Climbing North and Middle Sugarloaf in Winter

The Presidential Range seen from North Sugarloaf
The Presidential Range seen from North Sugarloaf

North and Middle Sugarloaf are two smaller peaks located next to Mt Hale with great views of Mt Washington and the Presidential Range. They’re not an obvious destination in winter because the Forest Service road leading to their trail head is gated in winter and closed to wheeled vehicles. But the short road walk is well worth the effort if you want a short but invigorating hike with tremendous views. (The best views in the White Mountains are often from smaller peaks, not the big ones, but don’t tell the weekend hordes that.)

Nearby Hikes

The best place to park for the road walk up Zealand Rd is the big parking lot off Rt 302 between Twin Mountain and Bretton Woods, across from the Zealand campground. At other times of year, you can drive up to the trail head which has lots of parking.

The trail up to North and Middle Sugarloaf is steep in places, so I brought microspikes. But, the summit areas of both peaks have significant sections of open ledge, so I packed full crampons, in case they were needed. This turned out to be a good call because the approaches to both summits were covered with thick layers of hard ice that required deep penetration for traction.

There’s a trail junction for the Trestle Trail soon after you leave the trailhead, which you should avoid if you’re heading for North and Middle Sugarloaf, but is well worth the detour. The Trestle Trail winds through the forest running next to the Zealand River, on the bank opposite two USFS campgrounds. There’s a bridge connecting the two sides, but it’s frequently washed out, as was the case during my visit.

The Trestle Trail Bridge on the Zealand River is washed out
The Trestle Trail Bridge on the Zealand River is washed out

No matter, this gave me the opportunity to scout out the stream and possible stream crossing points, so I can come back to finish the trail when the water warms up in the spring. The stream holds excellent trout habitat and I’ll come back in late May when our trout season gets in full swing to finish the short section of trail I missed and do some fishing. Well, maybe more fishing than hiking. It really is a pretty spot with lots of pool drops, gravel beds, and eddies that trout like to hang out in and feed.

I hiked back to the junction and resumed hiking the trail towards the peaks which wanders past glacial erratics through open woods, topping out at a T-junction. From here, you turn right to climb North Sugarloaf or left to climb Middle. They’re both equivalent climbs, although the North peak is shorter. If you only do one, climb Middle Sugarloaf, which has much better views and a larger expanse of open ledge.

There was a lot of ice on this particular day on the path to North Sugarloaf and I quickly switched from microspikes to crampons to get a deeper bite into the ice. As I climbed, I heard this loud crunching side approaching me and froze, trying to figure out what it was. Was a moose headed my way? A bear? A lumberjack with a chain saw? I really had no idea, but froze there waiting to see what it was, ready to duck behind a large tree if necessary. No panic. It was a female hiker crunching down the trail in her crampons, which were just making a racket that day. We chatted and she told me about the ice higher up. Phew!

The climb up to North Sugarloaf is always a bit anti-climatic, although it does have a nice view of the Presidentials. Once you get to the top of the climb, you come to an opening. The best view is on the Mt Washington side, down a few steps and to the right, where there’s an opening in the trees (top photo).

Open ledge and 360 degree views on Middle Sugarloaf
Open ledge and 360 degree views on Middle Sugarloaf

I backtracked carefully down the North peak, very conscious of the slippery ice, passed the trail junction, and headed up to Middle Sugarloaf. Lots of ice again and a tricky ascent up the partially buried ladder which leads to the open ledge at the top.

When people talk about “open ledge” in White Mountain trip reports, they’re describing open rocky viewpoints. Middle Sugarloaf has one of the best in the part of the Whites and it is huge. You could probably fit 200 people on it, although that would ruin the ambiance. I had it all to myself.

The wooded knob known as South Sugarloaf Mountain
The wooded knob known as South Sugarloaf Mountain

On this particular trip, I spent most of the time studying South Sugarloaf, a bushwhack that’s been on my short list for a few years. I was interested in viewing the guard cliffs on the peak’s east side. I’ve been interested in using this peak as a practice bushwhack for my off-trail navigation classes and wanted to get a closer look at it. It has a lot of properties that I think make a good teaching example. It doesn’t require a huge hike in so you can do it in half a day, there’s terrain that needs to be avoided, and it has a fairly obvious ridgeline you can follow to the summit. It looks like you can also start from Middle Sugarloaf to hike it, which adds to the drama of the climb, and requires navigating through a saddle, en route. Saddles can be tricky if you can’t see where you’re going and can require a compass. Here’s the peak’s topo.

Middle and South Sugarloaf
Middle and South Sugarloaf

My scouting done, I gingerly descended the Middle summit and hoofed it pack to the trail head. Then back down the road to my car. Hiking the Sugarloafs (or it is “Sugarloaves”) is always a worthwhile hike, especially in winter.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

Written 2018.

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