Our only regret is that we have arrived at the cave too late. This roomy cavern, formed by boulders and slabs of rock that fell from the mountain long ago, offers both space to spread out and shelter from the wind on this chilly afternoon in early November. The cave would have made the perfect lunch spot, but we’ve already eaten.
The day is not exceptionally cold – just early November chilly. Here on this ridge above Squam Lake, my son has refused to abandon his shorts, although he willingly dons his hat as the wind blows. His friend Tucker borrows my gloves. From the 2220-foot summit of Mount Morgan, we watch snow falling on Franconia Ridge, to the north. But on the southern side of this ridge, a dull November sun lights up Squam Lake. The ridge, which forms the backbone of the Squam Range, creates a barrier between the harsher weather of the White Mountains and the milder conditions in the New Hampshire Lakes region – a perfect destination for a late fall hike.
Intrigued by reports of ladders on Mount Morgan and the cave on Mount Percival, I’ve been waiting a long time to hike this 4.7-mile loop. These extras offer a great hook for enticing my son to the mountains. Rocks! Ladders! Caves! Hiking doesn’t get any better for 11-year-olds, even for today’s computer-addicted boys.
We decide to hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, heading up the Percival trail for a short distance and then cutting over to the trail to Mount Morgan (the cut-off trail has a different name which escapes me, but it is the only cut-off and well-marked). The trail up Mount Morgan climbs gradually – not steep at all — until eventually it reaches what seems like a sheer rock wall. Correction: it is a sheer rock wall, hence, the ladders. (However, a few steps in the other direction takes hikers who don’t do ladders up an alternate route that offers more psychologically stable footing).
We behold the ladders – three of them, one stacked atop another, straight up the rock. The final ladder requires some Spiderman-type footwork, in which a hiker has to reach a leg over the rock and then pull up with the hands to get onto the ladder (probably not suited to very young children, but the perfect challenge for two 11-year-old boys).
We climb the ladders. No one slips and dies. After five more minutes of climbing on the rocks, we reach the summit of Mount Morgan, where we can feel the chill blowing down from the snowy north. Hats and gloves come out and, after briefly admiring the view, we continue on the Crawford-Ridgepole Trail, aiming to descend by the Percival Trail. The boys are starving by now, so we stop in the woods to eat our lunch out of the wind, and then continue on, arriving at the summit of Percival (2212 feet) within a few minutes.
After some photos and another quick view of the wintery scene to the north, we follow the arrows pointing straight down the rock face. Up close, I see that we are not scrambling straight down a rock face, as the arrows suggest. We pick our way down amidst boulders and rocks, all very safe and protected.
Finally, we arrive at the tight entrance to the cave. One by one, the boys push their feet into the opening and drop themselves inside. When my turn arrives, I pull off my daypack – I can’t fit through the opening while wearing it – and slither feet first into the cave.
I love this cave! Slabs of granite have crashed at crazy angles. Light filters through the cracks. The ‘floor’ is layered with boulders and granite slabs. Rain and snow probably do trickle inside, and sleeping on the uneven, angled floor wouldn’t be that comfortable, but still – what a perfect shelter.
“We should have had our lunch here,” Tucker says as Jeremy investigates campsite possibilities.
Next time, maybe we will start the loop in the opposite direction, so as to time our arrival at the cave with lunch. On the other hand, if we take the trail directly to the cave, we will miss the ladders on Mount Morgan, because the ladders are designed for going up rather than going down (at least for most hikers). My husband points out that we can always detour down from the ridge to the ladders and climb up again. It’s only a short downhill/uphill detour. But then again, we could bring more snacks, climb the ladders first, and hold off on lunch.
These decisions can wait until another day, because we will be return. This hike is a winner, a gem, like many other “smaller” hikes I have discovered in northern New England these past ten years. In my younger days, hiking meant climbing the biggest mountains. The day usually started with a 6 a.m. departure to the mountains and a nine-, ten- or 12- mile slog up and down steep trails, followed by pizza and total exhaustion.
I didn’t want to give up hiking when I became a parent. But I knew that I couldn’t take my son up big mountains and still enjoy the experience. (Some children might enjoy the challenging of trudging up and down steep mountains for many miles, but mine is not one of them). Discovering these shorter hikes, many full of intriguing features like the rock cave, has been a fringe benefit of parenthood. I’ve also learned that a great hike doesn’t have to be a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. ordeal.
We finish this hike by three p.m., leaving plenty of time to browse in the emporium that is The Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough, where locals and visitors have browsed the uneven wooden floors since the 1780s. I love that we are ogling the penny candy in what may be the oldest store in the United States. Alas, the store does not sell hot drinks for our cold hands.
I still like hiking big mountains. As I’ve written before, I’m pecking away at my 4000-footer list. Now that my son is getting older and has greater mental stamina and physical endurance, we’ll be trying some more challenging hikes. But the old equation of “big mountain” = “hike” has been permanently revised. Now, I’ll hike any mountain — or even a hill with a view — and call it wonderful.
Details and resources
The Morgan-Percival Loop trailhead is located on Route 113 between Holderness and Center Sandwich, NH.
Hiking Trails in the Lakes Region offers information on a variety of hikes in the Lakes region, where almost all of the hiking is family-friendly for both young kids and teenagers and everything in between. The New Hampshire Lakes Region Tourism Association website also offers information on hikes in the area.