Chocorua and The Sandwich Range: Backpacking to Kick Off the Summer
Although summer doesn't officially start for a few more weeks, in my eyes Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning so what better way to start it off than with a nice therapeutic backpacking trip! The weather has been so gorgeous lately, and thankfully it held out all weekend making for some great views and secluded summits.
I know it's been a while since I've posted a trip report mostly because this has just been a really crazy time for me. Hiking has always been my favorite form of therapy, so in the past few months I've spent a lot of time outdoors. I've been hiking easy local trails as to not put myself at risk of injury or search and rescue when our healthcare system is already overwhelmed with the COVID pandemic, but at the same time I've felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Guilt because there's no such thing as zero risk hiking and because as a healthcare worker myself I felt like I was being selfish.
In the past few weeks I've realized that feeling guilty for keeping my mental health a priority is unnecessary. I've hiked short, low elevation trails carrying all of my safety equipment and knowledge. I've stayed local, with almost all of my hikes being within twenty miles of my home. I've practiced social distancing and only hiked trails when there was space in the parking lot as to not over crowd them. At a certain point you have to weigh the risks and benefits of prioritizing public health versus your own mental health, and I've really been doing my best to come to a suitable compromise.
So with all that being said, after over two months of living in the Whites and NOT hiking any 4,000 footers with beautiful views, I felt way overdue for some summit scenery! I've been wanting to hike Mt. Chocorua for a while now, but with all of the 4,000 footers that beg my attention every time there's beautiful weather I just haven't prioritized it. This past weekend was perfect because although there are nasty spring conditions on most of the high peaks, Chocorua was in full summer mode with hardly any snow left. Our plan was to hit three peaks on the 52 With a View list, Chocorua, Paugus, and Square Ledge, for some great scenery and low trafficked trails.
Just as a side note, the Over the Hill Hikers announced on Monday, May 26, 2020 that they have changed the 52 With a View list. Square Ledge along with West Royce, Hibbard, Iron Mtn, and Black Mtn in Jackson have been retired from the list to be replaced with Mt. Morgan, Mt. Percival, Pine Mtn, Roger's Ledge, and Table Mtn. I think this was a great idea because like we saw on Square Ledge, many of the views have been blocked by growing trees. They will still count the five that they've retired so no worries if you've already hiked them!
After packing up our bags, we dropped a car at the Olivarian Brook Trailhead and shuttled over to Champney Falls to start off the day. We were worried about parking since this is a popular trail and it was a gorgeous holiday weekend, so we decided to start our hike late around 2:00pm to hopefully get there as the morning crowd was departing. Much to our delight, there was a parking spot awaiting our arrival when we pulled into the lot and we off!
The trail was bustling with day hikers, but thankfully everyone was good about keeping their distance stepping off the trail when appropriate. There were a few well prepared hikers but also many with sneakers carrying water bottles and no emergency equipment whatsoever. I see a lot of unprepared hikers in the Whites, but with the state of things right now it was especially frustrating. I tried not to think about it as I walked along the gentle trail. We only gained a little bit of elevation on our way to Champney Falls, so it was a nice little warm up to get used to the weight of our full packs.
When we got to Pitcher Falls we decided to sit and have a quick snack break before continuing up to Champney Falls and the summit. We bathed in the afternoon sun eating homemade trail mix listening to the small cascades. We had the whole place to ourselves, and it was really nice to just relax and breathe in the fresh air. When we ventured up to Champney Falls there were quite a few people, some of them even swimming in the icy cold pools. This was my first time at the falls and I was blown away! I've heard that Champney turns into a great ice climbing spot in the winter, so now I can't wait to come back and check it out!
As we ascended the trail after the falls the crowds of people dispersed. I started to really get into my groove and everything felt normal again. It had been months since I'd done a long hike because I've been so focused on staying low and local. I felt like I was back in my natural habitat doing what I love rather than just delaying the inevitable dread of having to turn around and hike on home. With each footstep in the dirt I felt more and more grounded, and I remembered why I love hiking so much.
There were a few patches of snow leftover from the long winter, but they didn't slow us down and before we knew it we had broken out above the trees with Chocorua's jagged summit staring down at us. As we scaled the rocky outcroppings ascending the north face of the mountain, the views got more and more expansive until finally we were rewarded with a 360 degree panoramic vista.
After finding the summit marker we sat down to enjoy some well earned snacks. There were a few other people but by the time had tucked into our jerky and trail mix they had already started their descent. We had the gorgeous summit to ourselves with no one but a few birds flying below to keep us company. It was almost silent with the occasional breeze floating by. We laid down and let the sun shine down on our faces as it got lower and lower in the sky. After a long break to appreciate the views and serenity, we started back down on our way to Mt. Paugus to good camping spot for the night.
We descended Bee-Line Trail and reached our water source at the intersection of Bolles Trail to filter a few liters to get ready for a night out in the wilderness. It was really nice to sit by the brook and relax a bit after the steep descent. We thought about camping there because it was already around 6:00pm, but decided to continue on to Mt. Paugus. I saw on my topo map that there was a nice flat area near the summit, and from satellite images it seemed like there would be a good place to camp. I was also itching to watch the sunset from the summit!
As we ascended Bee Line Trail into the Sandwich Wilderness we discovered how it earned its name. This relentless trail is the most direct route between Chocorua and Paugus, climbing 1,400 feet between the brook and the summit of Mt. Paugus in a mile and a half. As we climbed our way up the steep trail I was startled by a little garter snake slithering its way across the trail. By the time we got our first views on a ledge near the summit of Paugus the sky was flooded with sweeping pink sunset. We would have camped right there on that ledge if there wasn't another hiker with his tent set up already! I was a little jealous of his spot but we continued on to the summit of Paugus to catch our last glances of the sunset.
When we got to the summit we passed through quickly to try to find our flat camping spot before dark. It was already past 8:00pm and the light was fading quickly so we hustled along the trail for about a quarter mile before realizing that we were starting to lose elevation. As it turns out we had already passed the flat spot so we turned back to try to find it. This part of Old Paugus Trail was really the only area where we encountered spring conditions all weekend. There was knee deep snow across the trail for a few yards and then giant mud puddles forcing us to hop over.
As we ascended back to the summit of Mt. Paugus avoiding the mud and snow I realized that I had dropped my phone somewhere along the way. I was using it to check our location with my GPS, so it must have fallen out of my open hip belt pocket as I puddle jumped my way across the trail. When I told Will I was on the brink of tears. I felt so stupid because I know my phone doesn't fit in my hip belt without hanging out, and I had just been too lazy to secure it in my bag. Not to mention that the sun had already sunk below the horizon and we still had to try to find a spot to set up camp. I've always been scared about losing two things on the trail, my car keys and my phone. We dropped our bags, got out our headlamps, and started backtracking until Will found it on the ground next to the trail. I was so grateful that not only did we recover our only reliable source of communication, but also that Will was so understanding about it.
When we got back to the summit we scoped out a good place to camp. Eventually we found a flat spot a little ways off the trail to set up our tent. While Will was making camp, I cooked our highly anticipated pasta dinner. We were both famished and very excited to have a hot meal. I made pasta with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and spicy chicken andouille sausage topped with grated parmesan and chili flakes. I brought the sausage, mushrooms, and onions pre-cooked and frozen to keep them fresh in the hot weather. It worked out well because I took them out of the freezer right before we left so they stayed chilled throughout the day. I wouldn't do this for more than a few hours, but it worked out well for this short day. By the time dinner was hot it was pitch black, so we ate by the light of our head lamps, strung up our food in a tree, and went straight to bed.
After a chilly night huddled in the tent, we were happy to be awakened by the hot sun beating down on us in the morning. Once we were done with our breakfast of apple cinnamon oatmeal and peanut butter, we packed up camp and moseyed back onto the trail. Both of us were already running low on water, so as we descended we found a spot to filter a few more liters.
We took it slow walking over to Square Ledge enjoying the sights and solitude of the wilderness. I usually have a tendency to hike quickly only thinking about my destination, but Will likes to take it a little more slowly and I realized how nice it was to just appreciate the woods around me. It felt so wild with the trillium blooming along the trail and birds chirping high in the trees. Everything was so green compared to the white blanket of snow I had gotten so used to over the winter.
When we got to Square Ledge the weather had warmed up and the sun was out again. We sat perched on the west facing side of the giant rock looking over to Mt. Passaconaway just a mile away. I thought back to my last experience there, one of my first solo hikes almost two years ago. I had fond memories of scaling Blueberry Ledge, but the connector on Rollins Trail stuck out as one of my least favorite experiences of that summer. It was muddy, buggy, and so much less fun than climbing Whiteface. It's crazy how a hike can have so many highs and lows in such a short time. That loop has one of my favorite and one of my least favorite trails in the Whites.
We thought about climbing Passaconaway, but we were so content just laying in the sun that we decided to hang out on Square Ledge a little longer instead. I made a yummy snack of trail pudding that we enjoyed while we relaxed and it came out surprisingly good! It was chocolate pudding powder and powdered milk so we just added our cold, freshly filtered water from the stream. After a nice long break at our last destination of the day, we took our time walking back to the car on Olivarian Brook Trail.
I loved this walk out because we followed the brook almost the whole way and the trail was just beautiful. We had the whole trail to ourselves and stopped to look at the blooming wildflowers as we went. There were quite a few crossings but only one of them was tricky and the trail was surprisingly dry. Usually trails with the word "brook" in the name are a tad muddy in the spring, but we had dry feet almost the whole way back.
There was one swampy spot that was a little flooded over, but it was fairly easy to cross. The swamp had lots of beaver chewed trees laying down in the water, so it was really interesting to look at all of the evidence of wildlife around. Usually the walk out of a backpacking trip is long and arduous (Lincoln Woods definitely comes to mind as an example), but this time it was actually really enjoyable! When we got back to the car I think Will and I were both ready to be done but it was a great trip and I loved the less traveled route that we took on the busy holiday weekend.
This backpacking trip made me realize that I've been spending far too much time backpacking on the high traffic trails of the NH48 rather than some of the more remote areas in the Whites. Yes, I'll always love the Pemigewassett Wilderness, but I can't believe how much more there is to see! I can't wait to do some more isolated treks in the Wild River, Dry River, Great Gulf Wilderness areas. I loved only seeing a few other people around rather than crowds of people at backcountry tentsites. I can't wait to set foot on more new and exciting trails!
Mt. Chocorua (3,480 ft), Mt. Paugus (3,198 ft), and Square Ledge (2,600 ft) via. Champney Falls Tr, Piper Tr, Brook Tr, Bee Line Tr, Old Paugus Tr, Lawrence Tr, Square Ledge Tr, Passaconaway Cutoff, and Oliverian Brook Tr [17.83 mi, 5815 ft, 13:20].