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Backpacking a Gentian Pond Loop

Gentian Pond in Autumn

Gentian Pond is in the Mahoosuc Range, one of the hardest sections of the Appalachian Trail. I hiked a one night loop up to the AT shelter there, visiting two big waterfalls called Giant Falls and Dryad Falls on the way. My friend Ken and I had stopped by this shelter when we hiked this section in August, but the shelter and campsite had been full, so we’d skipped past it and camped a few miles south at Dream Lake.

This was a combination mental health and redline hike. It being Columbus Day week, the White Mountain National Forest is overrun with tour buses and cars with out-of-state license plates. It’s not so much their presence which bothers me, but the mile-long traffic jams, in a place where there are seldom more than a few cars stopped at a red light. So, I did what I do when confronted by crowds. I headed north to the less-visited wilderness areas in the northeast corner of the WMNF.

Redlining, for the uninitiated, is when you hike all of the trails in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide. There are 640 trails in the current 30th edition. It took me 10 years to hike all of the trails in the 29th edition (I finished last year) and I’m now working thru the 30th edition, revisiting all of the old trails that I’ve forgotten and the 12 or so new trails that have since been added to the redlining spreadsheet. Each one of those 640 trails is akin to a meal on a menu at a really good restaurant so it’s easy to get motivated to hike them all.

Being a solo hike, I mapped out a loop that would bring me back to my starting point. The trails I hiked are largely maintained by the Shelburne Trails Club, a small but quite skilled trail club that maintains a nice trail network off North Road, near Philbrook Farm, just south of the Mahoosuc Trail. There are many delightful destinations along these trails, which are easy enough for younger children, although there is still plenty of hard stuff to gnaw on if you want it.

Gentian Pond Loop

Here’s the route I took:

  • Austin Brook Trail (from North Rd) – 0.4 miles
  • Yellow Trail – 1.1 miles
  • Gates Brook Trail – 0.5 miles
  • Middle Mountain Trail – 2.1 miles
  • Peabody Brook Trail – 2.3 miles
  • Giant Falls Spur – 0.6 miles
  • Bald Ledge Spur Trail 1.0 mile
  • Dryad Trail – 1.5 miles
  • Austin Brook Trail (up to shelter, then back to North Rd the next morning) 4.7 miles

Besides Gentian Pond, there are two large waterfalls on this route: Giants Falls, off the Peabody Brook Trail and Dryad Falls off the Dryad Trail. Mount Crag, Middle Mountain, and the Bald Ledge Spur Trail also have good summit views of the Androscoggin River Valley, and Dream Lake is always nice to visit at the junction of the Peabody Brook Trail and the Mahoosuc Trail (A.T.).

Wooden Turnstile at the Austin Brook Trailhead
Wooden Turnstile at the Austin Brook Trailhead

I started my hike at the Austin Brook Trail Head on North Road with its quirky gate, a wooden turnstile, which I’ve always viewed as a local joke. The trail is an old logging road for most of its length. Down at the bottom, it’s gravel covered with a soft bed of spruce needles that makes for pleasant walking. I walked down that for 0.4 of a mile before turning onto the Yellow Trail which climbs Mt Crag on a well-blazed trail.

The views at the summit of Crag were fogged in, so I kept going past the summit toward the Gates Brook Trail, descending steeply. I turned right onto the Gates Brook Trail, passing a wooden foot bridge on the left and continuing straight. Don’t cross that bridge. There are yellow blazes marking the trail you want straight ahead, but they’re hidden from view when you turn onto the Gates Brook Trail.

Don't cross this bridge. It's not on the Gates Brook Trail.
Don’t cross this bridge. It’s not on the Gates Brook Trail.

The vegetation closes in as you approach a junction with the Middle Mountain Trail. The junction is well signed although it is always helpful to carry a map for quick reference. There are a lot of short interconnected trails in Shelburne and it pays to check your position every time you come to a landmark or trail junction.

I climbed up the Middle Mountain Trail and walked right past a turn, where the trail makes a hard right. The turn is signed and flagged with orange plastic tape, but I kept on going straight, following pink tape, which is commonly used to mark trails in the Whites. It took me a while to notice that I was on the wrong trail because it was blazed in orange. I think it is a trail to First Mountain and its ledges, which were also socked in by fog. I figured out my mistake when I started losing altitude in a place where I didn’t expect to lose it. So I backtracked and found the junction that I’d accidentally walked past. Doh!

Back on the correct trail, I climbed to the open summit ledges of Middle Mountain, which are capped with a large rock that someone has helpfully spray-painted with the word “TOP”. It’s still a pretty sight. From the summit you can see the summit ledges on Bald Cap Peak. I’d stand on those same ledges later in the day and look down at the big rock on the Middle Mountain summit, which is clearly visible from them. The fog had also started to lift, so I had clearer skies the remainder of the day.

Big rock on Middle Mountain
Big rock on Middle Mountain summit

The Middle Mountain Trail continues past the summit to join the Peabody Brook Trail. The trail passes through pleasant open woods before following a narrow logging road to the trail junction. This being October and moose mating season, I half expected a bull moose to pop out of the bushes on the side of the trail and challenge me. So I sang out “Mr Moosie? Where are you?” every fifty feet or so, to alert them to my presence.

When I arrived at the Peabody Brook Trail junction, I turned right onto the trail which follows another old logging road, before narrowing to a regular hiking trail. In 0.4 miles, I came to the Giant Falls Spur, which leads to the base of Giant Falls, a huge 100+ foot waterfall which was cranking when I visited. We’d just had an inch of rain and the falls were going full blast, flooding the narrow gorge below them.

Giant Falls after a heavy autumn rain.
Giant Falls after a heavy autumn rain.

Next, I backtracked to the Peabody Brook Trail and continued climbing toward the Mahoosuc ridgeline, heading north. The trail gets much wilder past the falls, with over-reaching shrubbery (something called hobblebush) that’s so dense, you can barely see the trail at your feet. It was still wet from the rain, so my pants were quickly soaked.

The upper part of the Peabody Trail has always been wet, muddy, and half under water for as long as I can remember, so none of this really surprised me. Nine years had passed since I last hiked this trail in its entirety and it hadn’t really changed a bit. Maybe that’s a good thing.

The new Bald Ledge Spur Trail Junction
The new Bald Ledge Spur Trail Junction

One thing has certainly changed though and that was a new trail junction to the new Bald Ledge Spur Trail. This trail passes through a giant fern meadow, probably the result of a logging cut, to south-facing rock ledges. It’s a very new trail maintained by John Compton aka 1HappyHiker, who’s a renowned bushwhacker in the Whites. It was also mostly underwater when I hiked it, the cold rain water soaking my socks and shoes.

Views of the Androscoggin River Vqlley from the ledges
Views of the Androscoggin River Vqlley from the ledges

The ledge views were worth it though, as long as you descend all the way down to the “edge” overlooking Middle Mountain and the Androscoggin River Valley. A ledge in White Mountains parlance is usually a horizontal rock face with open views, like the top of a cliff. Hikers are drawn to them like flies.

I backtracked to the Peabody Trail and followed it past the Dryad Trail Junction to Dream Lake and its junction with the Mahoosuc Trail. I resupplied my water there, at a stream that Ken and I had used when we’d camped there in August. Then it was back to the Dryad Trail Junction, where I started hiking down the very wet Dryad Trail. I’d snowshoed this trail fairly recently with my friend Josh, when we’d also visited Gentian Pond. The trail had been under snow then, so this was the first time I’d see it in non-winter conditions.

Top of Dryad Falls
Top of Dryad Falls

I hiked down the trail, which is also an old logging road, to the Dryad Falls Spur Trail. The trail leads very close to the top of the falls, which drop 300 feet below. It’s a pretty spectacular view, but you can’t see the bottom. My pictures don’t do it justice.

Trail to Gentian Pond
Trail to Gentian Pond

I hiked back to the main trail and followed it down to the Austin Brook Trail junction. From here it was a 1 mile hike and climb to Gentian Pond, the lean-to-and campsite. I had two hours before sunset and wanted to get my hammock squared away, resupply my water, and cook a hearty dinner. I was tired.

Hammocking at the Gentian Shelter and Campsite
Hammocking at the Gentian Shelter and Campsite

The next morning I packed up and hiked out the Austin Brook Trail back to North Road. It’s generally a pretty trail, but parts of it pass forest openings that have been logged. It wasn’t really guidebook material for that reason (not pretty enough), although small stream fly fisherman will definitely be interested in the stream access it provides. Austin Brook has small native trout in it, I checked. 🙂

Austin Brook
Austin Brook

All in all, a nice and quick 1 day backpacking trip, although you could certainly hike the complete loop in one day if you had more daylight.

Total distance: 16 miles with 4300 feet of elevation gain.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He’s also finished hiking many of the region’s peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

 

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Backpacking to Sawyer Pond Trip Plan

Sawyer Pond is a picturesque backcountry pond on the east side of the White Mountain National Forest, near Crawford Notch and Bartlett, NH. It’s easy to hike into, making it an ideal destination for families, small groups, or couples who want a quiet place to camp without undertaking a huge backpacking trip. The pond is 40 acres in size and quite scenic with a great view of nearby Mt Tremont and a smaller peak called Owls Cliff.

The pond has 6 large campsites (max 8 people per site), fire rings, two outhouses, and nearby lean-to shelter that can sleep another 6 people. Camping is free, but the campsites are first-come, first-serve. The pond is stocked with trout and fishing is permitted with a New Hampshire fishing license. You can also swim or mountain bike on nearby forest roads, XC, and snowmobile trails.

On the clear nights, the star-gazing from Sawyer Pond can’t be beat. There’s no light pollution and the large open space above the pond provides an unobstructed view of the heavens. Fall foliage is a particularly beautiful time to visit when the trees and surrounding hillsides have turned a golden yellow, orange, and red.

Backpacking to SawyerPond

Rating/Difficulty

Easy

Distance/Elevation Gain

1.5 miles with 150 ft of elevation gain.

Recommended Duration

2 days/1 night

Season

June thru October

Permits Required

None.

Regulations

Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

No Fires or Camping except at Designated Campsites in the Sawyer Pond Scenic Area

Trailhead Directions

  • Sawyer Pond Trail Trailhead.  Sawyer River Road is a gravel forest road (FR 34) located 1.6 miles north of Sawyer Rock Picnic Area on Rt 302. Turn left from Rt 302 onto Sawyer River Road and drive 3.8 miles to its end, where there will be a parking area on your right. This is 1.8 miles past the Signal Ridge Trail parking area, which you’ll pass earlier on the road.
  • Note: The south (other) end of the Sawyer Pond Trail leaves from Rt 112, the Kancamagus Highway. The directions above are from the north end of the trail, which is where you want to start the trip.

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to the AMC White Mountains Trail Map 3: Crawford Notch-Sandwich Range (2017 ed),  although I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set (2017 ed) rather than one map at a time, because it’s less expensive that way. Detailed trail descriptions can also be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide (2017 ed), which is considered the hiking bible for the region. Take photos of the relevant pages using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.

  • Sawyer Pond Trail – 1.5 miles from parking lot to campsites

Camping and Shelter Options

Campsite #4 at Sawyer Pond
Campsite #4 at Sawyer Pond

Sawyer Pond has 6 campsite platforms capable of holding multiple tents. There is a maximum of 8 people per campsite. An adjacent lean-to can house an additional 6 people. Campsites are first come, first serve. Each campsite has a fire ring. There are two outhouses. If the campsites are full, you must hike a quarter-mile away before camping at a dispersed site. Fires are prohibited in the Sawyer Pond Scenic Area except at designated fire rings.

Please observe all White Mountains Backcountry Camping Regulations and leave no trace.

Water

Water is plentiful on this route which parallels a small mountain stream before it arrives at Sawyer Pond. The use of a backcountry water filter or purification device is strongly recommended.

On the Trail

There’s a kiosk next to the trailhead parking lot, which has room for about 10 cars. Pass the kiosk and turn left onto the small pedestrian bridge across the Sawyer River to begin hiking up the Sawyer Pond Trail.

Cross over the Sawyer River and continue up the Sawyer Pond Trail
Cross over the Sawyer River and continue up the Sawyer Pond Trail

The trail enters forest and climbs gently over assorted rocks and tree roots, in other words, a typical White Mountain trail. The trail is well beaten down and very easy follow, with intermittent yellow blazes painted on trees. The 1.5 miles to the pond should take you anywhere from one to two hours to hike, depending on your pace and how much pack weight you’re carrying. There’s no need to load up with too much water for this short stretch and carrying one liter should be sufficient, provided you have a filter or purifier with you to process more water when you reach the pond and the campsite.

The trail is well maintained and easy to follow, alternating between roots and rocks
The trail is well maintained and easy to follow, alternating between roots and rocks.

You’ll soon hear a brook on your right as it flows through the forest. It runs along the trail for most of the way to the campsite and drains into the Sawyer River, near the bridge you crossed earlier. Just before you reach the campsite, you’ll take a right hand turn at a well-marked sign that has a diagram of the campsite locations.

Campsite map

When you reach a small stream fed by the adjacent pond, turn left 270 degrees, before crossing it. After you’ve turned, the pond will be on your right, and you’ll soon see Mt Tremont and Owls Cliff beyond its far shore. They’re two round knobs with distinctive profiles.

Mt Tremont (left) and Owls Cliff (right) overlook Sawyer Pond
Mt Tremont (left) and Owls Cliff (right) overlook Sawyer Pond

The lean-to shelter is another .15 miles down the spur trail. It’s in remarkably good condition and perfectly suitable for sleeping in.

The Sawyer Pond Lean-to is clean and in good condition. Sleeping 6, it's one of the few shelters left in the White Mountain National Forest
The Sawyer Pond Lean-to is clean and in good condition. Sleeping 6, it’s one of the few shelters left in the White Mountain National Forest.

The best time to visit the Sawyer Pond campsites is during the week when there are few people around and there’s little competition for campsites. The campsites become busier on weekends because they’re such a short hike in from the road. Access to the pond becomes much more difficult in late fall and winter because Sawyer River Road is closed to vehicles in winter and usually only opens in late spring.

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He’s also finished hiking many of the region’s peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

Safety Disclaimer

This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on SectionHiker.com, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code. 

Published 2018.

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