Smarts Mountain (3238′), located outside of Hanover, NH, is the first decent sized mountain that Appalachian Trail thru-hikers face when they enter the White Mountain National Forest. It has a fire tower on top with good views, a tent site, and an old warden’s cabin that hikers can camp or shelter at the summit.
There are four hiking trails that climb Smarts Mountain; the Lambert Trail and the J trail are part of the current Appalachian Trail which I hiked in April 2009, while the Ranger Trail and the Dan Doan Trail are part of the Old Appalachian Trail before it was rerouted over the mountain. My friend Liz and I hiked the Ranger and Dan Doan trails during the first weekend of December, a frosty experience which wasn’t too different temperature-wise from that April hike long ago.
This being hunting season, we suited up in blaze orange before starting our hike. There are just as many hunters out as hikers on the trails and forest roads in New Hampshire this time of year and its best to wear high visibility clothing, especially when hiking on less used trails.
The Ranger Trail leaves from the same trailhead as the Lambert Trail (the current AT), just outside of Lyme, NH a short drive from Hanover and Dartmouth College. The trail is lightly blazed in blue, but easy to see since it follows an old jeep road up to the north side of the mountain. I doubt a modern jeep could get up this road and that the fire warden used a WW II surplus Willy’s back in the day.
Our plan was to climb the Ranger Trail and descend by the Dan Doan Trail, where we’d spotted a car. The end-to-end hike is 6.2 miles with about 2000 feet of elevation gain. Climbing up the Ranger Trail is easier, as the elevation gain is more spread out. The Dan Doan trail is quite steep as it comes off the summit followed by a long walk down logging roads back to the car.
The trail was snow covered but easy to hike up in bare boots. The bottom part is a road that narrows when passes an old garage at a small stream crossing. From there the trail becomes more of a hiking trail and starts to climb up the mountain steeply. It also becomes much wetter, passing through an area of heavy erosion, probably caused by a flood of water rushing down the mountain from Hurricane Irene or Sandy.
As we climbed the water pouring down the trail turned to ice and we put on our microspikes at about 2600 ft. From there on the trail climbs over large exposed and sloping boulders, making good traction a necessity. The Lambert Trail rejoins the Ranger Trail at just below the summit. From there the trail becomes steeper climbing a set of stairs and then a series of iron rebar set in the rock.
We passed the tent site, new since I was last on Smarts in ’09, and took a break inside the old Wardens’ cabin which is also used as an AT shelter. We layered up and had a snack, then headed back down the Dan Doan Trail, also blue-blazed back toward Quinntown and my car.
The Dan Doan Trail is slightly confusing to find, however. Marked with blue blazes, it coincides with a blue-blazed trail to a water source below the cabin, before veering off to the right. We missed the right-hand turn on our first pass before hiking back up the hill and trying to acquire it higher up. While I knew where the trail was supposed to be – on my map and my smartphone app map (Gaia), I didn’t want to bushwack to the trail for fears of missing it on the snow-covered trail. It’s really easy to walk right over a trail that’s snow-covered, especially one that’s as lightly used as the Dan Doan trail.
I spied the blue blaze (to the right) that we’d missed on our first pass and we started dropping elevation quickly, as we headed down the ravine carved out by Mouseley Brook on the Northwest side of Smarts. While well-blazed, the Dan Doan Trail is in pretty rough shape with blowdowns and erosion damage. When we got down lower, the trail starts following an old logging road, recently cut and also in bad shape. I’ve always considered Dan Doan, a famous New England Guide Book Author as a hero of mine, but his namesake trail is a disappointment.
Despite that, I’d had good company on this hike and a nice reunion with Liz, who I haven’t seen for more than a year. The climb up Smarts had been grand and it was nice hiking in an area of the White Mountain National Forest that I seldom visit.