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!
Elephant, on the other hand, just lurks, wooly with fir trees, hunching over its smaller neighbors. On that account alone it could very well be called Wooly Mammoth or just Mammoth. The mountain’s only claim to notoriety is its height—just enough to qualify for inclusion in New England's 100 highest peaks portfolio (at #98). If not for the list, the only people who might visit it would be foresters, loggers, hunters (none likely going as far as the summit), and an occasional wildlife biologist conducting research on Canada lynx or pine marten.
Skid trails continue further up the mountain, and from there several herd paths choices continue the rest of the way (the herd paths are tricky to parse in deep snow). In summer, the round-trip hike is 6-ish miles; in winter between 7 and 9 miles depending on approach. The primary logging road is located off South Arm Road, (a good gravel public way) about 8 miles north of Andover.
I chose to do Elephant in winter when the evidence of logging was buried in deep snow and the thinned, frost-capped saplings made for idyllic, postcard scenery. It took me two trips: the first, a late-start solo, breaking trail through knee-deep and deeper snow to 3,400 feet, and the second (with a few friends) going the rest of the way. For the second trip, I brought my skis and made good time both up and down the logging roads.
Scar Ridge, 3,774 feet, is probably the most notorious of the New England 100 Highest summits—by reputation a trailless, viewless, devil’s obstacle course of blowdown fir trees, cliffs, and doghair spruce thickets. The bad reputation harks back to the pre-social media/ smartphone GPS era, when people who hiked it relied primarily on map and compass and the war stories hikers told other hikers, word-of-mouth, about their attempts.
That reputation has stuck with the mountain over the years, persisting today despite blog posts rife with step-by-step photos, freely shared GPS tracks, a safety-orange PVC summit cannister, a somewhat beaten-out herd path, and (as we found during our recent ascent) plastic flagging tied to trees (more on that later). As is true for any bushwhack, ascent strategy, and the obstacles and opportunities that lie in wait along the chosen route, play a role in determining what species of “fun” one has. There are indeed truly hellish ways to ascend Scar.
During our recent trip in December of 2020, we intended to avoid as much hell as possible. But we wanted to hike it in winter which (as you’ll see) added some unusual twists to our strategy.
Scar Ridge presents a bold 2.5-mile long east-west skyline, a topographic extension of trail-tamed but higher Mount Osceola to the east from which it is separated by the deep-plunging notch of East Pond-Cheney Brook, a wooly rift scoured out by glacial ice sheets thousands of years ago. To the west of Scar, the ridge drops 1,000 feet then continues as the well-known but lesser summits of the Loon Mountain Ski Area. Another sub-peak, Black Mountain, extends northerly from Scar toward the Kancamagus Highway. Visible from said Highway, and in no small way adding to the scenery of that drive, are a series of precipitous slab-slides which glint icily in the sun—the “Scars” that give the ridge its name and lend it a forbidding aspect. The entire ridgeline is crowned with evergreen balsam fir, a common holiday Christmas tree variety, tame in the home covered with tinsel and ornaments, but when left alone on the mountaintops undergoes a malevolent transformation into tangled chaos. To be fair, tangled is a just complaint but chaos is not—there is a true natural pattern to it called a “fir wave”, and Scar Ridge is one of the finest places in the White Mountains to experience the beauty (and abuse) of such a phenomenon.
Fir waves. Close-up view (above) of fir wave on Scar Ridge and (below) on North Brother in Baxter State Park showing the characteristic wave pattern over a broader area. Images © Google Earth
What happens in a fir wave is this: as a group of fir trees mature and become higher and heavier, they also become more exposed to the fierce winds that sweep across the mountain tops. The wind desiccates and weakens the trees; eventually the strength of the roots to hold the weight of the trunks against the force of the wind fails, and the trees tumble down like jackstraw dominoes in huge, linear patches in the direction of the prevailing wind. This exposes the next patch of mature trees downwind, and it isn’t long before they start tumbling too. Meanwhile, fir saplings waiting patiently below the canopy, barely eking out inches of growth over decades, suddenly surge up like bean sprouts as the older trees collapse. Fir grows fast when it has sun, and the saplings all mature at nearly the same rate. When they reach too high the process starts all over again. If you were to look at the phenomenon under a time-lapse of centuries it would seem as graceful as a gust of wind blowing through a wheat-field, the wheat flattening, rising, then flattening again. And in aerial imagery of some of New England’s higher peaks, that wave-like pattern does indeed leap out to the naked eye in beautiful ruin.
But the ski area has recently tightened its winter “uphill policy”—hiking up the ski slopes costs a thievish $30 dollars per head and you are only allowed to go as far as Loon’s west summit, not all the way to North Peak. You aren’t permitted to hike down either—you either have to ski (lugging your skis up first) or take the lift down (which disqualifies you from earning your New England 100 Highest creds). So we weren’t going via the ski area. The “other sane way” (according to social media this is what most hikers do in winter) is to bushwhack up from the Kancamagus to northeast via the east bowl of Black Mountain through mixed terrain, pick up a bootleg ski trail on the ridge, and then the herd path. The trouble with this route is it involves a major river crossing. The river was high at the time of our hike and not frozen over.
So we did something different, using aerial imagery to work it out. I enjoy looking at aerial imagery of trees and trying to read the story their crowns are telling me—a skill I picked up during my career in land conservation, one that, before airplanes and photography, only birds excelled at. Scrutinizing aerial imagery of Scar (courtesy of CalTopo) I could see that the fir waves at the ridgeline look like a box of toothpicks scattered by giants. Active waves were less pronounced on the north and west side of the Scar, and very pronounced on the south and east sides. I could also see that the tree canopy on the west side of Black Mountain (sub-peak of Scar) was mostly deciduous trees with moderate to large crowns—which probably meant open woods and easier walking. And I could see that one could bushwhack in behind the condominiums to the east of the ski area (gaining a little elevation boost at start), slab the bowl the west side of Black Mountain, push through some denser spruce trees at steep terrain just before the ridge, and then pick up the known herd path at the base of Scar.
What the aerial imagery didn’t show was the steep bootleg glade ski trail that descends from just south of the Black-Mountain-Scar Ridge col. We bumped into this trail and were able to use to get up a lot faster (I am curious about the history of this trail—if anyone knows, please share). Along the way we got to see an interesting balanced boulder, and we found a nice view of the Scar Ridge’s scars waiting for us at the top of the slope. A little past that is another view looking westerly toward the ski area. Since there was little snow on the ground at the time (most of it had melted off in a big rain storm the week before) we also took a detour at the start of the herd path to a narrow view ledge looking south (another aerial image discovery).
the first visitors to an alien planet. To me, the flagging was another theft of that primal hiking experience, a further taming of what was not meant to be tamed.
The last tenth of a mile of herd path meanders through the fir wave at the top of the mountain, a god-fist smashed place it seemed, primitive and ice-agey, inhuman except for the bright orange PVC summit register cannister piggybacking a forlorn tree. It was frozen shut and we could not open it to sign our names. And that didn’t seem wrong.