My wife and I went on a short vacation last week up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. We timed this trip during the week and after peak leaf-peeping season in order to get reduced lodging at some nice places in the Crawford Notch area, which is the heart of the Whites.
You’re probably wondering how I managed to convince my wife to go to the White Mountains for vacation given that I often spend a couple of days a week there hiking! It turns out that there are some nice places to stay in the Whites, it’s not a far drive from our home in Boston, there are some good restaurants to eat at, and plenty to do even in the off-season if you know your way around.
I also have this great deal with my wife, where I can go hiking when we’re on vacation as long as I get up early in the morning and return before she’s ready to eat breakfast. So, all week I was getting up before 6am and driving to nearby trail heads in the dark to get a little exercise before my wife woke up. This meant I had to find some shorter hikes than the day-long 4,000 footer marathons I often hike, that were still challenging, but could be hiked in a much shorter timeframe.
That turned into quite a challenge since my 4 hour time constraint severely limited how far I could drive before I had to start hiking. I did however find some very nice hikes in the Crawford Notch area, including Mt Crawford (3119) , Mt Martha (3563), and Owlshead (3248), which I highly recommend you hike even if you are not rushed for time. They’re quite steep making for an excellent workout, they have very nice views, and you can string them together with other nearby trails if you have more time.
To further challenge myself on these hikes, I brought along a full-winter pack so I could start training for the much heavier loads I need to carry during the winter months. Full-on winter will start in New Hampshire in just a few weeks. Bring it on, I say. I love hiking in winter in the Whites because it brings out true majesty of the place.
Mount Crawford has some of the finest views in the White Mountains, easily rivaling the views from Mt Hight, Mt Bond, or Mt Carrigan in the number of other 4,000 footers that are viewable. With 360 degree views from its open summit, you can see Mts Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, Willey, Webster, Carrigan, the Tripyramids, Passaconaway, the Bonds, the Twins, and even distant Franconia Ridge.
This wasn’t my first time hiking Mt Crawford, but a lot had changed since my previous visit 2 years ago when I stopped there enroute to Mt Isolation on a backpacking trip. The trail to Mt Crawford follows the Davis Path, starting at a large parking lot off Rt 302 in Harts Location across the road from The Notchland Inn. Harts Location(pop. 40), along with Dixville Notch, are the first towns in the United States to vote in the Presidential Election.
After crossing the Saco river over a newish looking suspension bridge and walking through a short section of forest, I began to climb steeply up the Davis Path. The trail, which shows obvious erosion damage from Hurricane Irene, has been extensively repaired with new stone steps and water bars. It’s still a rough and rocky trail though, ascending 2100 feet in 2.5 miles. I kept up a pretty good pace on the climb, despite the extra training weight I was carrying, and passed several groups of hikers who were also climbing the trail.
Of course, I have a secret weapon that helps me climb hills like this, in the form of Pacerpoles which I find indispensable for hiking up mountains. Pacerpoles are widely respected UK trekking poles with special hand grips that help you maintain an erect posture when hiking up hill. This translates into more efficient energy transfer from your butt muscles to your legs on steep grades and prevents quadricep burnout that is caused when you lean forward on normal hiking poles. They makes a huge difference in the speed in which I can climb slopes, the number of miles I can cover in a day, and the number of hours that I can keep hiking without soul-crushing fatigue.
After about 2 miles, there’s a false summit on Crawford, where you come out of the trees and onto open ledge. While the views here are tremendous, particularly of Mt Carrigan on the other side of Crawford Notch (past Mt Nancy and Mt Bemis), they’re even better at the real summit a bit further on. There you can take in a complete 360 degree panorama of mountains, including all of the southern Presidentials from Mt Washington in the east to Mt Webster overlooking Crawford Notch.
It’s views like this that keep my love for hiking fresh. Add in sunshine and autumn colors and I’m in heaven.
Mt Martha and Owlshead
Mount Martha and Owlshead are two subpeaks of Cherry Mountain, located between the towns of Twin Mountain and Jefferson, New Hampshire. For those of you familiar with the 4,000 footer named “Owls Head” (two words), this is a different peak with far better views.
While it’s common for both of these peaks to be hiked on the same trip – the peaks are joined by a trail called “Martha’s Mile”, they can also be hiked separately if you are short on time, hiking alone, or you don’t feel like running a shuttle between the trailheads.That’s what I did last week, hiking Owlshead first in an out and back, followed by Mt Martha a few days later.
Hiking up Owlshead is a very steep climb and by far the harder of the two hikes. The route follows the Owlshead Trail for 2.5 miles, winding around private property on a combination of trails and old logging roads, before climbing 1600 feet in the last mile to the summit. Carrying my heavy winter pack up this hill was definitely an eye opener so early in the morning (I started this hike wearing a headlamp.)
The beginning of the trail is quite wet and muddy with very slippery and partially submerged bog bridges, as described in The White Mountain Guide. But the trail soon gets drier, reaching an easy stream crossing, crossing another old road, and then angling sharply uphill.
Nearer to the summit, the trail begins a series of switchbacks over and through slippery moss covered rocks as you climb. I slipped on one of these rocks and fell hard, but no damage done and I continued on. I don’t use straps on my hiking poles for just this reason – because it reduces the chance that I’ll injure myself on a fall or bend a trekking pole.
At 2.2 miles the trail turns northwest and climbs steeply through conifers to the summit, with fine views of the Presidential Range to the south along Martha’s mile.
The hike up Mt Martha follows the Cherry Mountain Trail for 1.7 miles with 1600 feet of elevation gain. Also steep, the climb is better graded than the Owlshead Trail, much drier, and surprisingly fast hiking.
Passing through open woods, the trail reaches a junction at 1.7 miles, where a 0.2 mile spur trail leads to the summit. From here, there are excellent views of Franconia Ridge and the Northern Presidentials. There’s also a delightful little bench you can sit on to take in the view – and if you get there early enough in the morning – you can have it all to yourself!
Although I spend a lot of time hiking the 4,000 footers in the White Mountains, there are many other wonderful trails, peaks, and hikes in the White Mountains like Mt Crawford, Mt Martha, and Owlshead Mountain. It was great hiking these peaks last week, and I think I’m going to dedicate a little more energy to hiking these shorter, more remote peaks over the winter.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- Exploring New Hampshire Map from the Wilderness Map Company
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