Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest | 8/9/23
“How would you feel about the alleged suffer fest that makes up Three Ponds, Hubbard Brook, and Mt. Kineo trail?”
Liz and I, yet again, were trying to find a hike that would conform to the predictable and reliable (not) weather of summer 2023. Despite our interest in getting back to the Presidential Range, high winds and a wet morning directed us further south, where neither of us had too much left to do. One hike, however, has been sticking out to me for almost 2 years now: the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest loop.
This hike initially had no significance to me- I saw it as nothing but a nice flat loop with some ponds. Soon though, all of the fellow tracers I follow had revealed their experiences with this trail network and I had a change of heart. One hiker expressed sadness over the forgotten nature of these trails, another described his on-and-off with waders, and many more called it “hell.” In the end, I found it to be another addition to my list of character-building hikes. To describe it in short, I think Liz called it best: “That was the easiest bushwhack I’ve ever done.”
To my surprise, the loop started much closer to the Peaked Hill Pond TH than the Three Ponds (Stinson Lake Rd.) TH, meaning we didn’t get off 93 until Exit 29. Despite my GPS’s impression, I’d be walking down Hubbard Brook Road, the road was in excellent condition and we drove up to the junction of Mt. Kineo Rd. and Hubbard Brook Road, parking at 43.93268, -71.77064. I would HIGHLY recommend parking here, as you do the uphill road walk at the beginning of the day and get the open-stride downhill road walk at the end.
From the car to the actual start of the Mt. Kineo trail, we gained 200 feet and were soon greeted with the plentiful standing water along the trail. Once my feet got wet (less than a mile in), I released all hopes of staying clean and got into it. I joked with Liz, as I do every time the book says something like this, “Wouldn’t you say this is such an ATTRACTIVE hardwood forest?” Nothing cracks me up more on the trail than suddenly throwing out the adjective used in the guide out of nowhere.
At the height of land of our attractive hardwood forest, Liz pointed out the herd path she took to summit Mt. Kineo a few weeks ago, and then we started to slide down towards Donkey Hill Cutoff. Both of our asses hit the ground once in this short section, with several other close calls. Erosion, wet ground, and a rather steep hill made for a very slow descent. At the base of the trail-like second, we came about a snowmobile trail that would end up being the next part of our hike. At first, the brush was low but once we crossed into the Bruhawachet Sno-Trackers Trail System (sign), the raspberry bushes wanted nothing but violence with their sharp thorns and shoe-wrapping. Additionally, as we got closer to the river we dreaded the thought of crossing it, the sound got louder and louder as we approached Donkey Hill Cutoff. Thankfully, there was a sturdy but slippery snowmobile bridge to get us over the massively swollen crossing.
To my surprise, Donkey Hill Cutoff was the tamest portion of the hike- coincidentally, it was also the only mile of the day I’d already done. One thing to look out for, however, is that every bog bridge was a straight-up ice rink, so we were sure to tread very lightly over each one. Soon, the Cutoff ceased and we stared at the dated sign reading “Three Ponds Trail, NH 118 Warren 4.9,” the sign pointed at a pond.
With Liz leading, I followed through about a foot and a half of water alongside a beaver dam, with each step I wondered how many living things were getting into my shoes. This section has got to be one of the most unique on-trail experiences I have had, not in a bad or a good way, just unique.
At the other side of the pond, 5.3 miles in, we paused to snack and stretch. I was in desperate need of relief after hitting legs twice this week- something I hadn’t been consistent with the rest of the summer for this very reason. So from now on I'll be back to leaving my dead legs for ski season.
As we proceeded down Three Ponds Trail, the general theme alternation between really normal woods-walking, squishy bogs, and stream-cross city. One section in particular, not too far from the dam crossing, made the funniest sounds underfoot as we walked over algae, standing water, and very wet grass. Later, in the middle of the trail, ascending the height of land beside Whitcher Hill was a bit difficult to tell if we were on the trail, largely because Gaia consistently had us tracing slightly to the right of it, even when the very occasional blazes said otherwise.
Nearing the end of Three Ponds, we crossed a grown-in skidder road called “Durfee,” and from here enjoyed a pleasant downhill with a clear footpath. One birch blowdown was perfectly perched for my seat, I lingered on this step over because it was the only nice furniture of the day. Though we had been hoping for a nice and maintained fire road by the time we got to FR 211, we got the opposite. As we trudged through the 5-foot grasses, we moved as fast as we could to not think about the snakes underfoot but could only move so fast to not eat the spiders at face level. This area wasn’t too long, but was certainly unusual!
As we neared Hubbard Brook Trail, the FR was still grown in, but not nearly as high as it was when we were eating spiders. A last, we had gotten to the official start of Hubbard Brook Trail, which was marked with two signs. The trail started very politely but soon showed its true form after the very first water crossing, which was so fast it took my gaiters off of their shoe clips as soon as I stepped in.
Through the early sections of the trail, we were frequently in the woods going around blowdowns and even more often working around beaver activity relocations. The trail was not hard to follow for the most part, but undoubtedly felt more like a bushwhack than it did a trail. Good thing we know how to bushwhack! I will say, despite the challenge of the Hubbard Brook Trail, I can see the appeal of watching wildlife, like the giant slug I found! On our way out, we even ran into a researcher at the end of her day about to go for a walk. I did some further reading on the HBEF and was just amazed by the work they do back there, more information is linked below!
This loop was not an easy one, despite its relatively modest elevation gain and its lack of technical ground. However- it’s yet another epic to account for along this trace and one I’m glad Liz & I didn’t save for the end.
1 giant slug
1 suspicious-looking mushroom
7:24 moving time
For videos of the day: Visit me on IG @izzy.risitano and click on my "w. whites" story highlight
For more information on the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest: https://hubbardbrook.org/general-research-overview/
For the track: