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Monadnock: It's Never Lonely at the Top

Monadnock: It’s Never Lonely at the Top
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Yankee classic from August 1991

Those who first climbed Mount Monadnock for fun in the early 1800s probably went in search of those blueberries of which Thoreau wrote. Hikers today can still scale Monadnock’s slopes and return with buckets brimming with berries. There may be easier places to find that azure fruit, but perhaps none so scenic as Monadnock. When you pause there in your picking to sample the harvest, you see below you New Hampshire’s kingdom, and the burst of berry that moistens your mouth is somehow made sweeter.

Blueberries, though, are certainly not the mountain’s only attraction. Mount Monadnock’s reputation has risen higher than its elevation, but that doesn’t stop southern New Hampshire from championing it as the region’s claim to fame. And with good reason. Monadnock is considered the most climbed mountain in the world. (Until a few years ago, Mount Fuji had that distinction. But since the Japanese built a road to within a few hundred feet of the top, there’s not much “climbing” necessary. It is still the world’s most summited mountain, however!)

Its name, “the mountain that stands alone,” has inspired a geological term. Numerous writers, such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Whittier, have rhapsodized over its beauty, and painters have coated enough canvas with the humpback form to build a tent big enough to cover it. Furthermore, the bare-topped Monadnock ranks as one of only 13 mountains listed in the National Register of Natural Landmarks. Its summit contains alpine vegetation similar to that on Mount Washington, which is twice as high. And Monadnock’s summit is the only place where you can see all six New England states at one time, more than 100 miles in any direction.

Even given that, who’d have guessed that a 3,165-foot peak could draw so much attention to itself? But each year more than 125,000 people make the trek to the bare, rocky summit. Many come because it’s so accessible (located just 65 miles northwest of Boston), so high above everything around it, yet so low that almost anyone can climb it. Most come at the same time and most travel the same trails. Mike Walsh, Monadnock State Park manager, estimates that five percent of each year’s climbers come on the same day. The swell starts with the foliage flush the last weekend in September and the first in October. On Columbus Day weekend more than 6,000 people set out in search of Monadnock’s summit, making it the second-most populous place in Cheshire County – for a day.

“Our mountain is a comfortable little mountain,” Newton F. Tolman from nearby Nelson wrote in North of Monadnock, in spite of the impassioned attempts by so many New England writers to endow it with the awesome majesty of an alp. He s right. Monadnock is the people’s mountain, and with a choice of six trailheads to start from and 36 maintained trails (totaling 40 miles), there’s something for everyone. If you ask, the park rangers (a friendly bunch) will give you a map of the less-crowded trails.

Anyone in reasonably good shape and well-equipped can make the climb. Wear stiff sneakers or hiking boots and carry food, water, and a warm sweater for the summit. Make it easier on the next to come and on the rangers (who pack out an estimated 500 pounds of garbage each year) by taking all you have brought in back out with you.

The shortest way to go (and one of the most popular routes) is the White Dot Trail. It leaves from the park headquarters and makes a direct line to the top in 1.9 steep miles. William Royce laid out the trail in 1900 and is said to have ridden his horse to the summit on this trail. But no horses (or dogs) are allowed on the mountain these days — you’ll have to go by foot. Better allow three to four hours round-trip for the climb.

If you’re not set on reaching the summit, try the Cliff Walk Trail (about two miles long via the Lost Farm Trail from park headquarters). It offers a gradual climb that opens unexpectedly from thick woods onto Point Surprise, a rock outcropping with a spectacular view to the south and east. You’ll pass Thoreau’s Seat, Emerson’s Seat (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s favorite spot), the Old Graphite Mine, and the Wolf Dens. Though wolves did once live beneath fallen spruce on the mountaintop, farmers, frustrated at losing so many sheep, set fire to the peak in the 1820s, burned out the wolves, and denuded the summit for good. Allow four hours round-trip.

The White Arrow Trail on the south side is perhaps the mountain’s oldest trail (set in 1706). It is wide and well worn, though rocky, and climbs steeply at times through yellow birch and spruce woods. You’ll pass over wide stone steps laid by the U.S. Geodetic Survey crews in 1861. “Emerson used to stroll up the south side dressed as though he were walking up Beacon Street,” a local writer noted. Several turn-of-the-century photographs show ladies in long dresses picnicking under parasols on the summit, but you may find your hike less of an elegant occasion. Be prepared to sweat.

If you’d like to see what you and the mountain are made of, the steepest section of trail — 700 feet in half a mile — lies on the Spellman Trail. Despite the steep ascent, it’s not a difficult climb, the guidebook assures you. The spectacular views to the east may make it worth the workout. The Spellman Trail joins the Cascade Link to the Pumpelly Trail, making it a 2.9-mile hike in all from park headquarters to the summit.

“They who simply climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit.” One of the best places to admire the view is at the aptly named Inspiration Rock. (Since no official trail exists to get you there, it would be wise to ask for specific “bushwhacking” instructions from the park staff.) At 2,660 feet, just south of the White Cross Trail, you’ll see a remarkable silhouette of the summit and marvelous views to the east down Mead’s Brook ravine.

If you’re not determined to get to the summit or if you have children along, there are other options. You can camp at the base, where 21 family sites are available year-round (half on a first-come, first-served basis; the other half reservable), and explore the Monadnock Garden Club’s trail within a short walk of park headquarters. There you’ll find some 400 species of wildflowers — turtleheads, arrowheads, asters and 50 fern varieties.

Those who settled the area saw immediately how distracting the mountain’s beauty could be and took the necessary precautions. “Our ancestors who cleared the farms were an austere, pious breed,” Tolman wrote. “They took no chances. Wherever a house had a fine outlook, invariably a huge barn was built squarely in front of it. Plainly, the builders figured the going would be hard enough in this stony wilderness without their womenfolk getting starry-eyed from gazing at Monadnock.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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