Mount Monadnock a hiking challenge despite its looks
JAFFREY, N.H.—From a distance, New England's beloved Mount Monadnock looks distinctly unthreatening. Veteran hikers seeking a challenge might be dubious at first, but this balding geezer of a mountain is plenty rugged.
Monadnock rises 3,165 feet in Cheshire County, near the town of Jaffrey in New Hampshire's southwestern corner. The name comes from a Native American term for "mountain standing alone." Its approachability makes Monadnock one of the nation's most popular climbs, drawing more than 100,000 hikers yearly. Those who reach the summit are rewarded with 100-mile views on clear days. It was hazy the days my hiking partner and I climbed—but views of the pastoral countryside and rolling hills in neighboring Vermont were still breathtaking.
More than a dozen hiking trails wind their way up the mountain, many of them converging near the summit, and several start near the park headquarters. Pick up trail maps here. Pumpelly is among the longest trails, almost 4 miles each way from the start point near the town of Dublin, and rated among the easiest because it's a more gradual climb—but none of the options is a cinch. All but the most experienced hikers should allow at least half a day for most routes.
On our first day of a three-day weekend, we chose the White Dot trail—the shortest at around 1.5 miles each way starting from near the headquarters' visitor center. It's turns out to be also among the steepest. More on that later.
Our last climb was along the forested Halfway House trail, with access from a parking area along Route 124, up to the steep White Arrow trail. It's about 2 miles each way.
All routes begin as windy paths, many covered in gnarled tree branches, through fragrant forests of spruce and hemlock, along with oak, birch and maples that make Monadnock a popular destination for leaf-peeping hikers in the fall. And all trails become notoriously rocky toward the summit.
At the top, Monadnock is bare rock, above tree line, and to get there requires conquering layers of steep giant boulders and craggy paths invisible from the tame roadside view. Don't let the early easy sections of trail nor the little kids scampering like mountain goats toward the summit fool you—this is serious hiking. It's also super fun and requires careful navigation and thinking before planting each footstep—you can almost feel the brain energy powering the physical exertion.
Some hikers use walking sticks or metal poles, although these can be a hindrance on the boulders. Hiking boots, trail runners or other shoes with strong support and good tread are a must.
So are an ample supply of water and easy-to-carry energy snacks. I learned on the first day that a small bowl of oatmeal and no lunch was not enough to fuel me up and down the mountain in nearly 90-degree F heat and steamy humidity.
In the midst of the steepest part of the White Dot trail and drenched in sweat after a brisk pace, I suddenly felt dizzy with a headache and mild nausea. These were signs of heat exhaustion. I found a relatively level and shady nook where I sipped water, ate trail mix and rested for a few minutes, then made it to the top with no more trouble. But rescues of exhausted, injured or lost hikers happen occasionally, and even a few deaths have occurred on Monadnock over the years.
Our first day was exhilarating—and pretty tiring, so we took a break on day two and hiked more level trails at nearby Pisgah State Park. It's New Hampshire's largest state park, full of woodland trails, gentle ravines and serene ponds for swimming, toe-dipping or just admiring.
We hiked a couple of hours along the Old Chesterfield Road trail to start, accessible from near the town of Chesterfield, then drove a few miles to the Kilburn Road parking area off Route 63 and hiked around lovely Kilburn Pond. The day's total? About 8 miles, but that left us enough reserve to tackle the mountain again on our third and final day.