Sandwich Dome (3993′) is a massive mountain that dominates the western half of the Sandwich Wilderness, near Squam Lake in New Hampshire’s Lake District. It’s in an area that I’ve become quite fond of hiking this year, way off the beaten path in the southernmost section of the White Mountain National Forest.
Seeking a short vacation from back-to-back family vacations, I took at 36 hour backpacking trip to the east side of Sandwich Dome, climbing the peak on some infrequently used hiking trails and doing some fly fishing along (Flat) Pond Brook on the hike out. It was a wonderful trip, one of my best this year, and just what the doctor ordered!
Many of my hikes in the White Mountains have several agendas and this was no exception. I am slowly hiking all 547 trails in the White Mountain Guide, a pursuit known as redlining, that requires hiking all 1400+ miles of the trails described in that great book. But rather than pick off trails one by one, I like to explore the areas in which they are located, stringing together several trails on a backpacking trip, if only to avoid hiking the same trails twice. I also try to avoid hiking in the same region of the White Mountains on consecutive hikes in order to sample as many Wilderness Areas and ecosystems as possible each year. I dread the day though when I will have finished hiking all the trails in the White Mountains, because I’ll miss the novelty of hiking on new trails.
Perhaps, that’s the reason I started fly fishing in the mountain streams I come across on my backpacking trips this year, to drag out the process of hiking the 100 or so trails that I have to finish redlining the Whites, or to squeeze every drop of wilderness experience out of the trips I take. Fishing a good trout stream is a very slow process and you can only cover about a mile or two per day if it has lots of small cascades and riffles to fish. Which sets the stage for this hike up Sandwich Dome, followed by an extended fishing session on Pond Brook on the eastern side of the peak.
The two trails I planned to hike, the Gleason Trail and the Bennett Street Trail couldn’t have been more different. The Gleason Trail is extremely steep as it climbs Sandwich Dome, at one point climbing 1500′ in the space of a mile. Parts of that trail are very poorly maintained with numerous blow downs across the trail, especially as you approach the unsigned intersection with the Bennett St Trail, about 1/2 mile below Sandwich Dome’s summit. In contrast, the Bennett Street Trail is wonderfully maintained path with a wide, well brushed tread and blue blazes. Kudos to the trail maintainer!
(After writing this trip report, I learned the the Wonolancet Out Door Club (WODC) decommissioned the Gleason Trail in 2012, although it’s still listed in the 29th edition of the White Mountain Guide and must be hiked by redliners).
After parking at the trail head, I walked down an old logging road to the start of the Gleason Trail (It’s well signed.) The trail is adjacent to a series of large cascades that are obviously a local swimming hole. Being so close to beautiful Squam Lake though, I reckon they’re less used than if they were located farther north in the center of the Whites.
The bottom part of the Gleason Trail (0.5 miles in length), below its intersection with the Flat Mountain Pond Trail, climbs gently and is easy to follow, running through open woods. There’s an easy brook crossing about half-way up, although it’s probably more challenging during the spring thaw.
The Gleason Trail becomes increasingly difficult to follow once it climbs past the Flat Mountain Pond Trail junction because it’s littered with blowdowns and compressed leaves which obscure the trail. My advice: there’s some trail erosion which provides clues to the route – just follow the groove. There are also a lot of cobwebs across the trail, so if you’re still running into them, you must be on the path! As you climb, the trail becomes a lot more distinct along the edges where the vegetation (trees and shrubs) help delineate its route.
You’ll hit the steep spot at about 1800′, where the trail climbs 1500 feet in a mile. It was very hot and humid on the day I hiked this trail, so I slowed my pace dramatically for the climb in order to keep going. Step, 1001, Step 1002. It didn’t help that I was wearing a full overnight backpack. At one point, I did wonder whether I’d underestimated the difficulty of this hike in this heat and whether I should turn around, but I decided to keep going.
The grade eased off at about 3200′ and I was able to resume a normal pace. But the sky grew quite dark as I climbed and it felt like rain was imminent. I was reasonably well protected from lightning by the dense forest, but increasingly less so as I climbed higher and the trees grew shorter. I got my rain jacket out of my pack, just in case, and picked up the pace. (The forecast hadn’t called for rain.)
The Gleason Trail and the Bennett St Trail intersect at 3600′ just below the Sandwich Dome summit. Much to my surprise, the trail junction is not signed (I know why now). I knew however that I had to turn left to climb to the summit. I also noted that the Bennett St Trail was blazed blue for the return trip down hill.
The rain was still holding off so I raced the 0.5 miles to the summit. The last time I’d climbed this mountain had been in 2010. Nothing looked familiar, but I’d climbed it from the north side then. The rain was still holding off and it looked like it would blow over. The summit is partially open, but there wasn’t much to see with the cloud cover. I’d been hoping to catch a glimpse of nearby Sachem Peak, a Half Dome looking trailless mountain that my friend Kris said he wanted to bushwhack.
It was well after noon, so I didn’t linger. I wanted to get down the mountain and do some fly fishing before I had to break off and find a good place to hang my hammock and make camp.
The Bennett St Trail is well graded and easy to follow down the mountain. It even has blazes, which is a rare treat in the White Mountains. If you’re don’t want to deal with the ambiguity or steepness of the Gleason Trail, I think the Bennett St Trail is an excellent alternate trail to the summit. It also has an abundance of springs and streams, so you can refill your water bottles on the way up or down, which I did.
I followed the Bennett St Trail all the way back down to Pond Brook, which drains Flat Mountain Pond and the surrounding watershed. I’d hiked the segment adjacent to the stream back in June with Kris when we backpacked to Flat Mountain Pond.
Fly Fishing Pond Brook
Pond Brook is a quintessential boulder-choked mountain stream with a steep gradient broken up with numerous pools that provide an ideal place for brook trout to hike and feed on insects floating downstream. The Bennett St Trail runs along many parts of the brook, although there are several deep gorges that I had to bypass and require an off-trail return visit.
The brook is an excellent spot for reel-less Tenkara fly fishing with a short line. I used a Tenkara USA Iwana 11′ rod, an 11′ line, 4′ tippet, and my own hand-tied flies, getting frequent bites and often landing fish on my first cast.
On this trip, I had the most success casting into the whitewater at the head of the pool and then working the riffles along its sides. However, I never found more than one trout in each pool and once I’d caught one, I had to move downstream.
At this time of year, there was very little loose wood in the brook and few overhanging trees to lose flies in. I found that I could easily sneak up on each pool and cast into it from downstream or the side without wading or getting my feet wet. Water depth was definitely a factor however, and I had to break off when I encountered shallow pools, less than 1-2 feet deep because I didn’t catch any fish.
I was able to fish for about 2 hours after returning to Pond Brook, before I pitched camp and cooked dinner beside the stream. I continued fishing the next morning for a few hours as I worked my way downstream and back to my car. This had proved to be a nice and peaceful backpacking trip with some fly fishing thrown in, a “pattern” I hope to repeat on future hikes.
Note: This southern area of the White Mountain National Forest is omitted from many physical maps of the region. Your best bet for waterproof maps that include it is the AMC White Mountain Forest Map Set or the Wonolancet Outdoors Club Map of the Sandwich Range (see links below).