Checking in on NH State Parks

Earlier this year, as more people were drawn to outdoor recreation during the COVID pandemic, the most popular New Hampshire State Parks instituted a parking-pass reservation system to prevent overcrowding. Grating though I found the idea at first, I found on a trip to Pawtuckaway that the system seemed to be working. So how’s the reservation system now, more than half a year later?

At this point, only three parks still require advance reservations at least through November 22: Miller (Pack Monadnock), Monadnock, and Pawtuckaway. That leaves dozens of other state parks where there’s no need to reserve a spot in advance.

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View of Mt. Monadnock from Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park. Ellen Kolb photo.

Times being what they are, you might want to pack a mask or wear a neck buff that can be pulled up when needed. Governor Sununu has issued a mask order effective November 20 that includes outdoor masking if 6-foot distancing between people can’t be maintained. Somehow I doubt that enforcement on trails will be a priority, but please don’t take that as authoritative guidance.

Whatever park you choose, may you find respite and refreshment there.

Pawtuckaway: No Crowds Midweek

To call this an odd spring for hiking would be an understatement, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve heeded New Hampshire’s stay-at-home recommendation as much as I can bear, being old enough to be considered more at risk than younger neighbors. I have a homemade mask to wear on my few outings. I’ve Instagrammed and tweeted about #homehikechallenge. I’ve walked lap after lap on neighborhood streets. Boredom finally drove me out to Pawtuckaway State Park, where I hoped the extensive trail network would allow for the social distancing we’re all supposed to observe.

Pawtuckaway State Park, NH

At boat launch, north side of park.

More than boredom got me out the door. I was afraid that state officials might suddenly close down trailheads on state property. The U.S. Forest Service recently did just that in the White Mountain National Forest, citing excessive crowding and a lack of social distancing at trailheads. The WMNF trails are open, but the trailheads and campgrounds are not. (I envision hikers being dropped in via helicopter, but that’s probably against the rules, too.)

For the moment, the state parks are open, with some new restrictions on parking in popular parks like Pawtuckaway. (See nhstateparks.com for details and current information.) On my midweek visit, the restrictions seemed to be effective, with only a couple of dozen cars parked in the lot at the main entrance. Signs were posted in the parking lot and at trail junctions advising visitors to observe good hygiene and stay at least 6 feet away from each other. No problem for me, traveling solo.

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Boat rental area near the Pawtuckaway Lake beach is deserted during “stay at home” recommendation.

The fire tower on one of Pawtuckaway’s three little mountains usually attracts me, but it usually attracts lots of other people, too. Scratch that idea. The black flies were out, and even with DEET I didn’t relish the thought of swatting them away for a few hours in the still air of the woods. Nope. I decided on a breezy route that edged Pawtuckaway Lake: the access road from parking lot to campground to lake, then the Fundy trail northward to the boat launch and back. Jackpot.

Burnham Marsh

Burnham Marsh, late April: things are beginning to green up.

However many cars were in the main lot, I saw only about 20 people during my walk, which covered about 7.5 miles if my trusty MapMyWalk app is to be believed. That’s nothing compared to Pawtuckaway’s usual crowds. The visitor center was closed, and so was the campground and the boat rental station. The lake is usually dotted with kayaks and canoes in the coves, with powerboats making a racket in the open water. Not this time. The peace and quiet, odd at first, won me over pretty quickly.

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Fundy Trail links Pawtuckaway Lake area with north side of park.

My friends and I have been joking about the “COVID 25,” meaning the weight we’re apt to gain with all the baking and cooking we’re doing during enforced time away from our usual activities. I hike for fun, but there’s an element of necessary exercise these days as well. My Pawtuckaway route was flat except for the slightest of inclines near the end, perhaps a couple of hundred feet in the last mile. I took that mile at the briskest pace I could manage without breaking into a jog. The COVID 25 was chasing me.

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Stone walls along the way – after all, this is New England.

I was in a familiar park under very unfamiliar circumstances, feeling ease and unease all at once. It was downright weird to be on those paths with so few people. Inside me is a spoiled child impatiently stomping her foot and demanding that the world get normal again. Yet under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had the lakeshore practically to myself.

I stopped at one point to watch three herons for awhile. No one else was in sight. The solitude suddenly felt right. It didn’t feel imposed on me.

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Glacial erratics are found throughout the park, calling cards of the Laurentide ice sheet from an earlier epoch. Backpack placed at base for scale.

Midweek, Mt. Monadnock

When the Forest Society announced its challenge last year, offering a patch for anyone visiting 33 specified Forest Society properties, I jumped on board immediately. Since then, I’ve had great fun discovering some new trails. Others are already familiar – Mt. Monadnock’s trails, for example.

Monadnock State Park is only one piece of the patchwork of ownership on the mountain. The Forest Society has a reservation there as well. For the most Monadnock hikers, borders between properties are imperceptible.

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The view south from Mt. Monadnock’s Halfway House clearing

On a recent visit to Monadnock, my indifferent level of fitness ruled out a summit hike. I settled for an easy walk to the Halfway House clearing, featuring a wonderful view to the south with Gap Mountain foremost.

The well-marked parking lot on NH Route 124 on the south side of the mountain is where to pick up the Halfway House trail and the parallel Old Toll Road path. (Bring $5 for park admission; there’s an iron ranger when the booth is unattended.) The Old Toll Road is a wide, well-drained boulevard with a packed crushed-gravel surface. Uphill, to be sure, but easy. It leads to a tiny patch of private land with an imposing house on it. Past the house, the boulevard becomes a trail: rocks, roots, spring’s inevitable mud. No problem. The Halfway House clearing, named for an inn that once stood there, is less than a 5-minute walk ahead.

Old Toll Road, Spring

Old Toll Road, mid-spring

I looked up to the summit and saw no hikers. That’s unusual, as local hikers will attest. Normally the summit seen from that distance looks like an anthill.

A cool breeze kept the bugs away on the overcast day. I knew I was likely to be rained on any minute. I didn’t care. Solitude on a Monadnock trail is meant to be savored.

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A peek at Monadnock’s summit from the Halfway House clearing

First Day Hikes for 2017 announced

The folks at New Hampshire State Parks have done their best to get me to break my long tradition of spending New Year’s Day at a 5k race in Temple, which I sometimes followed with a walk up Pack Monadnock. Last New Year’s Days have found me instead at a First Day Hike at Silver Lake State Park, organized by the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation. The program is coming back for another round on January 1, 2017.

Details have been posted  on the State Parks web site about First Day Hikes at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion State Historic Site in Portsmouth, Silver Lake State Park in Hollis, Monadnock State Park in Jaffrey, Weeks State Park in Lancaster, and Wellington State Park in Bristol.

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Signing up for the First Day 2016 hike at Silver Lake State Park in Hollis. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

January doesn’t always make for the best daytrip weather, but it sure would be fun to head to Weeks for a walk up that amazing auto road leading to that amazing fire tower…or maybe to discover Wellington, which I’ve never visited…or I could just stay close to home and go to Hollis as I did last January 1. What a wonderful day that was.

Read the descriptions, pick a spot, and put it on your calendar. I’ll have to give it some thought. My customary 5k in Temple is always fun, but these options are mighty tempting. Come to think of it, Temple is on the way to Monadnock. Hmmm…

 

A good view from any angle

Another submission for the bad-picture-good-hike file:

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One day a couple of years ago, I was trying to set up my camera on a wobbly support and then take a time-delay photo of myself at an overlook. Somehow, the shutter went off before the camera was properly oriented. You know what? I like this picture just as much as the ones from that day that actually came out the way they were supposed to.

Longtime readers who tilt their heads slightly to one side will recognize this as the vista to the east from the Weeks State Park auto road up Mount Prospect in Lancaster, New Hampshire. I have never had a bad day there, not even the day when BB-size hail pelted me for a few minutes on my way down from a visit to the fire tower at the summit.

The mountain that’s shown askew is Waumbek. The rest of the vista is captured in many other photos I’ve taken through the years: the Presidential and Pliny ranges, Mount Martha with its grace-note Owl’s Head, the Pondicherry area. (Search “Weeks State Park” on this site.)

Nearly every visit I’ve made to Weeks has been when the auto road has been closed. Great! That makes walking easier. There are trails up Prospect Mountain, but I like that auto road, and I especially like the overlooks. I’m not the only one. There are area residents who use the auto road for daily walks, weather permitting. If I didn’t live two hours away, I might join them.

Oh, and this is how an intentional shot came out that day. This is Mts. Waumbek and Starr King, with a little bit of the town of Jefferson. Not even a crooked photo could’ve spoiled that day.

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Panorama from Weeks State Park auto road: Presidential Range in the center; Mt. Martha at right. All photos in this post  by Ellen Kolb.

My favorite bad photo

I’m not much of a photographer. When my daughter gave me a digital camera eight years ago and consigned my little plastic 35mm Polaroid to the junk drawer, I soon discovered my favorite aspect of digital cameras: the delete button. No more paying to develop film with 24 exposures but only one picture worth keeping.

Even the bad pictures can bring back good memories, though. This is one of my favorites, taken at Bald Rock on Mount Monadnock about ten years ago.

Bald Rock, Monadnock State Park, NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

Overexposed, lousy lighting, hard to see the intriguing and unexplained inscription on the rock: I didn’t get much right with this shot, except capture a special spot on what is so far the best day I’ve ever spent on Monadnock.

This was the day I realized that I could go to the mountain and not feel like a failure for skipping the summit. I sat by this rock and ate my lunch in regal solitude. I felt absolutely no need to join the crowd I saw on the peak above me. With a breeze and a view and a PB&J, I had everything I needed.

Trips to Monadnock don’t always work out that way for me. Last time I went, I kept moving up the Pumpelly trail despite a sore knee. The pain finally got so bad I had to turn around, hobbling slowly downhill, not getting to my car until well after sundown. On another day, a beautiful December afternoon, I dawdled on the summit and figured I’d make up some time on the descent. Bad move. I lost my footing, fell down hard, and slid on my back headfirst, certain that I was going to crack my skull on a rock. Instead, my backpack took the hit, which was more luck than I deserved. (Learn from my mistakes, folks.)

I’ve had good days to offset those misadventures. The day at Bald Rock beats them all.