Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pawtuckaway State Park: Mountain Trail to South Mountain (Blog Hike #543)

Trails: Mountain and South Ridge Trails
Hike Location: Pawtuckaway State Park
Geographic Location: north of Raymond, NH
Length: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: An out-and-back to the fire tower on South Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: In southeastern New Hampshire, take SR 101 to SR 102 (exit 5).  Exit and go north on SR 102.  Drive SR 102 north 0.4 miles to SR 27 and turn left on SR 27.  Drive SR 27 west 0.1 miles to SR 156 and turn right on SR 156.  Drive SR 156 north 1.4 miles to Mountain Road and turn left on Mountain Rd.  Drive Mountain Rd. 2 miles to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a trail map, then pay the park admission fee at the toll booth.  The trailhead for the Mountain Trail is on the left 0.4 miles past the toll booth and just after passing an unnamed pond.  There is roadside parking for about a dozen vehicles.

The hike: Here’s a question: what do Crater Lake in central Oregon and Pawtuckaway State Park in southeast New Hampshire have in common?  One answer: they both lie on ancient volcanoes.  The volcano under Pawtuckaway is much more ancient and more eroded than Crater Lake, but it can still be made out on a topographic map.  Using the Google Map linked to above, look for the ring of high ground anchored on the south and north sides by South Mountain and North Mountain respectively.  Middle Mountain lies in the center of the ancient volcanic ring dyke.
            The volcanic features lie in the western end of 5500 acre Pawtuckaway State Park.  In terms of facilities, the park offers a major 195-site campground, but the park’s most popular attraction is adjacent Pawtuckaway Lake, which also gives the park its name.  The park’s beach on Pawtuckaway Lake is so popular that tickets are required to access it, and tickets often sell out on warm-weather weekends.
            Fortunately for hikers, no tickets are necessary to hike the 15 miles of trails that wind through the park’s natural areas.  In contrast to what you might expect in New Hampshire, most of the trails are fairly flat and easy except for the areas around the ancient volcanic ring dyke.  The trail system offers many hiking routes, but the park’s signature hike is the one described here.  This hike starts at the main park road, uses the Mountain Trail to climb gradually to the west arm of South Mountain, then embarks on a steep climb up the South Ridge Trail to the mountain’s summit where fantastic views await.
Trailhead: Mountain and Round Pond Trails
            Pick up the combined Mountain and Round Pond Trails as they leave the west shoulder of the paved park road at a wire vehicle gate.  The initial segment of trail stays close to a pond on the left, so be on the lookout for wildlife.  I saw a heron sitting on a log as I walked past the pond early on a Saturday morning.
Pond along Mountain Trail
            After passing the pond, the trail curves right and climbs gradually to top a low ridge before descending the other side.  The wide dirt trail remains quite straight as some old rock walls appear on the left, remnants of this land’s agricultural days.  Some official-looking signs that accompany the white hiking paint blazes remind you that this trail doubles as a snowmobile trail in the winter.
            At 0.5 miles, the Round Pond and Mountain Trails part ways.  As directed by a wooden sign, turn right to remain on the more heavily used Mountain Trail.  The trail undulates slightly as it passes near a couple of small ponds, but neither pond comes into view.  Just past 1 mile, the trail gets a little rockier and climbs slightly as it approaches the southeastern base of South Mountain.
Hiking the Mountain Trail
            After completing the brief moderate climb, the trail curves left to continue heading west.  You next tread a narrow area of high ground with ponds on either side, but again neither pond comes into view.  At 1.5 miles, the trail climbs on another moderate but more extended grade to ascend the west arm of South Mountain.
            1.8 miles into the hike, you reach an intersection with the South Ridge Trail, which exits right.  As directed by another sign, you need to turn right here to head for the fire tower atop South Mountain.  The South Ridge Trail is marked with white plastic diamonds nailed to trees.
Climbing South Mountain
After a brief level area, the climb up South Mountain begins in earnest as the trail becomes steeper and rockier.  As you gain elevation, hemlocks from the lower areas give way to stunted pines on the mountain.  In spite of the rockiness, the trail is manageable for most people if you take your time and plan your steps carefully.
North-facing viewpoint
            At 2.3 miles, you reach the top of a rock ledge that offers the first truly outstanding view.  This viewpoint faces north, so Middle Mountain and North Mountain sit in the foreground with taller mountains off on the horizon.  After taking in this view, turn right and walk across the bare rock to the fire tower, which stands nearly 20 feet above the treetops.  The top of the tower was not open on my visit, but climbing the steps to the landing below the top still gives 360-degree views of the surrounding area.
South Mountain fire tower
            I did this hike as an out-and-back, and therefore I turned around after climbing the fire tower and retraced my steps 2.4 miles to the roadside parking area.  If you wanted to extend your hike, you could form a small loop by taking the Tower Trail or the northeast section of the South Ridge Trail back down to the Mountain Trail and then turning left to hike the entire Mountain Trail.  For a longer loop, other trails access Middle and North Mountains, which also lie within the park boundary.  The options are many, but mind your ability and amount of daylight when deciding how to complete your hike.

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