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Mount Willard

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Mount Willard seen from Willey Pond
Introduction How to Get There Terrain and Ecosystems Trail Description Plants and Animals Stories In-Page Navigation, Arethusa Falls Page
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Mount Willard

Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire.

Someone once described Mount Willard to me, saying it was "the best view for the easiest walk in the whole White Mountains." I'm sure there are other contenders for this distinction, but Mount Willard certainly belongs on the list.

I've been hiking up Mount Willard for years. It used to be a very quiet, out-of-the-way little hike. In recent years, since the Appalachian Mountain Club built their "Highland Center" at the top of Crawford Notch, Mount Willard has become popular, even crowded.

It's still a pleasant hike, and there is plenty of room for lots of people at the top, but you have to go very early in the morning to have anything like solitude there.

Sign at the summit of Mount Willard, 2804 feet.

The mountain looks imposing from the south. It is a vertical wall of granite nearly half a mile wide and over a quarter of a mile high above Crawford Notch. However, the trail to the top starts at the north end of the mountain, at the top of Crawford Notch. This means you only have to climb about 900 feet to get to this commanding summit. And the climb is very gentle and steady, about a mile and a half long.

Like nearly all the lower peaks of the White Mountains, Mount Willard is covered by a thick second-growth forest, hardwood in some places, evergreen in others. Its sheer granite face is largely bare of trees or other vegetation.

The real magic of Mount Willard is that there's a lot of room at the top. The summit is flat and wide, and the trees stand back about thirty feet from the edge of the cliff. This leaves a flat, grassy ledge nearly 200 feet wide.

You could hold a presidential debate at the top of Mount Willard. There's enough room for every declared candidate for U.S. President, and room left over for every news reporter who pretends to be a qualified and interesting political commentator. (Well, okay, maybe there's not quite that much room.)

Looking west along the summit of Mount Willard

Looking west along the summit of Mount Willard.

Looking west along the summit of Mount Willard

Same view in early fall.



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How to Get There

If you're approaching Crawford Notch from the north and west, I'm going to recommend that you pass the trail head so you can approach it from the south. You'll want a look at the sheer face of Mount Willard before you head up.

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 five miles or so, you'll see the Willey House historic site and snack bar on the left and a large parking lot beside a pond on the right. (The pond is empty in winter.) Pull into the parking lot and take a look.

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. You'll know it, as the road descends precipitously from the top of the notch. (At this point, you've passed the trail head, but keep going.) About three miles after the summit of Crawford Notch, you'll see the Willey House on the right and a large parking lot beside a pond on the left. (The pond is empty in winter.) Pull into the parking lot and take a look back where you came from.

That sheer wall of granite to the north is Mount Willard. Yes, that's where you're going. (It's not the highest mountain around, by a long shot, but it is a most impressive cliff.)

From Willey House and Willey Pond, head north ("west" on U.S. 302) about three miles. At the top of Crawford Notch you'll see Saco Lake on the right and the Crawford Depot train station on the left. Park in any of the parking lots near the train station. The trail head is behind the train station, across the tracks.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

The summit of Mount Willard is 2,804 feet above sea level, according to the sign, and the trail head is about 1,900 feet, meaning that you climb just over 900 feet on this hike.

Mount Willard still shows many signs of past logging. It is mostly second-growth forest, and the trail is a disused logging road from the era of horse-drawn logging. You'll see remnants of development, mostly in the form of concrete drainage pipes crossing the trail here and there.

For the first few hundred yards, the trail passes through a hardwood forest of beech, oak, and birch. As the trail begins to climb, the softwoods gradually begin to take over, and the forest becomes a mix of hemlock and spruce, with just the occasional hardwood.

Near the top of the mountain, the hemlocks and spruces are quite small, and you can clearly see that this is rather recent regrowth.

The forests are inhabited by the usual residents of evergreen forests, the chipmunks, red squirrels, and songbirds. You may see sign of the occasional fox or hawk or owl.

The young regrowth forest is home to snowshoe hares. You find their tracks everywhere after a dusting of snow, and once in a while you might see the rabbits themselves if you are quiet and lucky.

There are a couple of interesting geological formations to see at Mount Willard.

Near the top of the mountain is Hitchcock Flume. (There used to be a sign, but now you just have to know where to turn onto a spur off to the left of the main trail.) This is a soft layer of rock, turned vertically as the North American continent collided with Africa in the formation of Pangaea (and of the Appalachian Mountains). This soft layer eroded faster than the hard granite around it, leaving a deep, sheer-walled channel as much as 20 feet deep and barely three feet wide. If you look straight down the flume, you see that this relatively dry "flume" on the east slope of Mount Willard is actually the same soft, deeply eroded layer of rock that holds Silver Cascade on the other side of Crawford Notch.

From the top of Mount Willard, you see the "profile" of Crawford Notch. It is a textbook example of a U-shaped glacial valley. In fact, the sheer cliff of Mount Willard is part of what remains of an ancient glacial cirque. I have a book that describes Crawford Notch as having been formed by the continental ice sheet of the last glaciation, but I think this is incorrect. The entire area was, of course, shaped by that last glaciation that ended about 12,000 years ago, but Crawford Notch appears to have supported a smaller alpine glacier for some time after the ice sheets receded. This interpretation suggests that all of the ecosystems of Crawford Notch are considerably younger than 12,000 years.

Looking south into Crawford Notch from the summit of Mount Willard

Looking south into Crawford Notch from the summit of Mount Willard. Willey Pond just below and left of center.

Looking south into Crawford Notch from the summit of Mount Willard

Same view in early fall. Willey Pond is drained for the winter.



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Trail Description

The trail up and down Mount Willard begins in the White Mountain National Forest, but most of it is in Crawford Notch State Park. From the Crawford Depot railroad station, follow the Avalon Trail west about a hundred yards or so. There is a signboard with maps and other information at the intersection, where you turn south (left) on the Mount Willard Trail.

Soon, the trail crosses a sizeable stream. (Oddly, this stream appears to be higher than the land around it. Can't quite capture the phenomenon on camera, but it's weird!)

For the first quarter-mile or so, the trail is nearly level, actually descending slightly. Then the trail turns somewhat to the right, and begins climbing at about a seven or eight percent slope. From here, the trail mostly curves slowly to the left as it climbs the main ridge of Mount Willard. The slope remains steady until you are almost at the top. When the trail levels out, you can see bright sky at the end of a tunnel through the fir trees. That's the top of the mountain.

Approaching the summit of Mount Willard

Approaching the top in early summer.

Approaching the summit of Mount Willard

Same view in early fall.

There is one slightly muddy area, but other than that and the first stream, the trail is pretty clean and dry (depending on the weather, of course). It is wide enough that you can easily pass people going the other way.

I described this as an "easy" walk. It's about a mile each way, and it climbs all the way, so it can be challenging to those with mobility problems. But for the average couch-potato, it's an easy half-day up and down, allowing plenty of time for enjoying the top of the mountain.

The trail is popular enough that it is perfectly passable in winter without snowshoes, except immediately after a significant snowfall.





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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) and chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are just about everywhere in the White Mountains.
  • Moose (Alces alces). Occasional visitors. You may see their tracks on and near the trail.
  • White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). A few years ago, they were more common than moose in northern Crawford Notch, but their relative dominance seems to fluctuate over the years.
  • Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus virginianus). Only near the top of the mountain, and rather difficult to see. Their footprints are unmistakable.

Birds

  • Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Just about everywhere.
  • Woodpeckers. Especially in the hardwood areas. The beech forest near the beginning of the climb is thick with downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and hairy woodpeckers (P. villosus).
  • Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). Common everywhere, but especially visible at the summit. Not too shy, but not exactly bold, they'll come looking for dropped crumbs as you eat your lunch.
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). You may see them soaring above the trees in the valley below you.
  • American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). They will almost certainly be having a very noisy meeting that you can watch from above.
  • Common raven (Corvus corax principalis). You might see a few of them gathering on the clifftops.

Other Creatures

  • Toads. American toad (Bufo americanus americanus) and Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri) can often be seen along the trail. In late spring, the ground can be crawling with the little dime-sized toadlets emerging from the swamp and making their way to the woods.
  • Spring peeper (Hyla crucifer crucifer). You'll hear them, but you won't see them.

Trees

  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Dominant in the hardwood areas, and there are a few individuals in the evergreen areas.
  • White birch (Betula papyrifera). Common in the hardwood areas, and there are a few among the evergreens. There are some individual trees along the summit, and especially in cracks in the cliff-face which are severely stunted by the harsh conditions.
  • Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Dominant in the evergreen areas.
  • Red spruce (Picea rubens). Common in the higher evergreen areas.

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 in lower areas, flowering from late spring through late summer. Purple trillium, least common of the three types, is worth a close look. The flowers are pollinated by flies, and they smell like rotten meat.
  • Pink lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule). Rather rare on Mount Willard, as they are generally. Found at all elevations, blooming earlier at lower elevations.
  • Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis). Very common in all areas. This is the only place I know where they are common in an evergreen forest. Flowers in mid spring among the lower hardwoods, and even in summer among the higher evergreen areas. The distinctive "blue bead" fruits can be seen all summer long.

Other Plants

  • Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Very abundant along the trails.
  • Numerous lichens and algae grow on the bare rock of the summit and cliff-face.
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