Updated: Jan 3
When I began planning for last weekend’s hiking trip I had a short list of ‘must haves’ to be included. I knew I wanted to be in the White Mountains as I haven’t been able to hike there as much as I would have liked to this year. I wanted to include a good peak that I hadn’t yet done and it had to have great views since I’d be there as the region gets in to peak foliage. A fellow hiker suggested Mt. Moosilauke.
Mt. Moosilauke is located in the southwest corner of the White Mountains and is a designated New Hampshire 4,000 footer. It is 4,800 feet tall and the peak is treeless and very wide. Of interest, the Appalachian Trail crosses the summit of this mountain. There are several trails to the top from all directions. For my hike I chose a longer loop trail that added two smaller peaks as well. I’ll reveal here that the weather did not cooperate fully, but this was a great hike nonetheless.
I chose to leave from the trailhead at Ravine Lodge which is about 2 miles in from Rt 118 just 10 minutes outside of Lincoln, NH. The lodge is owned by Dartmouth College and most years offers lodging and food to hikers and serves as an activity center for the college. This year the lodge did not open and the road is gated closed approximately 1 mile away from the trailhead, adding a little over 2 miles to the round trip distances listed for the trails. That is of course if you were fortunate enough to park close to the gate. Arriving at 7:15am on a Saturday morning I found myself parking about ¼ mile down the road from the gate. Behind me, cars seemed to be flowing in steadily. Parking is predominantly single file on one side of the dirt road. This was apparently a very popular place to hike this day, as evidenced by the mile long row of cars I drove by on my way out later in the afternoon.
As a brief aside, I’ve been a regular traveler in the White Mountain area of New Hampshire for most of my life with visits during every season. I’ve never seen the area as busy as I found it to be during this trip. Every trail parking area I passed all weekend was overflowing with cars. The traffic in and out of Lincoln, North Conway and down the Kancamagus Highway was backed up in all directions for miles. The most common license plates were Massachusetts, then New York followed by Connecticut. New Hampshire plates were an easy fourth!
I started down the open dirt road to the trailhead by the lodge at about 7:30am. Several groups were gathered close to the gate, presumably waiting for stragglers to join them. I was passed by three older gentlemen on bicycles who opted to pedal the mile from the gate to the trails and then lock their rides to a tree and hike the mountain. Closer to the lodge there were a handful of hikers making last minute gear and clothing adjustments. The air was cool and heavy with dew and fog. The colorful trees along the dirt road provided a pleasant backdrop for the initial walk up to the trails before diving into the woods.
At the end of the road by the lodge there were three options for trails to the summit. Two of the trails took a fairly direct route up, covering a much shorter distance than the third. I opted for route three, the Asquam Ridge trail, which is a bit more gradual a climb and twice as long as the others. This is a counterclockwise loop that crosses the peak of Mt. Jim and passes just under the peak of Mt. Blue. Both Mt. Jim and Mt. Blue are over 4,000 feet tall but lack enough prominence to be included as New Hampshire 4,000 footers on their own. The climb is a gradual 2,600’ elevation gain over about 5 ½ miles to the summit of Mt. Moosilauke. The trail itself is a bit rocky in places but not difficult or technical.
At the top of the ridge this trail intersects the Appalachian Trail. At this point the elevation was already at about 4,200’ and on this foggy, damp morning there was a marked temperature difference. I hadn’t passed a single hiker from the start of the Asquam Ridge trail to its intersection with the AT. I paused here to add a light rain jacket as it was beginning to drizzle. This area is green with moss and evergreens, lacking the color of the more deciduous forest below. On this day however the primary color was fog grey!
The AT from this point south climbs above tree line in about a mile, leaving the last ¾ mile trek to the summit unprotected and very open. There are several hikers now ascending Moosilauke from this direction. A steady breeze with occasional gusts didn’t seem to impact the dense fog but certainly drove the light rain to feel colder and heavier than it was. The air temperature at the top was in the mid 30’s. The summit was almost crowded with hikers. I took a few pictures as proof I was there and began to head down.
I descended the George Brook trail, which is a relatively direct 3.25 mile trip back to the lodge. As I began down it was immediately evident to me that this was a preferred route up the mountain for what seemed to be the majority of hikers parked near the Ravine Lodge! Droves of hikers seemed to be funneling up this trail in small groups of 2 to 4. Most appeared to be adequately prepared for a day in the woods but certainly not all. There has been plenty written recently about the dramatic increase in new hikers on the trails brought on presumably by a need to balance pandemic restrictions with activity. I think it’s great that more people are getting out to enjoy nature, regardless of why. I also understand that not everyone puts in the research and learning in advance to ensure they do so safely. That’s a whole other topic however.
With the rain and leaves I found the descent to be a bit hazardous through very rocky terrain for the first half of the trail down. I typically hike with one trekking pole (rather than two so I can manage my camera more easily) and really appreciated having that third point of ground contact quite a bit through this section. I found myself thinking about the actual risk of slipping and breaking a bone on the way down, and how that is a real concern for any hiker regardless of experience, magnified by the slippery conditions. Fortunately, the rest of the hike out remained injury-free!
Back at the trail head the weather had improved a bit, warming back to mid 50’s with no wind and no rain. Even in early afternoon the number of hikers starting out up Moosilauke seemed steady as I walked back to my truck. My overall impression of this hike is very positive and I’ll hope to do it again in better weather. I’m told the views on a clear day are impressive. I think a mid-week hike for next time will avoid some of the weekend crowds. I’ll keep you posted.