.
I found a nice tent site for the X-Mid-1 V2.

I woke at 5:50 with a start when something big hit the tent violently. The spruce grouse was back and attacking my tent by flinging himself against the peaks and sides. It sounded and felt like a bowling ball with wings was hitting the tent. Still, it stood. You’ll be happy to know that the X-Mid-1 V2 is spruce-grouse-proof!

I got out of the tent and chased him around the tent site before going down to the bear boxes and retrieving my food. I made a big pot of hot tea and packed up my gear, heading back out on the Ethan Pond Trail toward the Willey Range Trail and the big climb up to Mt Willey. I get up pretty early all summer, but I hadn’t expected to be on the trail so early that morning.

So much for sleeping in. Back on the Ethan Pond Trail in the AM.
So much for sleeping in. Back on the Ethan Pond Trail in the AM.

The south section of the Willey Range Trail climbs 1600′ in 1.1 miles, so it’s very steep. In fact, it’s so steep, that there are wooden ladders in places where the “trail” climbs particularly tricky ledges. I had some beta that some of the rungs of these ladders were missing, which is why I had decided to go up this way when planning this route, instead of down with an overnight pack. It turned out to be less precarious than it could have been, but you never know, until you go.

Ladders climbing up to Mt Willey
Ladders climbing up to Mt Willey.

While it was a chore getting up the steeps, it wasn’t that bad, and I was soon at the Willey Viewpoint, overlooking Crawford Notch, way before anyone else was awake or around. I relished the view for a while and then set out to climb the next two peaks, Field and Tom, which only required an additional 500′ of elevation gain. Field has a partially obstructed view of Mt Washington, while Tom doesn’t really have a view at all.

Crawford Notch from the Mt Willey Viewpoint
Crawford Notch from the Mt Willey Viewpoint.

Leaving Mt Tom, I hiked down the western half of the A-Z Trail back towards the Zealand Trail. This trail is very lightly used and my memory of it had faded. Much to my surprise, I ran into a backpacker climbing up the trail from the other direction and we chatted for a while about his plans. He was doing the same loop as I had done but in the opposite direction. Cool.

The Willey Range: The first, third, and fourth bumps ate Willey, Field, and Tom
The Willey Range: The first, third, and fourth bumps are Willey, Field, and Tom. Taken from Mt Webster.

I continued down the A-Z Trail passing a number of streams that I recognized from past hikes, while scouting a few snowmobile trails, looking overgrown and disused, that crossed the trail. There are all kinds of old roads and trails like this in the Whites, that can be fun to explore, or leverage, if you want to reduce the level of effort it takes to access remote areas when hiking off-trail.

This portion of the A-Z Trail is seldom hiked
This portion of the A-Z Trail is seldom hiked.

As I hiked, I looked for a good entry point for a future Whitewall Mountain Bushwhack, which is south of the trail. There were birch and fern groves, beginning near the second snowmobile trail crossing that would make a good entry point. That and really any point a bit farther east look pretty “open” with less vegetation to tangle with. A quick read of past trail reports, confirms this on, although many people still climb the slides and boulder fields on the other side of the mountain.

Boardwalk on the A-Z trail
Boardwalk on the A-Z trail

I finally came to the junction with the Zealand Trail and knew my trip was winding down. I hiked back over the beaver pond boardwalk and back to the trailhead when I ran into HILDE, an old hiking friend who was coming in to hike the Bonds. We caught up for a while and then headed our separate ways with plans to meet again soon (which we did).


Willey Range Loop

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  1. Nice to hear that the Durston V2 is spruce grouse-proof. Hopefully V1 is as well, as that’s the one I’ve been using.

  2. This was quite the coincidence. This is the very loop I’m planning this weekend!

  3. Also, any reason you did’nt descend Zeacliff trail?

    • Zeacliff trail is STEEP. I’m completely guessing that’s why.

    • You have to cross the Whitewall River on that route and I didn’t know what the water level would be like. If it was too high to cross, I’d have to hike back up it, which would have sucked. I’ve been down it before. As I was hiking down the Ethan Pond trail I looked at the Zeacliff Trail junction and it looked like there was a lot of water down there in a pool formed by the boulders, which I didn’t remember from past trips, but I didn’t investigate.

  4. Beckie and Prema

    Nice! We did a shorter one day version, also in reverse. AZ (which I absolutely loved), Field and Willey, down Willey, then Ethan Pond, and Zealand. Another time we took the fools’ way up Whitewall. Not doing THAT again! But when my navigational skills improve I’d like to spend a night there.

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