I’m working on increasing the number of miles I can hike in a day, so I planned a 20.5 mile route with only 5,331 feet of elevation gain. The route was to head into the Pemi via the Nancy Pond trailhead off Rt. 302, hike all the way into Stillwater Junction, head north along Shoal Pond Trail, head northwest along Ethan Pond Trail to Zealand Falls Hut, then out via Lend-A-Hand Trail over Mt. Hale, and out to Zealand Road via Hale Brook Trail.
With lots of stops for food and contemplation along the way (and heading the wrong way a couple of times), I managed this route in 12.5 hours. With a more determined pace, shorter breaks, and perfect navigation, I suspect I could have gotten that down to 11 hours. For the day, I bagged around 14 miles of redlining (a 1% day, yay!), and added Hale to the 48×2 totals.
Nancy Pond Trail
The hike up to Nancy Cascades began in the dark. Summerset dropped me off at the trailhead about 6am with my headlamp (we’d dropped my car at Hale Brook trailhead on Zealand Road), and I headed into the tree tunnel. She was headed for some other adventures a bit further north with Greg YEAH, so this was a solo day for me. The early part of the trail is wide and easy to navigate, rising at a gentle grade. The section below gets steeper and windy, with a re-route section that’s anything but direct. Arriving at Nancy Cascade, I found one of the most rewarding water features I’ve seen in the Whites. Reticent to leave, I headed up the remaining steep section and gained something approximating height of land. The transition from steep to flat is quite sudden. You can see a little light through the trees above you, you gain the top, and that’s it.
The march from there continues along gently rolling flats towards Nancy Pond and Norcross Pond. Along the way, I rescued a Canon lens cap with tether. Noticing a couple of hikers that seemed off-trail at nice water source and flat tenting area, I asked about the Canon cap, and sure enough, that was theirs. What I didn’t realize was that NPT continued across that rocky stream area with a great view into Zealand Notch. I headed back to where I felt I’d departed the trail, noticed a small cairn, and proceeded.
Whoops. That small cairn marked the herd path to Mt. Nancy, which was very easy to follow and quite beaten out. I realized fairly quickly that I was climbing when I shouldn’t have been, checked GPS, and headed back.
After crossing the stream where I’d originally run into the hikers, NPT proceeds gently down. I was able to walk and jog along here easily, and did some miles in hurry. Before long, I made it to the junction with Carrigain Notch Trail, due north of the Carrigain summit. Just before this junction, I went through a spruce hallway with a narrow path about a person wide cut through the 8-10 foot tall trees – a neat feature I don’t recall ever walking through before in the Whites.
Carrigain Notch Trail
The 0.8 from the NPT junction to the junction with Desolation Trail is unremarkable. It’s flat, wide, and easy to follow.There are several walk-over blowdowns. I took my first long break at the Desolation Trail junction, where a couple of trail runners did a bit of navigation, crossed the stream, whooped victoriously, and powered down Desolation Trail, presumably towards the Carrigain summit. The section between the Desolation Trail junction and Stillwater junction was more complicated for me.
Proceeding northwest along Carrigain Notcth to Stillwater junction went fine for a couple of tenths or so, although the trail here is somewhat obscured and overgrown. I arrived an open area with several trees, but no obvious trail. After peering around for a bit, I spotted some axe work that had cleared a small blowdown and narrow path through some knee-high spruce, so I headed that way. The trail still didn’t seem obvious, although I saw evidence of others having climbed over some blowdowns, etc. Very quickly, I found myself in a mess of blowdowns, mossy floor, and a winding small stream. Clearly, this was not trail, but the way I’d come was so obscured, that I couldn’t follow my way back to the original point of confusion. I peeked at my GPS, took a compass reading, and headed back until I arrived back at the open area. And then I just stared at the open area for a long time, peering here and there, trying to figure out what to do next. I finally spotted a small opening that seemed like it could be a footpath off to the left, following close to the Carrigain Branch stream. That was the right place to go. Not too far after heading in that direction, the trail quickly became obvious again, and a rare wilderness blaze appeared, confirming that I was headed the right way.
Before long, I arrived at Stillwater Junction and had a nice chat with another solo hiker headed to Thoreau Falls Trail next. I was headed up to Shoal Pond Trail and proceeded north.
Shoal Pond Trail
SPT is 4 miles of rough, wilderness trail. SPT is easy to follow – there was never and threat of losing my way. It’s just not a nice footpath overall, although it’s clear that a ton of work has been done on it. The southern mile (or two) has a countless number of walk over blowdowns. There are several mostly easy stream crossings over Shoal Pond Brook. These tended to be wide, but with well-placed stones that make for dry feet if you pay attention and take your time.
The northern half of SPT is a lot muddier, with more bog bridges than I’ve ever seen on a trail that I can remember, all in various states of repair. A few were practically new. Some were completely rotted out. Several seemed to have only a season or two on them. Yet others were solid, but had lots of top flaking and peeling. Shoal Pond itself is nice feature. Emergence to Ethan Pond Trail is clearly signed at the northern terminus of SPT.
I saw more hikers on SPT than I expected by far. I ran into maybe a dozen people and a few trail doggies headed south. I didn’t expect to see anyone at all, so each new encounter was a surprise.
Ethan Pond Trail
I headed towards Zealand Falls Hut along EPT, taking a pit stop at the top of Thoreau Falls. It’s only a tenth off EPT to get to Thoreau Falls, which is favorite spot of mine to rest with all the big slabs and many pleasant, spread out places to sit with nice, although not expansive, views. I cleaned out my shoes, ate a bit, and climbed back up to EPT.
I drove ahead along EPT to ZFH now, enjoying the great views along Zealand Notch and up to Whitewall Mountain. The climb up to the hut was a bit of a strain, as I was starting to feel the miles a bit. I made it to ZFH about 2:30p, and took a long break inside where it was warm and some pleasant folks were inside chatting. I took over most of a dining table with a map, water bottles, and other junk. I just stayed off my feet for a while, ate, chatted with the hut volunteer, reminiscing about various fun trips we’d done in the mountains, favorite spots, hiking in bad weather in the Presis, and so on. Various people, including several jeans-clad tourists came and went. About 3:10p, I headed out to climb Hale.
At this point, I was tired. Mercifully, LAHT isn’t all that steep. It’s a little rough in places, with rocky footing, but mostly, the grades aren’t that steep. There’s a couple of exceptions to this, though. While climbing LAHT, there’s a section you come to where it opens up a bit, and you can see up to a ridge in front of you. Achieving that ridge is steep. Then it flattens out for a while, and eventually you can see up towards the summit of Hale. Gaining that section is a little steep, too. Then it’s flat again, except for a last little steep pitch to the open summit area. I managed this 2.5 mile section in 1:50, arriving at the summit of Hale (where it was as cold as anywhere I’d been all day) about 5:00p.
Hale Brook Trail
Descending HBT is relentlessly steep, almost to the very bottom. HBT is only 2.2 miles, but as the tail end of a long day, my quads weren’t pleased with me, as I was relying on them heavily to keep from tumbling down the mountain. As they say, the act of walking is essentially a controlled fall. That’s no more true then descending a steep pitch coming to the end of a 20+ mile route.
I finished the hike almost in the dark. I didn’t quite break out my headlamp because I could see just enough and wanted to keep moving, but certainly could have used some light if I’d taken a minute to get “Mooseblinder” out of my pack. I made it back to the car just after 6:30p.
Long day, good day. I proved to myself I can do over 20 mile days, and it felt fantastic. The odd thing is that all I can think about now is doing more long days like this. I did 20.5, and probably 21+ if you add my off-route excursions. If I was a little faster, could I do 25? What about 30? I should do a Presi traverse. A Z-bonds traverse. Around the Owl! Ooooh…a Pemi loop. So goes my brain. 😀
I didn’t take many, to be fair. I am using my iPhone as a GPS with a new app. That app needed to be tweaked every time I took a picture, and it just got old. I am planning to bring my point ‘n’ shoot camera along with me in the future, and just let the iPhone be a dedicated GPS tool.