It's almost as though we could feel fall in the air! Youngest son and I felt the cool crisp air when we awoke and set off for the St. Hubert's parking area at the Ausable Club in Keene (see Colvin/Blake report for more details on this area). We were going to spend this day together, just the two of us, hiking. We left the parking area at 6:30, signed in at the AMR gate 15 minutes later and started the walk on the Lake Road. By 7 a.m. we were already at the HG Leach trail for the hike to Dial.
Well, technically, you don't go to Dial right away. First you have to hike up the shoulder of Noonmark. Then go down and up and over Bear Den. THEN go down and up Dial. So as we started the climb we were both kind of thinking maybe we weren't in the mood for this today. Just a lackluster start. Don't know why. But we plugged along. We didn't see anyone on the trail. As we got higher up though, we did see very fresh deer tracks in the mud right in the center of the trail. We were very intently following these tracks, and I said to my son, "I wouldn't be surprised if something popped out of the woods." I turned around and there was a solo hiker not 2 feet behind me. He scared me! I'm embarassed to say I screamed! I have NEVER done this before on a hike. My scream caused my son to scream - in restrospect it was pretty funny. He just came up on us so quietly and we were so not paying attention. He mumbled a quick "hi" and moved past us. We chuckled about it for quite a while. In any case, it woke both of us up and changed our whole demeanor for the day. Just the adrenaline boost we needed!
By 8:30 we reached Noonmark's shoulder. This marked the 3 mile point in the hike, which was evidenced by the sign at left. There's a nice little rock on which to rest, snack and take pictures. My advice, however, is to wander around a little to the right of the rock for clearer shots of the Great Range. And then go just past the rock as if you're already heading toward Bear Den because there's an even nicer place to stop. This area was cleared by a fire in 1999 that was only completely extinguished by Hurricane Floyd the same year. There are still charred remains and trees that turned white, but there seems to also be a nice growth starting up again in the area. On the plus side, it made for a nice clearing.
After 15 minutes of "refueling", we hit the trail toward Bear Den. Bear Den is the first peak in the foreground of the picture to the right. In the middle is Dial and in the back to the left is Nippletop. As you can imagine, lots of up and down climbing on this hike. I had read you had to go over these peaks on the way to Dial and Nippletop, I just didn't expect them each to be quite so large!
We ascended the side of Noonmark and when we started up Bear Den we could see hikers back on the shoulder. We yelled, "Hello hikers" and could see them looking in our direction, but we were hidden in the trees. We hit Bear Den's summit in about 50 minutes. It's completely enclosed in trees. The only way you know it's the summit is that there's a small spot free of trees in which to sit, and there are signs on both sides - one pointing toward Dial, the other back to Noonmark. We took a 5 minute water break and began the 1.3 miles over to Dial.
I think this might have been the toughest part of the hike for me. My legs were getting tired and yet another descent/ascent was starting to annoy me! We made it to Dial's summit in just over an hour. The summit of Dial was just a big boulder. Again, the tipoff that we were at the summit was a sign pointing back toward Bear Den/Noonmark/Lake Road and another that just said "Nippletop" with an arrow. I had read some old information about Dial that said there was some debate as to the "true summit" because there was a north and south summit. I don't know which we were on, but we never saw anything we thought could be construed as another summit. So we climbed up on the rock and were immediately joined by a French Canadian couple, who graciously took our picture. This peak marked #30 for me and #20 for my son. Dial is the 41st highest of the High Peaks at 4,020 feet.
We ate our first sandwiches here, took some pictures and soaked in the beautiful day. The view from this spot was incredible, as you can see from the summit picture. We had clear shots of the Great Range and could even see Cascade and Whiteface in the distance. Before too long, the little boulder became crowded. We were joined by a hiking family of parents and their 5 kids, who ranged in ages from maybe 8 to 14 or 15. It turns out they were the people we called to on our way over. We chatted for a while and set off for Nippletop at 11:05. It was 2.1 miles further.
I had read that the trip over to Nippletop from Dial was less strenuous than the first part of the hike and it was. At some points it felt like we were walking along a ridge. This is not to say we still didn't have some steep sections of climbing. A few times we passed and were subsequently passed by a man and his teenage son. Eventually, the son ended up with my son up ahead and his dad and I hiked together at middle age speed! Because the incline was moderate to steep, we were actually able to carry on a conversation. The trip over took me an hour 22 minutes. My son thinks he was waiting about 5 minutes or so before I arrived.
Again I was surprised by the summit. In this case, it was much smaller than I'd expected. I had read the views from Nippletop were incredible, almost 360 degrees, provided a close up look at Dix, etc. So I did not expect just 2 big rocks in the forefront with another big rock behind on which to sit. Dix was behind us and somewhat through the trees, as was Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge. The views, however, did not disappoint. I'm not even sure how many High Peaks we were looking at, but I do know Blake and Colvin were right in front of us, Haystack, Skylight, Saddleback, the Great Range, and Marcy were behind them and again, off to the right in the distance were Cascade and Whiteface. It was awesome! Peaks #31 and #21 for us!
Originally, the name Dial was actually assigned to Nippletop but Old Man Phelps objected to giving Nippletop a name other than the one he had given it. His name has to do with the contour of the mountain, which is more obvious from some vantage points than others. As you can imagine, not everyone in the 19th century was pleased with his choice of names! Nippletop is #13 in order of height, at 4,620 feet.
This summit got crowded in a hurry. We were full to capacity with about 15 of us there. Again, the hiking family joined us. We ate more food and took lots of pictures. I think I could have stayed there for another hour or more. What a great spot in the sun. But, keeping an eye on the time, we decided we needed to get moving at 1:15, after a few quick photos off the back side of Dix (see photo above), Giant and RPR.
Within 10 minutes we were at the split that would take us down to Elk Pass, rather than going back up and over the mountains we climbed to get there. At 1:25 we began the 1.0 mile descent to Elk Pass. This part of the hike was very steep with some larger rocks to hop down. I remembered reading this, and was glad we had opted not to come up this way.
After an hour we reached a campsite, with a large pond through the trees behind it. We assumed we were at Elk Pass, but were surprised that this otherwise well-marked hike did not have any signs. The trail curved sharply to the right, and there was a side trail off of that. We kept on the main trail, which wrapped around the other side of the pond, went up two small sections of ladders and then seemed to start to climb. We thought we had made a mistake, so we backtracked to the side trail only to discover it didn't really lead anywhere. By now the hiking family had caught up to us so we put our heads together and decided to forge ahead the way we originally were going. They hadn't seen any signs either and were also expecting to see something. I guess we would either get out together or get lost together!
We leapfrogged the family for a bit on this trail, still somewhat questioning our exact location. They were ahead of us when we heard them yell "A SIGN"! At 3:05 we came to the sign at the split for Colvin and Blake or to go down to the Lake Road (1.8 miles more). This gave us renewed energy. We picked up the scenic Gill Brook trail and, once on it, I realized why I had avoided it in the past! Yes, it's very scenic, but it's also more up and down, up and down. My son was happy to take some waterfall pictures. I was happy to see the road up ahead at 4:13 p.m. We came out at around the 2 mile marker on the Lake Road. Five minutes up the road we sat for about 15 minutes at the little trout pond/cement wall and drank the last of our water. By 5:20 we were back at the car.
Overall, the hike was about 14.5 miles and took just under 11 hours. I was pretty happy with our time. I was very happy about the day - we had perfect weather, nice views, enjoyable company on the trails and two more peaks under our belts! Maybe it's time to start counting down rather than counting up. 15 more to go for me.