When you read about the Santanoni Range, probably 90% of people say they did not like this hike and would never do it again. Maybe 10% say the range gets a bad rap, it's not that bad, etc. We fall squarely with the majority!
This Friday, the day before the weekend of Hurricane Irene, was absolutely beautiful - from what we saw on the trail. What we saw when signing in and signing back out was nothing since it was dark both times. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
The largest peak in this range at 4607 ft, the name Santanoni is actually believed to be a derivation of the Abenaki Indian pronunciation of "Saint Anthony". The trailhead for the Santanonis can be found on the road to the Upper Works in Newcomb. If you pass the old MacIntyre blast furnace on your right, you've gone at least 1/2 mile too far. The trailhead is actually on the left before the furnace. Parking for the Santanonis is actually set back about 100 yards from the road and is probably big enough to hold 20 or so cars.
Hiking Buddy, youngest son and I arrived at the lot by 5:30 a.m., knowing the days were getting shorter and we were in for a long hike. We signed in and were on the trail by 5:40. Actually, just after signing in there's a locked gate. We went around that and were on what appears to be an old service road. This makes for pretty flat walking for the first 1.5 miles or so. It's easily done in the dark. After about 35-40 minutes we reached the trail sign indicating the beginning of the trail to Bradley Pond. We turned right into the woods. After a short time we reached the first of two wooden bridges. This one was pretty rickety. After crossing it we noted that the water was low enough to just pick our way across on some well placed rocks on the way back (which is what we did). The second, not much further along, was in better shape.
After about an hour on this trail, there was a nice spot off to the left where we could sit on big rocks along the Santanoni Brook and have a snack. The picture at right is looking up the brook.
After we were fortified, we were back on the trail and at the split to the "Express Trail", which is also referred to as the "New/Old Trail" up Santanoni. It's fairly obvious and marked by a large cairn. Turning left at the cairn, you'll cross the Brook and there was a pink ribbon tied to a tree on the other side. We were at this spot 2 hours from leaving the parking lot, including our rest stop. Once across the Brook, there is quite a bit of water. The trail goes around it to the left. I don't know if we just got lucky or the trail has become so popular that it's just really obvious, but we didn't have any trouble staying on this.
The trail is strenuous and ascends pretty quickly. By 9:05 we reached a very large rock with a rope attached. A few tugs on the rope didn't inspire a great deal of confidence in its security (it wasn't a thick rope, stretched when tugged and didn't seem to be attached to anything large) so we continued along its base and around the side. We continued our climb and the trail narrowed quite a bit. In fact, most of the time we were just being scratched with brush that obscured our footing on the trail. Fifty minutes after the rope rock we were at the lookout just short of the summit. It's on the right and marked again with a pink ribbon around a tree. If you stop here, you are not at the official summit. Continue another 5 minutes to the tree enclosed rock area with the yellow disk. There isn't much room here for more than about 4 or 5 people sitting on a large rock. We took a few pictures and went back to the small overlook area. After a few pictures there, we started the trail that would take us to Times Square. There are two trails leading away from Santanoni - the Express trail back down and the one to TS. As long as you remember how you came, you'll know which trail to choose. The view from here is great from almost every direction - nice shots of Algonquin and Marcy (in the cloud to the right above) as well as the rest of the range.
We started our descent at about 10:25. Before long, we were climbing and climbing some more. I don't know why, but I thought we'd just hike down to Times Square and it wouldn't take very long at all. Well, you do hike down and then you hike up. A couple passed us and I remarked, "It feels like we're going up another mountain already". They assured us we were on our way to Times Square, which is pretty far up on the way to Panther, which is why Panther will be so easy from there. Ok, works for me. We reached Times Square at 11:35. It's pretty obvious. There's a boulder to the right side of the trail and just a short way past that is a much larger boulder smack in the middle of the trail. Traveling around it to the left, the first trail that goes away is the one to Couchsachraga. There was a small cairn marking it (see above). If you go around the boulder, you'll see a bit of an open area in which to sit and rest. Here we met a father and daughter hiking pair who we had been leapfrogging since Santanoni. After a quick 10 minute chat and snacks, we began the hike to Couchie. This is NOT a fun hike. There's a lot more up and down than I anticipated, and lots of rocks. Being an older hiker(!), I am much more tentative than others might be. This is what slows me down - watching my footing. Despite this, I took a nice little fall on a slippery root. That just makes me more cautious. We hit the dreaded bog after an hour. There really is no way to describe this and any picture you see does not do it justice. I don't see how it would be possible to cross this without hiking poles. We chose to try to skirt the area by going left. We picked our way across downed logs and tested the mud's depth with our poles, occasionally almost losing our balance when they sunk a good 2-3 feet in the muck. We made it across, easily picked up the trail on the other side, and soldiered on. We reached the summit 1 hour 45 minutes from leaving Times Square - 15 minutes slower than we had hoped.
There's not much to see at Couchie's summit and even the nice wooden summit marker I have seen on other trip reports was gone. I was looking forward to that! Instead, the usual yellow disk was affixed to a tree. We were all hungry and needed to eat. We left the summit at 1:50 and reached the bog at 2:30, crossing more toward the middle as per the instruction of our father/daughter hiking friends who took our summit picture. I felt like I made a quicker crossing on the way back, but it could have just been that I didn't care what I stepped in at that point - as is evident by the picture!
Just as an aside here, what I do know about Couchsachraga is that it is not even over 4000 feet yet it feels like it and also that the Native Americans who named it knew what they were doing. The word is translated to mean "dismal wilderness".
We were back at Times Square at 3:45 - exactly 4 hours after we left. This was not the time we were hoping to make. As it was getting later, we had to decide whether to attempt Panther, our third peak. We had read it was only about 20 minutes to the summit, but our time is usually slower than what we read and we just weren't sure if we would run out of daylight. We took out our trusty guidebook and map and plotted out our course. We knew we didn't feel like going back to Santanoni to take the Express Trail back down, so if we did Panther we'd then be heading out on the trail to Bradley Pond. We decided we had come this far, we would give it a shot.
We left Time Square at 3:58 and literally were at Herald Square, a smaller trail junction, within 2 minutes. There is a tree in the middle of Herald Square with an HS carved into it. A cairn marks the way to Times Square. Another tree with a P and an arrow marks the beginning of the herd path over to Panther (to the right of the tree). To our great relief, it really did only take us 15 minutes to reach Panther's 4,442 foot summit. On the way up, we passed a couple who had signed at the same time we did that morning and whom we hadn't seen since. They missed the cairn for the Express trail and then didn't turn left onto the Bradley Pond trail, continuing straight to the BP lean-to and on toward Duck Hole. Once they realized their mistake, they had to backtrack. So Panther was the only peak they were able to summit. Bummer!
The true summit of Panther is past a nice, spacious rock area. There's a small swampy section that we easily navigated around to the right and which ended at a rock with the geological survey marker. In a tree above it was the yellow disk. You have to climb a small boulder to get up into the picture with the disk. We each did that quickly due to a single dark cloud threatening overhead. Back at the clearing we took some pictures and, mindful of the hour, headed back down at 4:30. If it was earlier in the day, we would have spent more time at this spot. It was by far the best viewing spot we had seen all day.
There was only one area on this trail that was a bit tricky and that was a large area of rock that was quite steep. Going up was tricky, but going down we skirted to the left took our time. It wasn't as bad as it might look in the above picture.
Back at Herald Square at 4:45, we ate another granola bar, assessed our water situation and tried to determine how far it was to Bradley Pond. From there, we would have 4 miles to the road and another 1.5 to the parking lot. We needed to move! We had read this trail was not fun and it wasn't. There was a lot of rock - big and small - as well as mud and water. We again saw the couple we met on Panther. We hiked with them for a little bit, but they were slower than us (amazing!) and we really wanted to get to the road before dark. We saw a camper who told us we were about a mile from Bradley Pond. We encountered an area flooded from beaver activity and which used to have a bridge. It didn't now but there were two large logs over the water. We had to slow down here to get across. The water was about 3 feet deep below and we really didn't feel like spending any time in it. Once across, we came to the junction with the trail to the Bradley Pond lean-to (left) or the trail out (right). We headed out. We did stop briefly to speak with a couple who were backpacking in for the night. At this point it was 7:15 and they said it had taken them 90 minutes from the road. They also said the Governor had ordered the evacuation of hikers and campers from the backcountry by noon the next day due to the impending storm (so why were they still heading in???).
If we wanted to get to the road before dark, we couldn't take 90 minutes. And so we ran. In some spots that was not possible due to wet and deteriorating wooden corduroy that required careful foot placement, but wherever we could, we kept a very brisk pace. It took us 45 minutes to hit the road, and we even had some lingering daylight! By now our feet were screaming. We all kept our poles out to lean on. We did have to break out the headlamps/flashlights as darkness descended. We signed out at 8:40, exactly 15 hours after we began. What a long day! As crazy as it sounds, this day reinforced what I like about hiking - no matter how much you think your body can take, your mind can probably push you further. No one is up there to help you or carry you back; it's on you. Today we pushed ourselves to the limit and it felt great - once we were done!
Today's peaks were numbers 14, 18 and 46 in terms of height. I only have 12 left to reach my goal of becoming a 46er, and I don't think they're going to get easier!