Wandering in the wilderness of Mount Paugus

In New Hampshire’s heavily visited White Mountains, solitude often seems like a lost dream on beautiful autumn weekends, when throngs of people climb popular peaks. But not far from the beaten path, in the Sandwich Range Wilderness, intriguing Mount Paugus awaits exploration far from the madding crowd.

A year ago, the ledges of 3198-foot Mount Paugus had beckoned to me from a rest stop on the west side of nearby Mount Chocorua. Now, I set off with two friends on the Cabin Trail to complete an 8-mile loop that would take us over the ledges of Mount Paugus, down to Whitin Brook and the Big Rock Cave, and then over Mount Mexico.

The mist lent an air of mystery to the hemlock forest on the Cabin Trail.

The mist lent an air of mystery to the hemlock forest on the Cabin Trail.

At the trailhead, on Route 113A in Wonalancet, our vehicle sat alone. Although the day had dawned wet, the forecast called for clearing—a good day that would draw swarms to the mountains. But on our hike to Mount Paugus, we met only one other party, two slightly lost hikers and their dog.

Mount Paugus is part of the Sandwich Range Wilderness, designated as such by the government in 1984. This “wilderness” has a long history of human use, for logging and for recreation. But on this walk, I definitely felt like I was wandering in wilderness, one replete with mysterious forests, vast cliffs and ledges, and dramatic glacial erratics.

As the last remnants of rain dripped off the beech trees, the Cabin Trail climbed upward on an old logging road. At one point the forest abruptly shifted from beech to hemlock, almost as if someone had planted a dividing line between the deciduous and the evergreen. About two miles in, the trail climbs alongside a rough sidehill with a steep forested slope.  After this patch, (and 2.7 miles in) the trail descends a bit to reach the junction of the Lawrence Trail, which climbs upward and then crosses over the ledges of Mount Paugus.

The summit of Mount Paugus is buried in trees and we didn’t attempt a bushwhack. Instead, we hiked on the Lawrence Trail until it crosses an open but tree-shrouded patch of ledge. There, with a small detour, we found west-facing views.

When we reached the flat ledges near the summit of Mount Paugus, we scrabbled a bit off to the southwest to eat a windy lunch on this dramatic west-facing ledge.

When we reached the flat ledges near the summit of Mount Paugus, we scrabbled a bit off to the southwest to eat a windy lunch on this dramatic west-facing ledge with cloudy views of Mount Tripyramid.

Although the other hikers we’d encountered had trouble navigating the network of trails around Mount Paugus, we had a map and it wasn’t hard to follow the Lawrence Trail as it descended past the Beeline Trail (which take hikers over to Mount Chocorua) to the Old Paugus Trail.  The descent is rough in spots and the wet rocks added more  challenge, but nothing that couldn’t be solved with a combination of careful steps and butt shimmies.  The Old Paugus Trail offers views of Mount Chocorua through the trees (see photo above the headline).

Deep in this wilderness, with its many turns and unsigned junctions, we frequently consulted the map. People tend to forget that maps are useful not only for showing the trail, but for identifying features in the land that help orient the user, like brooks, or the topo lines that announced the approach of steep ledges on the Old Paugus Trail. I’ve yet to become a confident compass user, but have found that carefully studying a map is almost as good.

An amazing ledge on the Old Paugus Trail -- and quite obvious on the map, from the contour lines.

An immense ledge on the Old Paugus Trail. The topo lines of the map really don’t do it justice.

We dipped low to Whitin Brook, an inviting swimming hole in August, and then picked up the Big Rock Cave trail towards 2020-foot Mount Mexico.  After six or miles of meandering, I groaned a little at the thought of climbing another mountain, but the dramatic glacial erratics at Big Rock Cave soon provided a spirit-boosting reward.

This set of huge glacial erratics, including a pair that creates roomy cave, and several other intriguing nooks, crannies and crevices. I'm not sure I'd want to sleep there, given that bears probably live in  this wild area, but it looks like people use it for campouts on a fairly regular basis.

This set of huge glacial erratics  creates a roomy cave, and several other intriguing nooks, crannies and crevices. I’m not sure I’d want to sleep here, given that bears must prowl in this wild area, but it looks like people use the cave for campouts on a regular basis. A hike into the cave, on the Big Rock Cave Trail, would be an exciting day’s work for the youngest hikers.

Just below Mount Mexico, the forest grows on top of a glacial erratic pushed here by the ice 11,000 years ago.

Just below Mount Mexico, the forest grows on top of a glacial erratic pushed here by the ice 11,000 years ago.

After the caves, we ascended to the flat top of Mount Mexico, home to a beautiful open hemlock forest. Then we were on the home stretch, about two miles downhill to the trailhead.

The hike took more time than we had planned, but we enjoyed the meandering, the conversation, and the solitude. If wilderness is a place in which we can lose ourselves in wonder, then the Sandwich Range qualifies, even given its extensive and sometimes destructive human history. Lucky us!

Sources and resources

To recap, our loop hike to Mount Paugus consisted of the Cabin Trail to the Lawrence Trail to the Old Paugus Trail to the Big Rock Cave Trail.  The Sandwich Range Wilderness and adjacent public and private lands feature a network of interconnecting trails with endless opportunities for exploration, including 4,019-foot Mount Whiteface (the latter well-travelled by 4,000-foot peak baggers). A bonus: this southern range of the White Mountains is only an hour and 20 minutes from the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and Maine.

To read more about hiking on nearby Mount Chocorua, see my post, Intersecting Slopes on Mount Chocorua.

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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