The foliage is in full flower, and what better way to celebrate it than to return to the classic White Mountain hike: Mount Willard (2,800 feet) at the head of Crawford Notch.
Thursday, I met my old friend Donna Atkins and her dog Bear in Glen and we headed up Route 302 towards Crawford Notch with the 1.6-mile Mount Willard Trail as our destination.
I hadn’t seen the full foliage in the heart of the mountains yet this fall, so it was a true pilgrimage to drive up through Crawford Notch. It was mostly cloudy with patches of blue, and the lack of glare made the yellow and red colors jump out of the steep slopes of Mount Webster and Mount Willey as we glided through the notch.
There was a buzz of activity at the Crawford Depot, even though the AMC’s Macomber Family Information Center was closed for the season. It must have been like the old days, when Crawford House guests and visitors awaited a train.
We crossed the railroad tracks, started up the Mount Willard/Mount Avalon Trail and soon turned left towards Mount Willard.
Bear, an exceptionally large 14-year-old German Pomeranian, had recently been trimmed, and on his long leash looked exactly like a bear cub. There were many people on the trail, and all were intrigued by him.
When you climb the Mount Willard Trail, you inevitably wonder what it originally looked like and the gradual changes since. This is part of the recent human history of the top of Crawford Notch.
Thomas Crawford was the proprietor of the Notch House, built just north of Elephant Head at the height-of-land in 1829. Later, he built the first Crawford House, which soon burned. He built the first carriage road to the top of Mount Willard. A one-horse wagon called a "shay" would become a common mode of transport to the summit.
The Crawford House was quickly rebuilt. Tourism blossomed in the late 1800s. The carriage road up Mount Willard became a toll road and on one summer day in 1878, a record 165 people ascended it (likely broken regularly today).
Burros became another popular way to ascend the road, appropriate for young and old, and soon after World War I, "burromobiling" up Mount Willard was popular.
For a time during Franklin Roosevelt's term, cars could actually drive to the summit of Mount Willard. Later, as demonstrated in many areas of the White Mountains, the forest would recover quickly from heavy use, and return to a semblance of wildness, though today that can include a stream of hikers.
But on our Thursday hike, we enjoyed greeting people on our way to the top. Atkins frequently acknowledged to hikers that her dog looked like a bear cub and was named Bear.
The trail veered east then straightened out towards the top. We passed a few old cement culverts across it from the old days, exposed by erosion.
Sometimes, you can see an upcoming vista from a trail, and the Mount Willard Trail has one of the most dramatic as you look up a tunnel through the trees to a round opening of bright light. A dramatic view is assured unless it is socked in on top.
Which it wasn’t. We walked out on top of the south facing 500-foot cliff. The view south of the U-shaped Crawford Notch in full foliage was eye candy we had earned by the hike up.
It is a view that has been traditionally used in geology texts. Like Pinkham and Franconia Notches, Crawford Notch is the location of a fault line. It is the dividing line between Conway granite and the Rangeley Formation, which is a metamorphic mica/schist.
As this fault formed 250 million years ago, it weakened the rock at that transition, making it more susceptible to erosion and forming a ragged notch.
The most recent glacier, the Wisconsin Ice Sheet (75,000 years ago to 11,000 years ago), effected both Mount Willard and the notch. As it spread south it rose up the north side of Mount Willard, lubricated by a layer of water beneath.
This seeped into cracks in the rock, froze and expanded, loosening the rock. On the south side of the mountain, this rock was plucked away as the ice moved over it, causing the steep cliff there today.
The ice of the glacier was pliable and plastic. So much so, that you could compare the moving glacier to a faster process, like pouring tar on a roof — the tar spreads out in a thin layer from the thicker point where you pour.
The thinner tongues of the ice sheet sought the way of least resistance and poured down into all the notches, including Crawford Notch. This started the scouring process.
The main glacier followed and covered all of the White Mountains. So, the ice in the notches was present the longest, and it continued to scour them as the glacier moved south.
We lingered a while on the crowded summit and headed down. At the Crawford Depot, a long train from the Conway Scenic Railroad had arrived. Later, dramatically descending into the notch on our way home, the colors were even more spectacular.