Impossible as it may seem, within a few minutes of our hike up Mount Tecumseh in Waterville Valley, my friend and I have lost the trail, and now find ourselves bushwhacking through a wet humid forest.
Technically we are not lost, because we know where we are – hiking along or at least within hearing range of Tecumseh Brook. But I know that the trail travels for a solid mile along the brook, an easy distance to travel on a trail, but one which could take a couple of hours if we cover it by picking our way up the brook, or by hiking on its steep bank, slipping over, under and around blowdowns, and pushing through beech saplings and hobblebush.
After an hour of mauling our way through the forest, we are soaked, even though it is not raining. I suggest that we angle upwards, on the south side of the brook, until we reach the open space of the ski trail cut on the ridge above us. If we never find the trail, we can always hike up the ski slope which is part of the Waterville Valley ski resort.
After a few additional minutes of hiking uphill, we stumble out of the woods onto the trail, a well-beaten, well-travelled trail which shortly leads us to a rock slab with a view of the Valley. Compared to bushwhacking in a humid forest, the rest of the hike is a breeze by White Mountain standards, as it flattens out on the ridge before climbing one last steep pitch to the summit cone.
Mount Tecumseh is the shortest of the tallest mountains in New Hampshire, a 4,000-footer but just by three feet (4,003 feet). However, what the mountain lacks in height, it makes up for in views, at least theoretically. Although Tecumseh is mostly a wooded summit, from various vantage points on the summit and the ridge just below, hikers can see up to 36 other 4,000-footers. On this muggy day, however, our view is limited to a carpet of soft green trees vaguely visible through a dense cloud of fog. On this Sunday in late June, black flies still buzz. Slapping at flies between bites, we quickly eat our lunch.
Waterville Valley is one of a handful of mountain valleys in New England that could be in Switzerland, albeit with smaller less craggy peaks. The Valley is set apart from the rest of the world, with the mountains forming a lofty wall around a ten-mile wide swath of valley floor. Although the seasonal Tripoli Road climbs up from the Valley over the mountains to Lincoln, the 13-mile drive on Route x along the Mad River from I-93 is the only road up into the Valley and the road ends where the mountains begin.
Even though Waterville Valley is a well-known ski destination, for me, finding a mini-village of hotels, shops and restaurants here always feels like discovering a secret self-contained world. Town Square is more of a destination than a village, but the Valley does have a community of 247 year-round residents, including a K-8 elementary school with 40 or so kids.
This sense of being surrounded by mountains made Waterville Valley an early destination for mountain tourists. The Valley was the first place in the White Mountains where hikers built trails, beginning in the 1850s, when the mountain tourist boom was first heating up. Later, in the 1930s, some of the first ski trails in New England were cut in these woods, including the Tecumseh Ski Trail, which became the site of a now-discontinued annual race.
However, although the Valley was revered by a devoted group of cottage owners, hikers, and hard-core skiiers, it remained an off-the-beaten path destination until the 1960s, when former Olympian Tom Corcoran bought up much of the 600 or so acres of private land in the Valley and began the still-continuing process of developing Waterville Valley as a full-service ski resort and vacation destination. (Mount Tecumseh itself, along with all of the surrounding mountains, is part of White Mountain National Forest). After Corcoran sold the resort in 1994, Waterville Valley cycled through several corporate owners, until it was purchased in 2010 by local investors, including John Sununu.
Mount Tecumseh is named for a Shawnee chief who achieved fame far from New Hampshire in the Ohio River Valley. How the mountain retained Tecumseh’s name is a bit of a mystery. A map of the White Mountains published in 1860 labeled it as Tecumseh. Some sources attribute the name to E.J. Young, a Campton, N.H. photographer, who also may have named neighboring Mount Osceola (another 4,000-footer), for a Seminole chief who also never came within a thousand miles of New Hampshire.
From the summit of Tecumseh, hikers can continue on the Sosman Trail, which travels to White Peak at the top of the ski area, and then either descend down the grassy ski slopes, or backtrack. The Tecumseh Trail itself traverses the ridge and ends at the height of land on Tripoli Road (an option with two cars but not as a loop). Because of our earlier debacle in the woods – and given the lack of views — we elect to backtrack rather than crash down the unmarked but fairly obvious downhill ski trail.
Later, on the final leg of the hike, we can’t fathom how we lost the trail, given how well-marked it is, how obviously trail-ish. The experience is a good reminder as to how easy it is to make mistakes in the woods, to miss turns, or get turned around, even on well-travelled trails, and why hikers should always carry a map and compass or GPS.
Although I was without the family on this adventure, Mount Tecumseh is a good family hike, not too long or too hard, with the added bonus of giving kids the psychological boost of summiting a 4,000-footer. Of course, they might get the wrong idea about 4,000-footers, i.e. that such hikes are fairly easy and not too long. Hopefully they will forget about easy and short if the next hike is steep and long. Hopefully I will too.
The Waterville Valley Athletic and Improvement Society, established in 1888, offers a wealth of information on hiking trails in WV, along with information on a variety of other activities, including croquet.
About Waterville Valley. Town of Waterville Valley website. More on the history of Waterville Valley.
Goodrich, Nathaniel L. The Waterville Valley: A Story of a Resort in the White Mountains. Lunenburg, Vermont: The North Country Press, 1952. Short book about the history of the valley, including information about the first settlers, the early tourism industry, the logging industry, and how the Valley ended up becoming part of the White Mountain National Forest. I checked this book out of the Bowdoin College library (via our interload system) and I believe I am probably the first reader of this particular copy. It’s hard to fathom how much of the White Mountains was reduced to slash during the peak of the logging era in the early 20th century.
Smith, Steven D. and Mike Dickerman. The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History. Littleton, NH: Bondcliff Books, 2001
Waterville Valley Resort. Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. New England Ski History website.
If you enjoy this 4,000-footer trip report, check out some of my other posts: