A Farewell to Foliage in the White Mountains
By Evan Johnson
By 8 a.m. on a Saturday, the trailheads on both sides of the Kancamagus Highway were at, or over capacity. We groaned: on our last trip to the Whites, the Liberty Springs trailhead was so crowded people were parking on the grass next to the I-93 offramp. The ranger station looked like Times Square. Would this be the same? Who knew. We made a few PB&J sandwiches on the hood of the car, tied on our boots and headed off on the Champney Brook Trail.
The first of the late October rains had preceded our arrival, layering the Champney Brook Trail in a dense carpet of copper-colored maple leaves. In the first miles, we skipped across brooks on broad boulders, leaning on branches and holding out hands to catch the other at the far bank. We paused at Champney Falls and admired how the leaves collected in the deep pools. On a hot summer day, this would be a welcome respite. On our hike, temperatures were in the 40s, with rain highly possible. The steps cut into the stone were slick with moisture as we ascended next to the falls. The clouds lowered until we found ourselves marching through dense fog that shrouded the pines and obscured any views to the north. The shouts and laughs of the Boy Scouts we passed on our ascent drifted up to us. Spooky stuff.
At a turnoff, we finally broke above treeline to the Three Sisters, an exposed ridge just above 3,330 that features the foundation of an abandoned watchtower. We gobbled our lunch on the leeward side of a boulder.
The wind stiffened as we marched south on the ridge with watch caps clamped over our ears. At an outcropping that seemed as if it bordered the edge of the world, the clouds shredded apart like cobwebs inhaled by a vacuum. Suddenly, sweeping views to Mount Pasconaway to the west, Greens Cliff to the North, and the rest of the “Kanc” uncovered themselves. The landscape was no rich tapestry of autumnal color; it was harsh and craggy, with overtones of immense power. Far off to the north, the high presidentials kept hidden, but south of us, like a massive tooth, beckoned Mount Chocorua, our next objective.
The route to the summit led off of the sisters and into a saddle of thin pines set among exposed rock banks and muddy bogs. Vegetation fell away to sky as we ascended a series of ramps and chutes that placed us on the tabletop summit at 3,470’ in the midst of a howling wind snapping at our jackets and hair. We didn’t linger. It was fall and the light was already casting our shadows long against the granite.
Rather than an out-and-back, we opted to make a loop by following the Bee Line Trail to the Bolles trail, which would take us back to the road. The aptly named Bee Line is a direct shot between Chocorua and Mt Paugus that parallels and crosses a stream. Our progress westward was bathed in brilliant golden sunlight through the remaining beech leaves. When the sun dropped behind the ridge where we met the Bolles Trail, a flat graphite-tone settled overhead. We ate snacks and consulted our map and compass. We had one last steep hill before we could descend to the parking lot, which we found a little unfair considering how far we’d already walked. We also only had one headlamp between us. We pushed on the hill and reached its peak as the last light drained to a deepening purple.
Our descent featured exactly 12 stream crossings by flashlight that left us with soaked feet and shortened patience. We alternated swearing and laughing at the water and our exhaustion. Every stick, rock and pool of water seemed set on ensnaring our legs and feet. After the trail mellowed and flattened, our spirits soared when we came across a cluster of backpackers’ tents. We stomped out into the parking lot at 7:30; well after dark, but right on time for a sandwich, shower, and early bedtime.