When you are retired every day is Saturday, and this is no exception. I am sitting in our camper up in the White Mountains enjoying a thunderous and continuous rain over a cup of coffee, staring at my new found friend. Unlike our tenting neighbors, we are dry.
And unlike our trip to Vermont, where we explored many parts of the state, our trip this time to New Hampshire was limited in time and place, but had a most awesome time here in the White Mountains. If Vermont was “farms and charm”, then New Hampshire is “roots and rocks”. They don’t call it the granite state for nothing.
“So Brad”, you say, “if you were only here so long and only visited a few places why is this post so long?” Well, children, that is what I do – spew about inconsequential things. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and read on.
We started our trip staying at friends in Hampton, NH, where we had a most wonderful weekend, camped like Cousin Eddie in front of their house and visited with friends and family. Thank you again Helen and Ken for being great friends and hosts!!!
From Hampton we traveled up into the White Mountains where we planted ourselves in a small campground called Russell Pond in the White Mountain National Forest, about 20 miles south of Franconia Notch in Woodstock but close to Lincoln, the western end of the Kancamagus Highway.
For those of you not familiar with the Kancamagus Highway, it is 32 miles of beautiful, running through the White Mountains from Lincoln to Conway and for much of the way following either the Swift River or the east branch of the Pemigewasset River, depending on which side of the pass you are on. In the fall, this road is nuts with “leaf peepers” coming to see the fall foliage, fishermen and hikers. In the summer it is a haven for young families to cool down in the river. In the wintertime it is “base camp” for skiers to places like Waterville Valley, Loon Mountain, and Cannon Mountain.
The Russell Pond campground is situated about 20 miles south of Franconia Notch at about 2,000 feet elevation in a beautiful natural surrounding on Russell Pond. At night you would hear loons calling, and in the past we have seen Bald Eagles. There are moose galore if you believe the signs about the cautions to slow for moose (duh), but we did not see any. And there were plenty of warnings about proper food management due to active bear activity. Again, you couldn’t prove it by us.
Living in the south, you can’t imagine how pure and clear the ponds are in New England, which is really refreshing. The lakes are largely natural lakes, which again are distinctly different than in the south (I don’t think there are any natural lakes at all in Georgia). So obviously there was paddling around the pond, which is always beautiful.
Being as though this is a public campground, you never know who your neighbors will be. We almost always have nice people near us. On this trip, we had a father and his son camp next to us. I don’t know if you remember on SNL Will Farrell’s sketch about the state department attaché who ended up talking about his speech immodulation dysfunction? Well, this father and son had it. They would stand next to each other and basically shout at a constant level – not in an arguing way, just “normal” conversation. Consider it “outside voice” on steroids. We moved our site; end of problem, sort of. I took a hike around the pond and could hear them from the other side, clear as a bell. C’est la vie.
The White Mountains are conducive to hiking. Karen, Dottie and I hiked a relatively flat 7.5-mile hike off the Kancamagus Highway in the Lincoln Woods area up to Franconia Falls and back. I should mention that Dottie EASILY hiked 10 miles during the same outing. This is an easy hike and beautiful, running alongside the Pemigewasset River.
In contrast, the next day I decided I wanted to hike the Wildcat Trail up Wildcat Mountain, starting at Pinkham Notch. I chose this hike because Wildcat has always been one of my most favorite skiing areas and so I thought it would be appropriate to hike it as well.
Part of Wildcat’s attraction for me is that it is a really beautiful mountain as you face Mount Washington and the Mount Washington Valley. The other attraction is that the weather can be so severe (Mount Washington has some of the most severe weather in the world) that it keeps the less hardy skiers away. And the weather changes quickly and severely; any weather forecast on Mt. Washington has a shelf life of about 5 minutes.
Factoids: Mount Washington has over 100 days per year with winds over 75 mph (hurricane force) and a record low temperature of -47’F (not including wind chill). You need to be somewhat serious about skiing to ski here. And you need to dress like an Eskimo.
As unassuming as the Wildcat Trail sounds, I believe this was my most challenging trail – ever! Over the years and just in NH I have hiked Mount Washington many times, the northern presidential mountains, Mt. Osceola and probably other mountains that I have simply forgotten. As I mentioned this trail starts at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and runs approximately 3 miles to the peak, covering approximately 2,300 feet elevation gain. These facts are not impressive – many people (self included) hike much longer distances, and climbing Mt. Washington is about a 4,000-foot elevation gain. But I am here to tell you that Wildcat Trail is TOUGH!
The terrain is brutal. It is all rocks and roots. One other climber told me the advice she got from her brother before making this climb was “don’t look down”. Yeah, it is pretty steep, pretty much the whole freaking way. Not only that but there are a number of points where, based on your elevation, you presume you must be close to the finish. Wrong. You come around a bend after climbing steady (I am talking hand over hand), and when you finally get to a clearing you see another peak you need to climb! How disheartening!
Keep in mind that the Wildcat Trail from Pinkham Notch is all part of the Appalachian Trail (AT). So all the hikers I saw were either hiking north or south making the thru-hike. I am hauling 20 pounds of camera equipment (less the two lens covers I lost on the way) plus a backpack with proper gear (it is the White Mountains after all). I am old (probably 30-40 years older than any hikers I saw). I am huffing and puffing. And I look good. Three out of four of those last comments are true. Let me put it this way – I wasn’t passing any of these hikers, if you know what I mean. But this is not a day hike trail for Boy Scout troops either. It took me about five hours to make this short hike, just to give you an idea.
The thing is – when you hike a trail like this (I know I am preaching to my fellow hiker buddies), there are points of view that only you, or someone who has hiked the same trail, can see! So while the pictures may not reflect it, these are some tremendous vantages from which to view Mount Washington and particularly the Northern Presidential Range (Mts Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, Madison) that are just so cool.
There were a number of times when I thought enough was enough and I would head back down before making it to the top. But then I got to thinking about Grandma Gatewood having done the entire AT 3 times, and had traversed these very steps starting at age 67. Because the trail is so steep, I had no desire to go back down it, so my Plan B was to take one of the ski trails down to the base of Wildcat and have Karen pick me up there. But as fate would have it, when I reached the top they were running the gondola! Halleluiah!! That might have well been the nicest sound I can remember. So while a purist would have me hike down, I succumbed to taking the gondola down as I massaged my weary legs and slightly bruised ego.
The next day, with the weather looking “iffy” and not looking forward to another hike, I convinced Karen to join me for a car ride up Mount Washington. We have done this before, but this time we had bad weather in our favor. Once we got above 5,000 feet elevation we entered into a new dimension – fog so thick you could barely see the road. There are no guardrails on this road, and there are precipitous drops on either side. Needless to say, Karen was delighted in me and the ride.
So on this rainy day, while pondering our trip and getting ready to head south when we will finally see our daughter Michela after all these months, we bid you adieu from the Granite State! Live free or die – and always brake for moose!