Winter arrived over a month early this year and upset my autumn backpacking plans. While I still mourn the lost season, I’ve embraced the winter conditions and been out hiking and snowshoeing a good amount already. I’m a trip leader for the 6000+ member Random Hiker’s Meetup, which hikes primarily in the White Mountains, and I’ve been posting a lot of trips these past few weeks. I like to hike with other people in winter because it gives me a chance to recharge my social batteries and because it’s just safer. The White Mountains are no joke in winter and team efforts are usually far more successful than solo ones.
North Kearsarge Mountain is a highly visible landmark in the Mt Washington Valley Area, towering over the town of North Conway, which is the epicenter of winter sports and micro-brewed beer in the Whites. While the trailhead to North Kearsarge is close to town, it’s easy to underestimate the effort and gear required to get to the summit in winter. There are two trails up to the old firetower on North Kearsarge: the popular North Kearsarge Mountain Trail and the more remote and seldom-hiked Weeks Brook Trail, which approaches the summit from the east.
For this trip, I decided it would be fun to hike both trails, climbing the Weeks Brook Trail to the firetower and descending by the North Kearsarge Trail. The total distance of this hike is 8.2 miles with 2700′ feet of elevation gain. Hiking in a group made this route possible because we could run a 16 mile shuttle from the beginning of the hike to the end.
Here’s a map of our route. This is a georeferenced PDF created using Caltopo. You can navigate with it using an app like Avenza (directions here) or just print it out.North Kearsarge Firetower Traverse
The Weeks Brook Trail starts at a gated forest service road near the bottom of Hurricane Mountain Road off Rt 113a. The start of the trail follows the road before turning off into open woods. We wore snowshoes from this point to the summit. The snow was dry powder for the most part, but too deep for bare-booting. The trail is well blazed and easy to follow. This being hunting season, most of use were wearing blaze orange clothing.
The first part of the Weeks Brook Trail passes though an area that has been logged in the past few years. While the trail crews did a good job of cleaning up the debris, the disturbance is considerably less noticeable under a foot of snow. If you can, hike the Weeks Brook Trail in winter, at least for the next few years.
Once past the logged area, the trail is quite pleasant. It begins to climb an old logging road to Shingle Pond, with a good view of the firetower on the horizon. We lost the trail as we circled around the pond however and it took a while for us to re-aquire it. After fanning out and searching for blazes, I whipped out Guthooks New England England Hiker app which has GPS-enabled maps of the White Mountain Trails. I quickly located the buried trail and we were quickly able to find the blazes again. It’s a great app to have in winter when it’s much harder to follow our local trails.
The Weeks Brook Trail takes a roundabout way getting to the summit from the pond, climbing up a northeast ridge to the summit. The trail climbs next to a stream before climbing steeply up the final 850′ of elevation to the ledges below the summit. This was tough going in deep powder, and we were all sweating fiercely with the effort. I always forget how steep that final pitch is. Once there, we had great views of the mountains and lakes in nearby Maine, which are just a stone throws away.
The firetower has a wraparound balcony and 360 degree windows, so you can come inside to get out of the weather. The views are great. You can see Mt Washington and the entire southern Presidential Range, Crawford Notch, and the lakes and peaks in Maine to the north and east. We had the place to ourselves as we munched on snacks and rehydrated.
Sunset comes early at this time of the year, so we left the firetower by 1:00 pm and headed down the North Kearsarge Trail to our cars on Hurricane Mountain Road. The trails drops elevation very quickly, but we were able to shed our snowshoes for the descent and hike down in microspikes because the trail was packed out. It still took an hour and half to get down, but gravity helped. Where would we be without it?