Sat, Jan 25, 2020
Mt. Chocorua Loop: Champney Falls Trail to Bee Line
Trail to Bolles Trail
Uphill both ways!
At the start of the 1997 hiking season, we decided that bagging a 4000 footer would be the perfect way to begin the season and quickly whip us into shape. What a stupid idea. Climbing one of the toughest peaks in the White Mountains, in early spring, with full packs, after spending all winter sitting on our butts was probably a quicker path to a heart attack than it was to getting in shape. But, once we conquered the hill, the rewards were certainly worth the effort.
Like most New Hampshire hikers, we spend most of the winter planning our first trip. So, by the time we called a couple of friends in April to set up the trip, we had already decided on a route, a time, and had made 15 different gear lists to cover any possible weather condition from tropical downpour to arctic blizzard. We planned the hike so that we could easily park our cars and walk a loop over Chocorua. This would allow us to get our first night out in the woods and test all kinds of gear; the downside was that we would have to haul all of this stuff over the top of Chocorua. In retrospect, this wasn’t the best idea we ever had.
The White Mountain Guide says this about Chocorua: "Although Chocorua is relatively low compared to other major White Mountain peaks, its trailheads are also located at low elevations, resulting in a substantial amount of elevation gain that makes Chocorua as strenuous a trip as many much higher peaks." And they ain’t kidding, brother. This was especially true for a group where everyone wanted to test all of the new gear that they got for Christmas and so we all carried our own cooking gear, our own water filters, our own shelters, and our own everything else. This was also early enough in the season that we were prepared for temperatures in the 30s: all carrying heavyweight clothing and enough food to last for a week. Oh yeah, and we all brought snowshoes since there were still snow covered sections of the trail (we had learned the hard way a few years before that walking on top of drifts isn’t fun when you break through every three steps and sink up to your crotch).
Our plan was to park at the Champney Falls parking area and then head up Chocorua. After reaching the summit, we were going to find a place to camp on the backside, somewhere along the Beeline Trail. But, when we arrived at the parking lot, we discovered that most of the area around Chocorua is designated as a Restricted Use Area (RUA) which means that camping is not allowed. This meant that we would have to walk a few miles extra to be outside of the RUA when we made camp. We headed in, following the Champney Falls Trail. The weather was overcast and the temperatures were in the high 40s or low 50s. The trail wasn’t very steep, and we settled into an easy pace. Since it was early in the season, there weren’t any other people around, which is how we like it. Later in the season this becomes one of the most overused trails in the Whites (which explained the RUA). About a mile and a half into the hike, there is a side path that diverges along the river and goes past Champney and Pitcher Falls. This side path is definitely worth the trip. Waterfalls are few and far between in the Whites, so take every opportunity you can to see one. We played around for a few minutes at the falls and then moved on.
Over the course of the next mile or so, the trail grew continually steeper. At about 2.5 miles in, it got so steep that we started walking up switchbacks. It was at this point that I began to rethink my strategy of testing all of my new gear since my pack weighed over 50 lbs. with all of my water and snowshoes and stuff. For the next couple of hours we plodded steadily up hill while my legs turned to jelly. By the time we reached the summit, my legs were literally shaking and cramping. Chocorua is no peak to climb with 50 lbs. of stuff on your back. Anyway, we made it to the summit, where it was overcast, windy, and cold, having dropped to about freezing. We sat and rested for a while, stretched out, and ate. Then we moved on, so that we could make it out of the RUA and set up camp by nightfall.
The next couple of hours weren’t so bad, since we were moving mostly down hill. Some of the trail was steep and rocky (slippery), but we eventually made it past the boundary of the RUA and found an area off the trail where we could set up three tents. We pitched the tents imediately as it was getting dark and cooked some dinner. Then we built a moderate campfire and relaxed for a couple of hours before turning in early. I can’t remember a better night’s sleep then what I had that night. Although there was still snow around, we never found ourselves in need of the snowshoes that we brought on any section of the trail. Unlike our previous experiences, the trails were clear, and the snow remained to the sides. So much for the extra 10 lbs. we were all carrying.
We awoke the next morning to a dusting of snow on everything. After a hearty breakfast, we broke camp and (reluctantly) strapped our packs back on. The hike out was easy at first and the Bolles Trail was well marked. My legs were regaining some of their energy until we reached a point about two miles from the end of the trail at the parking area. Right there we found what felt like the steepest, longest, most grueling climb in the White Mountains. I know that it isn’t, but after the hike of the day before, my legs were in no kind of shape to take on another hill. Although the climb lasted for only ¾ of a mile, we stopped and rested almost every 10 feet. At this point I began to hate my life. But, we made it over the top. The rest of the trail was easy and uneventful. We made it back to the parking area and to a well needed rest.
In the end, I look back on this as one of the best hikes I have ever done. Mt. Chocorua is certainly one of the best summits in the southern Whites. The trails are challenging and the views are incredible. Even after almost a decade of hiking experience, this hike reminded me of my limitations: I can’t carry 50 lb. packs up the elevations I used to after sitting on my butt all winter. Chris and I did Chocorua again later that year as a day hike, and had a great time. This was a demanding hike, made worse by the weight of our gear. Given the chance to pack smarter, and to share gear better, this would be more manageable as an overnight hike. But, if I were to do it again, I would consider making camp before the trails become steep, and bagging the summit as a day hike.
If you would like a brief summary of this hike, and links to maps you can view, see the link in the title bar at the top of this page.
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Chris Oberg & Robert Havasy