Major, Straightback, Anna, and The Quarries: An Unexpectedly Challenging Hike in the Belknaps
I’ve been pretty focused on finishing my New England 4,000 footers list in the past few months, but Sunday was a much needed departure from the long drives and high peaks. That being said, I definitely underestimated the Belknaps and some unforeseen events caused this hike to be more stressful than I had anticipated. Although I love hiking with Lucy, she brings an added level of responsibility and uncertainty every time we have our little outings.
The Belknap Range is a collection of peaks in the lakes region south of lake Winnipesaukee. Mt. Major is probably the most popular hike in the area, trafficked by many outdoorsmen and non-hikers alike. It’s a short three mile easy hike rewarded with gorgeous views of the Whites and the lakes, or so I hear. It’s known for being extremely busy due to its accessible nature so I’ve kind of avoided it thus far.
That being said, I’ve come to find out that the things I’ll do for a little embroidered patch are fairly extensive. There happens to be a patch that is awarded to hikers that summit all twelve peaks in the Belknap Range, so naturally I was bound to get out there at some point. I had heard that the hiking in the Belknaps was very easy compared to the Whites, and I’d agree from this experience, but Lucy and I had some complications that made it more difficult than I had expected.
The day started with a late wake up, but luckily there were still parking spots open when we got to the Mt. Major trailhead. I had planned out a 10 mile loop going over Mt. Major, Straightback, Anna, Mack, Klem, Rand, and both Quarry Mountains. It sounds long, but with under 3,000 feet of elevation gain it looked pretty doable. The ascent up Mt. Major was on a nice wide trail resembling a rocky riverbed, so it was pretty easygoing. The beginning was pretty flat, but once we turned at the intersection of the Brook Trail to continue up it steadily gained elevation. It was by no means steep, but it was nice to warm up my legs a bit after yesterdays hike in the Bigelows.
When we neared the summit we came across a steep ledgey section, but luckily there was a bypass that was more conducive to Lucy’s skill level. I’m confident she could have made it up the ledges, but with a long loop still to come, I figured taking the easy way out so early in the hike would conserve some of her energy. Her paws also get tender on rocky faces, so I didn’t want to overdo it if we didn’t have to. I did make a mental note to come back here to train Lucy for steeper, rocky trails in the future if need be. To our dismay, clouds were blocking the view when we came to the first lookout. We sat here for a little while chatting with a few other hikers hoping to kill time allowing the clouds to lift. As we inched our way up to the open summit, we were not afforded the beautiful views we had been looking forward to. Lucy was so good, looking out at the sea of clouds in front of us not paying any attention to all of the people and other dogs at the summit.
Lucy and I have been working really hard on her manners, especially with other dogs. She’s probably the most friendly dog I’ve ever seen, so much so that when we see other dogs on our adventures saying hi is a must. She pulls towards them to introduce herself so exuberantly that it can be intimidating for other dogs and people. When I hold her back she sometimes whines and cries because she’s so sad she can’t play with them. If many seconds go by when we’re in close proximity to other dogs she can’t play with she will sometimes start to bark out of frustration as well. We’ve been really working on her being more relaxed in training classes and on hikes, so it was nice to see her reign it in even if it was only for a few minutes. It was a big deal for both of us!
After drinking some water and having some snacks, we decided to move on from the summit and abandon our hopes of nice views from Mt. Major. As we walked over to Straightback Mtn, the sun started beating down with great force, so we were glad when we descended back down to the sheltered forest. I didn’t take three steps on the wooded trail before rolling my ankle and falling backwards in a failed attempt to regain my balance. Luckily, the trail was nicely padded with a soft cushion of dirt, and my pack took the brunt of the impact. I got back up, brushed myself off, and continued down the beautiful trail.
I loved this part of the hike. I felt like I was in a remote forest even though I was only a few short miles from the trailhead. The only sounds were the songs of nearby birds chirping in the trees. The trees were much taller than those that I’m accustomed to in the whites, and there were bright green ferns everywhere. Lucy was enjoying leading me down the trail, keeping a nice steady pace in front of me, focused on the trail.
Again we broke out of the trees onto flat granite slabs leading up to the summit. Everywhere we looked there were ripe wild blueberries. I’ve become so accustomed to seeing fragile alpine foliage that I was hesitant to pick any but gave in to try just a few of the blueberries. Lucy loved them as much if not more than I did, and quickly found out how to forage for the ones that had dropped off the bushes to my dismay. I was worried about her eating the other dark blue berries that were also ripe because I wasn’t sure if they were poisonous to dogs, so I had to pull her away every time she snuffled in the bushes.
When we reached Straightback we stopped to take a quick picture, consulted the map, and continued on our way to Mt. Anna. These mountains are all really close together, making it easy to traverse between them. I put Lucy’s boots on her front paws to prevent her feet from getting sore, so she was having lots of fun prancing around in her new footwear. The gentle hike to Anna was equally as pretty as the stretch we had just completed.
We sat at this wooded summit for another water break when I started having trouble getting water from my bladder. I assumed there was a disconnect in the tube because there was absolutely no way I had already drank 2.5 liters. I pulled the bladder out of my pack and was horrified to find that it was completely empty. After a quick check of my pack, I realized that the bottom of it was pretty wet as was the back of my shirt. I was really puzzled because if two liters had leaked out of my bladder I would have had water running down my legs and dripping off of me. I had no idea where it had gone!
The discovery that I was almost completely dry sent me into a mini panic. We were pretty far from the car at this point, and the only water we had left was half of the liter I brought for Lucy in a separate bottle. I had assumed that over three liters would have been more than enough for both of us (it would have been), but now that our main supply was drained I didn’t know what to do. We were four miles into the ten mile loop, so after a quick consult of our map I decided to take one of our bail out routes.
This involved going across the short link trail to West Quarry Mountain and head east of the Quarries back to the car. I was hoping that since we were in the lakes region I would be able to find a water source along the way to filter from. I always keep my MSR Trail Shot water filter with me when I’m hiking just in case, but there had been no water sources thus far. I hoped with making a loop going back on different trails there would be a crossing that we could filter water out of.
This point is when the hike became much less pleasant and more stressful for me. Lucy was still having a great time, but with the temperatures rising and only a half a liter of water left we were going to be careful of our consumption. Realistically, I knew we were probably going to be fine because it was only four miles back to the car, but without the comfort of reliable hydration I was anxious.
To add to that stress, the cutoff between the Belknap Range Trail and Quarry Trail was a bit hard to follow. There was an extremely marshy area with a beaver pond, and not only was it hard to cross, I was frustrated that we had finally found a water source but it was not suitable for drinking (I could be wrong about this but I’ve been told that you shouldn’t drink out of beaver ponds even if you filter the water because of the bacteria from their poop). Under different circumstances this would have been really cool because the chewed up trees were pretty cool, but Lucy and I were not impressed.
We had also come across some extremely fresh bear scat between Straightback and Anna, so I was a little worried about the bear roaming around the area. We hadn’t seen another soul, so it felt like we were pretty isolated out there. It’s interesting that there wasn’t a single other hiker on any of the trails we traveled besides the one leading to Mt. Major. It’s a really beautiful area to hike in, but it seems like most people just go to Major for the views and then descend.
The ascent to East Quarry was actually pretty tricky in some spots. Lucy needed help a couple of times to get up the rocks, and at one point she slipped a little bit, making me shriek with fear. Luckily I caught her and helped her back to her feet, but it definitely took a shot at her confidence making her more hesitant for the rest of the hike. By the time we got to the summit we were both breathing hard. I gave Lucy half of our remaining water and took a sip for myself before continuing on. Lucy has trouble staying cool in the heat, and with her panting pretty heavily after the climb I was worried that she would get dehydrated.
Between the Quarries there were a few rocky sections, one of which had some pretty deep drops between the boulders. They weren’t very level, and Lucy was hesitant after our ascent of the East Peak. I ended up having to carry her over a few of them and coax her across. There were also a few that were too high for her to jump down that I had to lift her from. To be clear, Lucy weighs about 65 lbs and doesn’t love to be carried, so with her squirming and me trying to keep my footing it was pretty difficult to carry her for more than a few steps. Luckily it was only a few little spots that she needed help on.
When we got to West Quarry, I was really relieved to start descending back to the car. There was a bit of a view from on top of the caves, so we looked out at the lakes region before continuing. The hike down to the Brook Trail was at a steady decline through beautiful fern fields and wooded forest. Eventually the woods opened up which gave me relief from the constant worries of the local bear in the back of my mind.
At this point Lucy was ready to be done. She sometimes gets stubborn on descents when she’s leashed, but with the woods being so open and the threat of a bear nearby I didn’t want to let her free. Her recall is pretty good, but she would surely chase a chipmunk out of earshot if she was allowed. When she’s off leash she usually follows right behind me, but being on a tether she sat, refusing to move until I pulled her along. I felt terrible dragging her down the mountain, but with our water dwindling I wanted to get back to the safety of our car as quickly as possible. I think it was less of a tired sit and more of a “let me free so I can play on my own,” type of protest.
I got more and more frustrated with her stubborn sitting every few steps, so I eventually gave in letting her off leash. She was much happier strolling at her own pace behind me, and when we got close to the Brook Trail she ran off towards voices down by the brook. A string of less than ladylike words went through my head knowing she would sprint down there to make friends, but I called her back with a firm yet friendly voice. To my surprise she turned, looked at me, and came running back! I was so proud of her and she was rewarded with lots of treats when she was safely back on her leash.
When we finally reached the Brook Trail intersection I was really relieved. There were many people descending Mt. Major on this trail, a stark contrast to the solitude we had experienced for the last four miles of our hike. All of the other hikers motivated Lucy to keep moving, so we walked the rest of the way out with a nice local couple.
Although our hike in the Belknaps was supposed to be a nice light walk in the forest, it ended up being much more complex than I planned. Between the trails being much more remote than I realized, our hydration mishap, and the prospect of a bear in the vicinity, it was pretty stressful for me. I’m still not completely sure why my bladder failed, but I have a feeling I may have landed on it when I fell. That being said, I tested it when I got home and there were no recognizable leaks so I don’t know what’s wrong with it!
Hiking with Lucy is always more of a challenge because we’re still working on our communication. I haven’t yet figured out how to gauge her energy level because it seems that one minute she is full of energy and the next she’s to exhausted to continue. We’re getting better about choosing hikes that have many different bail out options, and I’m glad we were able to do that on Sunday. I’m really excited to go back to the Belknaps and try hiking there again because the area is really gorgeous and it would have been so enjoyable if I hadn’t been so stressed for the second half of the hike!
Mt. Major, Straightback Mtn, Mt. Anna, West Quarry Mtn, and East Quarry Mtn via. Mt. Major Tr, Belknap Range Tr, Yellow Tr to West Quarry, Quarry Tr, and Brook Tr [8.00 mi, 2235 ft, 5:10].
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!