New Hampshire’s Mount Chocorua draws a crowd. A big crowd. But with awesome views from its summit and a couple of scenic waterfalls along the way, there’s a reason it is so popular. Just watch out for loogies.
by Dan Mathers
I was gazing north toward the tallest peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. They looked ghostly in the humid, 90-degree July haze. I leaned into the wind, bracing myself against the hefty breeze atop Mount Chocorua. I had pushed through the heat, trudged several miles up the mountain, and looked forward to my reward of a rocky summit and gorgeous views.
And then I got spit on.
Moments before the offending loogie, my brother Jason and I had squeezed onto Chocorua’s tiny, rocky coned summit, elbow-to-elbow with more than a dozen other hikers, mostly young teenagers. Jason and I watched with disgust as dozens more teens kept appearing on the trail heading up the mountain, and then crowding onto the summit like it was the last subway car out of town. Then a young kid — probably not older than 14 — walked behind us, peered over the side of the summit, and spit. “Thwaa.” As soon as I heard it, I thought of the wind and knew it was a bad idea. But when I felt several drops of spittle splash against the back of my neck, my summit experience atop Chocorua officially became the grossest hiking experience of my life.
I turned to say something to the kid. I feel one is kind of obligated to acknowledge when you’ve been spit on. But my brother, who’d also been struck, beat me to it. “Dude! You just spit on me!” Jason was incredulous. The kid apologized in that kind of embarrassed-yet-insincere way that comes with the job description of being a young teen. But Jason wasn’t done. Maybe it was all that pent-up frustration from having so many meathead kids on the summit; maybe it was the fact it was one of those rare moments when my brother was yelling at someone he actually thought he could take. Whatever the reason, he gave the kid a tongue-lashing, explaining to him how you don’t spit off a summit when the wind is howling and dozens of people are around, and if you do you at least look around to make sure you don’t dribble on anyone. He punctuated it with: “How would you like it if I spit on you?” It was classic.
Soon after, Jason and I descended the western side of Chocorua and walked deeper into the woods, well away from the scores of hikers that summit Chocorua each summer day. We hiked for hours, camped overnight, and hiked out the next day on a trail on which we didn’t see another soul. All-in-all, the two-day trip was a phenomenal hike in a phenomenal area. But the spittle incident left me conflicted. A great hike, by nature, will attract lots of people. When it does, does it remain a great hike? I don’t know. But what I do know about Chocorua is this: There’s a reason it is so damned popular. Two scenic waterfalls — Pitcher Falls and Champney Falls — on the way up the mountain, plus Chocorua’s rocky summit — one of the most photographed in the world — make for a fun hike. And there’s enough trails and forest beyond the summit that, if you plan it right, even the solitary-seeking hiker can fall in love with the area.
Jason and I planned the Mount Chocorua (pronounced “Cho-koo-ra”) trip at the last minute, literally. We had set aside the last weekend in July to go hiking, but were too busy to plan it. That Friday, after an evening softball game, we went to his apartment, broke out the White Mountain maps over some beers, and looked for an exciting, yet moderate hike we could take our time with. We stumbled upon the 3,500-foot Mount Chocorua. It was easy to get to, and the descriptions of the terrain and summit were interesting. We had our hike.
We were at the Champney Falls Trail parking lot off the Kancamagus Highway in Conway by seven the next morning. We stretched our legs, checked our bags, and talked confidently about how we’d certainly be on the summit before it got too hot. The forecast for the lowlands was a hot, humid 97 degrees. A good day to be up in the mountains, we said.
Usually, for the first mile or so of any hike, I’m spurred on by a mix of adrenaline and blissful ignorance. As I started along the Champney Falls Trail, I was stoked by the all too rare opportunity to be out in the woods. I breathed in the damp, mossy forest air, took notice of the soft ground beneath my boots, the morning light weaving through the trees, and the glistening dew on the trailside leaves. My legs felt fresh and energetic, my back felt strong, and, like usual, I momentarily fooled myself into thinking everything would be that good the whole trip.
About a mile-and-a-half into the trail, things got even better. On the left side of the trail we came upon Pitcher and Champney Falls. The falls are a series of cascades and waterfalls that run next to the trail. While they can be meager much of the year, they can be quite a sight when the water is gushing in the spring. Being late July, the falls weren’t gushing, but thanks to a wet early summer, they were running pretty well. Most impressive to us, just because of its height, was Pitcher Falls, where water plunged off a rocky cliff roughly 35-feet high. Not being in any rush, we took plenty of time to admire the falls and climb among the rocks. According to the trusty “Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide,” the rocks and ledges around the falls are slippery, and there have been many serious accidents there.
After a while, Jason and I trudged on. Soon, the trail began getting steeper. A lot steeper. It turns out that while Chocorua has a low elevation when compared to the White Mountains’ heavyweights, its trailheads start at low elevations, making the climb a substantial elevation gain and as strenuous a hike as many much taller mountains. The heat that we thought we would avoid also began to set in, and we were soon huffing, sweating, stinking, and taking frequent water breaks.
Having climbed about 1,500 feet from Champney Falls, the trail flattened out before dipping a bit and then climbing to the summit. As it leveled, it provided our first good view of Chocorua’s peak, an impressive sight with its tall, rocky cone towering above the other mountains in the area. As we walked toward the mountain, the trail merged with the Piper Trail, and soon our idyllic images of peacefully chilling on the summit, soaking in the view, were shattered.
There must have been some camp nearby, because as we merged with the Piper Trail, an endless stream of screaming, yelling, whining kids poured onto our trail and headed toward the summit. For awhile, instead of hiking on a trail, our ascent seemed more like we were slowly shuffling along in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Maybe on other days there aren’t scores of campers overrunning Chocorua and it is a great experience. But on this day it was like being at the mall.
As we began the ascent up the rocky summit, the crowds dispersed a bit as the trail up the rocks was not well-marked, and most people navigated their own way. This part of the peak presented some serious climbing over steep rocks. While most people on Chocorua are dayhikers, we planned to camp, and our bulky backpacks proved a bit awkward as we scampered among the rocks. Ultimately, we made it to the top and squeezed our way onto Chocorua’s tiny, pointed peak. There it was so crowded hikers kept nudging into one another, and more hikers were climbing on. Jason and I wanted to stay on the peak just long enough to soak it in, to enjoy the view, the breeze, the experience. Then the spittle flew.
After Jason disciplined the poor kid, we stayed on the peak just long enough to demonstrate we weren’t leaving just because of the crowds, the kids, or even the spit. Although, I guess we really were. We walked down to a lower rocky section where almost nobody was. There we sat and relaxed on the rocks, snacked on Slim Jims and trail mix, simmered, then laughed. And laughed.
When we were ready to move on, we headed down the western slope of Chocorua following the Bee Line Trail. Being on the opposite side of the mountain, we were now away from the crowds. But rain the night before left us with a new challenge: slippery rocks. For the entire slope of the mountain, the trail was rocky and slippery as ice. Jason and I each fell several times, not gracefully either — the arms-flailing-and-windmilling ass falls that you see drunk, overweight wedding guests take ad nauseam on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” We ended up sitting and sliding down much of the way, and I ended up with a small tear in my backpack.
We were happy when the trail finally leveled out, leaving us with a pleasant, soft path through the woods. We rested at a stream where we refilled our water bottles, then continued on for about another hour until the Bee Line Trail intersected with the Bolles Trail, which would ultimately lead us back to the parking lot. We followed the Bolles Trail about 15 minutes before we found a nice section of stream. We crossed the water and trudged a bit into the woods to set up our camp.
The loop we were on we likely could have done in a day. But we wanted to camp out, and we had gone light on mileage on purpose. Every other trip we’d ever taken we crammed as much hiking in as possible, maxed out our mileage, and while we had great experiences, we sometimes felt rushed along the way, and almost always felt wiped out at the end. This time we went light on mileage, and were able to take our time hiking, explore more, rest more, and the result was it felt more like fun and less like work. By mid-afternoon, our camp was set up. We had an early dinner, snacked on a big bag of peanut M & M’s, then ended the night relaxing against a log, playing cards, and wrestling with a temperamental fire.
Despite the recent heat, the next morning was cool. Jason decided to take a dip in the stream’s icy waters to wake up. He jumped all in, and then came up with a painful yell. I was already plenty awake . . . and plenty not stupid. Then we packed up and moved on down the Bolles Trail, expecting a leisurely hike. I hadn’t paid much attention to the topography of the trail when we planned the hike. We had focused a lot on the waterfalls and the climb up Chocorua. The Bolles Trail back to the parking lot was just a line on a map; an epilogue to the real hike.
Having expected to have it easy, the Bolles Trail was a rude-awakening — and a reminder to the stupid (me) to pay close attention to maps. The trail soon began to climb, and climb steeply. Each climb we thought was our last. Then we’d hit the top and see a taller, steeper climb waiting for us. This happened again and again. By the time the trail peaked, my legs burned, my shoulders ached, and my spirit was broken.
The trail mercifully began to descend. It passed through a swampy area, and crossed Twin Brook 11 times. After hiking for a couple of hours, we reached the Champney Falls parking lot again. Unceremoniously, we tossed our bags in the car and drove away. As we drove just a couple hundred feet from the parking lot, we spotted a large moose grazing in a field along the side of the road. Not having seen any wildlife on our hike, we made sure to turn around and see it again.
Leaving the moose, I thought about the trip. We did see a moose, although not in all the miles we hiked, but rather as we drove by in a car. We had unglamorously slid on our asses all the way down Mount Chocorua like it was mid-winter. And, as we stood atop the summit, we got spit on. Not the kind of wilderness experience you imagine when you crack open an AMC guidebook. But I guess that’s one of the reasons you go hiking. You can plan the route, but you can’t plan the experiences.