September 25, 2016: Gunstock-Belknap-Piper revisited

My regular hiking buddy was nursing an injured knee this weekend, so we had to cancel our plans to hike the Wildcats today. But after seeing pictures of the rime ice on the nearby Carter mountains this afternoon, and hearing about how cold and windy it was in the Whites this weekend, that was probably a blessing in disguise. I made an alternate plan last night, which was hiking solo in the Belknap range, revisiting a Gunstock-Belknap-Piper loop (minus the out-and-back to the south summit of Piper) that I last did back in March.

The trail looked quite a bit different than it did in March (when it was covered with ice in several spots close to the summits). Of course, I had been on these peaks and several portions of these same trails throughout the summer, but this is the first time since March that I’ve been to all three peaks in a single hike.

I started off at 7:00 am from the lower gate on the Belknap Mountain carriage road. There was only one other car there when I arrived (and it was still there when I left). Someone else arrived shortly after I did, but I’m not sure which way they were headed. Slightly bundled up in a short-sleeved running shirt, long-sleeved running shirt, and safety-orange fleece jacked, topped with a buff worn as a headband and covered with a hand-knit hat, I started up the back side of Gunstock via the orange trail, on the left side just beyond the gate. It was a little steeper than I remembered, especially once I reached the ledgy section of the trail that can be bypassed using the Winter Shortcut trail. But I love rock scrambles, so I didn’t mind. By this time I had already de-layered, removing the hat and fleece jacket.

In just under an hour, I reached the summit of Gunstock. The upper section of the orange trail, above its junction/merge with the Ridge (white) trail that heads over to Mount Rowe, has received lots of TLC from the BRATTS this summer. Lots of rock steps, drainage, cribbing, and new footbeds have repaired erosion and will prevent further damage. The trail has even been rerouted just below the summit, eliminating the need to hike along the edge of a ski trail to get to the Brook (yellow) trail.

I spent a little time at the summit, at one of the picnic tables on the deck of the Panorama Pub (closed for the season) while eating my snack of cheese and a Slim Jim. After the short 15-minute break, I headed back across the summit and down the Brook (yellow) trail, then took the blessedly short Saddle (white) trail over to the Gunstock/Belknap col. From there, I climbed to the Belknap summit via the blue trail. – just 35 minutes after I left the summit of Gunstock. I was surprised, again, to find that I was the only person on the summit – quite a rare instance for Belknap. I suppose the cold and wind was keeping people away early in the morning. I didn’t stay here very long. It felt a bit colder over here, so I put my fleece jacket back on (and it stayed on through the rest of my hike).

As I headed down from the summit via the merged yellow (East Gilford) and white trails, I snacked on a couple of clementines. Really, hiking is just an excuse to snack all morning! After a brief stretch of trail, the two trails separate; I continued on the white trail to the right. Following the white trail for most of its length, I arrived at the Old Piper (orange) trail, which I followed to the left. It’s a relatively short trail that connects to the Piper and Piper/Whiteface Link trails at the rocky north summit of Piper Mountain.

On the Old Piper trail, I finally met up with another traveler on the trail. However, this one wasn’t human. Actually, a prickly little fellow who was sitting smack in the middle of the trail, facing me, and munching on an acorn. It would have made a cute picture if I could have gotten my phone unlocked in time. Instead, what I got was a nearly as cute video of him waddling away from me. 50 minutes after leaving the summit of Belknap Mountain, I arrived at the north summit of Piper. Still hadn’t seen a single human.

After taking a couple of quick photos at the summit, I headed down the Piper (red) trail, which would return me to the carriage road, by a bridge just above the lower gate and on the opposite side of the road from where I started. After snacking on one more piece of cheese and another Slim Jim (all the while hearing Randy “Macho Man” Savage hollering “Oh yeeeeeah!” in my head), and getting about halfway down the red trail, I finally saw some fellow humans. First, a group of three women (I greeted them by saying, “You’re the first people I’ve seen all day!), then a short while later a man, followed closely by a man and a woman hiking together. Munching on some trail mix, I continued down the rest of the trail without seeing anyone else (until I reached the carriage road). I didn’t even realize how close to the end of the trail I was, when I notice the blue blazes marking the State Forest boundary. Usually when I’m that close to the end, I can hear the stream that flows down the mountain along the carriage road. All I could hear today was an occasional car. Then I heard a dog barking very loudly… and saw headlights, which kind of surprised me (OMG, there’s a truck on the trail!). Nope… it was on the carriage road, just ahead of me on the other side of the stream I couldn’t even hear until it was about 15 yards in front of me. I crossed a wooden bridge over the stream, which was barely more than a two-foot-wide trickle with the drought we’re having, emerged onto the carriage road and walked the short distance to my car, which was now surrounded by a dozen or so more cars since I arrived.

Including my short breaks, today’s hike amounted to 5.22 miles in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Not too shabby – certainly a reasonable pace, allowing enough time to enjoy the scenery without being too slow.

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