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26 March 2015

A Snowshoe Trek to Eagle Cliff Ridge (near Franconia, NH)

Living where I do provides me with year round outdoor pleasure!  This is especially true during snow season when there are options to drive a short distance for cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing, or even to do both on the same day!

In late March, my day began with about a 10 minute drive to do some cross-country skiing at a local Nordic Center called Ski Hearth Farm, which is located in nearby Sugar Hill, NH.  There are many spots along their trail system which provide delightful views of the mountains just a few miles to the east, such as Cannon Mountain which is shown below.   This snapshot was taken from one of the outlooks along the trails being skied on this particular day.  As can be seen, this mountain provides a different type of skiing opportunity, i.e. the downhill variety.

Cannon Mountain with its downhill ski slopes, as viewed from cross-country ski trails at Ski Hearth Farm
After skiing several loops at Ski Hearth Farm, I jumped into my car and drove about 8 miles to the Gallen Memorial parking area off I-93 at Exit 34C.  From here, a snowshoe adventure would be launched to Eagle Cliff Ridge, a northwesterly spur of Mt. Lafayette.

Although I have trekked to Eagle Cliff Ridge on other occasions (click HERE for a report), I decided to make a return visit when my friend Chris told me that he and another person had just recently bushwhacked to the top of this ridge. Since there are no trails leading to Eagle Cliff Ridge, following their snowshoe track would be akin to putting myself on autopilot in terms of navigation.  However, some physical effort would still be required to negotiate the climb that entails about 1,200 ft of elevation gain over a distance of only about one mile.

Despite some semi-thick conifers on the final approach to the top of the ridge, most of this bushwhack trek was through predominately open woods such as shown in the next photo.
Predominately open-woods bushwhacking to Eagle Cliff Ridge
During the winter months, it's impractical to approach The Watcher using the rock climbers route on the barren south-facing side of Eagle Cliff Ridge.  And so, the pathway tramped out by Chris and company was located on the wooded north-facing side of the ridge.  This is a popular spot for those who engage in a form of backcountry skiing known as 'alpine ski touring' (also known as AT, or randonee).

I mention this because portions of Chris's snowshoe track were muddled by crisscrossing ski tracks headed in many different directions.  At times it was challenging to differentiate a ski track from a snowshoe track.  However, this was of no real concern since I've made several treks to The Watcher, and so I pretty much knew which track to follow to reach this destination.

At one spot I could see Chris's tracks making an abrupt left, and another set of tracks (presumably made by backcountry skiers) that went straight ahead.  Since I wasn't particularly pressed for time (at this point), I opted to purposefully follow these tracks to see where they led.  Within about a tenth of a mile from the crest of the ridge, the tracks abruptly ended.  This must have been the spot from which the backcountry skiers launched their weaving descent through the forest.

Rather than simply turning around to pick up Chris's snowshoe track, I opted to create a track of my own by bushwhacking onward to the top of the ridge.  Knowing that the Eagle Cliff Ridge has many open ledges, I suspected that a viewpoint might be found.  Although there was certainly no guarantee of that happening!

Fortunately, the bushwhacking was pretty easygoing since the snowpack (at least 2 ft in depth) was fairly well consolidated and supportive due to recent freeze/thaw cycles.  Within about 15 minutes from where the backcountry skiers track ended, I came to a spot that provided a very picturesque vista of the Franconia Notch area.  The panorama photo shown below provides a general idea of what could be seen from this nameless viewpoint along the ridge.
Panorama photo showing vista from nameless viewpoint along Eagle Cliff Ridge
The individual components of the panorama (shown above) are presented in the next three photos with captions describing the scene.
Left portion of panorama shows the ridge that runs north of Lafayette Brook, and culminates at  Mt. Lafayette.  
When looking closely at the photo shown above, small snow covered ledges can be seen along the ridgeline.  It's been a few years since I've bushwhacked to these ledges, but Steve Smith paid a visit as recently as January 2015. (Click HERE to read his blog posting about that trek.)
Center portion of panorama is looking southeasterly along Eagle Cliff Ridge. Snow-capped Mt. Lafayette is seen at top of photo.

Right portion of panorama is looking nearly due south. A portion of massive Cannon Mountain is seen on the right.  At bottom left is a portion of I-93 skirting the shoreline of Profile Lake.
When I decided to explore the track that diverged from Chris's snowshoe track, you might recall a statement  from a few paragraphs ago which indicated "I wasn't particularly pressed for time".  Well, time was now an issue!  I was stunned when I glanced at my watch.  Apparently I'd lost all sense of time while lingering to enjoy the sights from this terrific viewpoint.  I made a very rapid descent back to the point where I'd chosen to leave Chris's tracks.  Once there, I then continued onward to my original destination, i.e. The Watcher.

The travel time from the nameless viewpoint to The Watcher took only about 30 minutes.  Nonetheless, it was 5:05 when I arrived.  I had promised to be back home by 6:30.  Uh oh!

So, in order to try to keep my 6:30 commitment, I decided to forego the scramble to the open ledges located just behind the top of The Watcher's head.  This wasn't a big deal since I'd been to those ledges on numerous occasions, and knew that the view from there was similar to what I'd just experienced about a half an hour ago at the nameless viewpoint along this ridgeline.  And besides, I'd accomplished what I intended to do, i.e. re-visit the haunting profile of The Watcher.  I enjoy stopping by to see her every so often, just to see how she's doing!

The Watcher's profile (as seen on the right of the photo below) appears to be that of a woman's head and face.  She is also known as "The Old Lady of the Mountain", and as "The Old Woman of the Notch".
Profile of The Watcher (far right) as seen from a vantage point along Eagle Cliff Ridge
The Watcher is less well known than the "Old Man of the Mountain" who once graced Cannon Mountain on the opposite side of the Franconia Notch.  In 2003, the rock configuration that formed this iconic image fell to its "death" due to natural causes.  This profile was officially designated as New Hampshire's state emblem in 1945.  It was put on the State's license plate, and on highway signs, as well as on the back of New Hampshire's Statehood Quarter.

There are several legends about the relationship between the 'Old Man' and 'The Watcher'.  One of which is that Peregrine Falcons, which routinely soar from one side of the Notch to the other, were used by The Watcher and The Old Man as a means to exchange messages with each other.  Even knowing that it's just a legend, nonetheless, it's still quite sad to think about the message that would have been delivered by the falcons to The Watcher on that fateful day of May 3, 2003 when the Old Man tumbled.

To sum it up,  I arrived home by 6:30 (barely), and so all was well on the home front!  This made for a perfect ending to a fun-filled day that began with cross-country skiing, and ended with a snowshoe trek along trail-less corridors leading to scenic viewpoints along Eagle Cliff Ridge.

1) Please note that at the top of each of my blogs there are two search tools that can be helpful in locating a particular topic.  One is an icon labeled "CLICK HERE FOR A LIST OF ALL MY BLOG REPORTS".  And located above that icon is a search box that enables you to search my entire collection of blog postings for specific words and word combinations.

2) Click HERE for a link to another of my blog postings about destinations along Eagle Cliff Ridge.


Jim said...

Nice writeup and pictures John!

Steve Smith said...

Great report and stunning photos, John! I've only been up there once, when three of us traversed the length of the Eagle Cliff ridge in winter many years ago. As I recall it took about five hours with the many ups and downs. Thanks for sharing.


1HappyHiker said...

Thank you Jim for taking the time to not only read my blog, but also to post your comments. It's always gratifying to receive feedback from readers!

1HappyHiker said...

Steve, your generous comments are very much appreciated!

Your traverse of the entire ridge must have been quite an adventure. I suspect that winter is the best time to do this, although there seems to be more and more reports from folks doing this traverse at all seasons of the year. I've visited several spots along this ridge over the years, but have never done a complete traverse. Like so many other things, it's on my list! :-)

In some ways it's unfortunate that the Eagle Cliff Trail (mentioned in the 1966, 1969, and 1972 editions of AMC's White Mountain Guide) was never fully developed. But then again, it's sort of nice to have some places such as this that remain wild and trail-less for adventurers to explore. :-)


Brett Dorr said...

Love your pics ~ grew up in Lancaster\Groveton and they bring memories of home.

1HappyHiker said...

Glad to know that my photos bring back memories from your days in the Lancaster/Groveton area. I’ve always admired that area. It is so picturesque!

Thanks for dropping by to read my blog, and for taking time to post your comments.


Rita Wechter said...

Sounds like a fun day, John! It's impressive that you were able to ski (at your first location), then snowshoe, bushwhack, ascend 1200 feet, savor the view and linger for photographs—all on the same day! You had a beautiful day for this trek and it looks like you still have plenty of snow.
Eagle Cliff Ridge is definitely a worthwhile destination. How did it get its name? Have you ever seen eagles soaring there?

1HappyHiker said...

Hi Rita,

Thanks for being such a loyal follower of my blog!

Regarding your comment about our snow, it’s the last day of March as I write this reply, and we still have a significant snowpack. This past weekend, I hiked to a destination at about 2,900 ft elevation. Using my trekking pole as a rough measuring device, I’d guesstimate there was at least 2 ft of snow all along my route.

You asked how Eagle Cliff Ridge got its name. The cliff was named in 1858 by the Reverend Thomas Hill after discovering an eagle’s nest high up on the cliff. While traveling the highway that runs at the base of Eagle Cliff Ridge, I’ve seen raptors soaring overhead, but am unable to say for certain if they are eagles, falcons, hawks, etc.


1SlowHiker said...

John: Great pictures and informative descriptions. Always read and enjoy your blogs. I dont usually comment but figured I should occasionally to let you know I'm a fan. - Marvin

1HappyHiker said...

Marvin . . . I’m very appreciative of your kind words about my blog, and especially grateful for your thoughtfulness to let me know that you’re a fan of my blog. Thank you!