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09 September 2013

My First Trek to Mt. Monadnock (Jaffrey, NH)

Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Abbott Thayer are just a few of the well-known luminaries who have hiked Mt. Monadnock and considered it a favorite spot for writing, painting and reflection.  According to some sources, this 3,165 ft. mountain is the second most climbed peak in the world with an estimated 125,000 visitors a year, second only to Mt. Fuji with 200,000.

Despite all this notoriety, I had never climbed this mountain!  However, all that changed on 06-Sep-2013 when I had a truly grand hiking experience on Mt. Monadnock.

A key factor that has kept me from hiking this mountain is its location.  I live near the northern end of New Hampshire in Bethlehem, whereas Mt. Monadnock is at the southern end of the State near Jaffrey.   It's about a 280 mile round-trip journey to the trailhead, and involves about 5 hours of driving, which makes for a rather long day-trip!  To resolve that issue, my wife (Cheri) and I drove to nearby Keene, NH and spent the night.  The next morning, I got an early start on my hike.  Cheri spent the day walking the urban trails in downtown Keene.  And being a librarian, she also enjoyed a visit to the Keene Public Library.

Besides being a marvelous mountain to hike, Mt. Monadnock is also a delight to view from ground level.  Shown below is a roadside photo taken on the day we arrived.
A Roadside View of Mt. Monadnock
Although Mt. Monadnock's summit is mostly bare rock, it was wooded up until the early 1800s, when local farmers set the mountain afire to clear the lower slopes for pasture.  Over the years, there were other fires, as well as hurricane damage, which left the forests a tangle of fallen timber.  When it was believed that predators such as wolves and bears were denning in the fallen trees, the farmers once again set fire to the mountain.  This fire raged for weeks, destroyed the topsoil, and denuded the mountain above 2,000 feet.

There are about 40 named hiking trails on this mountain which together add up to about 35 miles of available hiking.  Although I've not done the calculations, it's my understanding that the shortest trek up to Mt. Monadnock is about 4 miles round trip, and that it's possible to do a loop hike of over 15 miles without coming to the same place more than once.

With so many trails and so many loop options, I was truly overwhelmed.  So, I decided to get some advice from my friend Steve Smith who also just happens to be the co-author of the "Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide"!  He provided several suggested hikes.  The one that I chose is shown on the map below.  It was a counterclockwise loop-hike of just over 6 miles using the following trails: Hinkley; Harling; Cascade Link; Spellman; Pumpelly; Smith Summit; Ampthitheatre; Smith Connecting Link; Cliff Walk; Parker.
Map showing my route (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
All the trails are well-marked with blazes and signs.  Shown in the next photo is collection of just a few of the many trail signs that were encountered along my route.
Some of the many trail signs that were encountered along my route
My hike was done on a weekday, and the loop that was chosen involved trails that are lightly travelled.  As a result of that combination of factors, there was a lot of solitude on this trek!  If you disregard the one large school group that I met on the Cliff Walk trail, I only met 3 other hikers along my route.  On the top of Mt. Monadnock, there were about a dozen or so hikers.  However, I felt as though I practically had the place to myself since people were so widely dispersed over the massive summit area.

The first three trails in my loop (Hinkley; Harling; Cascade Link) were mild mannered.  It wasn't until I came to the Spellman Trail that I encountered some challenging hiking.  It ascends steeply over boulders and ledges and requires a fair amount of scrambling.  Shown in the next photo is a typical segment of the Spellman Trail.
Typical Segment of Spellman Trail
At the end of the Spellman Trail I joined up with the Pumpelly Trail.  From that point forward I was walking mostly on bare rock all the way to the summit.

The following series of photos show some of the sights experienced on my approach to the top of Mt. Monadnock.
Beginning of climb along the Pumpelly Trail
Climbing higher up on the Pumpelly Trail
A picturesque tarn along the Pumpelly Trail
Another pretty spot along the way to the summit
Yet another attractive tarn along the Pumpelly Trail
A hiker descending Mt. Monadnock
Getting very close to the top of Mt. Monadnock
Only a few minutes from reaching the top of the mountain!
Upon reaching the summit of Mt. Monadnock, I could think of no other more apt description than the one given by Steve Smith in his blog report entitled "A TOUR OF MONADNOCK: 8/25/09".  Steve stated the following: "The views stretched out in every direction - not mountainous, but vast."

Shown in the next photo is just one example of the type of "vast" 360 degree views that can be experienced from Mt. Monadnock.  This particular vista is looking northeasterly, and it includes many of the high peaks in the White Mountains, such as those in the Franconia Range, as well as the Osceolas, Mt. Carrigain, Mt. Washington, Tripyramids, Passaconaway, etc.  However, being so far away, they appear merely as squiggly lines on the distant horizon.
Northeasterly view which includes a faint vista of high peaks in the White Mountains
The next photo is a collage which includes an image that I grabbed from the Internet, plus a photo that I took from the same general perspective as the Internet image.  As can readily be seen, the mountain peaks in my photo are far less distinct than those depicted in the Internet image.  But, perhaps this will at least provide a general idea of the types of White Mountain vistas that can be experienced from Mt. Monadnock.
Internet image as compared to photo taken during my hike
After lingering for a while atop Mt. Monadnock, I began the descent portion of my hike.  The first trail to be used for the descent was the Smith Summit Trail which takes off from the northwest corner of the Monadnock summit area.
Start of descent via Smith Summit Trail
From the Smith Summit Trail, I connected with the Amphitheatre Trail.  From a point near the junction of these two trails, there were several nice views of the "Amphitheatre".  As can be seen in the next photo, it's understandable why this ravine was so named.
"Amphitheatre" as viewed near junction of Smith Summit Trail and Amphitheatre Trail
There were numerous beautiful sections of trail and rewarding views beyond the Amphitheatre, but for the sake of brevity I'll leap forward to Bald Rock, which is where I stopped for lunch.  Regarding Bald Rock, the Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide (SNHTG) states the following: "According to D.B Cutter's 1881 history of Jaffrey, this prominent 2,628-ft. spur peak south of the summit was the only area of bare ledge on Mt. Monadnock before the fires in the early 1800s."

On the northeast side of Bald Rock is a large boulder inscribed with the words "Kiasticuticus Peak" (see next photo).  The SNHTG states: "This unusual word is thought to derive from a Greek word meaning 'bald', or literally 'skinhead'."
Inscribed boulder on northeast side of Bald Rock
Although it was totally unplanned, I think Bald Rock a good choice for a lunch venue.  From this lofty perch I had a magnificent view of Mt. Monadnock's main summit (see next photo).
Mt. Monadnock's main summit, as viewed from Bald Rock
Following lunch, I began the hike along the Cliff Walk.  This is a gorgeous trail unto itself, and it leads to several splendid viewpoints.

Shown in the next photo is a segment of the Cliff Walk as it descends to a forested area.
A segment of the Cliff Walk as it descends to a forested area
The next photo was taken at a point where the Cliff Walk approaches one of the many viewpoints along this very impressive trail.
The Cliff Walk as it approaches one of the many splendid viewpoints along the way
From one of the outlooks along the Cliff Walk there was a ledge (lower left of next photo) which had a profile that very much resembled an Indian with a headband.  Perhaps I failed to search thoroughly enough, but no mention of this profile was found in any of the trail guides, nor on the Internet.
Profile along the Cliff Walk which resembles an Indian with a headband
There was one ladder along my route (next photo).  It was located toward the end of the Cliff Walk as I was approaching the Parker Trail.
Ladder located along the Cliff Walk not far from the junction with the Parker Trail
After descending the ladder, it was a short walk to the Parker Trail.  This trail led me back to my starting point, and thus completed my loop hike.

To sum it up, I suppose "WOW" might be an appropriate summation!  It's easy to understand why this is such a popular mountain to hike.  I took my time soaking in as much as I could during my journey along the various trails on my route.  However, it's clear to me that I only scratched the surface of experiencing all that this magnificent mountain has to offer.  And so, this first hike to Mt. Monadnock will likely not be my last!
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ADDENDUM (added 01-Oct-2013)

The information contained in this Addendum has generously been provided via personal communication with Patrick Hummel who is the former Park Manager at Monadnock State Park.  He is currently the Volunteer Activities Coordinator for New Hampshire State Parks.

Patrick indicates that it is now thought Monadnock is the third most hiked mountain in the world, behind Japan's Fuji and China's Mount Tai.  Mount Tai likely sees more hikers than Monadnock and Fuji combined.  Regardless, Monadnock is the most hiked mountain in North America, and perhaps in the Western Hemisphere.  Additional data about the most hiked mountains in the world can be found in Craig Brandon’s book entitled “Monadnock: More Than A Mountain”.

According to records available to Patrick in his former role as Park Manager, Monanock's annual attendance is closer to 110,000 to 115,000 hikers per year, rather than 125,000 to 130,000 as had been reported in the 1990s.

The following paragraphs are a quote from Patrick regarding the legend about Monadnock's summit being laid bare by farmers who sat fire to the mountain to eradicate wolves.

"If I can help bring down or call in to question any Monadnock “legend”, it’s the wolf story. It has been ingrained into the local community and people swear this story is true. I even grew up believing this story, myself.

The truth is that Thoreau inadvertently helped to cement this tale simply by casually mentioning it in his journal, as he heard the tale while in Peterborough, NH.  In my studies of Monadnock’s history, the story has way too many holes in it for me to buy in.  Once I came across James Winthrop’s 1780 study, noting a measurable treeline 20 years before the “first great fire” on Monadnock, and 40 years before the fire that supposedly burned off the rest of the trees and soil, I became convinced the legend was untrue.

And in thinking about it further, old Yankee Farmers would not have purposely burned the summit of the mountain to attack the wolf problem anyhow. Simply put, the wolves would have just fled and moved in elsewhere, thus not solving the problem, only displacing it.  The Yankee Farmers would have trapped and/or hunted the wolves (which historical indication dictates that is precisely what they did)."

19 comments:

  1. Nice report, John! I'll have to add this to my (ever-growing) list of hikes to do someday.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Steve!
      Yes, I would highly recommend that you put this one on your list!

      Now that I’ve actually done a hike on Mt. Monadnock, I understand what all the ‘hype’ is about. However, I’d be hard-pressed to put it into words. All I can say is that Mt. Monadnock has some indescribable, elusive quality about it which makes it a pure joy to hike.

      John

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    2. Love this hike; time to revisit it now that I'm a 'flatlander' for the next nine months. Great photos!

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    3. Hi Lisa,

      Glad you liked the photos. With such beautiful surroundings, it was easy to get a few good snapshots.

      I hope you’re able to work in a revisit to Monadnock sometime soon!

      John

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  2. Wonderful pictures and report-terrific mountain. It brought back many memories of my "early" hiking days. We used to stay at a working farm with our young children (http://www.east-hill-farm.com/)in Troy, NH. Thinking about going back for a nostalgia hike.
    Thanks for awakening those memories

    Marty

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Marty. Much appreciated!

      It’s good to know that this report reawakened some memories from your early hiking days, as well as those days spent at the Inn at East Hill Farm near the base of Mt. Monadnock.

      Since I’ve now experienced a hike on this mountain, it’s easy to understand why you would be thinking about making a return visit for a “nostalgia hike”.

      John

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    2. Marty: Your comments (on my 73rd birthday) amused me as it marked 60 years since my first climb with my grandmother (who RAN up). She'd been a GF of David Harling (from the farm on the E side). She had a think for him for nearly 80 years (he was decapitated by a dump truck). Have relatives buried on Monadnock in crocks not far from the Sarcophagus; they won't move till the next ice age. Old and blind now, nonetheless enjoyed your text. Next time I climb use an airobotic device but tell people you made the descent by pogo stick.

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  3. Sounds like a great day, John! Especially the rare solitude you found there on such a nice day (weekdays in September are probably better than weekends in the middle of summer). And I must agree with Cheri... the Keene Public Library is a wonderful place. I spent much of the two years that I lived in Keene at the library, doing most of my blogging and programming work there. I kind of miss it now. It is a great city to live in, despite being so far away from the White Mountains.

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    1. Thanks Ryan! Yes, I was so pleasantly surprised to find such solitude on such a popular mountain. I think it was due to a number of factors, which included my relatively early start, plus the lightly-used trails incorporated into my route. I could see a fairly steady stream of hikers on the popular White Arrow Trail when I crossed over it during my trek along the Amphitheatre Trail.

      It is so interesting that you have a ‘connection’ with the Keene Public Library! Cheri and I agree with you about Keene being a great city. Although we only spent 2 days there, we were left with a very favorable impression. And actually, we had a conversation with a very nice guy who was delighted to have found a management position in Keene. He is from CT, but is a graduate of Keene State College.

      John

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  4. You had a great day for your trek to Monadnock! There is a lot to explore on that mountain and you were smart to make a loop to get to experience more in one hike. I've been twice and know I haven't seen it all.

    I agree, we consider it a drive, too and I live an hour south of you! I often think of those who live in CT, NY state and other places that make the drive to the Whites to hike, so I try not to complain too much. If you want a "shorter" drive, you'll have to come explore the Belknaps some time. Now that is my neck of the woods. Let me know if you come down; I wouldn't mind a trying some new trails in that area, I haven't been on all of them yet!

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    1. Hi Summerset,

      Yes, the weather certainly did cooperate for my trek to Monadnock! As you know, sunny days have been in short supply during this particular summer.

      Regarding the Belknaps, in my continual quest to do hikes that are new to me, it’s only a matter of time before I head down that way to do some hiking in your neck of the woods. And when that happens, I’ll be certain to give you a ‘heads-up’. It would be fun if things worked out such that we could do a hike together.

      John

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  5. Wow, this hike looks like lots of fun and I'm glad that you enjoyed relative solitude on the hike. Also, nice to hear that Cheri had the chance to visit the Keene library!

    Regarding the history of the mountain, isn't it amazing how destructive humans can be??

    Your pictures and write-up do a nice job of showing and telling why this is such a popular hike!

    Tim and I are in the process of moving. We're not leaving Utah - just moving across town. The movers are here right now, tearing up the place!

    I haven't been on blogger for awhile and I may not be on blogger for a few days longer.
    Enjoy September in New Hampshire!

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    1. Hi Rita,

      As always, I’m very appreciative of your feedback about my blog reports!

      Hey! Best wishes to you and Tim for an uneventful move across town, and for many happy years in your new home!

      John

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  6. Glad you had a great day for your first visit to Monadnock, John! Your photos captured the day extremely well, and that profile was a great find. I'll look for it next time I'm down there. What a great mountain!

    Steve

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    1. Steve, thank you for such kind remarks about my first visit to Mt. Monadnock!

      Regarding that profile along the Cliff Walk, I carefully looked to rule out the image being caused by some sort of lighting anomaly, like shadows, etc. Once I returned home, I thought for certain that I’d find some mention of it in a guidebook, or on the Internet. In hindsight (which is always 20/20), I wish I’d taken a GPS waypoint. I think it was spotted from one of the outlooks between the Thoreau Trail and the Point Surprise Trail, but I’m not 100% certain of that.

      John

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  7. Hi John,

    I think I'm going to hike Monadnock on Friday...I'll be following your loop!!! Thanks for the helping me select my trek!

    Karl

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    1. Fantastic Karl! I'll be very eager to read your blog report about this hike!
      Regarding the route . . . wish I could take credit, but it was one of the routes suggested to me by Steve Smith.

      Happy Trails!

      John

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  8. Thanks for the post John,

    A few updates/corrections regarding generally accepted inaccuracies about Monadnock and its history.

    First off, it is now thought Monadnock is the third most hiked mountain in the world, behind Japan's Fuji and China's Mount Tai. Tai likely sees more hikers than Monadnock and Fuji combined. Either way, Monadnock is, as far as anyone knows, the most hiked mountain in North America and perhaps in the Western Hemisphere. Its annual attenance is closer to 110,000-115,000 hikers per year. Numbers of 125,000-130,000 in the early 90's were likely a bit inflated.

    Lastly, it is extremely unlikely that Monadnock's summit was made bare by purposefully set fires. The old "wolf" fire story is a local legend that Thoreau heard and casually mentioned in his journals, which has caused the story to continue to be told to this day. The fact of the matter is that the Monadnock fire of 1820 is usually credited with being the "wolf fire" set by farmers when, in fact, the last wolf in the entire Region was tracked and killed that summer by a locals.

    In fact, there is documentation stretching as far back as 1780 that not only was there evidence of fire damage at Monadnock's summit, it even had a measurable treeline at that time. This was only 55 years after the first recorded ascent of the mountain and naturally caused fires probably made the summit bare by 1780 and perhaps even earlier.

    What is not debatable is that Monadnock has a long, storied, and interesting history and that the mountain's variety of trails, ecology, geology, and wildlife make it a certain "must hike" mountain in New England. I'm glad you made it (you chose a great route by the way) and that you have helped to share Monadnock's appeal with others.

    -Patrick

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    1. Patrick, thank you for taking time to post such a wealth of information. If you're willing to share, I'd be interested in being directed to any references for the information you posted. Please feel free to e-mail me at: nikldrum AT myfairpoint DOT net.

      John

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