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Jones: Ramblings on New Hampshire’s rocky tops

  • The treeline below the “Firescrew” summit of Mount Cardigan was created by a fire in 1855. TIM JONES / EasternSlopes.com

  • On a clear summer day, the "Rocky Top" of Mount Monadnock in the background is clearly visible from the open ledges atop North Pack Monadnock. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Though you can drive or take a ski lift up most of Mount Mansfield in Vermont, the actual “Rocky Top” still requires a hike. TIM JONES / EasternSlopes.com



For the Monitor
Tuesday, July 10, 2018

As far as I’m concerned, the glaciers did New England hikers a huge favor when they flowed over our landscape and scraped it down to the bare essentials, leaving only the hardest rock to form our mountain. As the glaciers retreated (roughly 11,000 years ago), mosses and lichens, sedges, shrubs and, eventually, trees re-colonized the land as the ice retreated northward.

Plants, in their own way, are as inexorable as glaciers and will grow anywhere they can. A few of New England’s highest peaks still stand above treeline (around 4,500 feet or so in our present climate ). Treeline is rarely consistent from mountain to mountain or even on different faces of the same mountain. It rises and falls like a slow moving tide depending on exposure and overall climate. A warmer future may well allow treeline to creep higher on our mountains.

But lower mountains can also have a treeline – at least temporarily. In fact, many of the mountains we think of as having bare, rocky summits were certainly covered with thickets of twisted spruce and birch trees when European migrants first arrived on these shores seeking greater freedom, economic opportunity and better living conditions.

But our forefathers were often careless with fire and sometimes used it as a deliberate tool for clearing land without any means to control it once it was set. As a result, many of our lower mountains which were once tree-covered now have bare, rocky summits slowly being recolonized by the same mosses, lichens, shrubs and trees which followed the glaciers. Sheep and goats being pastured on this high ground probably helped delay the reforestation process to some degree as well.

The summit of Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire, for example, was laid bare by a forest fire in 1801 and another one apparently set deliberately a few years later. Farm pastures eventually climbed up most of way to the summit. These days, Monadnock has noticeably more trees and taller trees growing nearer the summit than it had the first time I climbed it (circa 1960). Who knows what it will look like in another 200 years?

It’s no accident that the most popular mountains to climb are those with largely bare summits. That’s where the views are and the views are the reward for the climb.

The list of popular “Rocky Tops” is long and varied. A good place to start is the “52 With A View” list, which has New Hampshire mountains under 4,000 feet.

Among them, Mount Monadnock is often cited (without much solid evidence that I can find) as one of the most-climbed mountains in the world. Greylock in western Massachusetts, Whiteface in New York, Mansfield in Vermont, and Kearsarge and Washington in New Hampshire all (sadly, I think) have roads to the top or very near to the top so the bare summits can get very, very busy on a nice summer day, especially when it’s hot in the lowlands. I tend to avoid mountains that have ski areas on them for the same reason – easy access means too many people

One of my longtime favorites is Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire. It’s a lovely climb and busy, but not too busy. One of the peaks of Cardigan is name “Firescew” for the phenomenon created during the 1855 fire which denuded the summit. It must have been an amazing sight, terrifying, awe-inspiring and sad at the same time.

My newest favorite “Rocky Top” is Mount Chocorua in Tamworth. If you’ve ever driven north on Route 16, you’ve seen the mountain looming over Chororua Lake, an irresistible temptation for photographers and painters. Chocorua looks exactly like the Platonic ideal of a craggy New England mountain. And, while it looks like a massive climb, it tops out at slightly less than 3,500 feet.

As many times as I had driven by Chocorua and admired its bare, pointed summit from other mountains, I had never climbed it until recently. I woke up one perfect sunny, dry morning in late June, wasted too much time thinking about paddling and mountain biking, and decided “today’s the day.” So I threw a windshirt, some lunch, the emergency kit that goes everywhere with me, and lots of water into a daypack and headed for the Champney Trail off the Kancamagus Highway. Unfortunately, due to haste and advancing CRAFT syndrome (Can’t Remember A Freakin’ Thing), I forgot my trusty camera and don’t have any photos of my climb.

It’s 3.2 miles of gentle, steady climbing from the road to the junction with the Piper Trail which leads to the summit six-tenths of a mile farther on. The last three-tenths of a mile or so are over bare ledges, which can be slippery in wet conditions. By taking the Champney Falls cutoff you can add a bit of distance to the hike and see the falls, but the recent dry spell had left the brook a tiny trickle, so I took the more direct route. I left the car a couple of minutes before 10 a.m. and hit the summit a couple of minutes after noon.

As beautiful as the view of Chocorua is from the road, the view from the top is even more stunning. I sat, ate lunch, and soaked in both the view and about 32 ounces of water. It was hot by then and several gaggles of giggling of kids from nearby summer camps summitted at about the same time I did so it wasn’t exactly a solitary experience. I was back at my car about 3:30 p.m., only a little footsore. Next time, I’ll head up much earlier in the day.

Anyway, we are in the heart of summer. The days are long, the weather about as benign as it gets, and this is a great time to go exploring the views from the Rocky Tops. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Safety tips for rocky tops

Wear shoes with good traction. Those rocks can easily get slippery and a slip can hurt.

Carry and drink lots of water.

Wear sunscreen.

Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.

If you see storm clouds building or hear thunder, get to lower altitude as fast as you safely can.

Allow plenty of time to finish your journey before dark.

(Tim Jones is the Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email timjones@easternslopes.com.)