Exploring ledges on the south side of the Moats. Boulder Loop Trail and beyond


March 17, 2011
But there's still plenty of snow out there in the hills, and the upside of a rain/thaw/freeze pattern is that it sets up good conditions for exploring on snowshoes in the woods. Last Wednesday, a fine sunny day between rainstorms, my friend Keith and I hiked one of the Valley's best short routes, the Boulder Loop Trail, then wandered off-trail to some of the many ledges that dot the lower southern slopes of the Moat Range.

We parked in the plowed lot near the Albany Covered Bridge just off the Kanc Highway, six miles west of Conway. Keith put booties and a long tether on Katahdin, his lovable chocolate lab, who has hundreds of hikes under his collar.

We exchanged greetings with a couple who were going skiing on Deer Brook Road and, with snowshoes strapped to our packs in anticipation of a hard-packed trail, we walked through the covered bridge. A short way down Passaconaway Road we turned left onto the Boulder Loop Trail.

The morning sun was pouring into the oak woods that cloak these lower slopes. The old snowshoe track was rock-solid, ideal for Microspiking. Turning left at the loop junction, we climbed along the base of a rock face and continued up through darker mixed woods. The grades on the western half of Boulder Loop are easy to moderate, making for a very pleasant climb.

After a mile we popped out for the first of our many views this day, atop the cliff dubbed the "Sundown Main Ledges" by rock climbers. In another half-mile we reached the trail's high point. On the last fairly steep pitch up, ice was starting to poke through the snow.

We turned right at the "View" sign and scrambled up an icy ramp to the ledges. The spur trail was a wonderful walk between gnarled oaks and across snowy slabs. At the end we found…bare rock!

We plopped ourselves down on the granite platform at the brink of the "Far Cliff" and studied the sweeping view across the Swift River valley to the Sandwich Range. I love the different aspects of this vista: the horn of Chocorua peering over that mountain's many northern humps, the sprawling ridges of Paugus, the knuckled crest of Whiteface, Passaconaway's majestic cone, the gentle domes of the Sleepers, and the distinctive teeth of Tripyramid. A red-tailed hawk sailed by, then abruptly plunged to the woods below in pursuit of prey.

After a leisurely lunch in the March sun, we strapped on our snowshoes and proceeded farther along the ledges to a view of South and Middle Moat. Up to our left we could see a higher set of open granite slabs, the first of several spots we intended to visit off-trail.

We returned to the spur junction and struck northward into the woods. As we had hoped, the snow was firm and ideal for snowshoe bushwhacking. Weaving up through spruces, we soon emerged on the upper ledges. Here we could look down on the Boulder Loop Trail ledges and east to the spur known as "Haystack."

We ducked back into the woods and traversed a pair of wooded, flat-topped knobs. On the second hump the snow was peppered with deep "postholes" punched into the snow by a meandering moose. A short descent dropped us atop the prize spot of the day – a lofty perch with an absolutely commanding Swift River/Sandwich Range panorama. We were spellbound.

While taking this in, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a huge U.S. Air Force plane heading up the valley well below our 1,900-foot elevation. For such a big aircraft (perhaps a Hercules C-130 transport), it was amazingly quiet. It floated by slowly, as if underwater, veered far out over the valley, gained altitude, and vanished behind the dome of East Sleeper. Did we really see that?

We dropped off the side of the ledge and continued down a ridge through a spacious oak forest. Farther down, we edged along the crags called the "Outback Cliffs" by climbers. One final ledge gave us yet another grand view of valley and mountains. From there, it was straightforward snowshoeing down through the woods to the floor of the valley. On the lower slope we passed some orange slashes on trees marking the boundaries of future timber sales in the Forest Service's Northeast Swift project. We ended up on Deer Brook Road with an easy half-mile walk back to the covered bridge, completing a rewarding four-mile loop.

VALLEY HIKING BOOK NEWS: Congrats to Tom Ryan of Jackson, whose forthcoming book, "Following Atticus" (due out in September from William Morrow), has been chosen for this fall's "One Book, One Valley," community reading program, sponsored by eleven Valley libraries and White Birch Books in North Conway. Tom is well-known on the hiking websites for his many White Mountain hiking journeys in recent years with Atticus M. Finch, his stalwart miniature schnauzer. (They can often be seen walking the roads of Jackson.)

Together they have made hundreds of mountain ascents, including several rounds of the forty-eight 4,000-footers in winter. Ryan's lyrical trip reports posted on www.viewsfromthetop.com and on his blog, "The Adventures of Tom & Atticus" (tomandatticus.blogspot.com) have earned them a large following.

"Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship," is a beautifully written work. It's both a hiking book and a dog book, but it is also, as the jacket notes, "a story of love, loss, and the resilience of the human and animal spirit."

The "One Book, One Valley" event will kick off with a book signing in September at White Birch. Over the following two months each library will host discussion groups on Ryan's book, and the program concludes in November with an audience-and-author discussion event. Ryan will use the event as a fundraiser for the Harvest Hills Animal Shelter and the Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire – North.

Another interesting Valley-related hiking book has already been published by Peter Randall of Portsmouth. "Over the Hill Hikers: And How They Grew…and Grew…and Grew," written by veteran political reporter Shirley Elder Lyons, tells the story of the casual but determined group of retirees in the Sandwich area who banded together and began hiking every mountain in sight. Organized in the early 1980s by Elizabeth MacGregor "Lib" Bates (daughter of legendary early AMC hutmaster Milton "Red Mac" MacGregor) and other hiking enthusiasts, the group has guided many hikers through the 4,000-footer list, and also came up with its own "52 With a View" list to bring the total number of mountains to 100.

Sprinkled throughout this engaging, light-hearted chronicle are many interesting anecdotes and personality sketches. The small hardcover is generously illustrated with photos from various OTTH hikes and events. Hike on, Over the Hillers!



Editor's note: Pick up "The AMC White Mountain Guide" for maps and descriptions of these and other trails in the White Mountains. Steve Smith, author of "Wandering Through the White Mountains: A Hiker's Perspective," has hiked and written about the White Mountains for more than 20 years. He owns the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Lincoln.

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