On a mild Tuesday this week, my friend Beverly Woods and I climbed the 3.3-mile trail to the top of Middle Sister (3,340 feet) on the shoulder of Mount Chocorua.
Middle Sister via the Champney Falls Trail is a great intermediate hike that leaves you time to do other things in you busy day, yet is committing as well.
We got to the Champney Falls trail parking lot, located 10.5 miles west of Conway on the Kancamagus Highway at about 10 a.m. and started up the trail.
Leaving “civilization” and entering the forest on a trail is always a return to a calm watchfulness. We soon encountered Champney Brook on our right, and in 1.4 miles turned left on the spur to Champney Falls, arriving there in another 0.2 miles.
I wanted Beverly to experience walking into the wide basaltic dike of Pitcher Falls, so we crossed the brook on rounded rocks beneath a lively Champney Falls and walked into the shadowy dike.
The seasons see such different human activity there. In the winter, the entire length of the south wall of the dike is ice, and many ice climbers converge to hone their skills by top roping there.
Presently, a 20-foot swath of water cascaded down is upper end, and the rest of its length was moist brown verticality. I remembered that an inexperienced person tried to climb it last summer and fell to his death.
Life, death and beauty in the mountains. The leaves shake in the wind, the days come and go, and we return here again and again.
We walked back across the brook to the trail and continued up the steep spur path which reconnects to the main trail further on, admiring more waterfalls as we climbed stone steps.
Back on the main trail, our routine was coordinating breath with the act of ascending. I was glad to have trekking poles, a newer addition to my hiking gear in the last few years.
The trail changed from a relatively smooth path to sharp and shattered rocks that looked like more basalt. Then the switchbacks began as we rose up the side of the mountain.
Looking up, I mentioned that in the winter on this section, one can see through the bare trees all the way up to Middle Sister. Now, the winter seemed only a moment ago.
After a couple long switchbacks, in 3 miles we bore left on the Champney Falls Cutoff and traversed east on the slope. The top of Middle Sister was in another 0.3 miles on this trail. Part way along was an opening where the stunted trees gave way to ledge, and the view west opened up completely.
The profound nature of this view is in the sudden revelation as you walk, and in the pleasant immediate surroundings, where you can sit on a flat rock surrounded by tundra plants and soak it in.
I have a friend that came up here occasionally after he had moved from suburbia years ago. He would come this far, meditate and not bother to continue the short way to the summit of Middle Sister.
But we were going there. We continued and at another junction we bore left and soon wound up the last few feet towards the walls of the old fire lookout on top of Middle Sister. We arrived. The view south of the nearby sharp summit of Mount Chocorua was outstanding.
We settled for lunch on the “steps to nowhere” — all that is left of the building are cement steps, the four stone walls, and a 20-foot deep hole where the cabin used to be.
The lookout has an interesting history. According to Steve Smith’s well-written book “Mount Chocorua, a Guide and History,” the fire lookout on Middle Sister was built in 1927, after efforts by conservation groups to keep a fire lookout off the summit of Mount Chocorua were successful. The Chocorua Mountain Club, AMC and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests raised more than $1,000 to enable forest supervisor Ira T. Yarnall to investigate alternative locations for the tower.
The station on Middle Sister was designed by noted architect C. Howard Walker who had designed his own and several other large summer homes around Chocorua Lake. The base of the lookout was 10-foot high masonry walls, with a cap on top. The low profile was intended to make it unobtrusive from the valley below.
The forest service also made a horse trail slabbing up from the Champney Falls Trail to the col between First and Middle Sisters. Another extension of the horse trail went around the west side of Mount Chocorua’s summit, soon to be known as the West Side Trail.
During World War II, women that tended the fire lookouts in the national forests were called WOOF’s (Women Observers on the Forest). During 1943-44, Elizabeth Sampson of Quincy, Mass., was the lookout on Middle Sister. A ground telephone line next to Champney Falls Trail connected her to the valley. She relished the simple life: “I can pack up all I need for comfort, plus a few luxuries. I can maintain myself with what’s at hand in my simple surroundings- wood, water, food, clothes, everything plain and sufficient for my needs.”
In 1948, the lookout was abandoned.
In 1988, the forest service installed a solar-powered radio repeater on top of the old foundation. But more recently, a large radio repeater unit was flown up there, and sits in a clearing next to the foundation.
Yet the view is so great, one can forgive the technological addition.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about our hike this week. Because of the frequent rain and places to breed, bugs were horrendous. Down below it was mosquitoes, above black flies. The breeze on the summit was not strong enough to curb them. I have never sat on a summit with so many black flies.
So, if you get up on a mountain on a mild windless day soon, head nets are advisable and 100 percent DEET bug dope if you can stand it. Happy hiking.