I only ever hiked Whiteface in Gilford once before, and that was a tick-filled experience in May of last year. I’ve read about the cliffs on the southern side of the mountain several times, and after recently seeing some new photos of them and reading additional descriptions on how to get to them, I decided to head out today to hike beyond the summit to see if I could find them.
Now, this would probably have been a better idea last Friday, before there were three inches or so of snow on the ground. A faint herd path that could possibly be tricky to find without snow cover is made more difficult to find once there’s a coating of the white stuff.
After dropping off a shipment of Christmas gifts at the post office, I headed out to Gilford and followed Belknap Mountain road to its end, parking in the small lot along the side of the road. A woman, who I assume lives in one of the nearby homes, was out walking her very happy and friendly dog on the road. Well after they had passed by me (and we exchanged hellos), I headed down the dirt section of the road a little further to get to the trail… and was greeted again by the dog running toward me, wagging its tail. This might scare or startle some people who are wary of dogs running loose – but I’m rather used to it at this point and it didn’t bother me (especially since I could just tell that the dog was happy and friendly, and just wanted to say hi). I put out my mitten-clad hand for a sniff, and before I could even pet the dog, it was already running back to the driveway it came from.
I easily found the clearly marked trail, located between two houses, and headed up. It looked like there hadn’t been much activity on the trail since the snow; it appeared that there were just two sets of human and dog tracks – one set each ascending and descending. I was fairly sure there wouldn’t be enough snow for snowshoes (and there wasn’t), but I had brought along my microspikes, leaving them attached to my pack with a carabiner to start. I followed the trail up through the forest, eventually reaching the halfway point at its junction with the Piper-Whiteface Link trail. Here is where I decided to put on my spikes, since the trail would eventually get rockier, with open ledges closer to the summit.
After donning my spikes, I stepped over the broken-down remains of a rock wall and continued on the Whiteface trail (blazed blue). I was somewhat surprised to see that absolutely nobody had been out this way since the snow on Saturday afternoon. (The tracks I saw on the trail earlier headed toward Piper at the junction.) I was occasionally surprised by the sound of cracking ice under my feet, and realized I needed to watch out for lightly frozen puddles hidden under the snow. In one spot, I actually broke through a frozen muddy spot with my right foot and got a bit of a muddy boot (but partially frozen December mud is easier to get off a boot than wet June mud, especially when you can use the snow to help clean it off).
I soon reached an ATV/snowmobile trail coming up from the western side of the mountain, which is shared with the hiking trail the rest of the way to the summit. Here’s where I had to start watching out for those partially frozen puddles, since some of them can be a little deep. The dead giveaway is a large, perfectly flat area in a low section of the trail. I came across about three or four of these on my way to the summit, and was careful to follow whichever high side looked to be the most stable. I succeeded in keeping my feet only snowy and not soaked, so that worked well.
As I neared an open area, I noticed some larger tracks (that is, larger than the chipmunk and squirrel tracks I had been seeing so far)… which were clearly coyote tracks. They looked sort of fresh – maybe from overnight or earlier in the morning, rather than from yesterday. I just hoped they weren’t super-fresh and that I was making enough noise so that I wouldn’t meet up with the coyote that made them.
I emerged from tree cover onto the ledgy false summit, which has excellent views to the west over Lake Winnisquam, north to the White Mountains (though I couldn’t see any further than Red Hill today due to clouds), and northeast to the rest of the Belknap range. After a few quick photos, I continued on to the high point of the summit.
Once at the summit, I continued beyond, briefly following the ATV trail and then looking in the junipers for the faint herd path that leads to the cliffs. I read some conflicting descriptions – one I recently read said the herd path was on the left, but photos and other descriptions made me think the cliffs would be to the right. I wandered around to the left, came back. Wandered over to the right, came back. Continued further down the ATV trail a bit, then came back (and regretted going that way, since it was kind of steep). I decided that trying to find a faint herd path under snow cover, even as little as it was, was futile and probably not a good idea when I was alone on a trail that doesn’t seem to get much traffic this time of year (at least until there’s enough snow for snowmobiles).
I returned to the summit and headed back down the same way I came up. I didn’t see any other hikers on the trails at all, and it didn’t look like there were any other footprints after mine on the lower half of the trail. Sure enough, mine was the only car in the parking lot when I returned.