As I rounded the corner on the broad turn east of Orfordville I could see that the summit of Mount Moosilauke was in the clouds, consistent with the mountain forecast. The NH summit forecast was for clouds, plummeting temperature, and hurricane-force winds, so I’d chosen instead to snowshoe the Al Merrill ski loop on the east side of Mount Moosilauke. It turned out to be an excellent choice – with plenty of untracked powder and not another soul in sight. Read on and be sure to check out the gallery for full-size images and more.
Dartmouth now keeps the Ravine Lodge access road plowed all winter, for emergency access to the new Lodge; even better, they created a hiker parking area only 0.75-miles below the Lodge and allow year-round access to that point. When I left the car at 8:30, there were high clouds and a good breeze, temps around 20. It would get colder, windier, and snowier throughout my hike.
I made good time up the plowed access road, which was covered in an inch of fresh unplowed powder. At the end of the road, I nodded to the slumbering Ravine Lodge and donned my snowshoes. The big question of the day was this: has anyone else hiked, snowshoed, or skied the Al Merrill Loop this winter? If the trail was unbroken, it would be hard, slow going.
The trail appeared to be unbroken. On more careful study, however, there was a slight ripple in the snow, an ever-so-faint shadow of tracks. Yes! Someone had snowshoed or skied this trail in the past month, perhaps as recently as a week or two ago; subsequent wind and fresh snow had filled in the tracks and smoothed over the surface. With care, I was able to walk on the established trail, a hidden “monorail” as NH hikers like to call it, and make good time. My snowshoes waded easily through 1-2″ of fresh powder above this packed trail, but whenever I lost it – or stepped aside to avoid an overhanging branch – I sank deeply into the snowpack despite my snowshoes.
Last week there was a warm spell (and here at home a bit of rain), creating an icy crust over the snowpack. Up at this elevation, I could detect a layer of crunchy (not quite crusty) snow about 4″ below the surface, and another two feet of soft powder below that… and another hard base of who-knows depth below that. Good skiing conditions! I may need to return.
The trail was in good shape, and even the drainage ditches had intact snow bridges, making travel easy. I soon passed the side trail to John Rand Cabin, one of my favorite places to be, now sadly closed due to the pandemic. The snow on the roof of its firewood shed gives you a little sense of the snowpack here.
From here the trail gets a bit rougher, with one or two tricky stream crossings and a few blowdowns, but for the most part it remains a wide, sloping trail zig-zagging up the hillside. At several points, deep moose tracks cross the trail, just a day or two old.
One of the most compelling sights of the day, however, were the many wumpus resting in the trees above the trail. I was introduced to this term a few years ago by my friend Jen (whose birthday is today; happy birthday Jen!). These pillows of snow, accumulated in the boughs of fir and spruce trees overhanging the trail, make a whump! sound when they fall to the ground. A careless hiker, brushing the lower branches of a tree, can wake a sleeping wumpus and be surprised by the sudden whump of a wumpus on the back of his neck! Below is one particularly impressive set: a large wumpus, the size and shape of a black bear, and two smaller wumpus (the bear cubs?).
After two switches and two backs on the switchbacks, I reached the 10th Mountain Division outlook, which is nearly at the trail’s high point of 3520′. This spot often provides a nice view of Mount Moosilauke, but by now it was snowing hard and there was no view beyond the immediate clearing. Still, I enjoyed seeing the refreshed signage and thanked once again the many hardy Dartmouth men who fought in that division (and others) during WWII.
It seemed likely that the earlier skiers, whose packed trail I’d been following so far, may have turned around here. (As I had done, a few years ago.) Would the trail ahead would become a difficult slog?! I pressed on, pleased to find that the onward trail was also packed, and even easier to follow. It appears that the earlier group(s) had done this loop in the clockwise direction, skiing up the far side and down the way I had come up. (Smart move! when I skied this loop counter-clockwise with the kids in 2014, I found this descent pretty hair-raising.)
The snow was deeper here, the trees even more heavily burdened, and the wind even windier, but it was great to be headed downhill. Soon I rejoined the Ridge Trail; again there were no fresh tracks, but there were signs of older tracks. With more traffic on the Ridge Trail the going became even smoother, the underlying trail more firm. I was not the only one to realize this, as I followed day-old fox tracks for a good mile down the trail. The two bridge crossings helped to demonstrate the depth of the snow – although the snow on the bridges was far less deep than in the surrounding terrain, it remains quite deep!
When I reconnected with my original tracks, and had nearly reached the plowed access road, I quickly diverged from my early tracks to dip below the Lodge (instead of above it) so I could get a glimpse of the Lodge and its new bunkhouses on my way out. All seems well, and I hope to see them all re-open this summer!
Be sure to check out the gallery for more photos, full-size photos, and a brief video or two.
Distance: 10.8km (6.7 miles)
Gain: 315m (1033′)
Moosilauke summit is at upper left. Today’s hike is in blue, starting and ending at bottom center, and passing the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge at the icon.