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Paugus Chocorua Loop Backpack

Mt Chocorua from Mt Paugus Ledges
Mt Chocorua from Mt Paugus Ledges

The Sandwich Wilderness is on the southern boundary of the White Mountains and while it lacks the higher elevation mountains of the north, it is just as rugged and remote. I discovered this on a recent 2 day backpacking trip I did on the southeastern end of the Sandwich Range looping up and around two adjacent 3,000 footers, Mt Paugus (3198′) and Mt Chocorua (3490′) and exploring the verdant valley between them.

Much to my surprise, this trip turned out to be much more strenuous than I’d expected taking twice as long to hike than I’d planned, but I was well equipped and had ample supplies with me so I took the time to enjoy myself. I’ve also been giving a lot of thought to Walt McLaughlin’s recent book The Allure of the Deep Woods, where he values being in the wild far more than the “big brag” of hiking a trail as fast as possible.

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So, in addition to climbing the peaks and enjoying their summit views, I explored several nearby shelters, caves, and scouted fishing streams that I often blow by when I’m peakbagging or on some other ‘mission’. My goal on this trip was to savor the experience, spend a little bit more time puttering around in camp, and to survey the area as a possible location for some future group trips. It was fun. Next time, I’ll bring a fishing rod and go even slower.

Paugus-Chocorua Loop
Paugus-Chocorua Loop

Off the Beaten Track

While Mt Chocorua is one of the most hiked peaks in the White Mountains, Mt Paugus and many of the the trails in the valley between Paugus and Chocorua are barely hiked at all, some are overgrown and in need of maintenance, and many were damaged by flooding from hurricanes Irene and Sandy. And while the trail system in this nether region is quite dense, it is also also terribly confusing in places to navigate with sparse, absent, or confusing signage. Maps of the area not finely detailed enough to reflect the frequently changing trail names, some have antiquated trail names that have been changed, and different maps don’t agree with one another.

In fact, the only way I was able to naviagte my way through this route was by referring to a local guidebook called AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England by Matt Heid. Matt’s description of this route is much more finely detailed than on a map and provides a lot of good clues about what to look for to make sure you are on the correct route, as well as fascinating places to visit only the way. I still made a few wrong terms but caught them easily by double-checking my heading with a compass. Using this book renewed my appreciation for guided hikes and the work that goes into making them useful to hikers.

Mushrooms on the Old Paugus Trail
Mushrooms on the Old Paugus Trail

The Hike

I parked at the Liberty Trail trail head, almost due south of Mt Chocorua. The trail head is at the end of a dirt road near Tamworth, NH in the Hemenway State Forest, an area full of old logging roads and historic logging artifacts. The walking here is level and easy through open woods  and runs alongside many wide streams and their tributaries. It’s a great place to get into the shade and and out of the heat on a hot summer day.

From the trail head, I walked along the Bolles Trail, taking a left onto the Old Paugus Trail. My goal was to climb Mt Paugus on day one and camp between the two peaks, tackling Mt Chocorua on the second day of my hike. Time permitting, I hoped to do a short bushwhack from the Paugus ledges to the “true” summit of Paugus about 0.3 miles north of the map summit, but I ran out of time before it got dark.

Big Rock Cave
Big Rock Cave

My first side-trip of the day was to Big Rock Cave, a huge pile of glacial erratics that make for great scrambling. The forest area surrounding Mt Paugus is littered with huge boulders that were deposited by glaciers, but the Big Rock Cave is the biggest collection of huge rocks in one place. It’s a boulderer’s heaven if you’re looking for some hard rocks to climb.

Whitin Brook Cascade
Whitin Brook Cascade

After a water break, I  headed back down to the Whitin Brook Trail and hiked north towards the base of Mt Paugus. This trail is a gem. It runs alongside a beautiful stream before climbing into a large stand of spruce, although there are many blow downs off-trail, probably the result of hurricane winds. The devastation continues along the Cabin Trail and the Lawrence Trail which climbs up to the Mt Paugus ledges.

New Section of the Lawrence Trail
New Section of the Lawrence Trail

The Lawrence Trail has always had a reputation as being one of the steepest and gnarliest trails in the Sandwich Range. That’s history now. The trail was trashed by major flooding and has been largely rerouted and reconstructed with lots of new switchbacks, which are normally quite rare on White Mountain Trails. That was one of the biggest surprises on my trip but a good reminder about how dynamic trail systems can be.

I got to the summit of Paugus by about 3:30 pm, a little late in the day for me to attempt a solo bushwhack, so I saved that detour for another time. I also wanted to get to camp by 5ish to play around with some of the extra gear and electronics I carried on this trip and didn’t feel like I could do an out and back bushwhack and still hit that schedule. I only had a vague idea about where I was going to camp, but knew that I’d have to scout around for a while to find a nice spot for the night.  So, I hung out on Paugus’ open ledges for a while and took in the huge views. I hadn’t seen anyone all day and had the cliff exclusively to myself. It’s clear why this peak is on the 52 With a View Peak List.

Mt Paugus - Western Ledges
Mt Paugus – Western Ledges

When I left Mt Paugus, navigation got a bit tricky because the trail down the east side of the mountain is very poorly marked and signed. At one point, I even spent 20 minutes scouting a bushwhack descent, until I spotted a faint trail down through the ledges on a section of trail that looked like it’d been deliberately brushed in to dissuade hikers from using it. Even after finding the tral down (The Old Paugus Tr), I had to rely on Matt’s guidebook directions to make the correct turns at an unmarked trail junction.

I finally sighed a breath of relief when I found the Old Paugus/Beeline Trail trail junction because I knew the Beeline would take me east through good camping territory and up Mt Chocorua the next morning. I followed the Beeline, which is heavily overgrown below Mt Paugus, to Paugus Brook, and soon found a nice campsite set way back from the river. It felt like it was going to rain, so I pitched my tarp in a wide A-frame shape, the first time I’ve used this tarp, which is my simplest but favorate shelter, since last summer.

A-Frame Tarp Pitch
A-Frame Tarp Pitch

It didn’t rain afterall, which was fine by me because it meant I didn’t have to pack up a wet tarp. I had a quick breakfast and was headed up the Beeline Trail before 8am. This section of the Beeline is very well maintained and small sections have even been rebuilt to fix flood damage. This trail also gets steeper and more challenging as it approaches the Mt Chocorua summit cone, requiring careful footwork over roots and even short scrambles.

Jim Liberty Cabin Below Chocorua Summit
Jim Liberty Cabin Below Chocorua Summit

Before climbing the last 200′ to the top of Chocorua, I took a short detour down the intersecting Liberty Trail to the Jim Liberty Cabin, a first-come first serve hiking shelter that’s located at 2600′. The bulding is literally chained to the ground to prevent it from blowing away, much like the structures on top of Mt Washington.

After checking out the cabin, I backtracked back up the Liberty Trail to the Beeline/Brook Trail Junction and continued up the mountain. This section of the Brook Tail is a very difficult route up steep rock. It had just started to drizzle when I climbed it making even higher consequence if I had a fall. I would not recommend coming down Chocorua on the Brook Trail, especially if the rock is wet. I did it and it was distinctly unpleasant. The Liberty Trail is a far easier and safer route and both end close to the lot where I’d parked my car.

Wet Rock on the Brook Trail, Mount Chocorua
Wet Rock on the Brook Trail, Mount Chocorua

The Brook Trail ends about 50 feet below the summit of Chocorua and after that a short scramble puts you on top. It’s immediately clear why Chocorua is such a popular mountain because the 360 degree views are simply incredible, with clear views of Mount Carrigan to the Northwest, the Sandwich Range to the west, and the Lake District to the South.

Looking North from Mount Chocorua
Looking North from Mount Chocorua

Once again, I had a summit to myself and soaked in the views (a benefit of hiking on weekdays). Then I headed down the Piper Trail on a 3 mile RT detour to check out another overnight shelter called Camp Penacook. This is a traditional Adirondack Lean-to, with a few tent sites, water, and a privy. I ate lunch here, a berry custard trifle from Packit Gourmet that re-energized me for the subsequent climb back up the mountain.

Camp Penacook Shelter
Camp Penacook Shelter

On hindsight, I should of probably spent the rest of the afternoon and evening here and enjoyed having the shelter to myself. Instead, I headed out and climbed 1.1 miles back up the Piper Trail just as it started to rain lightly, before raining heavily the rest of the day.

Mt Chocorua, White Mountains
Mt Chocorua (East Face), White Mountains

Rather than climb up and over the summit again (about 200 feet), I took the West Side Trail , which is a bad weather bypass route, that brought me back to the top of the Brook Trail. I carefully descended the crux parts near the top of the mountain by sliding on my now wet butt and bushwhacking around the rock ledges where possible. I felt very vulnerable all the while, but eventually got below the ledge section of the Brook Trail and hiked back to the trail head where my car was parked. Despite lots of water crossings, the lower section of the Brook Trail is exceptionally pretty and worth revisiting.

This route up Paugus and over Chocorua was really a nice hike, though rather more strenuous than I’d expected. I only hiked about 15 miles during the two days I was out, but I can still feel the emotional bliss of a fun adventure. There are lots of other trails and geologic features to explore in this area, including the wild Paugus Pass, and I hope to make my way back to this region in the future.

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  1. Thats a great trip Philip. Sometimes the best mountains are not the biggest ones. Liked that.

  2. Lovely! I should hike in this area more often, now that you mention it. One thing that surprises me is the condition of those shelters… They look much nicer than I’d expected, for some reason. Glad to see the Forest Service doesn’t let them fall into disrepair. Or is it the WODC that maintains those?

    • The entire area is maintained by the CMC, the Chocorua Mountain Club, and they do a superb job, especially given the pounding that the more popular routes take. The Penacook Shelter is really nice, but you wouldn’t believe the approach hike in from the Piper trail. Steep and rocky.

  3. Great story as usual Philip. I’ve always been a hardcore defendant of slow hiking. I can’t go outdoors as much as I’d like to, so I try to savour it fully without rushing through it. Theee’s enough.rushing in my routine to take it with me on holiday.

  4. Lol, from reading the headline on the RSS feed, I thought that you were reviewing a new backpack, and wondered about the silly names these cottage manufacturers were coming up with lately. I’m sure the Paugus Chocura Loop would be an awesome backpack, but it sounds like the straps could be chafing a little ;)

  5. …. Fond memory of a carefree youth a rainy day in a long ago September, skidding down the wet, loose gravel on Beeline, making tight stem christies with my boots alone. You would not have enjoyed the old Shag camp on the Paugus summit. The Liberty is still mouse friendly.

  6. I think I missed this post when I was in that neck of the woods last summer. It’s something I’m going to consider if I ever get back up there.

    In paragraph 5 of the article you state:

    “I still made a few wrong terms but caught them easily by double-checking my heading with a compass.”

    I think you made a wrong term in that sentence… but you could have caught it by double-checking your wording with a dictionary!

  7. Hi Phil,

    We just did this loop over the weekend, and WOW! what a great hike! Thanks for providing the info/details above, they helped plan my hike.

  8. Hi Phil, I’m so glad I read this! My daughter and I did a loop of the Cave, Paugus Ledges, and then down Lawrence and then Cabin a couple days ago. I, too, was surprised by how strenuous it was. I thought I was just out of shape or getting old. I love the Sandwich area, but for some reason it often seems more of a challenge than many 4000 footers. Thanks for putting all of this in perspective! I looked this up to read about the Beeline; I was dead tired when I passed it on Monday and said, “No way am I coming back here again!” But a look at your report has me reconsidering!

  9. Hi Phil, thanks for such an excellent account. My wife and I hope to hike (approximately) this loop on the weekend, and were wondering if you could assure us that there are some flat spots which are okay and legal to camp at along the Bee Line towards Chocorua. You mention a nice spot near Paugus Brook, will it be fairly obvious where to turn off the trail? Thanks a ton!

  10. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for the report. I’ve always wanted to do a Sandwich Range traverse, and am planning one now for next month. I had no idea how many options there are in this little wilderness.

    Question for you: you mention heading east on Beeline to find good camping. Did you try to seek out the Old Shag Camp off of Old Paugus Trail? Thanks much.

  11. You’re not kidding about descending by the Brook Trail. I butt-slid in the interest of not killing myself. A young man a little bit behind us took a bad spill but was o.k. But I’ll say one thing about coming down that way – the views are tremendous.

  12. Just got back from this hike. The descent off of Mt Pagus on the Old Pagus Trail hasn’t improved at all. After the ledge with the gorgeous southern view I could not locate the trail even with the guide book note to make a “sharp right”. I made the bad decision to bushwhack down the mountain. I knew all I had to do was head due south, and that Pagus Brook intersected the Beeline. I never did locate the Old Pagus Trail, but I headed for the sound of water and found Pagus Brook and an unmarked series of cascades and waterfall over granite slabs — definitely worth a bushwhack back up the brook on a repeat visit. After following Pagus Brook for what seemed like forever, and this is before the forever of getting to the brook, I finely found the Beeine just as I was about to give up for the night — not a pleasant thought with rain forecasted the next day. Followed the Beeline to the Bolles trail and crossed it and set up camp at the campsite there, up a way from the water. I had planned to continue up to Liberty Cabin and then hike back down Liberty Trail in the rain to complete the loop, but the forecast was off by a few hours and the rain came at 6a, so I packed up and hiked back down the Bolles trail and cut the trip short. Sometimes discretion is best.

    • Yeah. That area is tough when the leaves are down and the tread is obscured. If you use a smartphone, I’d recommend using Guthooks New England hiker maps. I’ve been redlining that area pretty heavily lately and it comes in handy. You’ll also find that some of the maps in Caltopo for that area are just wrong.

      • Thanks Philip for the map recommendations. I was using Earthmate and the fact that the Topo North America and USGS Quad Sheets disagreed on that section of the trail didn’t help. I basically lost faith in what the app was saying, because while it *said* i was following a trail it sure didn’t seem like I was.

        On the bright side, the falls and cascades midway up Paugus brook was a real find. The section I saw was at at least 300 ft long and I didn’t see the section above the falls. No pics unfortunately as I was trying conserve power, just in case.

        Sorry for all the misspellings of Paugus in the above post. Never zonk-post lol.

  13. How reliable is the water source at Camp Penacook? I’ve got a water filter.

    • I haven’t used it for the past 10 years. Wouldn’t know. Get a map. There are plenty of water sources all around that mountain. Given the crowds this summer, I wouldn’t count on getting a spot there.

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