Wednesday, September 23, 2009
A FULL DAY ON PASSACONAWAY: 9/22/09
I usually make a September work trip to the Passaconaway Cutoff, a trail I maintain as a volunteer adopter through the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club, often with the help of several generous friends. This middle of my three annual trips is usually a solo effort devoted to brushing and removing any blowdowns that came down during the summer. (The third trip is for the fall cleaning of drainages, usually in late October.) Here is Passaconaway viewed from the East Ledges of Hedgehog, with Nanamocomuck Peak (marked by a slide) on the left.
There was more brushing than I expected, perhaps due to the abundant moisture earlier in the summer. On the upper half of this trail the hobblebush wars are never really won. After several hours of brushing, and cutting of six small blowdowns, I had completed the day's work by a little after 1:00 pm.
It was a cloudy day but with only a slight chance of rain, so I planned to continue up the trail and either a) bushwhack to a cliff on a steep southeastern spur of Mt. Passaconaway or b) follow the Square Ledge Trail and Walden Trail to the summit of Passaconaway and take in the vistas from its several fine viewpoints.
I followed the Square Ledge Trail down through a gravelly, ledgy dip and up past an old logging camp site where a former route of the Passaconaway Cutoff came up. This camp was part of the big Conway Lumber Company operation in the Swift River valley from 1906-1916. An old sled runner is still visible at this ferny mini-clearing.
A short distance farther the Square Ledge Trail crosses the base of an old slide on the steep north face of Nanamocomuck Peak.
A careful one-minute scramble up the climber's right side of the slide brings you to a rock seat where you look down on the trail. Be careful not to kick any loose rocks down the slide!
From here there is a nice view of Hedgehog Mountain with Mt. Tremont and Bartlett Haystack beyond and Mt. Washington rising in the distance. The slide is one of the nicest secluded nooks in the Sandwich Range Wilderness.
A close-up of the impressive East Ledges of Hedgehog.
The massive cone of Mt. Passaconaway looms close at hand. From here I could study the cliff I hoped to visit. Accessibility looked marginal, but the distance wasn't great, so I decided to give it a shot. I left the Square Ledge Trail farther up the slope. My plan was to flank the cliff, climbing above it and then descending the steep slope to its top. I whacked uphill for a ways through reasonably open woods, then swung right and up towards what I hoped was the top of the cliff.
The woods soon became thicker and strewn with blowdown, forcing several detours.
When I reached a point where I thought was above the cliff, I started descending the steep slope. I soon ran into a buzzsaw of extremely dense small conifers, liberally sprinkled with prickly fallen tree trunks that were hard as bone. In places it was physically impossible to move forward. How thick was it? The zippers on both water bottle pockets on my pack were pulled open, and the malevolent branches pulled the stem out on my watch and set the time back two hours. This happy stuff continued down the slope as far as I could see. I wasn't even sure the cliff was below me - it could have been off to either side, and every hard-earned foot down would have to be regained on the way back up. In bushwhacking as well as cards, sometimes you just have to fold 'em and move on. Before abandoning this foolish venture I took a couple photos of what limited views were available from this thicket.
I went back up to woods that were slightly less trying, and started heading west across the slope to the Walden Trail. From one spot I had a peek at the slide on Nanamocomuck.
After traversing an area with quite a few blowdowns, I crossed a tiny dry brookbed and suddenly found myself in beautiful open fir woods. I was experiencing the bushwhacking version of yin and yang. These lovely woods led me upslope to the Walden Trail, partway up the summit cone of Passaconaway.
Walden is a great trail, perhaps the signature route of the Sandwich Range. In its 2.8 miles it features improbably steep, gravelly climbs, easy meandering stretches with good footing, wild and beautiful forests, and sweet, secluded viewpoints. Several sections of this trail underwent major reconstruction by the trail crews of the Wonalancet Out Door Club (www.wodc.org) from 1997-2001. Over 10,000 hours of work went into this project, and over 500 rock steps were built, including those seen here.
Near the top of the climb on Passaconaway's cone, the trail shoots up a jumble of granite boulders.
It passes a rock wall before turning left to climb to the south viewpoint.
The south viewpoint is a white ledge with a fine vista of Mt. Whiteface, the Wonalancet Range, and the Lakes Region. Hikers who climb Passaconaway up and back by Dicey's Mill Trail only will miss this viewspot, and also the east and north vistas. Hence you often hear complaints about Passaconaway's lack of views. They are there, and they are superb, you just have to walk a little extra to get them. Even coming up Dicey's Mill, you can see all the views by making the side trip down to the north view (see below), and continuing on a short loop around the upper mountain down the Walden Trail and back across to Dicey's Mill by the East Loop.
The south ledge is a nice hangout spot. On this late afternoon fog was swirling down in the Wonalancet River valley.
A profile of the Blueberry Ledge Trail ridge, leading up to the south summit of Whiteface.
A short, steep climb hoisted me to the east viewpoint, a ledge that was cleared off by the naturalist Frank Bolles (whose At the North of Bearcamp Water is one of my favorite White Mountain reads) around 1890. Someone apparently tried to emulate him recently by hacking off branches on the two trees seen on the far side of the ledge.
Even without the view clearing, there is a great look down at Mt. Paugus, the backside of Square Ledge, and the upper Oliverian Brook valley. This vantage point gives Passaconaway an especially lofty feel.
Chocorua anchors the east end of the Sandwich Range.
Mt. Washington reigns supreme to the north.
The Walden Trail wanders across the summit area of Passaconaway, a high wooded plateau.
The mountain's most dramatic view is found on the north side, via a side path that descends 0.3 mile and 200 feet to what Passaconaway area historian Charles Edward Beals, Jr. called a "lofty eagle-nest of a cliff." This is the upper end of the long-closed Downes Brook Slide Trail (which has been illegally maintained at times; it is a very dangerous route when wet). It was almost 5 pm so I didn't have time to go down there today.
Here's a sampling of the north view taken on a 2007 winter trek.
Where the Walden Trail meets the Dicey's Mill Trail, a side path leads to the wooded, viewless summit.
This seems to be the "official" high point. Back in the 80s there actually was a view towards Whiteface a few feet farther along, at least with several feet of snow.
Just before that high point, a side path splits left to another potential high point. When in doubt, do 'em both.
A few yards down the Dicey's Mill Trail is the NW viewpoint.
This is mostly a standup viewpoint, but it offers a sweep that includes the Franconia Range (in the clouds on the left) and Hancock and Carrigain (on the right) with the Bond-Twin group beyond.
Close by to the west, Tripyramid wore a cottony shroud.
After a few minutes the South and Middle Peaks broke free.
The hour was late, and I had to hustle down. But I did find time for a short bushwhack to the top of a cliff with a view of the Wonalancet Range and down into the hidden valley of the east branch of the Wonalancet River.
Back at the Passaconaway Cutoff junction I retrieved my tools, and, as has been the norm of late (to my wife's chagrin, and rightfully so), I did the last couple of miles by headlamp.