April 25, 2016: Belknap Mountain (and Fire Tower!)

After returning from a few days of visiting my parents and their brand-new Westie puppy, I had one day remaining before going back to work. And it was such a beautiful day, I couldn’t possibly waste it by staying indoors.

I decided to hike up Belknap Mountain on the green trail, and take the blue trail back down. I had planned to climb up the fire tower this time, since the weather was nice – and that’s the only way to get a view from the peak.

Click on any photo to enter the gallery and read captions.

We had grocery shopping to do first thing in the morning, so I started my hike at 9:30 AM, which was a little later than usual. But I also wanted to wait until at least 9 AM so that the lower gate to the carriage road would be open. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the lower gate, it was still closed. So I had a slightly longer hike than expected, since it’s a mile-and-a-quarter walk up the carriage road to get to the main parking lot by the trailheads.

When I reached the parking lot, I took the very short Wayne’s Way trail up to the overlook, which offers a gorgeous view to the west and northwest over Lake Winnisquam, Paugus Bay, and a wee bit of Lake Winnipesaukee. As soon as I reached the overlook, I noticed some movement – there was a turkey walking around at the edge of the brush. But it flew away before I was able to take a picture. After a few pictures of the view from the overlook, I headed to the trailhead. There was a truck and a car parked by the garage, so I figured someone was on duty at the fire tower. A woman was getting supplies together in the car while a dog was sniffing around the garage and trail – as I started on the trail, the dog didn’t even pay any attention to me. He was just too busy sniffing around to care.

I decided to take the Warden’s Trail (green) to the summit. It’s one I haven’t hiked before, and it’s the shortest – although steep – route to the summit. There are lots of slabby spots of rock on the trail, which were dry for the most part. But there were some wet spots, which I was careful to avoid (they’re slippery!). At a few spots, the green trail is shared with a power line going up the mountain.

A little bit below the summit, there’s a water well covered by a wooden box. However, it’s not working. I’m not sure if it will ever be in working condition again – the trail description I read prior to hiking described it as “not dependable”.

When I reached the fire tower at the summit, I noticed the “open” sign hanging on one of the legs of the tower. I climbed the stairs to the level just below the enclosed top and took some photos of the view. (You have to climb the tower to get any sort of view from the summit. The trees are too tall to see anything from the ground.) The tower was staffed, the hatch was open, and they welcome visitors – so I peeked up the stairs and asked if it was OK to come up.

I chatted with the watchman on duty for a little while – and found out that ordinarily the carriage road would be open by now, but due to some legal issues that hasn’t been worked out for this year yet. His wife, who was the woman with the dog at the trailhead, soon joined us. No longer distracted by the scents of the trail, the dog came to me for some ear scritches. After signing the fire tower’s guestbook (yes, there’s a guestbook!), I headed back down the steep stairs to continue my hike.

Though I have taken the blue trail up to the summit before, I had never descended the mountain by that route. I also wanted to see if I could find the site of the 1972 plane crash on the northeastern side of the mountain. (Just google “Belknap Mountain plane crash” and you’ll find several links.) I found the surveyor’s tape marking the herd path, but since it’s very steep on that side and I hadn’t yet reached the wreckage after hiking a short way down, I decided to get back on the trail for safety’s sake. I’ll try it another time with a hiking buddy.

A little further along down the blue trail, there’s an overlook off to the right with a view to the northeast. This is a spot where there’s a log bench and a cairn with the letters L, P and E on the top pyramid-shaped rock, and the acronym (?) SOMA at the base. I still haven’t figured out what this cairn is marking, or what any of the letters mean. Maybe it has something to do with the plane crash, since it’s not far from the wreckage, but I have no clue. I also mentioned this location in my March 11 post, along with a photo of the cairn. Near this spot, I also found some lingering icicles.

Continuing further along on the blue trail, I heard a little rustling in the leaves to my left. Expecting to see a chipmunk, I looked over and instead saw a small snake wriggling along. I’m assuming it was some sort of garter snake, but I’m no expert. It was small, just off the trail, and wasn’t at all interested in me, so I didn’t mind it. Took a picture for my best friend the high-school science teacher, who puts on educational reptile shows for students and organizations.

About halfway down the blue trail, I reached the meadow which offers a clear view of the summit of Gunstock Mountain about a mile away. Ski season being long gone now, but zipline season not yet started, the mountain was quiet.

The rest of the trip down the blue trail was pretty uneventful. I didn’t run into any other hikers while on the trails, although on the lower portion of the blue trail I could hear some people further up the slope on the red trail, heading up to the summit. This was a bit surprising, since I believe the blue trail is the most heavily used. This was also the first time I’ve been on the lower half of the blue trail without snow cover. Seeing it bare, I was now able to appreciate all the hard work the BRATTS volunteers did on the trail last summer. Lots of new cribbing and water bars have helped to repair and prevent erosion on the trail, and the rock step sections make it a very fun hike. (I’m very fond of rock steps, for reasons completely unknown to me.)

Returning to the lower gate at the bottom of the carriage road, there were now several more cars than there were when I arrived. I assume most of these people may have been hiking the Gunstock orange trail, or the red Piper Mountain trail instead of walking all the way up the carriage road to the Belknap trailheads as I did. Being the first day of NH school vacation week, of course there was a mother and her preteen son heading out for a hike as I returned.

In all, this was an excellent hike, and I was glad I took things a little slower to explore and appreciate a little more of the beauty the trails have to offer.

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