Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Zealand Notch & Whitewall Ledges: 7/8/24

On a classic summer day - partly sunny with big cauliflower clouds, hot and fairly humid - I took a long walk out through spectacular Zealand Notch, followed by a bushwhack to the expansive ledges of Whitewall Mountain for wide views over the eastern Pemigewasset Wilderness. I had been to these ledges four times in the past, but my last visit was thirty years ago.

After an initial mile with some rough footing, the Zealand Trail settles into a mostly smooth cruise on the grade of the late 1800s Zealand Valley Railroad, operated by lumber baron J.E. Henry.


First view of Zealand Ridge from the chain of ponds and wetlands in the Zealand River valley.

View of Mount Tom across a large beaver meadow. Last year this was a pond, but the water comes and goes depending on beaver activity.


Zealand Ridge rises above Zealand Pond.

Three-way junction.

The Ethan Pond Trail takes over the old railroad grade as it heads south into Zealand Notch, the glacier-carved valley between Whitewall Mountain and Zealand Ridge.

Breaking into the open in the Notch, with the Zeacliffs looming on the west side.

The most notable features of Zealand Notch are the cliffs and expansive talus jumbles of Whitewall Mountain, on the east side of the pass. From a gap in the cliffs, a long thin slide of loose rock tumbles down to the Ethan Pond Trail. It is seen as a light-colored seam just left of center in this photo of Whitewall taken from Zeacliff. This slide is occasionally scaled by adventurers as a route to the top of Whitewall Mountain. I've always considered it too sketchy for my liking. It is very steep, with an average pitch of 37 degrees. Many if not most of the rocks are quite unstable, and larger ones could easily cause an injury to a climber, or to someone climbing below. I've read of a few close calls in online trip reports.


I scrambled a short way up the slide and reaffirmed my doubts about using this as a route up the mountain.


Looking north to Mount Hale from the lower part of the slide.

At one point large talus blocks have spilled across the trail, presenting rough footing for the hiker.

The scenic open section of trail through the Notch offers views south to Shoal Pond Peak and the northern part of Mount Hancock. Mount Carrigain lurks on the left.

Mount Hale is prominent to the north. The roof of Zealand Falls Hut is visible under the notch in the ridgeline.

Looking up a jumble of rock blocks to the Whitewall cliffs. Lumbering by J.E. Henry's Zealand Valley Railroad  followed by large forest fires (in 1886 and 1903) may have been causative factors for the extensive rock slides on Whitewall. In Geology of the Crawford Notch Quadrangle, N.H., published in 1977, geologists Donald M. Henderson et al made note of the Whitewall rock slides: “The slides in Zealand Notch are worthy of detailed study. The Conway Granite on Whitewall Mtn., forming the east wall of the notch, is riven by countless fractures; it is very unstable…Some of the slides are older than the [logging] railroad. But many of them cross the railroad. Trees have grown on the slides. By studying the tree rings it may be possible to get approximate dates of the slides.” I am not aware of any studies that have attempted to date the Whitewall slides.

After exiting the notch I left the trail to ascend to the southern ledges of Whitewall Mountain. A short distance from the trail I spotted a relic sticking out of the ground, presumably from the Zealand Valley Railroad.

Into the brushy woods.

I skirted the edge of a bog, where Purple Fringed Orchid was in bloom. My guess is that this is the species known as Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes).

Above the brushy flats I enjoyed some good going in hardwood forest with low undergrowth.

Higher up, I entered the expansive birch glades for which Whitewall is known among bushwhackers.

While in colder seasons these glades provide wonderful bushwhacking, in summer they present a challenge with neck-high ferns (mostly bracken) that conceal underfoot hazards such as rocks, blowdowns, and holes.

There is also plenty of hobblebush in the mix.

The glades are picturesque in any season.

Some are open enough to provide partial views.

I was able to follow a finger of birches well up towards the crest of the ridge.

Then some conifers.

After some wandering around the broad, brushy ridgecrest, I found my way to the southern ledges, with a view across the notch to North Twin, Zealand Ridge, Mount Guyot and Mount Bond.

Zoom on Zealand.

Bond and Guyot, with long ridges slanting down from Zealand.

Around the corner I noted that there were at least a dozen patches of Silverling (Paronychia argyrocoma) in bloom among cracks in the ledges.

According to a Forest Service report, these rare plants, which grow on ledges, talus, and gravel river barrens, have been found at only 36 sites in New England (at least half of them in New Hampshire), another being the East Ledges of Hedgehog Mountain along the UNH Trail. They are also found along several other trails in the Whites. Hikers should take great care not to inadvertently trample them.


Perhaps the most striking view from the ledges looks down the North Fork valley to sprawling Mount Hancock, Mount Hitchcock and Scar Ridge. Shoal Pond Peak is in the foreground on the left.

More to the SE are Mount Carrigain, Carrigain Notch and the Nancy Range. Shoal Pond shimmers on the broad, spruce-wooded eastern Pemi plateau.

Mount Paugus can be seen through Carrigain Notch, and North and Middle Tripyramid poke up over the col to the right of Mount Carrigain.

Zoom on the Nancy Range: Mounts Bemis, Nancy, Anderson and Lowell.

Carrigain paired with Hancock.

Mounts Field and Willey to the east.

Mount Hale to the north. Zealand Falls Hut and part of Zealand Pond can be seen below.

Two blissful hours passed quickly on these ledges. It was hard to leave.

The true summit of Whitewall could be seen a quarter mile to the north, but having been there twice in the 1990s, I had no desire to push over there through the dense brush.

These spindly birches reminded me of places in The Kilkenny.

Dropping steeply through conifers.

Back through the fern glades.

Once back on the trail, I decided to make a short side trip to Thoreau Falls for a break before the 4.7 mile walk back to the trailhead.

Evening sun was pouring down on the broad granite ledge at the top of the falls. Bond, Guyot and Zealand rise beyond.

Upper part of the falls.

Looking down this long, twisting cascade.

Falls and mountains together.

A glimpse of Whitewall Mountain from the Ethan Pond Trail.

Evening sun in Zealand Notch.

Whitewall cliffs illuminated.

Last sun at Zealand Pond.


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