Gray jays, great day: A fall hike on Mount Waumbek

Hiking on the Starr King Trail to 4,006-foot Mount Waumbek, it’s hard to believe that this off-the-beaten-path peak once was part of a proposal for a mega-ski resort stretching across several mountains.

On the beautiful Columbus Day weekend when we hiked to Mount Waumbek, cars spilled from every parking lot in Franconia Notch, where thousands of hikers and visitors had converged for the holiday weekend. But just 20 minutes further north, in Jefferson, New Hampshire, Mount Waumbek was lightly travelled by a few parties of a hikers and several resourceful gray jays.

Setting off on the Starr King Trail to Mount Waumbek, for a hike totaling 7.2 miles and about 2,650 vertical feet.

Setting off on the Starr King Trail to Mount Waumbek, for a hike totaling 7.2 miles and about 2,650 vertical feet. I like it when I arrive at parking lot on a holiday weekend and find plenty of empty spaces.

Back in 1962, the Lancaster Development Corporation proposed a massive 5,000-acre  resort, capped by a hotel on Mount Starr King, famous today among hikers for its chimney, the remnants of a small shelter that once stood on its summit.  The plan called for six lifts, including a tram, with northwest-facing slopes in the Willard basin on the north side of the Kilkenny Ridge, all accessed via a 2.5 mile road near Lancaster, NH.

1964 rendering of the hotel and tramway proposed for the summit of New Hampshire's Mount Starr King.

1964 rendering of the hotel and tramway proposed for the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Starr King, which hikers cross en route to Mount Waumbek. Compare this image to the photo below, which shows the remnants of “development” on Starr King. The summit includes a nice flat granite slab  for picnicking, but  would feel crowded if more than a dozen hikers gathered there (Image from New England Ski History)

Looking around the ledgy summit of Mount Starr King, it’s hard to envision where or how a hotel would fit here. It just doesn’t seem that big. Today, the summit of Starr King (2.6 miles from the trailhead) offers wonderful views of the northern side of the Presidentials, including dramatic King Ravine on the back sides of Mounts Madison and Adams.

On Mount Starr King today, everyone take a photo of the chimney, the remnants of a shelter built in the 1940s and dismantled in the 1980s.

On Mount Starr King today, everyone takes a photo of the chimney, the remnants of a shelter built in the 1940s and dismantled in the 1980s.

From Mount Starr King, we continued on the Kilkenny Ridge trail to Mount Waumbek, which is often described as having no views. This assertion is technically correct, but not really true. Minutes from the summit, hikers can take in great views of the Presidentials at an open area caused by blowdowns just off the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. We ate lunch at this spot with two other parties, including a family of four whose two young kids already had hiked all 48 4,000 footers. Just 10 of us, sharing experiences and breathing in the mountains. Ah, Mount Waumbek. An added bonus: the friendly gray jay who eyed us from the spruce trees.

I was also enjoying the relatively ease of hiking to Mount Waumbek, especially after hiking the strenuous Baldface Circle Trail a couple of weeks earlier.  Don’t get me wrong — the hike is not a walk, but offers a nice steady climb upwards without steeps or significant up-and-downs. Mount Waumbek also offers opportunities for backpacking on the Kilkenny Ridge trail.  We were doing the out-and-back hike, so after lunch we headed back to Mount Starr King.

There, we took a break for more photos and noticed the gray jays again. Soon, they were eating out of our hands and off the tops of our heads, swooping in for landings from a variety of angles.

Gray jays are quite at ease with stealing food from humans. As part of their winter survival strategy, they will use sticky saliva to stick food to tree branches that sit above the snowpack line.

Gray jays are quite at ease with stealing food from humans. As part of their winter survival strategy, they will use sticky saliva to stick food to tree branches that sit above the snowpack line.

Jay grays need about 50 calories a day to survive, and will eat just about anything. Our bird buddy must have been stealing and storing, because he definitely grabbed more than 50 calories of granola bar.

Jay grays need about 50 calories a day to survive, and will eat just about anything. Our bird buddy must have been stealing and storing, because he definitely grabbed more than 50 calories of granola bar.

Gray jays are hardy birds that hikers often see throughout the winter. Where would they be, I wonder, if the Willard Basin ski resort had come to pass?

The peaceful Starr King trail in mid-October.  Because of the warm fall, the foliage remained vibrant; usually, I'd expect fewer leaves on the maples trees in northern New Hampshire in mid-October.

The peaceful Starr King trail in mid-October. Because of the warm fall, the foliage remained vibrant; usually, I’d expect fewer leaves  in northern New Hampshire by mid-October.

Sources and resources

Information about gray jays comes from the Cornell Lab of Orthnothology.

Thornton, T.D. “Big ideas that never quite peaked.” Boston Globe, December 23, 2010.  Includes information about Willard Basin and the Borderline Ski Resort, which I wrote about in my Baldface Circle Trail post.

“Willard Basin.” New England cancelled ski areas. New England Ski History. More details about Willard Basin and other “cancelled” ski areas. One of the lodge renderings at this site reminds me of the lodge that was built at the now-defunct Evergreen Valley Ski Resort, another big dream New England ski resort that was built in the 1970s and lasted only a few years. See my post, White Elephant in a Green Valley.

 

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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2 Responses to Gray jays, great day: A fall hike on Mount Waumbek

  1. Mary says:

    Amazing! Incredible that the jays will feed from your hand.
    Wonderfully written article and photos, Dianne 🙂

    Keep the great blog posts coming!

    Mary

  2. Thanks for reading, Mary! It was a great day, although I was totally wiped out by the end of the hike.

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