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
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
Mountain People: Hans (with Stacey, Ollie, and soon-to-arrive Madeleine) [Belknap Mountain, NH 3.21.2021]
And you moved up here?
We’re stationed in Cambridge [with the Navy]. . .[Stacey’s] folks live up in this area so we pretty much relocated up here instead of being in the Boston area.
Any good hiking plans coming up?
Well, we're one month out from having a baby so we’re kinda trying to do some simpler hikes now than we did last year, so we're probably going to be sticking around, staying close to home in this area the next few weeks, and then probably take a break once the baby is born but--I don't know when you can bring a baby up on a hike-- but as soon as we can, we’ll be back up.
Do you have a name picked out for your upcoming child?
Madeleine. Well, we haven’t officially decided but we call her that every day and so it's pretty much done deal.