Hiking the Skull Cairn Trail on Mt Chocorua

Hiking the Skull Cairn Trail

The White Mountain National Forest is riddled with decommissioned hiking trails, old logging roads, railroad spurs, and logging camps enough to keep anyone with a thirst for history and hiking off the beaten path satisfied for years to come. The Skull Cairn Trail is one such “lost trail,” as they’re called locally, that been closed down and removed from all modern maps. It climbs partway up picturesque Mt Chocorua, which is the most photographed mountain in the White Mountain National Forest.

I first learned about the old Skull Cairn Trail last winter after snowshoeing up the Hammond Trail, also on Mt Chocorua, when I met a gentleman at the trailhead who was out hiking with his dogs. He told me about the trail and the local trail system maintained by The Nature Conservancy and the Chocorua Lake Conservation Foundation, which is also not depicted on the local hiking maps popular with hikers, including those published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

I went home after that and researched the Skull Cairn Trail by searching through the old USGS maps you can download for free using the USGS’s TopoView Browser. It lets you download historic geocoded GeoPDF maps that can be used by a navigation app like Avencia Maps. It’s an amazing resource. The Skull Cairn Trail is depicted on the 1931 USGS maps for Mt Chocorua but has been completely removed in the 1958 version. You can also find it on the 1930 Historic Topo in GaiaGPS or the Historic 1915-1945 layer in Caltopo.

Skull Carin Trail Map

The snow was too deep to make an attempt that winter, so I put the trail onto my todo list for the following autumn, which is the best time to go bushwhacking in New England. I wanted to invite a few friends along who I know are always up for that kind of historical hiking adventure.

The Skull Trail doesn’t climb to the summit of Mt Chocorua but joins the Hammond Trail just below the current Hammond-Liberty Trail Junction. You’d never know it if you weren’t looking for it and I’ve walked past the point where it intersects the Hammond Trail a half-dozen times and never noticed it.

I’ve been told that there used to be a skull on a cairn at the beginning of the Skull Cairn Trail, but it isn’t there any longer. There is still a skull higher up the trail though, hanging in a tree, although you have to keep a sharp eye to spot it. I’m not going to tell you where it is, but here’s a photo of it. Half the fun is finding it!

The Skull Cairn Skull
The Skull Cairn Skull

The best place to park to hike the Skull Cairn Trail is off Scott Rd at the Hammond Trail trailhead (See the AMC White Mountain Guide for directions). You have to follow an unsigned trail from the trailhead to the place where the Skull Carin Trail begins, but rather than describe that, I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find with the maps and apps listed above.

Once you find the start of the trail, it’s quite easy to follow at least to the halfway point. While this is an old trail, you should treat it like a bushwhack since the unblazed trail does get a bit harder to find the higher you climb. It’s can also be hard to pick out the trail if there are fresh leaves on the ground.

Views of Chocorua Lake and Silver Lake
Views of Chocorua Lake and Silver Lake

When you start to climb steeply, be on the lookout for a large rock formation and hike up the middle of it to an open ledge with views of Chocorua Lake and Silver Lake. The trail resumes and you’ll climb to a pond, which was bone dry when we visited during this year’s drought. When it holds water, you’ll have to hike around it to find the trail’s continuation.

The trail has a few scrambles before it reaches the Hammond Trail. From there, you can follow it to the Liberty Trail and up to the Chocorua summit or head back down to the trailhead parking area to make a nice loop. The Hammond Trail is a real gem and far less crowded than the other Chocorua Trails, making this a nice loop hike if you want to hike something out of the ordinary.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide. 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. In addition, Philip volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

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12 comments

  1. It’s a shame you wrote this one.

    • Just because I wrote it, doesn’t mean people will hike it. You have to find it and then follow it and while it’s probably straightforward for an experienced bushwhacker/navigator, I don’t think the usual Chocorua crowd is going to bother. It’s not on a list and it doesn’t go anywhere, for instance.

      • I told you about the trail, a little special sheltered secret. In a little special sheltered area of the world. It was for serendipitous discovery. A little word of mouth magic. But some always seem to want them monetize every facet of modern existence. May trail karma catch up to you.

      • I can understand your point of view. I don’t completely agree with it though. For example, you’ve made assumptions about my intentions without knowing me. My goal when writing about my hikes is 1) to write about a topic I love, since I love writing about hiking and nature. There’s a real craft to writing and I’m like to stretch myself by using it. 2) to write about something besides hiking gear or pure skill acquisition which is more monetizable. 3) to educate people…in this case about the history of the White Mountains and about learning to navigate with old maps. I don’t think I deserve your curse for goals like that. But the Skull Cairn Trail does run through a National Forest and anyone is allowed to hike on this land. Best come to grips with that fact. I know a lot of other local residents who are struggling with it.

      • Philip, there’s a long tradition of white mountain hikers who’ve written about their hikes. I count you, Steve Smiths blog and The One Happy Hiker website as local treasures and you’ve all provided me with inspiration for many new adventures. The Skull Cairn Trail is well known in certain circles and I don’t feel that you should be penalized for writing about it. Like you said…there’s a small group of people who might be interested in hiking this trail, namely responsible bushwhackers like yourself.

  2. Gary, Are you the same local who told Gordon DuBois, another prolific White Mountains hiking writer, about the Skull Cairn Trail. He wrote about it in 2019 in his newspaper column. If you want to keep it a secret, you really should stop telling everyone about it.

    https://www.laconiadailysun.com/community/outdoors/a-late-winter-solstice-tradition/article_220ef404-0d34-11e9-8df4-9329330a0ec9.html

  3. Bill in Roswell GA

    My first hike in NE was Mt. Chocorua, on the tourist trail. I loved it, having moved from the southeast. A few weeks later, my New England friends took me up Tuckerman Ravine on Father’s Day. The wind was gusting 60 mph, snow and sleet felt like darts. We didn’t hang around. I loved it and hikes the Whites almost every week that summer. My fav is Ice Gulch – perfect for a sunny August day!

  4. Trail karma, good grief! Philip, thank you for writing about the trail. While I won’t be bushwhacking this one, I do enjoy reading about the history.

  5. My Bud Phil,
    If a picture is worth a thousand words,
    Your Fall ones are worth ten thousand,
    But then why isn’t National Geographic calling,
    To grace one of their magazine’s covers,
    Isn’t it time to give those Washington-based folks,
    A vintage call of the White Mountain of the wild.

  6. I’m sorry you got blasted about this post. I enjoyed this story. I relish your photos and trip descriptions.

    I read this blog for inspiration. Stories like these don’t inspire me to go on this specific route, but rather encourage general woods exploration as I have done since childhood.

    After being physically hurt 10 months ago, I crave these stories. On other words, I “hike through you.” Nothing sucks more than being sidelined by an injury… or two… So these posts help me hike routes that I cannot go on right now, or ever.

    Keep writing. The White Mountain history is deep. So is Maine…. Until then I will “bear weight as tolerated” and have me though your posts.

    • I’ve actually concluded that “Gary” is a spammer that’s been stalking me for the past year. Sorry about your injury. I’m also working through injuries this year, but relishing the adventures that I can manage.

  7. As an avid hiker and backpacker and a New Hampshire native, I always tell fellow hikers about trails that I find really enjoyable or not so popular.Thank you for doing the same. I’m not sure if I will ever get around to this one , but I may just tee off Gary !

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