A rugged trek in the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness
Red Rock Loop is a walk on the wild side
May 26, 2011The highest elevation reached was a mere 2,240 feet, but the elevation gain accumulated on this scenic and surprisingly rugged route was nearly 3,000 feet. Along the way we admired the wild scenery of little-known Miles Notch and lounged in the sun atop the magnificent Red Rock Cliff.
During our leisurely eleven-hour trek we did not encounter any other hikers. I suspect that even at busy times such as the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend, relatively few folks find their way to this neck of the woods. In fact, parts of these trails are so lightly trodden that three experienced hikers were scratching their heads at some of the more obscure spots. (Thus this is not a good choice for novice trampers.)
My companions for the day were John Compton of Bethlehem and John Gutowski of Twin Mountain. (John G. and his wife June Rogier were recently featured in an Edith Tucker story in these pages, having completed the "Grid" – hiking every 4,000-foot mountain in every month of the year – on Easter Sunday.) To get to the trailhead, we drove up Route 5 from Fryeburg to North Lovell, turned left on West Stoneham Road, then right on Hut Road, which we followed to the joint trailhead for Miles Notch and Great Brook Trails by a gate. As of this writing, the sign for Miles Notch Trail was missing; it starts as an old woods road across from a grassy parking spot.
We chose to do the loop counterclockwise, starting up the Miles Notch Trail, which climbs 500 feet up to a ridge, then drops 400 feet into the valley of Beaver Brook. (If you do the loop in the opposite direction, you face that climb over the ridge at the end of a long day.) We followed the trail along the floor of the valley, then up along a slope through an expansive hardwood forest. Occasional yellow blazes and small cairns helped keep us on the route.
As we climbed towards Miles Notch, we entered an area where many large trees and limbs were toppled by the epic January 1998 ice storm. The fallen giants were now weathered, some of them still astride the trail. I recalled a slow and difficult descent I made along this trail a few months after the ice storm, clambering over tree trunks for so long that I thought I would spend the night in the woods.
As we approached Miles Notch – a sharp cut between Miles Knob and Peter Mountain - we had clear looks up at the long palisade of cliffs that loom on the west side. This is classic wild scenery, such as would warm the heart of a 19th century romantic artist such as Thomas Cole.
On the north side of the Notch we entered the Wilderness area and turned left on the Red Rock Trail, which follows a ridgeline west all the way to Speckled Mountain. We climbed to a spruce-wooded crest carpeted with moose nuggets, dropped sharply to a col, and scooted up to the eastern summit of Red Rock Mountain.
I'd been here several times before, but even so it took a couple of minutes to find the obscure start of the path that descends maybe 50 yards to a dramatic ledge perch at the brink of the Red Rock Cliff. Few places in the Whites give you such a feeling of being suspended in space, with 300-foot drop-offs in front and to your right. Yet when dry, the ledge is perfectly comfortable and safe, with grippy rock and flat seats set back from the edge. (However, anyone who is queasy about heights should probably not go there!)
When we emerged on this airy cliff top, blinking in the bright spring sun, several exclamations of awe were heard. To our right, we looked down and across at the main cliff, a huge rust-tinted slab that can be seen for many miles to the south.
Equally captivating was the vast view laid out before us, peering over the Red Rock Brook valley to Kezar Lake, Pleasant Mountain, Kearsarge North, and many other summits. Far off to the west we could see snow-splotched Mt. Washington, framed between Mt. Hight and West Royce. We watched as a nearby Turkey Vulture performed some nifty aerial maneuvers. At Red Rock Cliff you don't need wings to enjoy a bird's eye view.
After an hour and a half sojourn in the sun, we saddled up and returned to the trail. A quick jaunt brought us to the slightly higher western summit of Red Rock, where open ledges gave us views north to Caribou Mountain and the Mahoosucs. We dropped over slanting slabs to a col where a big snow patch caused us to momentarily lose the trail.
After a short, steep climb we began the mile-long traverse along the flat crest of Butters Mountain, alternately ducking into dark spruce thickets and ambling through bright glades of hardwoods. The brushy trail, with a barely traceable footway, made Butters feel like the mountain that time forgot.
Towards the west end of the ridge we thrashed off-trail through the conifers in search of an elusive view ledge. Eventually we found it, and enjoyed a unique vista of Caribou Mountain, second highest peak in this Wilderness area, spreading wide beyond the remote valley of the West Branch of Pleasant River.
We completed our loop with a descent on the Great Brook Trail. The upper mile of this path was a rough-and-tumble affair, steep in places with slippery footing. Near the bottom of the pitch we explored a series of splashing cascades on Great Brook, one with enough loft to qualify as a genuine waterfall.
The lower two-and-a-half miles of the Great Brook Trail provided an easy runout, following older and then newer logging roads. About two miles from the end is the site of the mid-1800s Butters family homestead, with a stonewall, cellar hole and slate tombstone.
The last part of the trail followed a section of Hut Road that can be driven when the gate opens for the summer. A serenade of wood thrushes and spring peepers seemed a fitting conclusion to our day spent traversing the wilds of the Red Rock Loop.
For an easier hike in this area, one could drive up Hut Road to the second gate, where there are some ledgy cascades near the parking spot. From there it's an easy 4½-mile round trip hike on the Great Brook Trail to visit the old Butters homestead and the cascades below and above where the trail crosses Great Brook.
TRAIL ADOPTERS NEEDED! The Miles Notch and Great Brook Trails are among two dozen trails on the Saco Ranger District in need of volunteer trail adopters, who perform the basic maintenance tasks of cleaning drainages, brushing, blazing and removing blowdowns. The contributions of volunteer maintainers are more important than ever this year, as funding cuts have reduced the size of the Saco trail crew. For details on adopting a trail, contact Cristin Bailey, Trails Manager, at 447-5448 x112 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or stop by the Saco office on the Kancamagus Highway near the Route 16 stoplight.
BE SAFE! Memorial Day Weekend is a busy time on the trails. Please use caution, especially if this is your first outing of the season. Streams may be running high, and snow and ice may still be encountered on trails at higher elevations. Current conditions and safety notices are posted on the White Mountain National Forest website at www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/white_mountain/ and the AMC website at www.outdoors.org. Recent trail reports may be seen at www.newenglandtrailconditions.com and www.viewsfromthetop.com. For a refresher on general trail safety, visit www.hikesafe.com.
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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