After a mile of hiking at a moderate grade, we burst into sky as we reach the open ledges on the side of Welch Mountain. My three 11-year-old hiking companions skip across the flat patches of granite to the ledge that drops down the side of the mountain. I can hear their voices as I pull up behind them.
“I’ve never climbed a mountain this high!”
“Let’s find some rocks, and see what happens if we throw them down.”
Standing on this granite platform, with its wide-open vista of the Sandwich Range and Mount Tripyramid, the boys feels as if they are on top on the world. But we haven’t traveled all that far—this ledge sits at about 1,600 feet, (about 700 feet of climbing) and it only took 45 minutes of steady hiking to get here. Unrelenting views will continue, more or less, for the next two miles, when we continue the hike up to the summit of Welch Mountain and over to Dickey. Attaining these views for relatively small effort is the magic of the Welch-Dickey Loop, a 4.4-mile trail in Campton, NH, just off the road (Route 175) to Waterville Valley.
As I catch up to the boys, I rein in their dance along the edge of the mountain. “Don’t go any further on that ledge. Stay here. NO FURTHER!”
The ledge isn’t exactly a cliff, but slopes in a gentle curve downward about 150 feet, to the trees below. The grade probably isn’t as steep as it seems in my head, but eleven-year-old boys lack experience in judging steepness and angles, and how quickly a foot could slip, a body tumble. A fall might not mean death, because the trees would grab the tumbling boy, but at minimum, it would mean rescue, a broken limb, possibly worse. The boys – my son and his two friends – are my responsibility today and I intend to return them home without injury.
We sit by the edge of the ledge and eat our sandwiches. Tanner announces that he is going over to find some rocks. I tell him to stay with us and finish his sandwich. “I want to enjoy my lunch,” I say. “It’s hard to relax if I think you might fall over the edge.”
These are good kids, and they comply. After refueling, the boys search for rocks and take turns hurtling small missiles down the ledge and watching them skitter into the trees. Then we continue on, climbing up higher on the sloped rocks. The hiking is not easy. My calves burn as I climb up the rocks using both hands and feet. But the scrambling is fun, the perfect hike for 11-year-old boys who might get bored trudging through the woods.
Hiking with kids is alternatively wonderful, nerve-wracking and annoying, sometimes all at the same time. I love bringing my son and any other takers to this world of rocks and views, and witnessing their awe. But the ledges, along with rock jumping and bursts of trail running, are nerve-wracking. Foot-dragging is annoying, although this group is pretty game. At one point, I have to deal with the fact that one of the boys has stepped, with his sock-clad foot, into his own poop.
Hiking with these boys, I also feel time sliding down these granite slopes. Today, just after completing fifth grade, going on a hike with someone’s mom remains a fun adventure. Will that still be the case next summer? At one point, they will pull away, and organize (I hope) their own hiking trips.
Except for the small aggravation of some black flies, this Friday in mid-June is the perfect day for hiking Welch-Dickey: sunny skies are moderated by a light breeze, not a cloud in the sky. We stop frequently to drink water. On a hotter day, I would definitely bring more. I warn the boys never to drink directly from a stream, even it looks crystal clear, explaining that most water sources in these mountains are contaminated with giardia or other bacteria. “But you can drink it if you treat it with iodine tablets, or filter it,” I explain.
“Like they do in The Hunger Games,” my son Jeremy observes.
At one point, climbing up a short steep patch, my foot slips, and I slide down the rock slab a couple of feet. Startled, the boys turns around. For a milli-second, they look scared. No one asks me if I’m all right – I’m not sure it would occur to them to ask – but I tell them I’m fine anyway.
““But this is why I am not kidding about respecting these ledges,” I say. “You can easily slip.”
They definitely get the message. At the summit of 2,605-foot Welch Mountain, we stand on tops of the rocks, but well clear of the edge, and take in the wide-angle view of the mountains surrounding Waterville Valley. I point out the ski area buildings on top of Mount Tecumseh. Way below we can see the patch of granite where we ate lunch. Above, a group of five ravens soar in the sky. Across the little V-shaped valley that clefts Welch and Dickey Mountains, we can see an impressive ledge that drops straight down into the cleft.
“I want to hike the Appalachian Trail some day,” Howie announces.
Everyone groans when they realize that we need to head downhill and then hike uphill to
get to Dickey Mountain. But the summit (2,734 feet) isn’t as far as the perspective suggests. We make it in about 20 minutes, and are treated to views of Cannon Mountain and the Cannon Balls in Franconia Notch, and Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge. Black flies on the summit chase us into the woods.
We pound downhill through the woods, crossing several open patches of granite before stepping out onto the steep ledge that we could see from the Welch summit. On the ledge, I can see the darker area where thousands of footsteps have carved a path. I know that this ledge is the steepest on the trail. With sensible adults, perfectly safe. But nerve-wracking, with bouncing and skipping 11-year-olds.
“Stay away from the edge,” I remind them. “Stay to the right. When you guys are teenagers, you can come up here and do whatever you want. You only read about one teenager falling to his death every year in the White Mountains, so you’ll probably be fine.”
After hurtling some stones into the ravine, we continue our descent, stepping over rocks and roots on the trail as its angle gradually decreases and flattens. At about 5 p.m., we exit the trail to my car. Although we have only encountered a couple of other parties today, I can tell this hike is popular, because the parking lot is huge. Empty trails are part of the joy of mid-week spring/early summer hiking. By the Fourth of July, this parking lot will be a mob scene.
Although this hike took half as much energy as the 4,000-footer hike I completed earlier in the week, I feel equally as ruined. Ice cream beckons, then the long drive home. Before immersing themselves in Nintendo DS, the boys agree that they want to do another hike.
“But not for a while,” Jeremy says.
“Definitely not,” I say. “We need to forget how hard this hike was before we do another.”
I suppose in that way, hiking is bit like childbirth. You want to experience that bliss again – the views, the openness, the feeling of being on top of the world. But kids and adults like need time to forget (or nearly forget) the sweat and aching legs. Then, we’ll be ready to hit the trail again.
Travelling to Campton from the Seacoast makes for a long day trip. In retrospect, I would have left earlier, and planned on swimming and wading in the Mad River after the hike, then getting ice cream or an early dinner afterwards before heading home. At least two low-fee National Forest campgrounds are located off Route 175, and the area is a great destination for a weekend camping trip.
A good resource for family hikes is the AMC publication, Nature Hikes in the White Mountains, by Robert N. Buchsbaum, who offers a detailed description of this hike and many others of varying lengths and difficulty.
I-93 to Campton/Waterville exit (just past Plymouth). Take Route 49 towards Waterville Valley. When 49 intersects with Route 175, continue another 4.5 miles and turn left on Mad River Road (crossing the river). Follow for .7 miles, then turn right on Orris Road. The parking area is about a half-mile up Orris and hard to miss.