Backpacking a Willey Range Loop

Backpacking 4000 Footers Willey Range Loop

A Willey Range Loop is a moderate 2-3 day, 22 mile loop that climbs four 4000-footers: Mts Tom, Field, and Willey in the Willey Range, before looping past the magnificent Thoreau Falls, Zealand Falls and climbing Mt Hale on the opposite side of the Zealand Valley. The route follows several quite scenic, but seldom used trails that provide an intimate glimpse of the Lincoln Woods Scenic Area. This is an exceptionally pretty route in autumn when the trees in Crawford Notch and the Pemigewasset Wilderness are ablaze in color.

Willey Range Loop
Willey Range Loop

Rating/Difficulty

*****/3 out of 5

Distance/Elevation Gain

22 miles w/5500′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

  • Tom
  • Field
  • Willey
  • Hale

Recommended Duration

2-3 days

Season

mid-June thru October

Permits Required

None.

Regulations

Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

The area around Thoreau Falls is in a Wilderness Area. Please observe all wilderness area regulations.

Trailhead Directions

Zealand Trailhead

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to the AMC White Mountain Trail Map 3-4: Crawford Notch-Sandwich Range (2017 ed), which is the best waterproof map available for this region, although I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set (2017 ed) rather than one map at a time. More detailed trail descriptions can be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide (2017 ed), which is considered the hiking bible for the region. Take photos of the pages using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.

  1. Zealand Trail – 2.3 miles
  2. A-Z Trail – 2.7 miles
  3. Mt Tom Spur – 0.6 miles
  4. Mt Tom Spur – 0.6 miles
  5. Willey Range Trail – 3.4 miles
  6. Ethan Pond Trail – 3.5 miles
  7. Thoreau Falls Tr – 0.5 miles
  8. Thoreau Falls Tr – 0.5 miles
  9. Ethan Pond Trail – 2.1 miles
  10. Twinway – 0.2 miles (to Zealand Falls Hut)
  11. Lend-a-Hand Trail – 2.7 mile
  12. Hale Brook Trail – 2.2 miles
  13. Zealand Rd – 1.0 mile Roadwalk

Scenic Highlights

The following list provides cumulate distances on the route to each view or landmark.

  • 2.0 miles – Zealand Valley Beaver Ponds
  • 5.6 miles – Mt Tom Summit View
  • 7.1 miles – Mt Field Summit View
  • 8.5 miles – Mt Willey Summit View
  • 10.6 miles – Ethan Pond, Lean-to, and Campsite
  • 13.1 miles – Thoreau Falls
  • 13.9 miles – Whitewall Mtn Rockfall
  • 15.3 miles – Zealand Falls Spur Trail
  • 18.1 miles – Mt Hale Summit

Camping/Shelter Options

Water

Natural water sources are plentiful in the White Mountains although you may need to descend to them from ridgelines along side trails if you run short. In any case, carry a detailed topographic map with you and don’t rely on the overview map provided with this trip description to find water sources.

I also recommend purchasing the WMNF Pemigewasset Map in Guthooks Guide’s New England Hiker Smartphone App (IOSAndroid) which is a GPS guide to all of the trails, trailhead, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. I use it all the time and it is much more complete and current than using the maps bundled with the Gaia Smartphone App.

On the Trail

The Zealand Trailhead is located in the parking at the end of gravel-topped Zealand Road, off Rt 302. From the trailhead, follow the Zealand Trail for 2.3 miles along an old railroad grade that was used to haul lumber out of the Zealand River Valley.

Zealand Trail Boardwalk
Zealand Trail Boardwalk

The trail is easy to hike and passes a variety of beaver meadows and ponds. Most of the stream crossings and wet areas have bridges or boardwalks, although the trail can become wet after very heavy rains. This trail leads the AMC Zealand Falls Hut, so it’s very well maintained and a popular route.

A-Z Trail
A-Z Trail

At the A-Z Trail Junction, turn left and climb gently at first, then more steeply, to the col between Mt Tom and Mt Field in 2.7 miles. This less travelled trail provides a convenient back-way between the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch and the Zealand Falls Hut, although it’s seldom used by day hikers. The trail crosses a wet area over planked bog bridges, which can be slippery if wet. When crossing bog bridges, go slow and avoid building momentum, since it’s very easy to slip if you try to stop abruptly. If you’re running low on water, there are a few small streams along this stretch where it’d be good to resupply, since the trails are dry from this point on, until you descend the south side of Mt Willey.

Willey Range Trail Junction
Willey Range Trail Junction

When you reach the Willey Range Trail Junction, stay on the A-Z Trail for another 80 yards until you come the Mt Tom Spur Trail. Turn left onto it and ascent to the Mt Tom summit in 0.6 miles until you reach the summit cairn. There are several viewpoints off the trail that have been cut in recent years, including a south-facing one with a view of Mt Washington.

Retrace your steps to the beginning of the Mt Tom Spur Trail and turn right onto the A-Z Trail, hiking back 80 yards to the Willey Range Trail Junction. Turn left and head toward Mt Field, 0.9 miles down the trail, climbing gradually through forest, until you come to the summit cairn. There are two views just before the summit, one overlooking Mt Washington and Crawford Notch to the east and the other to the west, overlooking the Mt Zealand and the Bonds.

Crawford Notch from Mt Willey
Crawford Notch from Mt Willey

From Mt Field, continue along the Willey Range Trail to the Mt Willey summit, past several cols and false summits until you reach the short summit spur trail. The best view is on the south side of the summit from an open ledge overlooking Crawford Notch. There is an expansive view of the Saco River Valley and the Notch from this viewpoint, including the dramatic cliffs of Mt Webster on the other side of the valley. The word “Notch” is synonymous with a mountain pass in the local parlance.

Willey Ladders
Willey Ladders

Continue down the south side of Mt Willey, descending a series of wooden ladders that look like they’re props in an M.C. Escher painting. I’ve always found it easiest to walk down them like walking down stairs, knowing that I can always sit down if I’m feeling unsteady. Once again, try to avoid building any momentum and take your time in descending. There’s a stream at the very bottom where you can resupply your water if needed.

Spur Trail to Ethan Pond Lean-to and Campsite
Spur Trail to Ethan Pond Lean-to and Campsite

You’ll soon arrive at the Ethan Pond Trail junction. Turn right onto the trail and climb to height of land. Continue through forest for one mile to the spur trail leading to the Ethan Pond Lean-to and campsite. This is a good place to stop and camp for the night. Moose frequent the pond at the foot of the campsite, which also has good fishing. Dispersed camping beyond this point, along the Ethan Pond Trail is rather poor, so it really is your best bet for a comfortable night.

Thoreau Falls
Thoreau Falls

From the campsite spur trail, turn right onto the Ethan Pond Trail hiking through dense and mossy forest over occasional bog bridges. This area drains into the North Fork of the Pemigewasset River which is hidden to your right, beyond the trees. The water in the river is colored a deep red from leaf tanins.

Hike 2 miles, passing the Shoal Pond Trail on your left, until you come to the Thoreau Falls Trail. Turn left onto it and pass the Wilderness Boundary, where you’ll soon come to a large ledge at the top of a beautiful curving waterfall that drops 80 feet in a series of cascades and slides. There is a good view of Mt Bond from the top of the falls, but be cautious when walking out on the ledge, which can be slippery when wet.

Zeacliff guards the entrance to Zealand Notch
Zeacliff guards the entrance to Zealand Notch

Backtrack to the Ethan Pond Trail, turning left at the junction, crossing to enter Zealand Notch. In 0.8 miles, you’ll pass the Zeacliff Trail on your left, which climbs 1200 feet to a ledge overlooking the valley. Avalanche debris from Whitewall Mountain on your right litter the valley floor.

Hiker rest on the front porch of the Zealand Falls Hut
Hiker rest on the front porch of the Zealand Falls Hut

Continue straight ahead for another 2 miles over easy trail, turning left at the Twinway Trail junction, and hike 0.2 miles to the AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut. There’s a short spur trail on your left before reaching the hut, which brings you to the base of Zealand Falls. When you get to the hut, drop your pack on the porch and go inside to look around. The Hut crew (spelled locally as “croo”) sells drinks and baked goods during the day for passing hikers. Potable water is also available for free, along with a bathroom.

The Mt Hale summit cairn.
The Mt Hale summit cairn. Photo Credit Sarah Nash.

Exit right from the hut porch and follow the Twinway a short distance, turning right onto the Lend-a-Hand Trail, which climbs 2.7 miles through forest to the summit of Mt Hale, the fourth 4000-footer on this route. The summit of Hale is open with limited views. But it has a large rock cairn, with magnetized rocks that can temporarily throw a magnetic compass off-kilter.

Descend from Mt Hale on the Hale Brook Trail which leaves from the north side of the summit, and winds moderately down the mountain, until you reach the trailhead on Zealand Road. When you reach the road, turn right and walk about a mile back to the Zealand Trailhead, where you car is parked, and this journey ends.

Written 2018.

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide. He's also finished hiking many of the region's peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

Safety Disclaimer

This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on SectionHiker.com, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code. 

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