A September walk in the woods: Mount Cabot to Unknown Pond

Mount Cabot or the Carters? As I drove up Pinkham Notch early on a lovely September Saturday, the many cars spilling from every parking lot cinched my decision: on to Mount Cabot.  I would escape the crowds on this gorgeous day, but also have some company on the lightly traveled Kilkenny Ridge–a good thing, as I was hiking solo.

As it turns out, while Mount Cabot is off the beaten path, it isn’t all that remote. Just outside of Berlin, New Hampshire, the York Pond-Bunnell Notch and Unknown Pond trails begin at the state fish hatchery on York Pond Road. When I arrived, I found about ten cars at the trailhead—enough hikers, but not too many.

Having come this far, I was aiming to complete the 11.5 mile loop up through Bunnell Notch to Mount Cabot and then over Kilkenny Ridge to Unknown Pond. However, feet problems have limited my hiking, so the 9.2 out-and-back to the Cabot peak was also an option.

My recommendation:  if you get yourself up to Mount Cabot, do the entire loop. The hiking is fairly easy, by White Mountains standards, beginning with the first mile of overgrown logging road and including lots of easy pine-needle walking on Kilkenny Ridge. The trek includes 3,00o feet of elevation gain, so it’s not a walk, but covering the miles with breaks at the Mount Cabot cabin, the Horn, and Unknown Pond makes for a great day in the woods.

First views come at Bunnell Rock, just off the Kilkenny Ridge trail. Skies were hazy, but I thought I could see Franconia Ridge in front of Mount Washington — an intriguing perspective that I hadn’t seen before (and later confirmed was correct).

The Mount Cabot cabin, about four miles in, was my first rest stop, where I enjoyed lunch on the porch. I had contemplated making this hike an overnight family trip, with a late start and sunset at the cabin, and had heard many opinions about the cabin, some declaring it a horrible, filthy hovel, and others finding it tolerable.

The old fire warden's cabin has sleeping platforms with 8 spots. It's definitely not fancy. The fire tower was dismantled in the mid-1960s, and it's a small miracle that the cabin still exists. Winter hikers take note: The Forest Service has removed the wood stove.

The old fire warden’s cabin has sleeping platforms with 8 spots. It’s definitely not fancy. The fire tower was dismantled in the mid-1960s, and it’s a small miracle that the cabin still exists. Winter hikers take note: The Forest Service has removed the wood stove.

My verdict: I would sleep in the cabin (although I wish the Boy Scout maintainers would rip up the padding on the sleeping platforms, as those pads tend to collect the mouse droppings for which the cabin is noted). However, I’m not sure that sleeping there would be noteworthy or interesting, unless doing so was part of a longer backpacking trip. The view is limited, through the trees, and  I’m glad I wasn’t hauling a full pack for 11.5 miles. I’ve read that a spring flows near the cabin, but didn’t look around for it; the cabin also has a rain barrel that contained a small puddle of water. (Bunnell Brook is also a potential water source if you can stock up before reaching the cabin).

Two gray jays at the clearing where the fire tower used to stand.

Gray jay in the fir trees just below the Mt. Cabot summit.

Finishing up lunch around 1 p.m., I decided to go for the entire loop. I was planning to power through the fire tower clearing after a short look at the hazy views, but I had to linger and visit with a couple of gray jays. They weren’t quite as bold as the jays on Mount Waumbek, who will eat out of your hand, but they were happy to steal a few bits of my granola bar.

And on to the summit, a half-mile from the cabin. The wooded Mount Cabot peak is peaceful but anticlimactic, and I pushed on. The trail descended, then climbed uphill, and before I knew it, I was at the junction for the side trail (.3 mile) to the Horn. I had already hiked over the Bulge without feeling the pain.

I scrambled up to the Horn and its 360-views. Confronting the large glacial erratic that caps off the Horn, at first I wondered if I could get up there. Exploring its perimeter, I found that the south-facing side works for a short person, and I pulled myself up via a large crack.

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The haze had cleared and I had great views from the Horn, including this south-facing view, with Mount Washington in the distance.

The friendly crack (from perspective above) that gave me leverage to pull myself up and scramble down the Horn.

The friendly crack (from perspective above) that gave me leverage to pull myself up and scramble down the Horn.

After my snack and rest on the Horn, I was off to Unknown Pond, where lots of vegetation restoration is underway. The Forest Service wants hikers to stay away from the shoreline (which of course is the best spot to hang out when visiting a pond). I rested briefly at a designated spot  to enjoy the view, and then checked out the campsites, just above the pond (a 2-minute walk). The campsites were empty on this full-moon Saturday (and I didn’t see a single person on the Unknown Pond trail, although I had met hikers on the Kilkenny Ridge).

View of the Horn from Unknown Pond (photo by John Compton of 1HappyHiker.com).

View of the Horn from Unknown Pond (photo by John Compton of 1HappyHiker.com).

I expected my last leg, a 3.3 mile walk on the Unknown Pond trail, to go quickly, but it was a trail, not a logging road, with lots of small rocks and a couple of stream crossings. Not difficult, just not a jogging path. But I made good time to the parking lot, where my lonely car was the only one waiting for its owner.

Although I’m happy that I finally checked Mount Cabot off my 4000-footer list, I’m even happier that I discovered this area north of the Notches. From the Horn, the Percy Peaks (featured image on header) called to me. Camping at Unknown Pond would be a great overnight on a northerly hike along the Cohos Trail. The deluxe shelter on Sugarloaf Arm sounds like a palace. Next September, when the Notch trails are packed with hikers, I’ll continue heading north.

Good-bye, Mount Cabot! I'll be back another time to explore on the Cohos Trail.

Good-bye, Mount Cabot! I’ll be back another time for more exploring on the Cohos Trail.

Notes and resources:

The York Pond-Bunnell Notch and Unknown Pond trailheads that complete the Mount Cabot loop are located at the end of York Pond Road off NH 110, just north of Berlin, NH. (Note that the northern end of the Unknown Pond Trail is located off Mill Brook Road , also off Route 110, in Stark, NH. You can’t do a loop hike from the northern end).

The gate closure sign at the New Hampshire State Fish Hatchery scares people off from doing the loop. I called the Fish Hatchery and learned that the gate is only pinned at 4 p.m., and not locked until 10 p.m. As it turns out, the gate wasn’t closed when I drove out around 5:45 p.m. However, to avoid an accidental car stranding, I recommend calling at 603-449-3412 to confirm that the policy remains the same.

If you want to explore far from the madding crowds, the Cohos Trail is a 165-mile trail that begins in the Crawford Notch area and ends at the Canadian border.

Read more of my 4000-footer posts here, including the trip to nearby Mount Waumbek.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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