ZEALAND NOTCH & THOREAU FALLS: 8/4/09
On a stellar summer day - sunny, low 80s, not too humid - Carol and I accompanied our friends Ken and Ann Stampfer on a leisurely trek through the Zealand Valley and Zealand Notch, and eventually out to Thoreau Falls. The Zealand area is well-known as a classic example of regeneration after the searing fires of 1886 and 1903. There's a special magic in this area, and though we have been there many times between us, we always relish a Zealand journey.
Before setting off from the parking area at the end of Zealand Road, Ken, Carol and I undertook a short bushwhack to see what is probably the "original" Zealand Falls. Through the 1922 edition, the AMC White Mountain Guide noted that as you followed the old logging railroad bed up the Zealand River valley, before there was a Zealand Road, "...after a while the Zealand Falls will be heard, but not seen, from the path. They are formed by a drop of the river over a ten-foot precipice, and are worth a visit."
We ambled up the familiar Zealand Trail, which offers generally great walking after an initial rough and rocky bypass of the railroad grade, followed by a spruce area with some good cribbing work performed by the trail crew.
At 1.7 miles we reached the first open beaver swamps and ponds, the start of the most scenic stretch of the trail. This is the famous Z-boardwalk over one of the swamps.
Ken admires the view towards Zeacliff from one of the ponds.
There are many picturesque wetland vistas along the way.
A favorite of many hikers is this birch-lined corridor approaching the A-Z Trail junction.
Just before the junction there's a view of Mt. Tom across a large beaver pond. Historians say this flat area may have been a loading area for the Zealand Valley logging railroad in the 1880s. The Zealand operation was a training ground of sorts for timber baron J.E. Henry before he moved on to bigger territory in Lincoln and the vast East Branch country.
"Zeacliff Pond Peak," a minor summit on Zealand Ridge, rises prominently above the north end of Zealand Pond.
The south part of Zealand Pond, seen from a spot just off the edge of the trail. Zealand Pond is notable for its two outlets - one north into the Zealand River (Ammonoosuc/Connecticut drainage) and another south into Whitewall Brook (Pemigewasset/Merrimack drainage).
We decided to pass up a side trip to Zealand Falls Hut and continued on towards the Notch. While the ladies went ahead, Ken and I, spurred by a cryptic sentence about a trail to a swimming hole on Whitewall Brook found in an old Appalachia, went exploring down on the floor of the Notch. We eventually found a lovely area on the brook with two cascades and several pools.
Then we continued on the Ethan Pond Trail to rejoin our spouses amidst the spectacular open rocks of Zealand Notch. This is one of the truly special places in the Whites, accessed by an easy 8-mile round trip hike. Zeacliff, the set of crags on the east end of Zealand Ridge, looms impressively across the Notch.
To the south are the wild peaks of North Hancock and Northwest Hancock. Trailless "Shoal Pond Peak" is on the left.
Above the trail are the ragged cliffs and jumbled, unstable-looking talus of Whitewall Mountain.
In places this rocky chaos has spilled across the trail.
In the most open area lies a great table-flat sitting rock.
A fine place for a group photo.
From here Mt. Hale and Zealand Hut can be seen to the north, looking up the Notch.
The railroad bed, hand-built over 100 years ago, provides a marvelous route across the flank of Whitewall. Mt. Carrigain's massive peak peers over in the distance.
After a long break in the sun, we continued south along the Ethan Pond Trail, with more easy RR grade walking. Shortly before the junction with the Thoreau Falls Trail, I poked around in the woods at what might have been a logging camp site from the Zealand Valley railroad. The map of the Zealand line in Bill Gove's J.E. Henry's Logging Railroads (currently out of print) shows a camp in this vicinity. I did find one piece of old metal strapping, but no other relics.
In a nearby boggy spot several purple-fringed orchids were in bloom.
A glimpse up to Whitewall Mountain from the edge of a bog, of which there are many in this flat upper valley of the North Fork.
Soon we reached the Thoreau Falls Trail junction. From here it's only about 0.1 mile to the big open ledge at the top of the falls.
That ledge is one of the great perches in the mountains, with a wild view up to Mt. Bond, Mt. Guyot and Zealand Mountain.
Mt. Bond, rising in the heart of the Pemi Wilderness.
The falls were thundering after three significant rainstorms in the previous week. Attempting the trail crossing of the North Fork at the top of the falls would have been hazardous; better to cross on big rocks upstream and bushwhack back to the trail.
The falls drop down over steep granite ledges in a sweeping arc.
We spent well over an hour lounging in various places on the ledges, and had the place to ourselves nearly the whole time.
Ken Stampfer, master photographer, at work. Ken and Ann, some of the nicest folks we know, ramble all over the trails of the Whites, and Ken's photos are featured on the covers of the latest editions of The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains and the White Mountains Map Book. More of his images can be found in other White Mountain guidebooks. His beautiful notecards are sold at the Mountain Wanderer, along with laminated panoramas of the views from Mt. Hight and Mt. Israel.
Carol went exploring upstream and came back to get me - there were more cascades and ledges to enjoy!
The sun was hot, so eventually we headed back along the Ethan Pond Trail.
We paused for a few minutes to once again revel in the glory of Zealand Notch.
The trail was busier in late afternoon - we encountered two camp groups and several AT thru-hikers, including "Bon-Bon" and "Hot Sauce." Back on the Zealand Trail, we had to stop for a look at Mt. Tom across a beaver pond. We agreed that this 10-mile trek - with ponds, views, and waterfalls - is hard to beat on a fine summer day.