The New Hampshire Appalachian Trail begins at the bridge over the Connecticut River that separates Vermont and New Hampshire. That’s where I had my shuttle driver drop me off, before I headed up the hill thru Hanover Center, which was bustling with Dartmouth students. A few turns along some side streets and I entered the western end of the White Mountain National Forest, headed east on the Appalachian Trail.
Most people don’t realize that the Whites begin in Hanover, which is 50 miles west of Mount Moosilauke, the first of the 4000 footers that thru-hikers have to climb on their way to Maine. All of the maps for the White Mountain National Forest leave out all of the trails west of Moosilauke, including those published by the Appalachian Mountain Club, although the descriptions and driving directions for them are included in the White Mountain Guide.
While I’ve already section hiked the entire New Hampshire Appalachian Trail before, I picked this route because it was snow free. Backpacking in May, east of Glencliff, NH (the west side of Mt Moosilauke) can be a real challenge, because lingering snow makes many of the higher elevation trails impassable until Memorial Day, and some stay that way into July. Your best bet is to stick to trails under 3000′ in elevation, at least if you want to avoid carrying snowshoes and microspikes.
The section of the AT east of Hanover resembles a popular town park, more than a wilderness trail. You soon come to the Velvet Rocks Shelter right outside of town. Being so close to civilization, it’s heavily used, and it looked like someone had been living there when I visited. The shelter area is on a loop off the main trail, which I followed (all the way around) before continuing east. I was interested in hiking all of the little side trails on this trip, mainly to the shelters, as well as the main trail.
It’d been about 10 years since I’d hiked through this area and I’d forgotten what many sections of the trail looked like. Except for the shelters and a few landmarks, like mountain summits, I felt like I was hiking the trail for the first time. Given the frequent reroutes made to the Appalachian Trail, I might well have been.
As I travelled east, the road crossings became less frequent and the wooded sections longer. I’d gotten a late start that morning, when my shuttle driver had arrived late due to engine trouble. That meant I was only going to make it to the Moose Mountain Shelter that evening, instead of hiking a few miles farther. On hindsight, I’d wished I had hiked farther because the water source at Moose Mountain was pathetic, just a trickle. There is a great stream farther down the trail, to the east of North Moose Mountain, where I wish I had camped. But somehow there’s psychological comfort in camping at the shelters and their tent sites, which is why people tend to spend the night at them rather than camping wild in the surrounding woods.
I pitched my hammock, ate dinner, and crashed early as is my habit. It was a windy night, but I was snug as a bug in my Warbonnet Wookie. This being a 2-night, mid-week hike, I didn’t share the shelter areas with anyone and hardly saw anyone on the trails. Kind of how I like it, to be honest, because it gives me time to think and remember what I’m experiencing rather than chatting away obliviously. There’s a time for social hiking and a time for solitary hiking, and I was in the mood for the latter. This hike was going to be a short respite from worldly concerns and savored while it lasted.
While the AT is well-marked when you get into the White Mountains, it does follow an existing trail system. This can be confusing to thru-hikers and local alike, since the AT follows a sequence of differently named trails that start and end every few miles. These local trail names are left out of David Miller’s AT Guide and Guthook’s Guide (smartphone) which can add to the confusion. In the eastern half of the Whites, AT thru-hikers often cross out the local trail names on signs with sharpie pens or carve out their names with knives, for reasons that I don’t care to guess at (See Appalachian Trail Sign Defacements.) Thankfully, these signs remained undisturbed.
After leaving the Moose Mountain Shelter, I hiked from South Moose to North Moose Mountain, along a lovely section of the AT, stopping at Holt’s Ledge to admire the view of Smarts Mountain, well to the south. Smarts is a big hill that I’d climb later in the day, requiring 2000′ of elevation gain. That’s not a huge amount of elevation gain by itself, but it was going to be a big day.
I hiked down to the Trapper John Shelter, a short distance off the main AT, to resupply my water. There’s a giant stone fireplace in front of the shelter and a small camping area behind it. The trail down to the shelter had some big blowdowns blocking it, so I guess the trail maintainers haven’t been out yet.
I soon passed the 412 mile marker (that’s 412 miles remaining for NOBOs) before reaching the base of the climb to Smart’s Mountain. This climb has two parts. There’s the climb up to Lambert’s Ridge on the west side of the mountain that has the great views (see top photo) from a series of exposed ledges. The trail plateaus after the ledges before climbing very steeply again to the summit over iron ladders fused into the rock ledges.
No big deal. I made it up to the Smart’s summit and had a snack on the bench besides the fire warden’s cabin, which is open and can be used as a shelter by hikers. The cabin water source was flowing well when I was there, and I refilled my bottles for the next leg of my hike. There’s also a fire tower at the summit, which I confess, I’ve never bothered to climb. I have camped up here before (this was my third ascent of the peak), but planned to continue to Mt Cube and the shelter there for the evening.
The hike down the back of Smarts was longer than I’d remembered, but there was now a sturdy wooden bridge across Jacobs Brook and not the intimidating rock hop that I remembered from a decade earlier. This is a lovely stream, worth coming back for some swimming and Tenkara, sometime. I’d intentionally left my rod and tackle at home for this trip though, so as not to be tempted by too many long detours.
I was pretty tuckered out by this point, but wanted to hike another 1.5 miles to the Hexacuba Shelter, a six-sided shelter, on the south side of Mt Cube. This was shaping up to be a respectable 17.5 mile day with over 4000 feet of elevation gain. I girded myself up the next 500′ of elevation gain, climbing the Eastman Ledges on the Kodak Trail, (naturally) before arriving at the shelter.
It took me a while to find a good place to pitch my hammock in the vicinity of the shelter, because there were so many widow-makers from the winter. I ate dinner once I’d gotten situated and propped up my water filter so it wouldn’t freeze that night (a frost was forecast), before falling into a peaceful sleep. The trick is to leave your water filter (a Sawyer Squeeze) connected to a Platypus and suspended in a gravity filter configuration, so that the interior remains in contact with liquid water. The water will get cold, but it doesn’t freeze, so your filter remains undamaged. Whereas, if you just store your water filter damp, there’s a greater chance that it will frost up inside and be destroyed.
I slept in the next morning and only broke camp by 8:00 am. It was a short, but steep climb to the summit of Cube, which is a far more magnificent peak than Smart’s though not as high. Topped by open ledges, you can see for miles from the summit. I hiked along the summit spur trail to North Cube and admired the view from the ledges there, before descending down the north side of Cube and the end of this short section.