Friday, February 3, 2017

THE BOWL: 2/2/17

On a changeable weather day I teamed up with Cath Goodwin for a snowshoe exploration in The Bowl, the fine glacial cirque enclosed by Mt. Whiteface, Mt. Passaconaway and the Wonalancet Range. We admired many old growth hardwoods, marveled at an ice cliff on a Mt. Whiteface slide, and climbed steeply to a snowy slab with a wide view over the valley. Snowshoeing conditions were superb, with 6-8" of fluffy powder atop a firm base.

There are no signs of this valley (that of the main or west branch of Wonalancet Brook) ever having been logged. It was saved from the logger's axe about 1915 through the efforts of Katherine Sleeper Walden and other members of the Wonalancet Out Door Club. The land was then added to the White Mountain National Forest, and in 1931 much of the western valley was designated as a 510-acre Natural Area. In the 2006 Forest Plan, what is now called The Bowl Research Natural Area was expanded to over 1500 acres.

The Bowl is notable for the extensive stand of old-growth hardwood on its broad floor, a rarity in the White Mountains. Some of the trees may be 250-300 years old.  (Most of the old-growth spruce and fir on the walls of the cirque were destroyed by hurricanes and other natural catastrophes.) The vegetation and ecology of the valley have been intensively studied over the years, and serve as a valuable reference to compare with the primarily second-growth forests of the region. Aside from its scientific value, The Bowl is a very beautiful and special place. There are no trails penetrating into the valley; it is skirted by the Dicey's Mill, Tom Wiggin and Rollins Trails.

Morning skies were gray as we crossed this field near the start of the Dicey's Mill Trail.

There was several inches of powder atop the old track on Dicey's Mill Trail, so we donned our snowshoes early on.

Nice hardwood forest where the trail passes near the former Dicey's Mill site.

Near here we left the trail, crossed the east branch of Wonalancet Brook, and headed into The Bowl.

One of the largest white birches we've seen.

Hiker for scale. (Photo by Cath Goodwin)

A woodpecker multi-level.

A step-in trunk.

Moss does grow on the north side of tree trunks, as I learned in Boy Scouts.

Here there be giants. We honored the memory of Katherine Sleeper Walden for her role in preserving these marvelous woods.

Snow squalls punctuated the morning.

Two views of Wonalancet Brook, which never seems to freeze well.

A broken giant.

A massive maple.

Looks big from either side.

We saw a number of bear nests, high in the beech trees. It's not really a "nest," but a feeding spot. The bear pulls and breaks branches while feeding on beech nuts.

There must be a healthy bear population in the valley.

The sun teased briefly, but in the afternoon it came out for good.

Recent bear claw marks.

A towering yellow birch.

Premier powder snowshoeing!

An old slide track provided a snowy highway up to the ice cliff we were seeking.

We passed the track of a tributary slide on the right.

Climbing steeply up the track of the main slide.

Looking back.

The ice cliff in sight above.

This was my third visit to this high and wild spot. In 2010 there was less snow and more exposed ice, rendering the approach up the slide track unsafe without full crampons.

Ice fangs and rock overhang.

Cath inside an ice cave.

Peering out the side of the cave. (Photo by Cath Goodwin)

The view out the front of the cave.

Close-in angle, with clearing skies.

Heading back down the slide.

Hibbard Mountain glimpsed across the valley.

Winter at its best!

It was already mid-afternoon, but with the improved weather we decided to continue up the valley and climb to a ledge slab for  an intimate view over The Bowl. Along the way Cath spotted this snow-capped bird's nest.

We had glimpses of the ravine headwall to the north.

Heading up the increasingly steep slope.

Pausing on the strenuous climb, with 8+ inches of snow atop a crusty base.

Yes, it was steep!

Emerging at the edge of the slab, looking across at the headwall.

We pushed up and around to the lip at the top of the slab, gaining a view over the broad floor of The Bowl, with Mt. Wonalancet and the Ossipee Range beyond.

The other end of the lip provided a clear view of the headwall, with its great rock slab and narrow slide.

The sunlit tip of Mt. Passaconaway peers over the top.

We took a less difficult route down, making a switchback below a rock wall.

Down we go.

Back on the floor of the valley, we had glimpses up to the two summits of Mt. Whiteface. We completed the bushwhack by moonlight, pausing for a few minutes to savor the silence and stare at the stars through the gnarled limbs overhead.


  1. Superb narrative and photos about this unique and fascinating area! I've never visited this locale, and if even I never have the opportunity to do so, your fine report provides an excellent vicarious experience. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Thanks, John - a truly unique place. A long drive, but totally worth it. Hope you can get in there sometime. I'm always up for it as a winter trip.


  2. What could be prettier than to be in the woods during snow squalls? Great report, Steve.

  3. Steve, my husband and I are planning to hike this loop on the 19th Feb. I'm a little nervous hiking it because of the ledges. Can you please tell me whether there is a way around it or if crampons will help or if there are trees around to grab on? I'm terrified of sliding down that section.

    1. If you're doing the Whiteface-Passaconaway loop from Ferncroft, it would be better to go up Blueberry Ledge Trail rather than down. There are some pretty challenging spots, a couple of which have no alternative work-arounds and few trees to grab. With all the new snow it might actually be better, if there is a good track packed out. In crusty/icy conditions crampons would be a real asset. It looks like Sunday is going to be very warm, so the snow could be slippery if the sun is on it. Good luck and be safe!

    2. Thank you Steve! We ended up doing Passaconway only via Dicey Mills because trail condition wasn't that great.