While I haven’t completely given up on hiking 4,000 footers since finishing the White Mountain 4000 footers (in winter) last year, the main reason I hike the higher peaks is social, to hang out with my friends who are working on their own peakbagging lists. When I hike by myself, I enjoy exploring more remote destinations that are less traveled by others.
One such spot I’ve been meaning to explore is the Greeley Ponds Scenic Area in Mad River Notch. Located between East Osceola Mountain and Kancamagus Mountain, this area was decimated by Hurricane Irene in 2011, which blew out several hiking bridges and washed away parts of the trail system, resulting closure of the local trail system. The Forest Service has only gotten around to fixing the damage in the past year and I wanted to check out their progress.
I got on to the Greeley Ponds Tr at the Kancamagus Highway trail head and headed south towards Livermore Road. A distance of just 5 miles by foot through the mountain pass, you need to drive over 35 miles by car to connect these two endpoints.
The first 1.4 miles of this trail coincides with the route to East Osceola Mountain, a 4000 footer, so it was well packed out by hikers wanting to bag the peak and neighboring Mount Osceola, which are usually climbed as a pair on the same hike. In addition to microspikes, I packed a pair of snowshoes because I was less sure about trail conditions beyond the Mt Osceola Trail junction. It was good that I did.
I needed extra flotation immediately after passing the trail junction where the horde of peakbaggers turns off the main trail. Once beyond the trail sign, I needed to put on snowshoes to avoid postholing in the Greeley Ponds Ski Trail, which coincides with the hiking trail over the next few miles, although the two trails do diverge in places.
While I knew there was a ski trail running through Mad River Notch, it wasn’t marked on the map I had grabbed at home, even though the same map lists several other backcountry ski trails nearby. I knew about the ski trail since I’d tried to cross-country ski it the previous weekend, but quickly gave up because it far exceeded my skill level. Despite that lingering uncertainty, I had a good idea what to expect on my route since the hiking trail is well-marked and I knew that I’d be passing by the Lower and Upper Greeley Ponds in a narrow valley.
I soon came to the Lower Greeley Pond, located below some impressive cliffs on the western sub-peak of Mt Kancamagus, a trail-less mountain that I bushwhacked a few winters ago. The ski trail diverges from the hiking trail just before the lake and runs across its frozen surface, while the hiking trail hugs the west side of the pond and continues in forest. The two trails rejoin at the northern end of the pond, where I ran into the only hiker I saw during the day, a fellow wearing a blaze orange cap who’d wandered up the trail to get a glimpse of the Lower Pond. We chatted briefly: he hadn’t gone past the Lower Pond and was headed back to climb East Osceola Mountain.
I headed through ever-deepening powder to the Upper Greeley Pond, a short distance north. The ski trail split off again, running over the pond and across it to the far side. The hiking trail continued along the west side of the trail but wasn’t broken out, so I decided to follow the ski trail instead, which showed some evidence of being skied in recent days. It’s been so cold up north for so long, that I was confident that the pond would hold me.
Once I’d crossed the pond, I continued on the ski trail across a wooden bridge. Soon after, the trails merge again, before climbing a steep hill and dropping back down to the Mad River and another bridge crossing. There was evidence that a skier had herring-boned up this hill, which is significant enough to warrant a switch-back, and must have taken quite a bit of effort for the poor guy to get up.
It was here that I found the newly constructed replacement bridge, which hardly seemed large enough to warrant closing the trail to recreation the past few years. The bridge is at the intersection of the Greeley Pond Ski Trail, which I’d been following, and the Kancamagus Brook Ski Trail, which I’d never heard of and is not marked on any of the many maps of the White Mountains that I own. It links up to an upcountry section of The Livermore Road, which was also severely eroded by Irene. There are a number of recent changes to the trail system in this area including sections of The Flume Trail, The Livermore Trail, and Irene’s Path which I want to come back and explore at a later time.
Not wanting to end my hike, I crossed the new bridge and continued along the Greeley Ponds Trail until the Timber Trail Junction, which leads up to an area called High Camp below a cliff-face that Steve Smith identifies as Painted Cliff. I caught several views of this rock face through the trees en route and it must be sublime to camp beneath it. I didn’t have time to climb the Timber Trail to view it, but hope to later in the year.
My time was running out, so I hiked back the way I’d come in, with one small route change, breaking trail also the west side of Upper Greeley Pond, rather than hiking across the pond. I experienced a certain amount of trepidation at the prospect of breaking the trail here solo, but it was along an unusually well blazed section of trail so I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be swallowed by any wayward spruce traps.
I was relieved to find that the trail has been partially broken out by someone who’d visited some weeks earlier, though their tracks were drifted over in many places and filled with about a foot of new snow. Still there was sufficient wind slab to prevent me from sinking far, particularly near the pond, where I was able to break trail with relative ease.
From this point back, the trail was familiar and an easy ramble back over my snowshoe tracks to my car. This was a fine adventure with some unexpected treasure near the end, warranting future exploration.
Total round trip distance: 7.4 miles with 800 feet of elevation gain.