Bushwhacking Eagle Cliff and Downing Mountain

Bushwhacking Eagle Cliff and Downing Mountain

Eagle Cliff and Downing Mountain are two New Hampshire 500 Highest peaks located near Stinson Lake outside of Rumney, NH. They’re in a section of the White Mountain National Forest that doesn’t have many maintained trails, so they’re seldom visited. Snowmobiling is popular in this area, however, and there is a well developed and maintained trail network that hikers and mountain bikers can access if they wish to explore the area. Since these two peaks are largely within the National Forest, there aren’t any public access issues, provided you respect the homeowners and property owners abutting the area.

Eagle Cliff and Downing Mountain

We started this hike at the easternmost point of Stinson Lake Rd, at the barrier that is set up in winter to limit access to snowmobiles. There’s space for a few cars to park here on Forest Road #172 (snowmobile #155). I believe you can follow this forest road all the way to West Campton, making it a convenient access point to the area. I’ll have to try driving up next spring when it’s not closed to vehicular traffic.

We started out on the 155 Snowmobile Trail
We started out on the 155 Snowmobile Trail

We followed #172 and three snowmobile trails almost all the way to the summit of Eagle Cliff Mountain, sometimes referred to as Eagle Cliff West to distinguish it from Eagle Cliff, another trail-less peak in Franconia Notch. This was a little unexpected. We knew about the first snowmobile trail (called the Quick Lunch Trail) which runs in between Downing and Eagle Cliff, but not the second or the third which climbs to a scenic viewpoint on Eagle Cliff’s southwest flank. We suspect that the last one is new and was constructed within the last year. We followed it to height-of land-and then climbed up the ridgeline a short distance to the Eagle Cliff summit. That was almost too easy.

Ken at the Eagle Cliff canister.
Ken at the Eagle Cliff canister.

From the summit, we backtracked back to the snowmobile trail and followed it back to the east ridge of Downing Mountain, which we’d passed on the way in. This climb was a little bit more challenging because the east slope was a boulder field covered in snow. We picked our way through it, wearing snowshoes, drifting east to avoid the higher ledges.

Downing is capped with a long, narrow, and rocky ridge. I climbed up to it on the peak’s east side and started making my way down the ridge toward the summit. Ken had some beta about there being a red-blazed trail on Downing, but we never saw it.

Starting the climb up Downing Mountain
Starting the climb up Downing Mountain

The summit ridge was fairly open woods-wise although I had to bypass a few rocky outcroppings. When I came to the peak’s highpoint, I quickly found the canister, although it would have been easy to walk right past it as the jar was transparent and not covered in blaze orange tape.

I signed us in and we ate a snack before retracing our steps the ways we’d climbed up. By now, the sun was out and the day had warmed up, turning the snow in the boulder field to mashed potatoes. We slipped and slid down the hill back to the snowmobile trails and then hoofed it back to our cars. Another two NH500 peaks in the can and several hundred left to go.

Recommended Hiking Navigation Tools

I carry and use all of these navigation aids on hikes, both on-trail, and off-trail, in addition to a paper map. The most reliable tool is the compass, by far, because it only relies on the earth's magnetic field to operate. The others are also excellent, but they can generate false positives in the field and it's useful to have a compass along so you can verify the information they provide. 

  • Casio Pathfinder Solar Powered Altimeter Watch - are you sick of changing or charging your watch's batteries? This multi-function watch is solar-powered and the watch band is replaceable. I've been wearing one continuously for 5 years. I never take it off. It has time, date, compass, temperature, altimeter, barometer, stopwatch, backlit display blah blah. I mainly use the time and the altimeter. 
  • Suunto M3 Declination Adjustable Compass - great compass.  Set the declination and forget it. True north eliminates ever having to add or subtract degrees when going back and forth with a map and compass. I have the M3-NH (Northern Hemisphere) model. They also have an SH model and a G-model, which means it's a global compass that can be used north or south of the equator.
  • GaiaGPS Navigation App - there are some things about Gaia that really annoy me, but they have a lot of different maps and map layers to help you figure out where you are in the field. I mainly use the Gaia Topo and TF Outdoors base maps with the Slope Angle and the US Roads layer, which has forest/park service roads, fire roads, some snowmobile trails, and unpaved roads.  You can't carry all these maps at once unless they're available in digitized form on your phone. 
  • Caltopo - Caltopo doesn't have the programming staff that GaiaGPS does, but I still like it much better than Gaia's route planning tool. This is what I use on my laptop to plan and document my hikes. It's also very convenient for big picture planning especially when you're trying to block out a number of alternative routes. Caltopo also has an app, but I like Gaia's much better.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 8 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 490 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

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