So, I began organizing a hiking series called “Bumps and Falls.” The concept of Bumps and Falls was a simple one: meet in the morning at a designated trailhead, hike a small mountain and/or waterfall, drive to another nearby trailhead, hike a second small mountain and/or waterfall, and so on—until exhaustion or sunset. The logistical beauty of this system was that it allowed participants with different ability levels and time commitments to get some hiking in and enjoy the company of other hikers but bail out at personally tailored junctures during the day—one could hike for as long as one wanted to. The ascetic beauty of it was in getting to hike a lot of really sweet small mountains that one might otherwise overlook, each of which, standing alone, would be an “easy” hike but cobbled together became a moderate to difficult hike (I even ran a waterfall-only version of this group on the hottest days of the summer—we went from waterfall to waterfall and dunked). I do a lot of this kind of hiking when I’m on my own as well, and I’ve come to call it “Cluster Hiking” (or just “Clustering”).
Cluster Hiking is a bit different than “Traversing” where one is stringing together a bunch of peaks along a single contiguous foot route with a car spot at either end, but shorter traverses can be included in a Cluster mix. It’s similar, but more buckshot and diverse, to what my friend Michael Blair calls “the Daily Double”—hiking two of the shorter 4,000 footer ascents in the same day—but one can throw a smaller 4K peak into the Cluster mix occasionally. It’s also different than Redlining (now called “Tracing” in certain circles) in that Clustering is destination-specific, not trail-specific—but again, one can Cluster and Redline at the same time. It’s also a bit different than doing a 24-hour Ultra list (for instance, the Saranac Sixer Challenge) in that the focus really is on enjoying the ride and seeing new places—but you could ultra-purpose a cluster if that is the kind of hiking you are into. As a variant of Clustering, sometimes I’ll string together a series of small hikes along a linear travel route from Home to Big Mountain Destination. I made good use of this technique one May while travelling the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway to hike in the highlands of North Carolina.
I won’t go into details here—how big or small, or how creatively one Clusters is really a matter of individual preference—and part of the fun in Clustering is in the planning. To plan, one ought to avail oneself of reliable information: print guidebooks and maps, vetted online sources like Trailfinder and Maine Trailfinder (one can use unvetted sources like Alltrails.com—but with unvetted sources there is a certain risk of disappointment and misinformation). For waterfalls, an excellent online source is the World Waterfall Database, with breakdowns by state and GPS coordinates. Below are CalTopo links to some general locations where there is good clustering potential.
I hope you enjoy planning and carrying out your next Cluster Hiking experience! --Paul-William
The Jackson-Conway area of the White Mountains (NH)
The Crawford Notch area of the White Mountains (NH)
The Evans Notch area of the White Mountains (NH + ME)
The Upper Valley of NH and VT (circa Hanover, NH)
The Greater Monadnock Region of NH
The Wantastiquet-Pisgah Highlands of NH & the Brattleboro, VT area
The Lake Willoughby area of VT
The Camden Hills of ME
Southern Oxford County, ME
The Weld Region of Maine
The Moosehead-Katahdin Ironworks Corridor in ME
Acadia National Park in ME
The Keene Valley region of the Adirondacks (NY)
The South Taconic Range & surrounds (southwestern MA, eastern NY, northwest CT)
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!
At this point I’m done with all that and looking for a taste of spring—or at least some snow free ground. If you’re of the same mind, the good news is that there are some really great mountain ranges to hike which melt out a lot sooner than the high peaks (by virtue of being further south, lower in elevation, or because they are covered primarily with deciduous trees).
Here is a list of my favorite relatively snow-free mountain ranges to hike in the Northeast United States during the spring season. Not only will these mountain ranges melt out a lot sooner, they’re scenic, tough, rocky, and rewarding hikes that are worth visiting any time of the year. I briefly list and describe them below but will be following up with an in-depth profile on each range through April and May. (Note that camping options during the spring may be limited until Memorial Day weekend when campgrounds tend to open up, but other forms of lodging are likely to have vacancies and reduced rates in the spring).
1: THE BELKNAP RANGE
Where: The Lakes Region, New Hampshire; about 1 hour south of the White Mountains and 100 miles northwest of Boston.
What: Sixteen (more or less, depending on how you count them) summits, many with dramatic views of Lake Winnepesaukie and more open ledge than you can shake a stick at. Over 60 miles of trail: short, moderate and long loops, and long-distance traverses are possible. There is even a hiking patch challenge associated with completing a traverse of the Belknaps.
Info: AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide and maps. Online Belknap Range map.
2: THE WAPACK RANGE
Where: South-central New Hampshire and adjacent Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of Boston.
What: The 22-mile Wapack Trail traverses this linear mountain range over ten slabby peaks which poke up from dense coniferous and deciduous forests; there are excellent views over the surrounding rural countryside from the summits. Hikers tend to favor either a manageable 10-ish mile partial traverse or the full, difficult long-distance traverse, but there are also short and moderate loop options especially at the north and south ends of the range.
Info: Wapack Range Guide and map, AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide and maps.
The terrain is surprisingly diverse with open ledges, rocky tarns, waterfalls, historic ruins, wetlands, a startling knife-edge arete, and talus slopes.
Info: AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide and maps. Pisgah State Forest map, Wantastiquet to Monadnock Trail maps.
4: THE CAMDEN HILLS
Where: Maine seacoast, 1 hour and 40 minutes north of Portland.
What: Rugged, rocky highlands with many open ledges and precipitous cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and inland lakes. Hikes are clustered around the Camden Hills State Park (6 peaks) and nearby along the Hills section of the Georges Highland Path (4 peaks), and there are several other satellite peaks to do as well. Short, moderate and long loops and traverses are possible; hiking all 13 peaks in the Hills region would add up to a very challenging experience.
Info: Camden Hiking & Biking Map. AMC Maine Hiking Guide, Maine Trail Finder
Hikers often favor single traverses (depending on route, 7-9mi, circa 1,500ft eg) or double traverses (out-and-back) but the extensive, dense network of trails make for nearly unlimited short and long possibilities.
Info: Blue Hills Reservation Map; AMC Massachusetts Trail Guide and maps.
6: THE HOLYOKE RANGE
Where: The Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, near the University of Massachusetts in Amherst; 45 minutes north of Hartford, CT.
What: This unique, deeply fissured line of semi-open volcanic cliffs plunge up to 1,000 feet into the surrounding lowlands of the Connecticut River Valley. The Range offers a long, rollercoaster-tough traverse (about 14mi, 3,600eg), shorter segment traverses, and varied loop options. The New England National Scenic Trail traverses the crest of the range.
Info: AMC Massachusetts Trail Guide and maps, Skinner/Mt. Holyoke Range State Park maps.
Short and long traverses, moderate and extended loops, and overnight backcountry treks are all possible. The Appalachian Trail traverses the east branch of the Range and the South Taconic Trail the west branch of the Range, with many shorter connecting trails between.
Info: AMC Massachusetts Trail Guide and maps, NY-NJ Trail Conference South Taconic Trail Map.
8: THE HUDSON HIGHLANDS
Where: 1.0 to 1.5 hours north of New York City
What: Over 100 miles of trails crisscross the mountains and hills of the Hudson Highlands on both sides of the Hudson River through several state parks, wildlife preserves, and non-profit conservation lands extending from the New Jersey border to the Connecticut border. Same-day or multi-day overnight backcountry trips and varied same-day loops are all possible. The long-distance Appalachian Trail and the Long Path traverse the Highlands. Some of the most dramatic and rugged terrain in the Northeast can be found where the Hudson River has gouged through the Highlands near Storm King and Bear Mountain (ex., the infamous Breakneck Ridge).
Info: NY-NJ Trail Conference maps; ATC Appalachian New York-New Jersey Guide.
Happy snowless spring hiking!--Paul-William