North Conway is in the Saco River corridor between north/south mountain ridges. On the east side is the unique Green Hills, visible from most places in the valley and especially across the fields on West Side Road as you head north.
For many valley residents and visitors, hiking in the Green Hills is second nature. Want a moderate hike to fill part of a morning or afternoon? What do you do habitually, for exercise?
I am a habitual hiker. So, on a chilly, overcast Thursday this week, I hiked up Peaked Mountain (1,739 feet) in the Green Hills by myself.
To get there I drove a half-mile south of North Conway on Route 16 and turned left on Artist Falls Road. In 0.4 miles, I turned right on Thompson Road, and in 0.3 miles, pulled into the Pudding Pond and Green Hills parking lot on the right.
The first 0.2 miles is walking along an old logging road to a kiosk. Then you take a left under power lines and into the woods on the Peaked Mountain/Middle Mountain Trail.
The transition from the trappings of civilization to a hiking trail in the woods is profound, yet commonplace. You become part of the New England season, and the season this week was winter.
I had on a hunter-orange net vest. I wore gloves and had foot traction in my pack if I needed them later on icy snow covered ledges. My four points of contact: feet and trekking poles, had a canvas of crunchy snow, often with oak leaves beneath.
In 0.7 miles, at the boundary of town land and The Nature Conservancy’s 5,500-acre Green Hills Preserve, I bore left uphill on the Peaked Mountain Trail. This traversed the slope on a winding and rolling old road for a half mile to the next kiosk.
Due to the perspective from the road, seeing both the leafless woods above and below, you get a greater sense of place there, of where you are on a mountain. Occasional noise from the town reminds you of that nearby other world, and how so much is compressed into this narrow valley of North Conway.
I spied a white note in plastic hanging from a tree ahead. I didn’t know what it was, and approaching saw it was attached to a box. I was a wildlife camera placed by The Nature Conservancy. The note said that they are collaborating with Hubbard Brook Research Foundation and Vassar College to find out what wildlife are in the preserve and how they use it.
A quick call later that day to The Nature Conservancy’s Northern New Hampshire Region director Jeff Lougee, indicated that there are presently 10 wildlife cameras scattered about the Green Hills. Many are on trails, and the study also aims to find out what animals use the trails, and whether they use trails with a lot of human traffic. This coincides with a New Hampshire Fish and Game study and website called “Trails for People and Wildlife” that will benefit landowners.
Lougee said that this summer a student was up here, installing and monitoring the cameras. They will be functioning all winter. He emphasized that any photos of people taken on the trails will be discarded immediately upon inspection of the photos, and there was no need to be concerned about that.
Back in the woods on the side of Peaked Mountain, I reached the next kiosk and turned right uphill on the trail. My trekking poles pierced the snow and leaves on each upward step on this steeper section. The cardio exercise was another reason to be there or on any uphill hike — to know your body and what it can do, and to reaffirm your relationship with it.
I reached the first open ledges, with a view of the east slope of Cranmore Mountain Ski Area. I put on foot traction. There were tracks in the snow on the trail from someone who had come up through the woods a different way. I had a feeling it was a hunter (there is hunting in the preserve). As I continued upward on the gentle slope through stands of spruce and open ledges, the tacks veered right off the trail.
Later on my descent on another trail, I would have an interesting encounter that likely involved the hunter.
The open ledges facing northwest were one of the attractions of the Peaked Mountain Trail, as there is a great view of Mount Washington on a clear day. Not on Thursday, but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment much.
In a glade below the summit I passed the junction with the Peaked Mountain/Middle Mountain Connector Trail, my descent route later. I climbed up the pleasant ridge that is the last rise before the top, and walked out onto the bare summit and into a cold breeze.
The southern end of the valley spread out below, and eastward was a great view of Maine mountains in the notch between Middle Mountain and Black Cap.
I didn’t stay long. But before leaving I wanted to walk south off the summit and visit a striking red pine that grew on the edge of a cliff below the summit.
There is a unique high altitude red pine forest in the Green Hills, precipitated by raging fires in the early 20th century. Today, the 700-acre area of open glades with red pine, technically called a “red pine rocky ridge,” is the largest in the state.
The tree in question is just another one, but is perched on the edge, and has an artistic dead limb that stretches out horizontally. It reminds me of photos of old trees in Yosemite. I wonder how old the dead limb is.
I carefully stood and took a photo of it, then climbed back up the trail and started down. Soon, I took the Peaked Mountain/ Middle Mountain Connector and descended in the sun to the Middle Mountain Trail, bore right and started down the mountain.
About halfway down that section, I paused. There were drops of scarlet blood crossing the trail. Looking on both sides, I could see deer prints descending from the slope of Peaked Mountain, and human prints following, crossing the trail. Well, some drama in the Green Hills, I thought. A hunter was following a wounded deer he had shot earlier.
I followed the tracks a short way off trail toward the steep ravine and brook on my left. The deer was dragging a foot in the snow.
I turned back and headed down the trail, and soon met an older hiker ascending. I told him about my encounter and he suggested it was likely a bow hunter. The chances of a deer fleeing after being shot are much greater with an arrow than a bullet.
Anyway, this is not meant to upset people more about going out in the woods during hunting season. Just wear hunter orange. Lower down near the parking lot I met two experienced hikers heading up, and they didn’t have hunter orange. It is easy to overlook. Especially on a mountain right next to town.
But in my experience that day, and the other numerous times I have hiked in the Green Hills, it is a world apart.