12-29-18 Parsons-Crawford Path

Looking west toward the Dartmouth Range in the morning sun from the Crawford Path, near the summit of Mount Pierce. (ED PARSONS PHOTO)

Some winter day hikes easily deserve to be written about every year. The 6.4-mile round-trip hike on the Crawford Path to the summit of Mount Pierce (4,312 feet) is one. It has some special qualities that attract veteran hikers back again and again. For beginners, it is a gentle first winter hike to a Presidential peak.

The gradual Crawford Path — the oldest continuously maintained footpath in the country — is a steady and gentle climb.

The area above treeline on top of Mount Pierce is small, allowing approaching hikers protection from the wind from stunted trees until you reach a trail junction, and climb to the top of Mount Pierce in a few hundred feet. On that small patch of alpine zone, however, the views are superb on a clear day.

For experienced hikers who have been there before, there are many reasons to have Mount Pierce as a goal on a day hike. For example, bringing a less-experienced friend there; going there during extreme weather when you don’t want to spend much time above the trees; or continuing on the Crawford Path to bag Mount Eisenhower as well. The best reason, however, is that you are in the mood to climb Mount Pierce.

The weather was interesting. When I left home in the early morning light, the temperature was in the low 30s, and it felt great to be heading out. However, the Mount Washington Observatory’s forecast was interesting, saying that a cold front would “charge southward” through New England early that morning. On the peaks, there would be gusty winds throughout the day, with temps plummeting towards the teens below zero.

As I drove north, clouds were clearing out in the valley, but they still lingered on the higher peaks, and I decided I wasn’t going to be disappointed if the summit wasn’t in the clear when I got there, probably around 10 a.m.

Later, when I walked through the snow-choked stunted forest below the summit, and then up the tundra to the top, that would be enough of a contrast from daily life.

I drove up through Crawford Notch on Route 302 and just after the AMC Highland Center turned right on the Mount Clinton Road, then left into the Crawford Path parking lot. It was plowed, with a thin layer of wind packed snow, and my car left the first tracks of the morning on it.

I donned my foot traction and headed up the trail, first across the well packed Crawford Connector Trail, then up the historical Crawford Path.

At one lookout above Gibbs Brook to my left, I looked down at a pool with round ice shingles in it, twirling in the current. I had seen this phenomenon a few times before, once in a small cove on Squam Lake.

Climbing upward in the cold, my light jacket with a thin layer of Primaloft insulation was the perfect body cocoon.

In 1.9 miles, I passed the Mizpah Cutoff to the AMC Mizpah Hut. After that, the Crawford Path started traversing the west slope of the ridge at a gentler grade. The trees became choked with snow.

As I approached the trail junction with the Webster Cliff Trail, the stunted snow-covered forest around me became surreal. The other Presidentials to the north were in the clouds, but a dramatic view of the low Dartmouth Range to the west came into view between cloud layers. This snowy range was still glowing with morning light.

With this view came the west wind. But the grotesque snow-covered trees on the trail side still protected me from the full force of it, and I waited until the last minute before the junction to stop and put on a Gortex parka. With double mitts back on my hands, I moved out into the wind and took a right up to the Mount Pierce summit.

In a couple minutes, I was on the top, and after looking at the deep snow ahead on the Webster Cliff Trail, which descended through the stunted forest down to Mizpah Hut, I decided to descend the way I had come up.

I headed back down to the Crawford Path, and the protection of the trees. A quarter mile from the summit I paused to eat something. As if on cue, a gray jay perched in a tree above, hoping for a handout. I took my mitts off for a very brief time to accommodate both of us.

Like they had said earlier at the observatory, the cold front had “charged through” the mountains that morning. Mount Pierce had been an interesting place to meet it.

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