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A sunny afternoon on Chocorua


Climbing one of New Hampshire's iconic mountains



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Hikers take in the view from the rocky crown of Mt. Chocorua, seen here from the Piper Trail as it approaches the summit. With its distinctive rock profile, wide-sweeping views and fascinating history, Chocorua is among the most-loved mountains in New Hampshire. Steve Smith. (click for larger version)
September 10, 2009
Chocorua's dramatic rocky profile makes it instantly recognizable from any direction. Combine that with its lake-and-mountain views, its diverse collection of trails and its colorful history, and you have one of New Hampshire's iconic mountains.

There are several hike approaches to Chocorua, each with its special charm, but I most often ascend via the Champney Falls Trail from the Kancamagus Highway. This trailhead is several hundred feet higher than those for the eastern and southern approaches, and you have the option to visit the picturesque natural waterpark at Champney and Pitcher Falls.

After a half-day of work, I set off on the Champney Falls Trail at about one o'clock under sunny and slightly hazy skies. There were only eight other cars in the parking area; were this a Saturday the lot would have been overflowing.

The first 1.4 miles of this trail is a peaceful, mostly easy walk up the valley of Champney Brook. There's a nice variety of forest — tall hardwoods at first, then open hemlocks where the trail hops up onto a high bank above the brook, then more hardwoods, including one especially majestic sugar maple along the edge of the trail, its gnarled limbs reaching to the sky.

I took the loop to Champney and Pitcher Falls and had the place to myself. Despite the recent dry weather, Champney Falls had a decent flow of water over its tiers of ledge.

I made the short side trip into the Pitcher Falls flume, where you're tucked into a deep slot with rock walls looming on either side. The falls drop gracefully over the cliff on the uphill side. If you're looking for a short, rewarding hike, the 3.2-mile round trip trek to these falls is near the top of the list.

I returned to the loop trail and followed its steep, rocky route up alongside the brook, passing several more cascades. This climb is a little tricky, with a couple of wet slabs, but it enables you to savor the full beauty of the falls. At the top I hopped out onto some rocks (set safely back from the dropoff) and admired a framed view out to Mt. Tremont and Owl's Cliff.

Back on the main Champney Falls Trail, I set a steady, plodding pace up a long stretch high on the west side of the valley. Years ago trail crews laid down flat rocks on some sections, making for a comfortable and erosion-proof treadway. This area was hit hard by the 1998 ice storm. Many fallen, decaying limbs can be seen on the uphill side of the trail. A profusion of sapling growth creates a green tunnel in the summer.

A view north to Mt. Washington presaged a right turn onto the first of four switchbacks that guided me up the steep headwall of the valley. At the top of the fourth rocky switchback I followed the Champney Falls Trail to the right where the Middle Sister Cutoff splits left, and just below the ridgecrest I turned right again onto a side path (marked with a "View" sign but easily missed) leading up to a wide granite ledge.

This was a great spot for a break before the final climb to the summit. There was a unique close-up view of First Sister, a rounded mass of ledges, and a hazy blue panorama to the north revealing Mt. Carrigain, the Presidentials, and many other peaks.

Refreshed and refueled, I marched up to the end of the Champney Falls Trail, then turned right onto the Piper Trail, the ultra-popular route that comes up from Route 16 behind Davies General Store. After a dip through the woods and a junction with the West Side Trail, the Piper Trail broke out onto the open ledges. Blazes were lacking on the first pitch, but once I made my way up to the next level the way became clear.

The 0.3-mile walk along the open ridge was dazzling, as the yellow blazes led back and forth between the east and west sides of the crest. Some of the best views from Chocorua are peering over these edges into the valleys two thousand feet below.

There's a particular sense of loftiness looking into the darkly-wooded depths of the Chocorua River valley on the east side, with the streaked face of Carter Ledge rising beyond. I could hear the sound of falling water down there, coming from a southern branch of the stream. I have a fascinating 1941-vintage Chocorua Mountain Club map that shows cascades in that ravine. One of these days I intend to check it out.

The view on the west side, where the trail climbed over a rocky knob before the final summit push, was equally captivating. I gazed down into the remote valley that holds the Bee Line Trail, one of the quiet routes up Chocorua. The long, lumpy mass of Mt. Paugus sprawled behind this basin, and above Paugus were the dark outlines of the higher Sandwich Range peaks — Passaconaway, Whiteface, Tripyramid and Sandwich Dome — twisting into the distance. This is one of my favorite vistas in all the White Mountains.

Another fan of this view was Walter H. James, whose hiking journals and photos from a hundred years ago were recently published in the two "Our Mountain Trips" collections (Bondcliff Books). These books were compiled and edited by Walter's grandchildren, Ben English, Jr. of Jackson and Jane English of Calais, Vermont. Walter and his wife Ida Rachel were avid trampers, and Chocorua was one of their favorite stomping grounds.

Wrote Walter of this vista towards Paugus, "For me this mountain and valley possess a strange fascination, so wild and forbidding, and yet so beautiful, with a beauty all their own."

After absorbing this scene from the brink of the rocky knob, I followed the Piper Trail on its tightrope route along the west flank of the summit cone, and then up the final gully scramble to the top.

As noted above, there were only six other hikers up there at four o'clock on a gorgeous sunny afternoon. After a brief visit to the occupied high point, I clambered a couple hundred feet down to the southwest, where a soft summery breeze was washing over the ledges.

It was still early enough for a relaxing mountaintop viewing session. Chocorua's vistas present a wonderful contrast between the shimmering lakes to the south and the tumultuous jumbles of mountains to the west and north.

Later, I explored farther down the pink granite slabs, until I stood on the verge of a great dropoff to the mountain's southeast ridge — the route of the Hammond Trail and the upper Liberty Trail. With binoculars I could pick out the roofline of Jim Liberty Cabin poking above the scrub.

Before heading home, I paid a second visit to the highest summit ledge, which 19th century naturalist and Chocorua enthusiast Frank Bolles described as, "about the shape and size of a large, wide dining table." On this shelf there is a weathered bronze benchmark placed in 1943 by the U.S. Geological Survey. Around the disk you can make out the triangle etched in the rock by the U.S. Coastal Survey in 1876. Iron bolts embedded a few yards away in the granite served as reference marks for this triangulation point.

The few other hikers had all left by the time I came back to the summit rocks. For twenty minutes I was alone atop Chocorua in the evening sun, a rather stirring experience. After looking around the horizon, and staring down at Cow Rock, where Chief Chocorua was said to have defiantly leapt to his doom, I turned my boots downward for the two-hour trek back to my car.

The hike to Mt. Chocorua via the Champney Falls Trail and the upper Piper Trail is 7.6 miles round trip, with a 2,250-foot elevation gain; allow five to six hours for the journey, more if you want to linger at the top. Doing the loop past Champney and Pitcher Falls is only 0.1 mile longer. The upper, exposed part of the hike should be avoided in foul weather or if thunderstorms threaten.

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