One of my fondest memories of hiking on Mount Moosilauke was a solo bushwhack in August 1984, when I decided to follow Gorge Brook to its source, and beyond. The Gorge Brook Trail follows the brook for a mile or so, then diverges east to attain the ridge and climb over East Peak to the summit. But the brook itself contains one of the hidden gems of Moosilauke: the Pleiades, a series of spectacular cascades that few ever have a chance to see. Although I mentioned this memorable bushwhack in a post from 2013, I had never returned to the Pleiades… until today. And what a day for it! Read on and be sure to check out the photo/video gallery.
In trying to choose a hike for today, a hazy day with high humidity and valley temperatures forecast in the 90s, my eyes roved over the map of Moosilauke. The Pleiades was an excellent choice: rock-hopping up a bubbling brook in a verdant forest seemed far cooler than striding across the sun-baked ridgelines of the White Mountains. And, the many rains of the past month promised the cascades would be lovely to see.
So I strode quickly up the Gorge Brook trail to Last Sure Water, the point where the trail diverges from the brook, changed from hiking shoes to water shoes, and began hopping upstream from rock to rock. The brook was bubbling, the rocks mossy, and the forest still a mixture of birch and fir trees. I passed many small cascades – where the water fell perhaps a foot or two as it poured over a boulder. Although I recalled there were were many cascades yet to come, I could not resist snapping photos of each as I passed by, quickly losing count. As the ravine narrowed and steepened, the cascades started to knit together:
In 1985 I carried no equipment with me, pausing occasionally to swim wherever a pool seemed big enough for a dunking, hopping barefoot upstream from pool to pool, my Limmer boots slung over my neck. I drank freely from the cool, clear water. Today, a bit older and wiser, I carried my usual compliment of emergency supplies, wore rugged water shoes, and managed to keep even those dry for the first hour. Alternately rock-hopping or wading, I stuck to the brook, except two or three places where it was necessary to skirt the steep, slick rocks by climbing through the woods nearby. One such place was the largest cascade of all, perhaps fifty or sixty feet tall.
As I climbed, the stream became steadily smaller, though there were still numerous cascades to be seen. Eventually the stream became a trickle, visible only occasionally but always audible as it bubbled its way down the bedrock under the thin blanket of soil, roots, and moss. Here the moss was think and luxurious, spreading far across the slope.
Finally I could hear and see the brook no more. On later investigation of my GPS track, it appears the last visible water was a mere 200′ below the ridgeline, far higher than I expected. At about this same point, I entered the wicked krummholz, where the trees are short, dense, and gnarly. At this altitude, so close to the ridgeline, the conditions can be ferocious as winter storms blast over the ridge. In turn, these trees present ferocious conditions for any hiker who dares to pass through!
Luckily, my struggle through (and under, and over) the krummholz lasted only a couple hundred meters. I popped out onto the Carriage Road, the trail that traverses the ridge, and received some odd looks from passing hikers. In another 15 minutes I was on the summit, enjoying a cool breeze, hazy views, and a welcome rest for my weary, scratched legs. I realized I could take my time descending, so I took the longest trail down, the Ridge Trail, making an excellent loop for the day. Along the way I noticed a herd path heading to the trailless Mount Blue, and followed it. No views. The herd path continued in the direction I wanted to go; I foolishly followed it, thinking it better than backtracking. The path quickly faded, and I found myself pushing my way down the steep slope through dense rocks and brush, finally regaining the trail.
Anyway, this is one of those trips for which it is hard to capture the experience; be sure to check out the photo/video gallery for much more!
Endnote: Although the Pleiades have long been known among Dartmouth chubbers, I was unsure whether they were known more widely. A quick search turns up several references online, including a listing in the World Waterfall Database, a hike description in Steve Smith’s 2015 blog post, and most interestingly, an elaborate 1880 account by Thomas Wentworth Higginson in A Search for the Pleiades, Chapter X (pp.249-269) in a collection of his writings. That article appears to be the first recording of the naming of these cascades, after the Pleiades cluster of seven stars. Like me, Higginson sought out the falls on the hottest day of summer, and his description really begins on p.258. (Higginson describes them as being in Jobildunc Ravine, which is incorrect; from his description of the route, it is clear they were exploring Gorge Brook.) I like his description of the krummholz: “we were twisting and writhing our bodies among closely set trees, never very large, since it was too high in the air for that, but tough and firmly knit, their branches being stunted into a magnificent vigor.” Once they found the cascades, though, his descriptions turn rapturous; from my experience today, I can see why.
Distance: 13.8 km (8.6 miles)
Gain: 812 m (2,663 ft)