September and October are my favorite months in New England, so we were lucky to start this monster list on one of those iconic, picture-perfect fall days; full sun and cool, dry air with no bugs. It’s doubtful that we’ll get lucky enough to have this kind of weather on all of our trips, especially since Mt. Washington is claimed to have the worst weather in the world.
The Hancocks are a pair of quasi-isolated, close-in-elevation peaks that lay along the southern edge of the 45,000-acre Pemigewaset Wilderness, a large tract of land to the southwest of the great Presidential Range that encompasses headwaters of the Pemigewasset River. We picked the Hancocks for our first hike in this series because the 6.2-mile, semi-loop route was a perfect day-hike for two doughy city dwellers like us.
We made our start at Hancock Overlook, the paved parking area perched atop a hairy hairpin turn a few miles to the east of the Kancamagus Highway’s crest. We had mixed feelings about gathering up our hiking gear and once again heading back into the woods. On the one hand, we were thrilled to be back in the mountains on such a lovely day. On the other, neither of us was feeling particularly confident about our trail skills since the last time we were in the Whites. This is a story for another time, but involves cold rain, lumberjack gear, a botched climb up Mt. Garfied, a soggy tent, cold food, and a marriage proposal. How’s that for a hook?
Our “climb” began on the Hancock Notch Trail. “Climb” because these first 1.8 miles follow a smooth, barely noticeable “uphill” grade that gently edges toward busy North Fork to the northeast. We left the Hancock Notch Trail to make a sharp left and follow the Cedar Brook Trail northwards for 0.7 miles. Here, the trail got just a bit rougher and now, right alongside North Fork, we followed the creek closely, plunging across it a few times at mid-calf level. We went in with shoes on.
April once lost a toe-nail in Montana after crossing a stream barefooted on the brain dead advice of her now-husband. Rock hopping wasn’t really an option today. We’d had a few days of hard rain prior to our trip which sunk the smaller hoppable rocks made the prospect of dry feet for the day an impossibility. Even if we had managed to make the crossings without getting in the water, we would have undoubtedly gotten soggy in the ponds that filled a few sections of trail. It probably was for the best. Once feet are wet, getting them wet again isn’t really much of a big deal. You just walk through the puddles and don’t need to waste time engineering or ninja-moving a way over them. (We almost never walk around them–that just widens the puddle and worsens the trail).
Our trail took us through stands of the ubiquitous Eastern Hemlock, Spruce, and smatterings of Red and Silver Maple, White Birch, and even a tiny stand of Larch. The expected stunting of trees and the thinning of the latter, leafy trees started as we approached the Hancock Loop Trail and continued as we merged onto this trail and followed it towards the twin summits.
After crossing North Fork for the (second-to-last?) time, passing by a grassy picnic area, the gentle trail took on, briefly, a more rugged appearance as the roots and dirt we had been padding across became strewn with big boulders housing a small feeder creek of North Fork. Our trail soon leveled out however, and climbed still gently until coming to a fork just below both peaks.
From here, we could look up and see that we had come most of the distance, but still had plenty of climbing left to go as Mt. Hancock stuck out far above the trees to our north. Choose your own adventure–at this fork, we could turn left and ascend steeply to Mt. Hancock, looping around to bag South Hancock, then descend steeply back to the fork. Or we could go the other way around. We took the former option.
I suppose no hike in the White Mountains is complete without encountering some section of trail where having wings is more helpful than having feet. We ascended, nearly straight up, to summit our first WM4K peak as a couple. This was time-consuming due to our aforementioned doughiness, but we made it and enjoyed a southward view of the Oscelas, Tripyramids, distant Mt. Passaconaway, and very closeby South Hancock. We joined a solo hiker who showed us how birds will eat nuts out of your hand up here. Very neat to watch,
but if he was going to give away cashews, we would have rather him given them to us. We munched away on radishes with hummus and fluffernutters with slices of green apple. You cringe, new englander, and I don’t blame you. But April is a Texan and therefore the fluffernutter is as foreign to her as injera bread. In both cases, however, the right thing to do is not to mess with them. They’re just fine as-is.
Our view off South Hancock was a not quite as grand. We scrambled down to a lookout point and caught an unobstructed southeasterly view of smaller hills and bald, far-off Mt. Chocorua. We had an obstructed view of a later objective, Mt. Carrigain, very closeby and to the northeast. The way down was as steep as the way up until once again reaching the fork, knees shaking a bit from too much marbling and sedimentation on the couch. We retraced our steps and splashed back to Hancock Overlook, our car the last one in the lot with a few minutes to go before dark. 6.2 miles, 9 hours, and a pretty good time. Coffee and burgers on the way home.
|Peak||Elevation (ft)||Completed?||Blog Link|
|Hancock||4,420||Hancock, South Hancock|
|South Hancock||4,319||Hancock, South Hancock|