40 Miles of the NH Appalachian Trail | 5/26/23
Long before my semester got out, Liz and I knew we wanted to accomplish a backpacking trip of somewhat significant mileage. While we’ve both remained infatuated with the Cohos Trail, the delayed snow melt this season matched with ongoing logging unfavored such. So, we shifted to the lowest elevation section of the Appalachian Trail, a 40-mile route from Hanover to Route 25C, just before Wachipauka Pond Trail.
With a mismatch of timing, between my return from Aruba and the high school graduation of my brother and Liz's youngest, we sandwiched our trip right into the last full week of May, meaning I spent many hours walking on an incline treadmill in the Caribbean rather than along the beach.
When the time came to pack, I cut my base weight by almost 10 pounds by investing in an ultralight Big Agnes Dynama 2 tent and swapping out my synthetic sleeping bag for an Enlightened Equipment down quilt. Additionally, I packed far fewer clothes than I ordinarily would, taking me down from a horrifying base weight of around 29 pounds to 19.3 pounds. Of course, I still managed to pack 7 pounds of food which is truthfully the only reason I have so much ultralight stuff. Beyond getting a lighter load, I also readjusted my pack according to my actual measurements rather than just “feel” and noticed a substantial difference in my ability to sit up straight post-trip. It is amazing what listening to instructions accomplishes.
Anyway, now that I’ve gone through the whole background like a baker who wants you to know every fact of her life before giving you the recipe, here’s how it all went down.
Liz & I left town at 5:30 am to drop our first car on the wide pull-out of 25C and then hopped into my car for the second drop on Trescott Road parallel to Ledyard Link. This lot was large and I felt comfortable leaving my car there for 3 days. We quickly began up Ledyard Link, ran into a NOBO hiker at Ledyard Spring, and proceeded North following the white blazes. Pretty quickly, this portion of Velvet Rocks gained a bit aggressively over an unnamed knob and then brought us back down to mostly level or at least rolling next few miles. Velvet Rocks was incredibly pleasant, the moss (velvet) covered rocks strikingly in view along our beat-out path.
At the crossing of Etna Road, we took on the Hanover Center Trail. The HCT took on a nearly identical appearance to my town forest, with nothing notable along the way except for a prescribed burn over an old pasture. This burn gave way to many voluminous ferns and other thriving undergrowth. Throughout this trail, there were a handful of great water sources, but we weren’t close to needing a fill-up quite yet.
At the crossing of 3-Mile Road, we nearly got eaten by the black flies and mosquitos as we awaited the steam roller passing by on the road. This stop was short due to the buggy annoyance. Our first significant climb began as we started Moose Mountain Trail. I felt that this trail at many times resembled a mountain biking trail, which gave it a very different appearance to the older DOC and retired ski trails along the way, some named and some unnamed. There was, of course, the notable “Matt Dustin Stopped Here Abruptly, Feb 2001” sign, which I could only seem to find rumors surrounding. To me, the most believable rumor was that Dustin had endured a sudden skiing crash some time ago, but after all my source on that is Reddit, so take it with a grain of salt.
By the summit of South Moose, the bugs had only grown worse and there was little time to stop, so we continued slightly downhill to the Moose Mountain Shelter Spur. The shelter stands at the center of a 0.2-mile jug handle, for which I out and backed real quick for the trace while Liz sat back for a moment. When I returned, we cut up some aged Gouda, summer sausage, and dried figs for a country-style charcuterie atop a special-made board (a ziplock bag on top of a camp towel). I found the Moose Mountain shelter especially homey, it was well cared for and positioned towards a beautiful east-facing view of the Middle Connecticut hills.
Almost as soon as we left the shelter chasing North Moose Mountain, the skies finally opened up. At first, it wasn’t so bad. But once we started going down the oh-so-long ridge of Moose Mountain, the winds made the weather a bit unpleasant. Through this section, we saw a beautiful deer and then 18 Eastern Newts, aka the orange salamander. At least something likes the rain!
Still getting poured on, we had to wait until we were nearly at the next road crossing to filter from a brook just before Goose Pond Road as the Moose Mountain Shelter source looked like regurgitated muddy spit. The brook we filtered from is not shown on Gaia but is listed on Far Out (previously Guthook).
The crossing of Goose Pond Road marked the start of our final 1100-foot climb for the day to the top of Holt’s Ledge. This trail began in thick, wet grass surrounding bog bridges and wet all of the clothes that were still dry. The transition also marked the entrance to a tracked bear area, which we remained on alert for but never saw.
The climb up Holt’s Ledge probably isn’t particularly easy any day, but it was highly agonizing after already walking and climbing a little over 13 miles so far. As we got higher, the cloud cover got closer and closer to us. By the time we got to the outlooks, we couldn’t tell if we were Cliff-side or just that incredibly socked in. Once we looked back at Holt’s the next day from Smarts Mountain, we discerned we were REMARKABLY close to the cliff and had no idea how sharp of a drop-off we were alongside. Hitting the top of Holt’s was wonderful, but not an end-all because we still had to descend a bit to the 0.3 spur of Trapper John Shelter.
Eventually, however, we did roll into camp and were surprised to see we weren’t the only ones out there. The same through hiker from earlier had beat us by about two hours and a SOBO 3-day section hiker was also there. Both had luckily stayed dry for the afternoon and the through hiker had seen a momma bear and 3 cubs just slightly down the trail from us a few hours back. I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the shelter, so Liz and I pitched our tents in the pouring rain and tried to get our camp chores done as soon as possible so we could put dinner in our bellies and go to bed after a long day.
I enjoyed my favorite Good To-Go, the mushroom risotto, and as soon as we hung the bear bags we crawled into our wet tents and fell asleep before it got dark. The new tent certainly had its pros at the size of a Nalgene and the weight of a feather, however, the single-wall tent didn’t hold up well against my respiration overnight, for I awoke to a wet head of hair from brushing up against the low ceiling of my tent.
Cold, and wet, but ready to move, we packed up pretty quickly and I began with most of my clothes hanging outside of my pack to dry. The descent from Trapper John was pleasant, this portion of Holt’s Ledge Trail had super effective water bars and drained exceptionally well considering it had been raining for many hours! At our next crossing, we saw another “BEAR IN AREA” sign, ominous considering both people in camp last night didn’t bag or canister their food, and hopped on the Skiway Trail, which is listed as the Dorchester Road section of the AT, on the tracing spreadsheet.
This one started with that familiar long wet grass, passed a pond with geese and lupine, then reentered the woods to follow an at times rough footpath. There were several spots to fill up here; we took advantage of a stream off of Grant Brook, where there was a beautiful swimming hole that I was far too cold to think about for too long.
Once we got to the Lambert Ridge Trailhead, it was great to know what was coming next as Liz and I had both done this and the following J Trail, but also horrible to know what came next. Smarts might not be 4000 feet, but it punches you in the face worse than most of them. The start of Lambert Ridge is a pretty legit gain, followed by some views and gradual gain, then flat and downhill, and finally, this muddy, wet rock, erosion steep shit shows up at the top. Gaining the summit was a huge relief, as this trail was much harder on tired legs than it was when I did it last May as a day hike. We took a lengthy break at the Ranger's Cabin, finished our charcuterie, and swapped out clothes we were wearing and clothes that were still wet to dry for a bit while we rested.
Descending J Trail was just as bland as I remembered from last December, with some bog bridges to start, all looking like recent installations, followed by some plain areas with occasional muddy spots. Nothing to write home about! Water sources towards the end of the trail, however, we waited to fill up until closer to Hexacuba to save on weight.
Kodak Trail climbs just as the descent from J Trail ends, yet it was highly worth it with this by FAR being my favorite trail of the trip. The Quartzite ledges were stunning, thankfully well dried out, and provided excellent outlooks towards where we’d come from just 0.5 miles from the road crossing! Shortly after, we arrived at the next junction, the Hexacuba shelter spur, our stop!
The Hexacuba Shelter was an exceptional home for the night. I met Asset, a NOBO hiker who is looking to finish as soon as possible and get back to regular life, a perspective I feel is left out of the romanticization of the trail. Liz set up at one of the limited tent sites while I set up in the hexagon with Asset. Luckily, we all had early nights and were in bed around 8:30. The service here was odd, I couldn’t get out a text, and it took forever for the inReach to work, yet Instagram worked fine. Odd!
The downhill walk from the shelter was welcomed by comparison to the uphill climb out of Trapper John, and it brought us to a water crossing as soon as we were back on the trail. This was arguably straightforward, but I had an “Izzy moment” and massively over thunk it by going around the obvious path.
After the crossing, our gain was straightforward with some super light scrambling towards the bulk of the pre-summit ledges. This section was just phenomenal and the cold rock felt exceptional against my achy legs. The rest of the climb went well and we passed several piles of moose shit before the summit but saw no further traces of them. The summit was short-lived, but we did slack pack over to North Cube since I was missing that spur. The North’s outlooks were vastly different than Cube’s, we had a broad view of Moosilauke and the Kinsmens, a sight we were only glad to see because we weren’t going over them on this trip.
Descending Mount Cube was deceiving based on the topography we studied at the top. Though the first part is steep coming off the summit, its beautiful and massively effective trail work made it feel really easy. Wooden ladder steps, rock steps, and all of the work made this early ascent fabulous. As we got further down, however, the lessened grades gave way too much erosion and mud pits, making the trail less appealing. But, with all the love at the top half, I completely understand where the priorities belonged. Along the lower stretches, we filled up our water and dumped out the iron-loaded water we had left from the day before. I had only filled up a liter, which was a huge mistake as my dehydration grew worse when the sun got higher.
At the crossing of 25A, we saw our first moose, a metal one outside Merriwood Camp, and road walked 0.1 miles to Atwell Hill Trail. The trail revealed its colors right at the start, a bug haven laden with angry ones. At just 1.7 miles, this was the worst stretch of the trip. The trail begins with mud and bog bridges, then continues with mud and no bog bridges. We gained a good bit to the height of land, which was much drier, before descending back into the muddy wasteland, where I was on high alert for stray moose legs after somebody posted a sighting of one a few weeks ago. Somewhere near the height of land, I pumped from a slightly suspicious brook but it did ease my dehydration headache, so it was well worth the risk. The state of this trail concerned me, as the mud was shoe-sucking deep and we’re still 2 months out from the through-hiking masses. I read of some work in 2006 of filling the muddy areas with some stream gravel and it seems it is that time again. I’m starting my first trail work projects this summer, to start learning for when I adopt after I graduate, so maybe I’ll get to help this trail out in the near future! After all, it is about time my generation starts picking up the slack from the dedicated and talented trail crews that have been at this for longer than I’ve been alive.
It was a great relief to leave Atwell Hill Trail, and I was at first concerned when the beginning of Ore Hill Trail resembled the worst of Atwell. Suddenly, however, the muddy masses turned into a beautiful and open forest, at first with pines and later with hardwoods. We made a side detour to the tent site, mostly to investigate if the bad reports on Far Out were true, and they were. While the tent sites were all overgrown and hung with widow-makers, the privy was a sparkling site, somewhat of a castle as far as backcountry toilets go.
Despite seeing nothing but open forest, Ore Hill was once a highly productive mine, rich in zinc, lead, copper, and other precious metals. This mine was so large that what we now know as Route 25C was the original transport route in and out of the mine. The mine, which rarely kept the same owner for long, was eventually half acquired as part of the WMNF in 1937. By 1984, the site was to be passed over by the Appalachian Trail, which required significant work to avoid water pollution and make the area passable for through hikers. Now, not much is left but the foundations of early buildings around the section passed through by Ore Hill Trail. For more information on the history of Ore Hill, visit Anna Wilken's research here.
Shortly after the spur, we stopped for a quick buggy lunch and then continued towards the height of land, about 1800 feet, which was super close to the road at just 1,546 feet, I was thankful we didn’t need to descend much more before getting in the car. As soon as we popped out by the power lines, we were in the home stretch. The car was in sight! Our journey towards Molly’s of Hanover, a restaurant I knew I could pig out at successfully, was on.
Getting into the car felt great. Almost as great as taking my Altras off for at least two days. Mollys was just as filling as I’d hoped and I write this feeling satisfied with the trip and far more connected to western New Hampshire than I was before. This gorgeous and quiet region gave way to a new 2% on my trace in “one” hike, a total of 40 miles, and just over 9000 total feet of elevation in 2.5 days. Way to start the season!
22 Eastern Newts
1 live toad
1 dead frog :(
Velvet rocks trail (half of it)
Hanover center trail
Moose Mountain Trail
Moose Mountain Shelter Loop
Holt’s Ledge Trail
Trapper John Spur
Dorchester Road AT Section / Skiway Trail*
Lambert Ridge Trail (previously completed)
J trail (previously completed)
North Cube Side Trail
Mount Cube Trail
Atwell Hill Trail
Ore Hill Trail
*Gaia considers all of Holt's Ledge Trail as Skiway Trail, but the sign says Holt Ledge Trail, as does the WMG. The sign that states "Skiway Trail," refers to the section the 30th edition of the WMG calls the "Dorchester Road AT Section" as stated on page 306. I do not own the 31st edition and cannot speak on any updates that may have occurred.