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New Hampshire Appalachian Trail Section Hike: Hanover to Wentworth

Lambert Ridge on the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail

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.

Most people don't realize how far west the White Mountain National Forest extends
Most people don’t realize how far west the White Mountain National Forest extends, as far west as Hanover on the Vermont/New Hampshire State Line.

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.

Wetlands Bridge
Wetlands Bridge

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.

The famous Moose Mountain Privy without walls
The famous Moose Mountain Privy without walls

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.

The New Hampshire AT follows an established local trail system
The New Hampshire AT follows an established local trail system

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.

Smarts Mountain, far to the south
Smarts Mountain, far to the south

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.

Trapper John Shelter Fireplace
Trapper John Shelter Fireplace

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.

Maggie poses at the milepost
Maggie poses at the mile post

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.

Fire Warden's Cabin on Smarts Mountain, NH
Fire Warden’s Cabin on Smarts Mountain, NH (from a Nov 2016 trip)

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.

South Jacobs Brook at the base of Smarts Mountain
South Jacobs Brook at the base of Smarts Mountain

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.

The unique six-sided Hexacuba Shelter
The unique six-sided Hexacuba Shelter.

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.

The Penta Privy is a five-sided outhouse
The Penta Privy is a five-sided outhouse

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.

Hanover to Wentworth NH on Appalachian Trail

Total distance: 33 miles with 8500′ of elevation gain (Click to Download GeoPDF map)

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15 comments

  1. I am so happy to see this — i’m leaving SATURDAY to hike the NH AT section, and this feels like a really great omen for the trip. It also has me incredibly excited. Thanks for another great post!!

  2. Perfect timing, I just did this section this past weekend. If anyone is heading up there anytime soon, be ready to haul water. We had poor water at Moose Mountain and Smarts, and no water at Ore Hill. Otherwise, the whole hike from Hanover to Benton (where we ended) was beautiful. Pray for a breeze to keep the bugs at bay and take your time going up Smart’s Mountain.

  3. I went up into the Smarts firetower last weekend very briefly (it was windy!) and the view from the tower was pretty excellent. If you have a clear day on your fourth trip up, I would recommend it. I haven’t been up Cube but it might be a better view than from Cube, I don’t know.

    The water on Smarts wasn’t too terrible but we had the kind of filter that has a hose on it so it’s easier to get water out of a puddle than with a Sawyer Squeeze or similar.

    • I have to go back and do the ranger and dan doan again!
      Next time with a fishing rod, too.

      • We were there Sunday night into Monday. The wind was pretty darn strong. I piled up downed branches around my tent as a blockade. I was able to get water out of the puddle with my scoop and pre-filter it though my head net before adding chemicals.

        Which direction were you heading, Liz? I wonder if we bumped into you.

  4. Thanks for the report! I did this section over a long weekend two or three years go at the end of May – it’s a great early season trip. I don’t remember seeing any snow that year.

  5. William M Abene Jr

    Hello!
    How would you know if your Sawyer filter was frozen and destroyed?

    Will

  6. how long would it take a section hiker to do the whole AT section of New Hampshire without the benefit of “trail legs”, in your estimation.

  7. Hoping to do this section in early May. I wonder what the best way is to find out about snow conditions. I imagine it’ll still be chilly at night, too, and I’ll be tenting it with my tiny ultralight tent so I guess I’ll bring my sleeping bag liner. Thanks for the great trail description.

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