The Trail Less Traveled

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Early part of the Al Merrill Loop

Heading out this morning for my planned hike, I didn’t know what to expect.  I hadn’t really thought about anything outside of picking a hike that I felt like hiking.  When planning my trip, I knew I wanted to summit a 4k on this hike and I also wanted to work on a region where my redlining percentage was fairly low to boost it up.

Starting with the redlining criteria, my options were the Northern Presidentials, the Moosilauke Region, or Northern New Hampshire.  I knew I wasn’t ready to summit the northern Presi’s with their huge elevation gains in short miles at this point.  Maybe in another hike or two.  The Northern New Hampshire region wasn’t going to get a lot of progress unless I wanted to hike a large section of the Kilkenney Ridge Trail, or piece together several small trails.  This left the Moosilauke Region.

View from the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Outlook

I started looking at some loops that I could hike and redline some significant miles and focused on a couple of different hikes.  That’s when I realized that I really wanted to summit a 4k, so I started looking at the various routes up Mt. Moosilauke.  After some time, I settled on hiking up the ridge to the east of Moosilauke and around to the summit, hiking up Al Merrill Loop to Asquam-Ridge Trail to Beaver Brook Trail to the summit.  I would follow most of the same route back, except I would hike the lower half of Asquam-Ridge Trail on the return, instead of Al Merrill Loop.

I read up on the trail descriptions in the AMC White Mountain Guide, then went to newenglandtrailreports.com to check out some recent trip reports on those trails to see if there were still lingering snow issues or anything else I should be aware of.  I was quite surprised to find almost no trail reports containing Asquam-Ridge Trail over the past year, and I don’t think I saw a single report with Al Merrill Loop in it.  I like quiet hikes, so this suited me just fine, other than not knowing if there are issues on the trails that could complicate the hike.

Moose Track from the upper section of Al Merrill Loop

I drove into the Dartmouth Outdoor Club’s Ravine Lodge parking area and was somewhere around the 10th or 12th car in the day hiker section at that point in the morning.  There were probably another 6 to 8 in the camper section.  I got my boots on, gear packed and quickly sprayed my legs with bug spray before heading up my trail of choice.

It was a nice easy to moderate grade and fairly steady throughout.  I thought several times to myself that this was such a nice trail to follow that I’m surprised there aren’t any people posting trail reports that include it.  The only thing I can think of is that it is one of the longer routes to the summit.  It can’t be rocks, because most of the trails up Moosilauke are pretty rocky anyway.  At one point, I was following the trail through a muddy section and I saw lots of moose prints, but no boot prints.  I guess the trail just isn’t used much by hikers.

View of Jobildunk Ravine from Beaver Brook Trail

I followed my planned route and after almost five miles, I finally ran into another hiker.  He had already summited and was on his way back down to the Beaver Brook Trail parking area.  He had thought there was a hut down Asquam-Ridge Trail, but I informed him that the only thing was the DOC’s lodge which was several miles down the trail.  That was far more than he wanted to go and definitely not what he thought it was.  It turned out that someone had handwritten “hut” on the junction sign and may have been referring to the lodge.  At the point when I met him, we were only 100 yards from Beaver Brook Trail.  We walked back to the junction together, chatting a bit before we separated; me heading up Beaver Brook Trail and him heading down.

As I climbed closer and closer to the summit, I started meeting numerous hikers, both day hikers and backpackers, coming down from Moosilauke.  Some I chatted with, others we just greeted each other in passing.  Overall, I think I passed 15 or 20 people coming down the trail in that 1.5 mile stretch before getting above treeline.  It was very busy for mid-morning, particularly compared to the 5 miles I had hiked completely alone.

Beaver Brook Trail just after it exits tree line on Mt. Moosilauke

I know Beaver Brook Trail is a popular trail up the mountain, so I didn’t think too much of the number of other hikers, especially considering the lousy spring weather we’ve had and the beautiful day today was.  I knew it was bound to be busy.  I just didn’t know how busy it was going to be.

By the time I reached the summit, the people I passed who were going down Beaver Brook Trail had easily passed 30.  There was a crowd visible as I crossed the ridge crest toward the summit sign.  The wind was fairly strong at the summit, so I didn’t realize how large the crowd was until I actually got there.

There are old stone foundations from an inn that used to be on the summit plateau.  People used to take a horse and carriage up an old road from Warren back in the early 20th century, maybe the late 19th century.  There were lots of people hunkered down inside those old foundations using them as a buffer against the wind.  Other people were milling about the summit sign, waiting turns to take pictures, while even more were on the south side of the summit, down behind a ledge, shielding themselves from the wind.

A view of the final section of Gorge Brook Trail as it approaches the summit, taken from the summit

I didn’t count, but in all there were easily 50 people on the summit, and maybe as many as 100.  For every person that left down Gorge Brook Trail or the Carriage Road Trail, more replaced them.  As I sat to start eating my lunch, I snapped a quick picture of the final stretch of Gorge Brook Trail as it approached the summit.  Counting the people in the picture after I got home, there are 18 in the photo and there’s more trail to the left of the photo edge before it reaches the summit.

I quickly ate my lunch and snapped a few pictures, trying unsuccessfully to get photos of the view without other people in them.  I took one last picture of the summit sign as I left, then headed back down Beaver Brook Trail.  About half way back to tree line, I stopped and took a panoramic photo of the White Mountains to the north.  I’ve posted it to the HikingtoCenter Facebook page since Facebook has such a nice interface for panoramic photos.

As I descended the trail back to the Asquam-Ridge Trail junction, I think I passed another couple dozen people ascending.  Today was just too many people for me and I was ready to get back to my “private” trail again.

After returning to the car, changing my boots, and starting the drive home, I had time to reflect on my hike for the day.  The only summit I’ve been on that had that kind of crowd was Mt. Washington.  That’s not entirely comparable either, since you can drive up Mt. Washington and that’s what most of those people had done.

Today was the third time I’ve summited Mt. Moosilauke.  The first two were both via Gorge Brook Trail.  After my time on the summit today, I’m so very glad I chose the trail less traveled.  I was able to enjoy some peace and quiet on the trail for most of the hike and got a good number of miles of trail redlined in the process.  Overall, for a 12.9 mile hike, excluding the middle four miles on Beaver Brook Trail and that 100 yards near it, I saw a whole two other people on the trail, and they were hiking together.

Baker River from a footbridge on Asquam-Ridge Trail

It was a day that has made me reassess my plans for the Appalachian Trail.  Not whether to do it or not.  I still want to section hike it.  It was more an assessment that I need to consider the when of section hiking each section.  I’m not sure that I want to hike the southern terminus section in the spring when the major northbound bubbles are starting out, but I also have to consider getting that section done before the summer heat sets in as well.  Avoiding the largest bubbles or crowds on the AT may be possible, but I think it may force me to reconsider the sequential sections I had originally wanted to do.  Maybe it will be best to pick the dates for sections that work best and avoid the major heat and crowds.

This isn’t something I’ve seen discussed on boards and websites.  Section hiking also doesn’t have the breadth of resources available that through-hiking has, so this is just something new to consider and I’ll need to figure out what my planning priorities are going to be.  There’s so much to learn and plan that it’s both overwhelming and exciting at the same time.

Summary:

Hike Date: Saturday, June 8, 2019
Location: Mt Moosilauke, White Mountain National Forest, Warren, NH
Trails: Al Merrill Loop, Asquam-Ridge Trail, Beaver Brook Trail
Total Mileage: 12.9 miles
Redline Mileage: 9.0 miles
Redline Progress: From 30.5% to 31.2%

Looking Back

As I mentioned on Friday, it’s a weekend full of goings-on, most of which is family related.  I have a break this afternoon before the next event this evening, so I’m taking the time to write this post while I can to update everyone on what’s happening in my hiking life.

Last night was the Annual Meeting and Awards Night for the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club and I was one of a large number of awardees receiving recognition for completing one list or another.  There are four lists which the Club recognizes both general completion and separately for winter completion:  The Northeast 111 Club, the New England Hundred Highest, the New England Four Thousand Footers, and the White Mountain Four Thousand Footers.  I should also note that the club recognizes canines for the White Mountain Four Thousand Footer list (winter and regular).

For me, I completed the White Mountain Four Thousand Footers which is the “easiest” of the lists.  It’s definitely a worthy accomplishment, so being the easiest doesn’t diminish from the work required to complete it.  I’ll be working on the New England Four Thousand Footers this summer as part of my conditioning program.  The NE4k list is the WM4k list, plus the 4,000 foot peaks in Vermont (5) and Maine (14), so I have 19 to go.  There aren’t any 4,000 foot peaks in Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts.

I knew that the lists were popular.  In fact, when I completed my list on Mt. Carrigain in the fall, there were almost a dozen people on the summit at that time who had just completed their lists as well.  I was made aware of how popular the lists really are when I drove into the meeting location at Exeter High School in Exeter, NH and saw a packed parking lot.

The entire evening is a great celebration of the accomplishment of completing whichever list(s) you have completed, but the highlight of the night was the slideshow presentation.  It was exceptionally moving and well done.  I could relive the joy and pride of summiting many of the various mountains pictured in the show, followed by deep compassion of hearing the stories of others who, after significant lows in their life, pulled themselves to the top of mountains to succeed where they previously felt like a failure.

Completing these lists is so much more than checking a box next to a mountain and saying “Done”.  It means a lot to each of us, often in different ways, but we’re all part of a hiking family now and that means the most, in the long run.

For me, while going through the emotional ebbs and flows of the presentation, I realized that it had steeled my resolve to section hike the AT.  Not just to start section hiking it, but to actually complete it.  If I could find a way to thru-hike the AT, I think I would plan to do that, but I don’t see that possibility in the cards at this time.  Maybe later in life, but not now.

I also came to an understanding within myself that I need to slow down and enjoy the experiences on each hike.  Toward the end of my list, due to a variety of self-imposed reasons, I hurried through the tail-end of my list to get it completed.  I hiked to a schedule, rather than hiking to experience the hike and the natural surroundings.  It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy the hikes, but I definitely didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have.  I’m going to make sure that my scheduling on the AT leaves plenty of time for enjoyment of, and reflection about, the trail, its history, and the wonders around me at the time.

As things stand, next weekend looks like it will be open to allow me to go hiking.  The weather looks good for both Saturday and Sunday, but the weather in New England is notoriously fluid, so we’ll see what the forecast looks like come Thursday or Friday.  There’s been a ton of melting in the mountains over the past week and there will be a lot more snowmelt over the coming days.  Trail reports will do a lot to determine my plans, but I definitely need to get out and put some miles and elevation on my legs to prepare for a real push this summer.

Now, it’s getting close to time to prepare for the next, and last, event of the weekend.  I’m planning to start the scripting of the various sections of the AT, beginning with the southern terminus at Springer Mountain.