If hiking was a lifelong dream, what kept you from it earlier?
Some family issues kept me from doing it. But I reached a certain point in my life where I was wondering "what am I waiting for?" so I just decided to go buy some equipment and go do it. . . because none of us know how long we’re going to be here, none of us know how long we’re going to be on the planet.
And how does it feel now that you're doing it?
Amazing, absolutely amazing. This is my salvation, this is my church. It's where I find peace. I'm really glad to be out here.
North Pack Monadnock (south-central New Hampshire), 2,276 feet, occupies the northern-most crown position on the linear, 20-mile Wapack Range. The “Pack” in Pack Monadnock is supposedly a Native American language term (more likely a corruption of one) for “little” to distinguish the two Pack Monadnock peaks from their higher and more famous neighbor to the west, 3,165 foot Mount Monadnock (also called Grand Monadnock). North Pack’s sister peak, South Pack Monadnock (2,290 feet) is located just to the south of North Pack and sports a summit fire tower. The Wapack Range and the Wapack Trail derive their shared name from a mashup of “Watatic” (the name of the mountain which occupies the southern foot of the Range) and “Pack.” The entire range is truly sweet hiking, with many surprising ledges tucked along ridge crests studded with spruce trees—an airy, remote ramble reminiscent of the craggier subalpine summits in the White Mountains further to the north. This juxtaposition of southern latitudes and northern ecology makes the mountain rich in biodiversity. North Pack is mostly enclosed and conserved within the Wapack National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
North Pack is popular but not nearly crowded as Grand Monadnock can be. Hikers who bring dogs with them often choose North Pack as a substitute for higher Grand Monadnock where dogs aren’t allowed (park rangers at the latter mountain often exile disappointed hikers to North Pack, knowing it will cheer them up).
Our loop (7.5 miles/ 1,990 e.g.) began and ended on Ted’s Trail (trailhead on the east side of Mountain Road in Greenfield. You can follow our route ("most scenic route") on the map below and peruse the photo gallery of our trip.
The Pawtuckaway boulder field is something to behold--it ranks up there with some of New England's most profound boulderscapes (Smuggler’s Notch, Carter Notch, Mahoosic Notch, etc.) in terms of its sheer number of boulders and its general bouldery goodness. Besides the boulders, one can hike up the three peaks of the mountain, as I did: South Mountain (908 feet), Middle Mountain (800ft) , and North Mountain (1,011ft). Don't let the low elevations fool you--Pawtuckaway makes up for it in a generosity of ruggedness.
South Mountain hosts a well-curated fire tower and many open ledges and is a fine short hike in its own right. The out-and-back trail to Middle Mountain is an uninspiring woods road but there is a sweet, sunny ledge at the end of the trail (with a cameo of the South Mountain fire tower) and Middle Peak gets less visitation than the other two peaks. North Mountain is blessed with an excellent array of ledges and overlooks; its north slope plunges into a part of the boulder field colorfully known as the Devil’s Den. Amidst the fantastic mess of ledges and boulders in Pawtuckaway are nested a number of attractive ponds and wetlands. Round Pond, with its many lazy rock outcrops, is perhaps the most scenic of the park's water bodies.
A glance at a topographic map of Pawtuckaway reveals the mountain's unusual, graceful symmetry, a product of its past as a volcano--the great tooth of it worn down by the eons into an almost perfectly circular series of rocky stubs (in geologic terms, a "volcanic ring-dike"). Rim-to-rim, the old core of Pawtuckaway is about a mile across (there is also a smaller inner ring). Volcanic cores aren't unusual mountainforms in New England, but so few are well preserved in their original molten design as Pawtuckaway is. Even the continental ice sheet--which took its colossal wrecking ball to the north rim of the old volcano, tearing out a million boulders and strewing them like primitive toys below--hasn't ruined the pleasing topography of it.
To get to the start of my hike, I parked at Reservation Road, entering from Tandy Road in Deerfield, NH (amidst a comedy of Covid-era signs from the locals: "your GPS is wrong, go home" ). Parking does fill up fast—on sunny weekends it's wise to get there bright and early (don't even bother trying the limited north parking area on Round Pond Road—you won't beat the rock climbers vying for spots). Making the grand loop over South and North Mountain is pretty straightforward (South Mountain Trail to Boulder Trail, to North Mountain Trail and back to start) and a worthy loop, but squeezing in Middle Mountain, which is serviced only by a dead-end trail, requires some gymnastics (I cheated with a bushwhack shortcut). Shorter loops to just the North or South Mountain are also possible, and longer routes can be had from the park's lakefront entrance to the east at Pawtuckaway Pond (busy in summer) where there is also a campground. There are over 30 miles of trail in the park, including foot paths and woods roads. Some of the woods roads are multi-use trails--expect to see mountain bikers and in winter, snowmobilers. Although it was too early to try during my March visit, I suspect that Round Pond is a good place for a dip on a hot summer day.
See the gallery below for more photographs of Pawtuckaway. I hope you will visit this fine bouldery wonderland of a mountain!
Random Group of Hikers organizer Cesar Hernandez talks about his changing interests in the outdoors, backpacking, hot tent camping, and hiking and camping as a multi-generational experience.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You grew up in Venezuela. Did you hike there, or did you start hiking after you moved to the United States?
CESAR: Growing up I did few but amazing hiking trips in Venezuela. I hiked the Roraima which is a table-top mountain between Venezuela and Brazil. I went with my dad three times when I was between 16 and 20 years old. Those trips really cemented in me a love for nature and the physical exertion of hiking. I also hiked the Avila multiple times which is a 9k+ mountain in Caracas. During my time in Venezuela, my main activity was mountain biking but not hiking.
When I moved to the US, I started eating a lot of fast food and pretty soon I put on some weight. I started running, and later trail running. In 2013 I was running ultras. I ran around ten 50k races and two 50 mile races. Sadly, in 2014 I tore my ACL. This was a very long recovery, and during my recovery process I picked up hiking as a way to get back to running at some point. I fell in love with hiking and never looked back. I found an amazing group of hikers (Random Group of Hikers) that have taught me and helped develop my hiking skills over time.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I understand you also do a lot of backpacking and camping, even in winter, and you have got into “hot tent camping.” What appeals to you about backpacking, winter camping, and can you explain what hot tent camping is and why you like it?
CESAR: I have always liked going backpacking. In 2018, I hiked the John Muir Trail (which is the longest trail I have hiked) and I loved every part of it. There is something magical about backpacking, it makes you realize how little you actually need to get out there and be happy. All you have to do is eat, sleep and hike. Few years ago, I backpacked in winter for the first time and I was very cold. I thought it was not for me and did not do it anymore until recently. In November last year, I did a week class on mountain living in Maine. During that time, we learned a lot of things about living in the backcountry and hot tenting was introduced to me. Traditionally, it has been done by hunters for a long time, but more recently, campers have adopted it as a way to stay comfortable outside during winter. You basically put a wood stove inside your tent. There are many companies that make light stoves and light hot tents. Light enough to bring in a sled. So I placed an order for one. It was one of the best things I have done, because now my wife Vanessa can come with me and enjoy camping in winter.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me more about sharing this experience with Vanessa and your children. What is it like for them?
CESAR: I started taking Vanessa camping in winter because we had a hot tent. A month later I convinced her to come with me on a regular winter backpacking trip. I think the secret is to have enough experience and pick a good day so anyone that is getting introduced to it can have a good trip. I think that’s key if you want to bring someone that is just experiencing it for the first time. My wife has loved the few trips in winter we have done together. In my case, I am willing to be uncomfortable, it’s part of the fun. With my kids, since they are babies, we have taken them car camping. We have a really big tent to make sure we have enough room inside for them. One of my goals with my kids is to expose them very early to camping and nature so they see camping as normal and continue loving the outdoors as I do. I have met many adults that think car camping is super adventurous, and I want my kids to see it as a normal, regular weekend.
This winter, I did a winter trip pulling a sled near Flat Mountain Pond in NH. The place is beautiful and the trail to get there is pretty easy. My wife and I are planning to take my older daughter there this summer for her first backpacking experience. She will be 4 years old by then, and our plan is for me to carry everything, and my wife will bring one of those backpacks that can carry a child in case my daughter gets tired. I am sure we will have many car camping trips this summer as we usually do. While hiking the JMT, I saw a few families hiking the entire trail. I cannot wait to do this trip with them when they are old enough.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You mentioned that your dad took you on hiking trips when you were living in Venezuela. What is the most important thing you learned from those trips with your dad? Do you have any plans to hike with your dad again soon?
CESAR: My dad lives in Venezuela and he comes every other year. Every time he comes, I take him hiking. He still loves to be connected with nature even though we did not hike as frequently as we could when I was living in Venezuela. I believe that if my dad never took me backpacking the Roraima when I was teenager, I might not have developed the love for the outdoors I have today. The experience from our hikes is what drives me to expose my own kids to nature. I believe connecting early with nature is important to understand and appreciate the outdoors. I am expecting my dad to come this summer again (depending on COVID restrictions). If he is able to come, I would love to bring him to the Presidentials in New Hampshire, and hopefully do a backpacking trip so we can spend some dad-son time together.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What was one of your best/ most satisfying hiking experiences, and why?
CESAR: The most amazing trip I have done is the John Muir Trail (JMT). As I was l working, I had to rush my trip and completed the 240+ miles in 15 days. I was able to enjoy every second of my hike, but I want to come back and go slower and hopefully with my kids. For anyone wanting to do it, I would definitely recommend they do it in not fewer than 23 days. On the JMT, you go over four national parks and the scenery is out of this world. For people living in New England, you often have to get above treeline to get amazing views but the JMT offers you days and days of never-ending amazing views.
Photo credits: Cesar Hernandez