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Elephant Head

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Elephant Head
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Elephant Head

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Elephant Head is another contender for "the best view for the easiest walk in the whole White Mountains." It is a bit rugged, steep, and muddy, but it is only about a third of a mile each way, and leads to a sweeping view of Crawford Notch, both north and south.

This is one of my favorite hikes for children. It's steep and rugged enough to be a challenge for a typical five-year-old, but not so long as to be a punishment. (And if things do get bad, it's not too far for Granddad to carry a cranky five-year-old back down!)

I've been hiking up Elephant Head since my children were children, and I continue now to bring their children up there. And once in a while, if I've driven to the mountains and found the weather deteriorating to the point where I don't want to risk a more serious hike, I'll take Elephant Head as a "consolation hike."

Elephant Head is a huge granite monolith with a few veins of quartz running through it. As the name suggests, it looks like a 300-foot elephant's head, complete with a white quartz eye. Situated at the very summit of Crawford Notch, it provides a great view north of the notch as far as the distant mountains of Vermont, and south into the more undeveloped Crawford Notch State Park.

Shelter from the wind

"Granddad's secret hideout" on top of Elephant Head.

Be aware that it is very windy at the top of the notch, so be prepared. Even on a calm, sunny summer day, it can be chilly on Elephant Head. And if there's even a little bit of rain or snow in the air, it's a stinging blast out on the bare rock. (Fortunately, there's a natural "foxhole" at the top, just big enough for Granddad and a couple of kids to sit out of the wind and watch the clouds roll by above us.) And on the plus side, the wind means you can almost always fly a kite on top of Elephant Head, without even having to run.

The trail to Elephant Head goes through a typical second-growth forest of mixed hardwoods and evergreens. The weather funnel of Crawford Notch provides plenty of rainfall, supporting a lush hardwood forest and a couple of very swampy areas. As you approach the summit, the forest changes rather abruptly to an area of primarily evergreens. Right at the top is an evergreen forest that has never been logged, though the weather-stunted trees are not as large as you might expect for a "virgin forest" Out on the rock-face, the cracks provide just enough soil for a few "natural bonsai" trees.

Stunted trees on Elephant Head

"Wild Bonsai" on top of Elephant Head.

The more protected sides of the "elephant" have shallow soil that supports a small thicket of blueberry bushes and other hardy shrubs. But don't tell anybody, or there won't be any berries left for us!

Elephant Head is rather popular with rock climbers. You are likely to see them rappelling down and climbing back up just about any time in the summer.

Rugged as it is, the Elephant Head Trail is not for those with real mobility problems. However, short as it is, even those in less than optimal condition can handle it safely. That is, it requires some agility, but not much stamina.

Trail covered with deep snow

Despite appearances, the Elephant Head Trail is easily passable in winter.

The trail is easily passable in winter even without snowshoes, except immediately after a significant snowfall. You don't need crampons either, because where it is icy it is not steep, and where it is steep, it is not icy. Be careful of the bridges. You can't see them under the snow, but if the trail is not well-packed, you can trip over the bridges or slip off them. Owing to the hazards of the trail and the biting wind at the top, I never bring little ones there in winter.

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How to Get There

If you're near the coast of New England, from Rhode Island to Maine, your best approach is probably up the Spaulding Turnpike (go to Portsmouth, NH via I-95 and you'll find it). I hardly ever go this way myself, so here's the best of my recollection. Somewhere along the way, the Spaulding becomes State Route 16. Continue to follow that to North Conway, then start looking for U.S. 302 west (the intersection is actually in Glen, NH, but it's pretty much continuous strip mall from Conway on up). Follow U.S. 302 west for 18 miles or so, and you'll find yourself in the park. In another eight miles or so, you'll reach the top of Crawford Notch. Park in the parking lot on the left. (If you pass Saco Lake, you've gone too far. Turn around at the Crawford Depot railroad station on the left and head back.)

From almost anywhere else, follow U.S. 3 or I-93 north. Doesn't matter which, as they come together above Manchester. If you're on U.S. 3 north of Nashua, stay on the Everett Turnpike and I-293 as you pass Manchester, and you'll get back to I-93. Once you're on I-93 north of Manchester, stay on it. U.S. 3 will come and go, and cross a few times, but just stay with I-93 until you get to Franconia Notch. A mile or so north of Franconia Notch State Park (and Cannon Mountain ski area), U.S. 3 splits off again. Follow it this time, toward Twin Mountain and Carroll. In Twin Mountain, at the only traffic signal, you'll come to U.S. 302. Turn right (east) toward Bretton Woods. Soon the road will curve around toward the south-southeast. Maybe 15 miles after Twin Mountain, you'll enter Crawford Notch State Park. As soon as you pass the Crawford Depot railroad station on the right and Saco Lake on the left, park in the trail-head parking lot on your right.

Now, take a look at the giant elephant's head on the east side of the notch (across the road and south of the parking lot). That's where you're going.

The trail starts across the road from the north end of the parking lot. Look for the sign.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Elephant Head is just under 2,100 feet, and the trail head just over 1,900 feet above sea level. But this climb of only 200 feet gets you nearly 300 feet above the road, as the road begins plunging sharply just after the trail head.

The short trail to Elephant Head covers a surprising variety of ecosystems, from a nearly-overgrown meadow, through two distinct kinds of forest and two swamps, to a wind-blasted bare rock-face superficially similar to the alpine zone.

The meadow just north of the trail head might be the remnant of an old homestead or other building site. Such a clearing is rare in nature in the White Mountains. Besides, it is the only place in the White Mountains that I know of where you can find "wild" roses. I strongly suspect that this is what's left of someone's garden. It's interesting to watch the succession of vegetation, if you go back year after year. The roses are almost gone, and the "meadow" itself is now thick with young birch and hemlock. Just a few years more and you'll be asking me, "What meadow?"

Lupines and orange hawkweed in the meadow

The meadow near the Elephant Head Trail is a riot of lupines, orange hawkweed, and other flowers in late spring.

Start up the trail, and you'll be in a well-watered forest of mainly hardwoods, home to woodpeckers, songbirds, and the ubiquitous chipmunks. This place gets more rain than usual for the White Mountains, as the notch forms a channel for any moisture-bearing air moving across from the north or west. The usual glacial till forms the soil, and the hardwoods thrive.

In a couple of places, the water and eroding soil accumulate to form swamps. Here the soil is rich, but too wet and unstable for trees. The combination of plentiful sunshine through the sparse forest canopy and deep, rich soil gives rise to dense understory vegetation. You might see a salamander in the water beside the trail.

As you pass the top of Crawford Notch and start to descend, the forest changes rapidly to evergreens that can thrive in thinner soil than the hardwoods. This is the home of red squirrels, which may scold you as you go by.

Out on top of the elephant's head, you can see all manner of lichens and algae that grow on the bare rock. Where soil accumulates, grasses and herbs grow, and even a few trees. These trees never grow large, what with the thin soil and the biting wind, and many die young. But a few hang on to become ancient but tiny "wild bonsai."

Swamp across from Elephant Head

The swamp across the road from Elephant Head. Northern flank of Mount Willard on left, Mount Tom in left background.

From the top, you can view the surrounding landscapes, natural and man-made, from a distance and appreciate the patterns below. Notice that the north-facing shadowed ridges have more evergreens than hardwoods, while most south-facing slopes have more hardwoods.

Looking southeast from Elephant Head to Bugle Cliff

Looking southeast, you can see Bugle Cliff, an even higher granite outcrop. To the south, you're looking along Webster Cliff (and there's a little outcrop that my kids called "Baboon Head"). You can see the classic U-shaped glacial valley profile of the southern side of Crawford Notch, though this view is perhaps less striking than the view from Mount Willard.

Looking south from Elephant Head into Crawford Notch

Listen to the chorus of frogs from the swamp across the road at the northern foot of Mount Willard. Listen to the song of the purple finch in the evening. (Somehow, it always reminds me of a waterfall.)

And yes, you can see the car from here. And the magnificent Mount Washington Hotel. And, on a clear day, you can make out the bare ski slopes of Bretton Woods.

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Trail Description

Hiking up to Elephant Head, you start out heading east on the Webster-Jackson Trail. This is a moderately steep and rocky trail, at this point climbing at about a ten percent grade.

Within a couple hundred yards, you come to the Elephant Head Trail, heading off to the right (south). This trail is nearly level, but rugged and muddy, for the first hundred feet or so. When it gets really muddy, there are rough "trail bridges" made of logs.

Trail bridges across the swamp

Trail bridges like these make Elephant Head Trail easy to hike, even where it's swampy.

After the first swamp, the trail climbs fairly steeply again to the next swamp. At that point, there is a very steep climb of over forty percent grade. When you start going down again, about 400 yards after you left the Webster-Jackson Trail, you can tell the little ones you're almost there.

After another very short stretch of trail bridges - two or three - the trail takes a sharp right turn and climbs at over fifty percent. (You could miss this turn, so watch for the pale-blue blazes.) Just a hundred feet or so, and you're on top of Elephant Head.

Arriving on top of Elephant Head




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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things you might see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there.

Mammals

  • Squirrels. Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are very common in the evergreen areas, and chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are just about everywhere in the White Mountains.
  • White-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), and nearly indistinguishable deer mouse (P. maniculatus). Their tracks are easy to see in winter, but you almost never see these strictly nocturnal mice.
  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Tracks are common in winter, and sometimes you'll be lucky enough to see a fox, especially in late afternoon.
  • Northern bog lemming (Synaptomys borealis). Their populations seem to cycle, much as their tundra cousins do. Most years, you won't see a sign of them, but some years they're all over the place, especially in the areas that are moist but not too swampy. When their population is at its peak, they tend to be diurnal, and not too shy.

Birds

  • Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Just about everywhere.
  • Woodpeckers. Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and hairy woodpeckers (P. villosus) are fairly common in the hardwood areas, but not so much near the top.
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). You can often see them soaring over Crawford Notch, especially looking south from Elephant Head.
  • Wood duck (Aix sponsa). Not always, but some years you can see them in the swamp across the road.
  • Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). You'll often see them in the bushes on top of Elephant Head. Not too shy, but not exactly bold, they'll come looking for dropped crumbs as you eat your lunch.
  • Purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus). They sing in the bushes on top of Elephant Head, especially in early morning and late afternoon. (The fluid rolling and pattering of their song always reminds me of waterfalls.)

Other Creatures

  • Toads. American toad (Bufo americanus americanus) and Fowler's toad (B. fowleri) can often be seen along the trail. In late spring, the ground can be crawling with the little dime-sized toadlets emerging from Saco Lake and making their way to the woods.
  • Spring peeper (Hyla crucifer crucifer). You'll hear them from the swamp across the road, nearly a quarter of a mile away.

Trees

  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Dominant in the hardwood areas near the beginning of the trail.
  • White birch (Betula papyrifera). Common in the hardwood areas, and there are a few among the evergreens.
  • Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Dominant in most of the evergreen areas.
  • Red spruce (Picea rubens). This is the dominant tree in the immediate area of the top of Elephant Head.

Shrubs

  • Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Common in hardwood areas, less so among the evergreens.

Wildflowers

  • Trillium, including white (or large-flowered) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), painted trillium (T. undulatum), and purple trillium (T. erectum). Very common all along the trail, flowering in late spring through late summer. Purple trillium is more common here than in any other place I know. Most trilliums (trillia? Plants of the genus Trillium) have practically no aroma, but the purple trillium has a strong scent of rotten meat. Great fun for the kids to smell!
  • Pink lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule). Rather rare on Elephant Head, but you can find them anywhere that's not too swampy. Blooming in late spring through mid-summer.
  • Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis). Very common in the hardwood areas. Flowers in mid spring. The distinctive "blue bead" fruits can be seen all summer long.
  • Trout lily (Erythronium americanum). They are more common here than in any other place I know, but you have to go in exactly the right week in early spring to see them blooming. There is an especially large stand of them just to the right of the trail where it climbs most steeply just before the top of Elephant Head. On this steep climb, you don't have to bend down to smell them!
  • Orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also known as touch-me-not or spotted jewelweed. The swamps are thick with them. In early fall when they have gone to seed, their bean-like fruits are great fun for the kids. Pinch them gently, and they burst open, scattering seeds all over. (But it's hard to find one you can reach without falling into the mud.)
  • Lupine (Lupinus perennis). The meadow near the trail head has a thick stand of these beautiful flowers in late spring.
  • Roses (Rosa sp. Possibly R. virginiana). I'm almost convinced these are feral and not native wild roses. They grow along the northern edge of the meadow near the trail head, and there are fewer of them each year.
Wild roses in bud

Roses, either wild or feral, budding in the meadow near the Elephant Head Trail.

Other Plants

  • Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Very abundant along the trails.
  • Numerous lichens and algae grow on the bare rock of the summit.
  • Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium). Most years, you'll only find a few at the north end of the open area on top of Elephant Head, but some years there's a bumper crop. (There are even a few in Granddad's hiding place.)
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