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Cohos Trail Section Hike: Percy Loop to Starr King

North Percy Mountain

“It is amazing how much trail building the Cohos Trail Association gets done with such limited resources,” said Guthook, as we climbed up the Percy Loop Trail to North Percy Mountain. Guthook has worked as trail crew for the Green Mountain Club in Vermont and I could tell he was in awe at what they’d accomplished. This section of the Cohos Trail, the 170 mile long distance route that runs through Northern New Hampshire, was looking mighty fine indeed with excellent signage and blazes, and new campsites and shelters. A relatively new long distance trail, it’s been bootstrapped into existence by a small but dedicated, almost fanatical, cadre of trail builders and community activists in an effort to bring more commercial activity (ie. Massachusetts visitors) to New Hampshire’s north country.

Guthook and I (yes, THE Guthook) were on a three-day backpacking trip from the Nash Stream Forest followed by a Kilkenny Traverse in the northern most section of the White Mountain National Forest. It was a reunion of sorts, since we haven’t done any hiking together for a few years, due to busy schedules and life demands. He was doing a little work on this trip actually, finishing up mapping the Kilkenny Ridge Trail and its side trails for Guthook’s Guide, which has emerged as the most complete and easy-to-use trail guide for the National Scenic Trails in the US (AT, PCT, CDT, and many others).

Excellent Cohos Trail Signage
Excellent Cohos Trail Signage

Guthook and I weren’t strangers to this section of trail and have both hiked it before multiple times. He’s actually thru-hiked the Cohos Trail twice, I believe. We chose it for its remoteness, because it’s a nice long stretch where you can backpack without the crowds that flock to the White Mountain National Forest (down south) in summer. We didn’t see anyone for the first two days of this trip (which is pretty incredible) and only ran into some friends (maniacs, themselves) near the end.

Some 40 miles in length, this was a sizable route for a three-day trip, with many 4000 and 3000 footers to climb along the way, starting with North and South Percy, the two bell-shaped peaks that dominate the Nash Stream Forest skyline. If you’ve never been to the state-run Nash Stream Forest, it’s worth a visit, if only to hike the Percy Peaks and climb nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s a wild place, only accessible by a gravel road, and home to many of the trail-less 3000 footers on the New Hampshire 200 Highest Peakbagging List. I have yet to fully explore it myself, but the times I’ve hiked through have all been memorable and left me longing for more.

Hot and Hazy view of South Percy Mountain
Hot and Hazy view of South Percy Mountain

We parked my beat-up trail car at the bottom of the Percy Loop Trail and proceeded to climb up to the peak, ascending steeply, in miserable heat and humidity. The real feel was easily up to 100 degrees and I was soaked with sweat in 10 minutes. I was also feeling a recent knee issue, probably a meniscus tear, that got progressively worse as we journeyed south. Looking back now, it was painful, but only slowed my pace down to book time, not that bad when you think about it. It’s still plaguing me even though my doctor has concluded that I don’t need surgery or a cortisone shot, just RICE. Try getting me to sit still for a week or two, though.

We climbed up North Percy and admired the northern view, then descended over its steep ledges, and climbed its sister peak, South Percy. From there we ambled along the Cohos Trail, which is technically a route, over pre-existing trails. The trail snakes along trails which double as snowmobile routes in winter. We popped up to Victor Head, a pleasant side trail and view-point, before crossing the railroad tracks and Rt 3 to get to the South Pond Recreation Area. This recreation area has a huge sand beach, changing rooms, rest rooms, and a picnic area. It costs $7 per car to enter, but we got in free because we walked in.

Cooking dinner at South Pond
Cooking dinner at South Pond

We’d arrived just at closing and the weather was looking mighty nasty, with dark rain clouds above. We’d been monitoring these closely all day, but been spared their wrath farther north. After a quick dip in the lake to wash off the day’s sweat, we hunkered under the front awning of a building and cooked up dinner while the skies unleashed their fury. It rained heavily for about 45 minutes before tapering off to a drizzle. After checking out the resulting rainbow, we hoofed it past the recreation area and pitched a hurried camp before the rain came down again. There was no chatting after that and I crashed, sleeping through more torrential rain at night.

We were both up early the next morning but waited for another torrential rainfall to subside before packing up and heading out, at about 8:00 am. After a brief diversion into the Devil’s Hopyard, a rock-filled canyon filled with “boulders scattered in picturesque confusion”, we headed south along the Kilkenny Trail towards Willard Notch. Our first major stop was a cliff called Rodger’s Ledge where we spread out our wet gear to dry in the sun.

Guthook in the Devil's Hopyard
Guthook in the Devil’s Hopyard

With the exception of Mt Cabot (a 4000 footer), most of the Kilkenny Trail is seldom hiked, making it a much wilder looking trail than most White Mountain hikers are used to. Blowdowns across the trail are common and the trail often needs a good brushing, to beat back the baby spruce trees and ferns that threaten to overwhelm it. While benign, this vegetation holds a lot of rain water, so we were quickly soaked when we brushed up against it as we made our way south after the recent rains.

Once dry and warmed up, we continued south stopping at the Roger’s Ledge Campsite and the Unknown Pond Campsite for brief breaks and so Guthook could map the side trails. From there, we climbed The Horn and The Bulge (two 3000 footers), before summiting Mt Cabot and scrambling up the avalanche slide on its north side. After a brief visit to the Cabot Spring and the Cabot Cabin, we climbed the three peaks of Terrace Mountain before descending steeply to a campsite near the Willard Trail near dark.

Drying out Gear on Rogers Ledge
Drying out Gear on Rogers Ledge

Time for camp chores. We filtered water from the nearby water source, cooked dinner, hung our Ursacks, and crashed. We both slept deeply but my knee was definitely hurting and I was dreading the climb we had to make up North Weeks Mountain the next morning.

We woke early and broke camp by 7:15 am. We still had a 10 mile hike ahead of us, including climbs up North, Middle, and South Weeks mountains, Mt Waumbek (a 4000 footer) and Mt Starr King. The climb up North Weeks was the biggest (about 1500′) one followed by Middle Weeks, but after that it was mostly flat or descending down to Rt 2.

My knee was better this morning, but it still hurt. I’d brought along some extra Ibuprofen on this hike, just in case, but it really had little effect. Every once in a while, I’d twist it and cougar scream in pain. But I kept going, hopeful that it wasn’t anything too serious. Knock on wood, it’s not, although I have been out of action most of this week.

Philip at the end of his 48 x 4000 Direttissima White Mountain Round
Philip at the end of his 48 x 4000 Direttissima White Mountain Round

As we approached the summit of North Weeks, we encountered three hikers. Guthook knew one of them, I knew another, and the third, Philip, was just finishing an 8 day supported Direttissima, a complete traverse of all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers in one continuous hike. My hats off to him. It’s a non-trivial hike, hundreds of miles long. I’ve tried it twice unsupported and given up while I was ahead.

We parted ways and continued climbing, only to be greeted by massive blowdown mania on North and Middle Weeks. It’s the worse I’ve ever seen it. The Forest Service and Randolph Mountain Club trail crews had been through and cut out a trail again, but the destruction was far worse and larger than the blowdowns I’d encountered on the Kate Sleeper Trail earlier this year, or South Carter last winter. Thank god for our trail crews.

Blowdowns on the Weeks
Blowdowns on the Weeks
More blowdowns
More blowdowns
Trail through the blowdowns
Trail through the blowdowns

Once past the blowdowns and the Weeks, we arrived at Waumbek, where we dried out more gear in a viewpoint that’d been opened up since I was there last. Then onto Starr King Mountain and Jefferson, which has a nice little store and gas station on Rt 2. Their pizza is fantastic and went down real nice with a Classic Coke.

Guthook had been great company on this hike and I’m glad I finished the route despite my knee pain. The north country can be a real tonic if you ever need to get away from it all and I think we both benefitted from the respite.

In you’re interested in our route, take a look at the Kilkenny Ridge Traverse Route Plan in my free guidebook, Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers. For our route through the Nash Stream Forest refer to the Cohos Trail Guide from North Percy Mountain to the South Pond Recreation Area.

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