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Smarts Mountain Traverse

Appalachian Trail Junction - Smarts Mountain, NH
Appalachian Trail Junction – Smarts Mountain, NH

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.

Smarts Mountain Traverse

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.

Fire Warden's Cabin on Smarts Mountain, NH
Fire Warden’s Cabin on Smarts Mountain, NH

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.

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  1. This hike was perfect for me to jump back into hiking again after three months away. I’m now very excited about winter hikes and have a few planned and am looking to plan more. Thanks for kicking me back into the hiking world.

    Note to other hikers: why do so many of us plan really long hikes? I prefer hikes of six to eight miles like this one, but so many of my hiking buddies seem to think that anything under 10 miles is not worthy. I don’t get it – isn’t it kind of nice to finish a hike before you are completely exhausted? Anyone else in my situation? Let’s plan some hikes!

    • I’ll send you a few ideas. Ossipees and Waterville Valley Trails. Lots of good stuff to go do in winter.

    • Staying at the WMNF Radeke Cabin last winter, a nice winter relatively short hike is Hedgehog.
      The trailhead is right across the Kank. I agree with Lizz, a good day hike out and back, especially with the shorter days winter gives us, is plenty for me. Another I do love for winter, and do each year, is Carter Notch Hut, on the Nineteen Mile Brook trail, and if you do want a winter overnight, they are open with care taker self service.

    • And a shorter hike makes for an easier drive home!

  2. I hiked Smarts by Lambert Ridge, which has some nice views. However, it is quite PUD filled. And that last push toward the summit with the rungs was interesting. I would love to see it in the snow. However, the trip down the Ranger trail was beyond interesting. It has become overgrown and neglected by the DOC, which is sad because it is a nice trail. If it wasn’t for Steve Smith’s description, I might still be there. I heard they have now opened the tower since I was there. If I had to choose between tenting or the cabin, I would choose my tent. But that was two years ago and it might be different now. I really want to do an overnight traverse with Cube.

  3. Another area that you can find some shorter hikes or longer if you want is the beautiful Speckled Mt. area on the east side of .Evens Notch. The trails are not overused and eroded, typically. The area has a wild feel and you can expect some beautiful views and likely no one else on the trail. My redlining quest has opened up some great hiking for me that I never even considered as I went up and down 4000′ mts. over and over again. Sleeveless AT ’05

    • Evans Notch is fabulous! Much less traveled than other parts of the Whites, relatively undiscovered. Did the Baldface loop last fall, will be back there for sure.

      • It looks like the tablet just sits on the turbo plate. A for carbon felt stoves, it’s a common form of alcohol stove, just not one you’ll find listed on Amazon cause it’s more of a hobbyist thing. The carbon felt acts like a wick and burns the alcohol, but is not itself consumed.

      • I think your reply was in reference to my post about the Evernew Esbit stove on Amazon…so the carbon felt stoves burn evenly like the ones with the holes? Which would you recommend?

  4. I did Cube and Smarts with my friend Tim a few years ago as part of scouting 52 with a View hikes .

    Smarts was a disappoitment as the only view was from the tower and only 2 people
    could fit at a time

    Descending was difficult as the JN trail was a stream of moss covered rock

    Did run into through hikers who were suddenly understanding that New Hampshire was hard.

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