On Sunday morning, four humans and a dog set out from the Gunstock Mountain Resort to begin a traverse of the Belknap Range.
They made it about ten paces before someone wondered aloud if they had left the map on top of the car.
A moment (and a map reacquisition later), they continued on their way.
I love this about my hiking family: we show up for adventures and leave our egos more or less at home.
I love this about my hiking family, too: they take great care of my dog.
Our route was essentially that described in this Hike New England post, but we tacked Mt Rowe onto the front end of the hike. That’s relevant because, had I known, I would have opted out or left Lilo at home 10.4 miles and 3,000′ of elevation gain is a big hike for her. Cabot (as we did it) has a similar profile and she was cranky after that one (albeit happy on trail). I figured we’d linger there for a while before adding miles/gain. But there we were in the parking lot and the argument was compelling — adding Rowe means not weaving back and forth across the ski trails — and there are a couple of good bailout options along the way where Lilo and I could have headed down to a trailhead and waited for the others to finish and pick us up, so we went for it.
Reader, we did not use the bailouts.
We did wander through the ski area for a few minutes in search of the trailhead and then began to wander up. The first mile climbed steadily along a dirt-and-gravel road; we waxed poetic about the wonders of nature like that random ditch-digging heavy machinery off to the side. The forecast for the day was mid-50s and sunny, but the morning was all overcast mist. We passed a transformer station and then an EarthScope station atop our first peak of the day, Mt Rowe.
From there, the trail turned wilder. One of the crew had warned me that this portion of the hike was porcupine territory, so Lilo remained on-leash for the first several peaks. She has a good recall and usually checks in with me when she sees woodland critters, but I didn’t want to find out the hard way that porcupines were the exception to that rule!
The Belknap trails — I’d been up our final peak, Major, but not any of the others — are super paw-friendly! We had some New Hampshire rock, of course, but other than that it’s all soft dirt and leaf litter (and mud). A very gentle surface for doggy feet.
Our second peak was Gunstock, home of the ski area that was kindly hosting our cars, and we exploded out of the woods into the open snow — almost directly into what we first thought was a ski patroller meeting (people in ski patrol garb on chairs listening to somebody reading a thing that we couldn’t hear next to a firepit) and then realized while amusing ourselves taking pictures by the summit sign was prooooobably a memorial service. Or an Easter service. We decided to go with an Easter service. I’m sure every Easter service features a bagpiper who plays “Amazing Grace” as the shame-faced hikers slink quietly back down into the woods.
(We felt pretty bad when we realized it wasn’t just ski patrollers hanging out and we did beat as hasty and respectful a retreat as we could. I like to think, though, that even if it was a memorial, anyone who would be memorialized on a mountaintop would appreciate a rowdy bunch of hikers crashing the service with their good time. Here’s to you, whoever you were!)
Next up was Belknap, the tallest peak in the range. Three of our crew ran up the firetower. I started up, but Lilo was trying to follow and I was pretty sure she would not enjoy going back down the steep stairs, so I opted to get stay below with our fourth member. (Lilo historically won’t even attempt open staircases; I was impressed that she started right up.) We moved on again after a snack break. We were promised that it would be all downhill from here, but that turned out to be a vile lie.
In my head, the Belknaps are “little mountains” and compared to, say, the Presis that’s definitely true…but they’re tall enough to still feel wintry (while not being completely encased in unavoidable ice like some mountains I could name). The frost-touched trees in the mist as we descended from Belknap were eerily beautiful.
This traverse is a constant stream of reinforcement; you’re rarely more than a mile away from your next peak! The stretch between Belknap and Klem was the longest of the day and we debated our route for a bit before settling on the shorter, steeper descent down Boulder trail. We were worried that it might still be icy, but I didn’t want to add any more miles onto Lilo’s legs if we could avoid it and the backtrack, if Boulder looked bad when we got there, was short. I’m so glad we went for it! It was the kind of trail I’ve been missing under the snow: a fun scrambly jaunt down broken rock.
This was the point where Lilo decided that maybe she’d rather hike with the longer-legged faster-moving members of our crew.
The boulder-hopping led us straight down to beautiful Round Pond. I’m told the pond is full of beavers and leeches, but it sure is scenic.
So there we were just past Round Pond. The sun was beginning to emerge and we’d spotted the day’s first patches of blue sky and I’d taken Lilo off-leash for the boulder field and thought to myself, I wonder if we’re past the porcupine danger zone? but all seemed peaceful…
…for another, I kid you not, minute and a half.
And then I heard my friends ten paces ahead calling Lilo’s name with Great Urgency.
Because there was a porcupine chilling in the middle of the trail not ten paces beyond them and completely not giving a fuck.
Lilo, bless her, was just standing there, just out of reach of anyone, gazing contemplatively off into the woods and no doubt wondering why all the humans lost their minds. And then she ambled over to me. I gave unto her all the cheese.
With dog safely leashed, we all marveled at the porcupine’s utter badassery. I’ve never seen a critter move back into the woods with such a total lack of concern. Very cool thing to witness in the wild, although I was much happier witnessing it with my dog safely on leash! (We did actually have a vet tech along for the day and I do carry a multitool with wire cutters that could presumably handle spines and Lilo is a pretty accommodating and stoic creature, but I was pretty happy not to have to test any of these resources.)
Crisis averted, we continued on our way.
I want to say a few words here about how nice everybody was to Lilo all day long. She absorbed them right into her pack — she’d met one of the group before, but the other three were new — and hiked with everybody during the day, but often found herself way ahead of me on the scrambly bits. Four-paw drive, you guys: it is a thing. Everybody was super-encouraging, including looking out for her and occasionally giving her a boost. I try hard not to hike with people who don’t basically appreciate a good dog, but I also never expect anybody to take responsibility for her. It totally warmed my heart to see her treated like just another member of our crew, to be embraced and taken care of like anybody else.
And she did great! She got a little muscle-tired in the last third of the hike, but I could only see it when she started needing a little help in the scrambles. Although there was one point in the late going when she and I caught up to the rest — they were standing on a big rock, maybe 4′ high? — and someone asked, “How’s Lilo doing?” and before I could answer, she just walked up the face of the rock to join them — so it was really only a little help! And she started trudging a bit in the final ascent to Major, but only a bit; she’d drop in behind me and trudge and then she’d trot brightly up ahead again. I think the gentle footing and the ridge-walk — a little up, a little flat, a little down, repeat — really agreed with her.
The Belknaps Range really is a special place. We were out on a good-weather day: near-freezing at the start, mid-50s at the finish, blue skies from mid-morning on. We saw only one of person, a cheerful speedy trail runner, in between Gunstock and the summit of Major. Or make that two you want to count the porcupine. I’m told this wasn’t entirely an artifact of hiking on Easter; apparently the in-between peaks are just not a well-traveled place.
The area has a lovely remote, wild feel to it even though you’re never more than a few miles from the road and the landscape is very different than the Whites. Every peak has a view near, if not at, the summit and we hiked along some lovely open ledges, but even on top there were wonderful gnarly old trees instead of krumholtz. Don’t get me wrong; I love me some krumholtz. But this was very different and very special and cool, and now practically in my backyard.
I hiked up Major for the Fourth of July this past summer to watch the fireworks over the lake (and for miles around) with some friends and have had a mental bookmark to get back and check out the rest of the range. I’m not sure why it took me this long, but Lilo and I will definitely be back before another eight months go by!
I did leave my leash on top of Major. So if anybody wants to suggest their favorite hiking leash — or dog pack, for that matter! — I’m all ears. Pack (or harness) needs be useful for lifting/supporting a dog in a scramble if needed; leash needs to clip over my shoulder or otherwise be easily-but-accessibly stashed when not in use.