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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.