February 6, 2016: Mt. Belknap

After taking last weekend off from hiking, cancelling my reservation for this weekend’s LRCT guided snowshoe hike on Red Hill, and getting a last-minute snowstorm (finally!!!)… I got in my first snowshoe of the winter. In February. Winter has been quite backwards this year. Already, my friends and family in Pennsylvania have had a snowier winter than we have in New Hampshire.

I’m still glad I dropped out of the guided snowshoe – based on how little snow we had in the parking lot when I left work last night, I’m pretty sure there was more snow further south in Gilford, where I snowshoed today.

Click on any of the photos above to view the gallery and read the captions.

Mt. Belknap, located in Gilford, NH, is the highest peak in the Belknap Range. Driving directions can be found here. Lots of great information, as well as a trail map, can be found on the Belknap Range website.

The lower gate on the carriage road is closed in winter, starting around mid-November. There’s a very small parking area before the lower gate (enough space for about three cars). When those spots are full, people park along the side – on the right side, facing downhill from the gate. Above the lower gate, the carriage road continues, open only to foot traffic and snowmobiles (though nobody was snowmobiling – I couldn’t quite see how they would get past the gate).

Just beyond the lower gate, the Gunstock Mt. Trail (orange) branches off to the left. A little further up, the Piper Mt. Trail (red) branches off to the right. In order to get to the Belknap Mt. trailheads, you’ll need to hike a mile and a half up the carriage road (which in snowshoes is quite a hike).

At the top of the carriage road, there is a parking lot to the left, and the upper gate is straight ahead. (Today, the upper gate was wide open – no point in closing it, since the lower gate was closed.) By the kiosk in the parking lot, there’s a short trail called “Wayne’s Way” (not shown on the trail map) that leads to an overlook. Through the gate, you’ll see a wooden garage straight ahead. If you turn to the left, there’s a short trail (yellow) that leads to the same overlook as Wayne’s Way. From here, there’s a view to the west/northwest over Lake Winnisquam, Lake Opechee, and Paugus Bay. To get to the Belknap Mt. trailheads, walk straight past the garage instead. The first trail you’ll reach is the Warden’s Trail (green), which branches off to the right. Just beyond this point, the red trail branches off to the right, and the blue trail continues straight ahead. Of the blue, red, and green trails, the blue trail is the longest.

This was my first time hiking Mt. Belknap. Though I knew the carriage road was closed in winter, when I was planning my hike last night, it didn’t quite register in my brain exactly how long the hike up the carriage road would be. In snowshoes, just getting up to the trailhead is a pretty decent hike in itself. Starting out around 8:30 AM, there were some others getting started with hikes, but I was the only one heading all the way up the carriage road. Only one other hiker – and his dog – had gone up the carriage road ahead of me. About 45 minutes after I started, I stopped to take a photo looking up the carriage road. When I put my phone down, I saw a dog staring at me from up the hill. I noticed his human a little further up the hill behind him. I walked closer, the dog still staring at me. But I could see his tail wagging. Slipping into my typical animal-speaking voice, I called out, “Hi, puppy!” and he quickly came bounding down the snowy roadway toward me. Very, very happy doggie in the snow. He did a loop around me, ran back up to his human, ran back down to me, ran back up to his human, ran back down to me… I didn’t even get a chance to pet him, he was so happy running around. His human commented that the dog was just so happy to finally see another person!

When I finally reached the trailheads, I took a short side trip to the overlook, then came back and headed on to the blue trailhead, passing the green and red trailheads on the way. There were no fresh tracks here, just some snowed-over ones from yesterday, which led up the green trail.

Fortunately, the trail was pretty obvious for the most part, and well marked – so I was pretty confident even though I hadn’t hiked here before. I noticed lots of animal tracks – deer, some teeny-tiny tracks that I suspect were made by a chipmunk, and some larger tracks that were bunny-like, perhaps a snowshoe hare.

Though there was snow covering the trail, I could tell it was pretty rocky. Mostly because I was half-tripping over a rock every ten steps or so. There was one spot, shortly before a clearing about three-fourths of the way up, where I stopped to take a photo of some deer tracks and then couldn’t figure out which way the trail continued. I went straight ahead, but didn’t see any markings. To the right, I saw a fallen tree with a blue blaze on it, but couldn’t find any other markings in that direction. So I sort of bushwhacked a little up to the clearing, and noticed a cairn off to the left, and some more cairns further up from that one, leading back into the woods. From this clearing, I had a view of the ski lift atop Gunstock Mountain. (On the way up, I heard a couple of “woo-hoos,” which I’m guessing may have been coming from skiers schussing down the slopes.)

When I reached the summit a short while later, there wasn’t much of a view. To get the best view, you really need to climb up the fire tower. However, I chose not to, since I had my snowshoes on and the steps were snowy/icy. So I found the red trail on the other side of the tower, and headed back down. Of course, I was still tripping over my own snowshoes – the biggest problem I have with them is that I often step on one with the other and either get stuck (usually) or fall over (rarely). Well, combine that with a rocky trail that’s sometimes a little steep and going downhill, and you guessed it – I managed to fall. Didn’t hurt anything, my un-mittened hands just ended up elbow-deep in the snow. (I put my mittens back on again, since my hands were no longer warm!) After that, I managed to make it back down just fine – still tripping here and there, but not falling. I really put my poles to good use today, both on the way up and the way down.

Before I realized it, I was back down at the trailheads, and heading back down the carriage road. Since I had passed through before, some others had been up the road with sleds. It was a much quicker mile-and-a-half trip back down the road to the lower gate, and I could feel my legs were very tired. At the lower gate, I passed a couple with a golden retriever heading out for their hike.

This wasn’t one of my favorites for snowshoeing due to the rocky trails, but I will definitely be back in spring or fall (when the lower gate is open) to hike. I’m also looking forward to hiking several of the other trails, such as Gunstock and Piper, as well as the green and white trails on Belknap.


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