Wednesday, May 27, 2009


A couple of recent reports on Views from the Top reminded me of how much I like the journey to Owl's Cliff. Set way back from the Kanc Highway on the north side of the Albany Intervale, this 2940-ft. peak offers a feeling of remoteness and a fine view of the Sandwich Range from a ledge at the end of a spur path off the Brunel Trail.

Though usually thought of as a spur of Mt. Tremont, Owl's Cliff is a worthy peak in its own right, with impressive cliffs on both its south and west sides. In addition to the trailed view, on this spectacular cool, sunny day I wanted to see if I could find a perch on the main south cliff. If time permitted, I would seek out the top of the west cliff as well, which I had visited back in the 90s as part of a rather miserable bushwhack up from Sawyer Pond.

The usual approach to Owl's Cliff starts on Bear Notch Road and follows the gravel Rob Brook Road for 2.6 miles. I was going to mountain bike the road portion, but a broken tire valve deflated that plan. So I opted for the less-used south approach from the Kanc via the start of the Sawyer Pond Trail, to lessen the road-walk distance.

The reason this isn't often used is because you must ford the Swift River right at the start - bring the crocs. Invariably you must wade this, at anywhere from knee to thigh deep. There are some underwater rocks to help you along. In high water, forget it - too dangerous. Today was a knee-deep day.

The flat lower mile of Sawyer Pond Trail leads through some tall white pines, with a dense understory.

At 1.1 mile I turned right on the seldom-traveled lower part of the Brunel Trail.

In another 0.3 mile you turn onto Rob Brook Road for a pleasant mile-long stroll. At one spot there was a peek at the day's objective.

At the junction with the Rob Brook Trail, I turned right for a quarter-mile side trip to the northernmost of several beaver swamps and ponds that line this trail. The route follows the bed of the old Bartlett & Albany logging railroad.

As it reached the edge of the open swamp, the trail went AWOL, disappearing under a beaver overflow. For years now this fascinating trail has been impassable without significant wading - one recent report spoke of hiking in crocs for 2 miles. You can get the flavor of this area with this short side trip from the Rob Brook Road. The swamp was alive with birdlife, inlcuding an olive-sided flycatacher belting out its "whip-three-beers" song. It was a chilly morning, so the mosquitoes were mild at this point.

A winding channel of Rob Brook leads into the swamp.

From the edge of the swamp there was a nice view of Owl's Cliff, with Mt. Tremont peering over in back.

I returned to Rob Brook Road and in another 0.3 mile turned left into the woods with the Brunel Trail. In the next mile there was some nice hardwood forest.

And some good-sized hemlocks too.

As the AMC Guide notes, some large boulders "announce the approach to the east end of Owl's Cliff."

Just above here was the champion tree of the day, a towering sugar maple.

For a quarter mile the climbing was steep and fairly rough.

At the top of the steep pitch I veered left into the dense brush and started whacking along the edge of the ridge. This may have been similar to an older route of the Brunel Trail, which was described as passing several rocky openings en route to the west outlook. First I came to an isolated granite slab that I had spotted from the beaver swamp. Here I enjoyed the first of several fine views of the Sandwich Range seen across the broad Albany Intervale.

A zoom on Passaconaway and Whiteface, with Hedgehog and Birch Hill below.

A great look at the Sleepers and Tripyramids beyond the Sabbaday Brook valley. Church Pond is on the flats.

I decided to continue up the ridge. According to various sources, this peak was blasted by the 1938 hurricane and then scorched in a 1963 fire. As a result there is a tangle of dense vegetation and old blowdown. You pay a price in blood to get to the cliffs!

Partway along I got a side view of the main south cliff ahead.

Eventually I made my way to a perch atop the south cliff, where it was a long way down in front.

I weaseled my way down through some spruce scrub to get a side view of the sheer face.

The view from the perch was commanding....

...and extended all the way across to Chocorua.

From here I made a thick whack up to the spur path, where a sign talks about the 1963 fire.

The path drops steeply to a great granite shelf - a fine lunch spot, and quite snoozeable.

From the right side of the ledge you can admire the high peaks of the Sandwich Range.

Green's Cliff can be seen to the west.

It was late afternoon, but there was plenty of daylight left, so after a nap I decided to whack down to the top of the west cliff. It was just as thick as I remembered, and involved a discouraging amount of descent. After some toil I found a first viewpoint with a partial look at Sawyer Pond.

Farther down I emerged on a ledge with a serious dropoff.

There was a beautiful vista across a high plateau to Green's Cliff.

On this upland is a small open bog I visited a few winters ago.

The return view from the bog up to Owl's Cliff, looking at the west cliff.

A look back at part of the west cliff face.

The lowest perch took some doing to get to, but had the best views of all, looking across the Sawyer Pond Scenic Area to Hancock and Carrigain. Very wild, especially with ravens circling and croaking out over the valley.

Closeup of Sawyer Pond and Hancock. Didn't see anyone down at the shelter.

Carrigain and Carrigain Notch are seen from an interesting angle.

Zoom on Carrigain Notch. Zealand Ridge is in the distance.

And the lesser-known Hancock Notch, with Mt. Hitchcock beyond.

It was 5:00 and time to go. A parting shot of the Sandwich Range in evening glow.

The whack up to the summit of Owl's Cliff was nasty for a ways, giving me a four-inch gash on my leg - even though I was wearing long pants. I was glad to get back to the trail. Once I got back down to Rob Brook Road, a swarming cloud of mosquitoes moved in for the attack. A hasty application of Ben's held them somewhat at bay for the 2-mile walk out, though I could feel them hitting my arms with every stride. On the drive home I stopped at the Sugar Hill Overlook to study Owl's Cliff and try to trace the day's route.

The bird tally for the day was 40 species. Highlights included a belted kingfisher and spotted sandpiper on the Swift River, alder and olive-sided flycatchers, tree swallow, and swamp sparrow in the swamp on the Rob Brook Trail, and the regular assortment of woodland warblers.

A round trip hike to the Owl's Cliff outlook from the Kanc via Sawyer Pond Trail, Brunel Trail and Owl's Cliff Spur is 8.8 miles with 1700 feet of elevation gain. Using the Rob Brook Road approach from Bear Notch Road, thus avoiding the Swift River crossing, it's 9.4 miles with 1850-foot elevation gain. Watch your footing on the steep, gravelly section of Brunel Trail and on the descent to the outlook ledge. The whacking to the cliffs is best left to those who enjoy (?) swimming in dense spruce and straddling spiky blowdowns. Be safe and tread lightly.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Relatively few hikers venture onto the trails on the northeast side of Mt. Cardigan. Even though they are lightly used, and in some places subject to periodic disruption by logging, they are well-maintained by the volunteers of the Cardigan Highlanders, under the direction of their stalwart leader, Craig Sanborn.

These trails are covered in the AMC Southern NH Trail Guide, which is being updated for a new 2010 edition. There have been some changes in this area - a couple of trails that feed onto the Mowglis Mountain-Oregon Mountain ridge are no longer accessible at the bottom, and a new ridge trail has seen some use - so a trail-checking trip was in order.

On a warm morning, with upper 80s predicted for a high, I parked at the end of Welton Falls Road and started up the Old Dicey Road, an eroded gravel road that is a hot and not particularly attractive access route.

At 1.2 miles I turned left onto the Back 80 Loop, a pleasant trail that climbs easily through shady hardwwod forest.

This trail meets the Back 80 Trail at a cellar hole.

An example of efficient trail signage.

A few years ago the Highlanders made a fine relocation on the Back 80 Trail, creating an enjoyable hardwood meander.

Farther along the trail passes a series of beaver ponds and meadows, one of which opens a view up to Firescrew.

The Back 80 Trail ends at its junction with the Elwell Trail. The 10-mile Elwell Trail is somewhat of a legend for its obscurity along its middle miles, where at present no one is maintaining it. The Highlanders have it well-marked and cleared to a point east of Oregon Mountain, but from there to Bear Mountain logging and lack of maintenance have left it in a near-bushwhack state.

Heading east, the Elwell Trail arrives at a fine viewpoint in 0.4 mile, with a view up to ledgy Firescrew...

...and down to one of the beaver ponds in the valley.

In places there is little evident footway, but the trail is well-blazed.

On the viewless summit of Mowglis Mountain there is a plaque honoring Camp Mowglis, whose boys and counselors built many of the trails in the Newfound Lake area. You often see their small white wooden trail markers, bearing the outline of a wolf.

Here a very lightly-used trail branches off, following a ridgecrest route from Mowglis Mountain to Oregon Mountain, saving a significant down-and up on the parallel Elwell Trail. This was brought to my attention by a local trail runner who helps maintain some of these routes.

The Oregon Mountain Trail is in the "used more by moose than humans" category. It is blazed but requires much care to follow, for experienced hikers only.

In 1.6 miles it ends at the ledgy summit of Oregon Mountain, where there is a view of Cardigan and Firescrew. My trusty measuring wheel is taking a much-needed break.

A spur leads back to the Elwell Trail, and another 0.3 mile east is a great area of open ledge, the best viewpoint on the upper Elwell Trail with a panorama to south, east and north.

The Sandwich Range can be seen in the distance.

I continued 0.5 mile farther east to a viewpoint at the end of the Oregon Mountain ridge. Beyond here the trail gets sketchy, though the Highlanders maintain it for another mile to the old Welton Falls Trail junctions. There are few views from here to Bear Mountain and quite a bit of logging activity.

On the way back a milk snake slithered off the trail.

Back at the big ledge area, at about 5:30, a chorus of wolves began howling down in the valley. There is a private wolf sanctuary on the flank of Oregon Mountain - was it dinner time? Descending on the Old Dicey Road, I saw where a road branched off for the sanctuary.

The two miles down this eroded Old Dicey Road was a slog at the end of a long, hot day, but it made a loop possible through some very interesting and less-visited Cardigan country.