Would we find the plane crash? That was the motivating question as I hit the road early one morning in late June with three middle-school boys.
More than 40 years ago, on June 18, 1972, a small plane bound for Boston vanished in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region after taking off from Laconia Airport. A search was launched, but the plane had evaporated. A year later — or maybe two years later — in June 0f 1973 or 1974, the wreckage was found, just a few hundred yards below the summit of well-travelled Mount Belknap.
At least that’s the story, according to a few internet sites. More complete information — such as the pilot’s name and age, the type of plane, the source of the internet information — remains elusive. A search of Boston Globe archives turns up several other small plane crashes in New England in the early 1970s, but not a word about the plane that slammed into Mount Belknap.
Setting out, all we knew for sure was that we might find the wreckage on the side of Mount Belknap. Or we might not. In seeking out the crash site, I didn’t wish to make sport of a tragedy. The wreckage, like the mountain range that holds it, is a mystery that pulls us onto the trail — especially three teens who might otherwise be satisfied by the glow of a screen.
Also, the prospect of climbing the Mount Belknap fire tower and then lounging in stone chairs on Piper Mountain add up to a day of hiking that even the most hardened video gamer finds hard to resist.
So, armed with plenty of bug spray against black flies, we set off for the Belknap Range in Gilford, New Hampshire to climb Belknap and Piper Mountains, with plans to also hit the Gunstock Mountain summit, just to say we did it.
We started our hike at the parking lot at the end of the Belknap Mountain Carriage Road (see directions and details at bottom of post). Various approaches exist to all three mountains; the Carriage Road parking lot offers access to a variety of easy loop hikes on the west side of the range.
We began with a short hike up the Blue Trail (which leads to the summit of Belknap Mountain) to the Belknap-Gunstock col, where we turned left on the Saddle Trail to get a summer view from Gunstock’s 2250-foot summit, where we have often enjoyed ski-lift vistas of Lake Winnipesaukee in the winter.
The whizz of the Gunstock’s zip line sliced through the air. Not an offensive sound, just noteworthy. Passing the zipline platform, we backtracked to the Blue Trail and hiked through the forest towards the summit of Belknap Mountain.
The plane wreckage is not visible from the trail, but I’d read that the turn-off to the site was marked with a small bit of surveying tape, just below the Belknap summit. As we hiked along, we kept an eye out for that bit of tape. Just as we were about to give up, I spied the orange tape, hanging on a branch, about 2/10ths of a mile below the summit, and could see the faint outline of a “herd path” on the left (down the steep slope).
Hiking down to the crash site required careful footing over a rough rock fall. Although it seems impossible that a plane could vanish in this well-travelled region, once in the sun-dappled forest, I could see how easily that might happen, especially after the leaves have burst forth on the trees.
About a one-tenth of a steep pitch off the trail, we found the wreckage. The boys were excited to find the plane crash, and I reminded them to be respectful — that this was not a playground, but a place where someone had died. I won’t deny that there’s a certain voyeuristic element to looking for a plane crash. But searching for such sites is also a way of honoring the memory of those who died. The hunt for the wreckage, I think, cultivates the same spirit that led the pilot to take up flying. Bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on adventure, or on exploring and pushing boundaries.
After we had looked over the crash site, we clambered back up to the main trail, and quickly reached the summit of 2382-foot Belknap Mountain, where a well-maintained fire tower offers 360 degree views of the Lakes Region.
After the tower, we set off for the grand finale — the last leg on the ridge, on the White Trail to the junction of the Old Piper Trail (Orange Trail), for the ascent to Piper Mountain (2,044 feet), and its odd collection of stone sculptures and thrones.
Piper Mountain lived up to its billing as one of the most intriguing mountain destinations in New Hampshire — an open, barren summit, with plenty of room to run around and jump from rock to rock — or to stretch out on a throne of granite.
We finished our loop by taking the Piper Mountain Trail (Red) down the mountain, exiting onto Carriage Road just below the parking lot. All told, we had hiked about five miles and were ready for ice cream.
Another hiker was waiting at the parking lot family members to arrive so they could get in a quick hike before the Carriage Road gate closed at 6 p.m. We struck up a conversation, and he told me that he had found the crash and the remains of the pilot (a skeleton) back in 1974.
“I was hiking and I just happened to look down, saw something yellow, and there it was,” he said.
The wreckage, he said, remained undiscovered for two years, not one (as is often reported), and that one person — the pilot — was in the plane, not two (again, often reported).
I didn’t grill him for further details, but was struck by how internet has created its own facts about the crash (not for the first time, to be sure). I did ask him for ice cream recommendations. We set off for Sawyer’s Dairy Bar in Gilford, and our friend proved to be a highly trustworthy source on ice cream.
Although the plane crash cut one man’s life way too short, I’m glad we found it, because the search led me to the mysteries of the Belknap Range. Now, the map invites me to hike to Round Pond, the ledges of Whiteface Mountain, and many other off-the-beaten path destinations just over an hour from home. I’ll be back to do more exploring.
Additional resources and information
Directions to Belknap Carriage Road parking lot (access point for various trails):
At Gilford Village, leave Route 11A and follow Belknap Mountain Road south, bearing left at .8 miles and right at 1.4 miles. At 2.4 miles, the Belknap Carriage Road forks left. Follow it 1.5 miles to the parking lot. The road is gated, near the lot, and the gate closes at 6 p.m. Signs point to various trails next to or near the parking lot, and you may have to look around, but it’s not hard to find whatever particular trail you are looking for.
Belknap Range Trails provides detailed descriptions of hikes in the region, and includes a link to a printable map (definitely recommended). AMC’s Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide also provides detailed information on the various trail options, although it is hard to follow the descriptions without a map.
We found the geocache box at the plane crash site with no specific instructions, just by looking around. I am more a low-tech letterbox-type myself, and have since learned that several letterboxes (see list here) are tucked beneath stumps and rocks on Belknap, Piper and other mountains in the area.
Mount Major is the most popular family hike in the Lakes Region, but further to the north and east, I also recommend the Morgan-Percival loop for its fun caves and ladders.
Further afield, the 5-mile-ish Welch-Dickey Loop, near Waterville Valley, is another great family hike.