Miller State Park, New Hampshire.
Pack Monadnock is a small mountain in south-central New Hampshire. It is one of several peaks with "monadnock" in their name in this somewhat sparsely populated "Monadnock Region" between the Connecticut Valley and the nearly metropolitan Merrimack Valley. It rises 2,290 feet above sea level, but only a little more than a thousand feet above the surrounding valleys (so, technically, it doesn't meet the definition of "mountain").
Though the summit is not above timberline, there are plenty of sweeping views. There is a fire lookout tower near the summit that gets you above the trees for a panorama that reaches from Massachusetts to the White Mountains and from the Atlantic Ocean well into Vermont. And there are several bare ledges or areas of very thin tree-cover from which you can get parts of that view without having to go "inside" to climb the tower.
They say that on a sufficiently clear day, you can see Boston from Pack Monadnock, but
I think it's a myth. There is no such thing as a "sufficiently clear day."
Somewhere out in the haze is Boston. You can barely make out the skyline of downtown,
the Pru, and the Hancock Tower.
UPDATE, 8/23/2009: I've been told that I have the labels on this image wrong. The Hancock
Tower should be to the left (northeast) of the Prudential Center. I'll update the
image one of these days. -Chuck.
The generic geological term "monadnock" refers to a mountain that is formed by the uneven erosion of a highland. Remnants of the original highland that are left behind because they are too far from the eroding rivers are called "monadnocks." The word originates from an Abenaki term for "mountain that stands alone." The archetype of the monadnock is Mount Monadnock, and it is thought that "Pack Monadnock" might derive from an Abenaki name that means "Little Monadnock."
Miller State Park was named for General James Miller, a hero of the War of 1812 who was born in Peterborough. It is the oldest state park in New Hampshire. The park encompasses much of the southern and western flanks of the mountain, and the rest is owned by The Nature Conservancy.
The hike up and down Pack Monadnock is moderately difficult, but not very long. The average couch potato could probably make the round trip in half a day. It might be an all-day hike for very young children. For those with mobility problems, there is an auto road to the summit which is open for all the snow-free part of the year. It may seem like "cheating" to drive up a mountain, but it is a way to enjoy a little time on a mountaintop if you can't get there otherwise.
My own relationship with Pack Monadnock has undergone some changes over the past twelve years or so. It's a long story. Suffice it to say that I know Pack Monadnock quite well, even though I've only been actually hiking there for the past four years. I go there about every three or four months, and I think it's likely that I will be going even more frequently in the next couple of years.
There are about four hiking trails up and down Pack Monadnock, plus the auto road and a "Summit Loop Trail." I don't know the Raymond Trail or the northern part of the Wapack Trail. The park rangers usually recommend going up the southern Wapack Trail and down the Marion Davis Trail. I take that loop in either direction, often deciding which way to go on just a whim. On a chilly afternoon, I might prefer the sunnier Wapack Trail, or if there's a biting northwest wind, I stay on the more protected Marion Davis Trail. Either way, the loop is just under three miles, and the two trails are about the same length.
On the north side of the weather station (just at the top of the Marion Davis Trail), you can see a display of weather and air quality. Sure, there's a ripping 17-mph northwest wind and it's only 33 degrees, but the nitrous oxide level is great!
The usage fee for Miller State Park is $3.00 per person ($1.00 for children under 12 years old, children under six years old admitted free). In the off-season when there is no park ranger at the parking lot, there are envelopes available for you to pay the fee and place the receipt in the windshield of your car. (And there's a pencil available to fill out the payment stub, which I wish was the case at the National Forest Service Recreation Areas. Hint hint!)
The trails are perfectly passable in winter, though you would need snowshoes immediately after a heavy snowfall. There are a few icy seeps, but you should be able to get by without crampons if need be.
How to Get There
Miller State Park is located on New Hampshire Route 101 just inside the eastern edge of Peterborough. It is just about across the road from Temple Mountain (the defunct ski area that is still open for hiking and such).
From Peterborough or anywhere west of there, take Route 101 east. After central Peterborough, there are two hills that have "climbing lanes" or "truck lanes." The second of these is where the park is. The entrance is on the left just before the top of the hill, where the climbing lane is about to end.
From anywhere east of Peterborough, take Route 101 west. After you pass Wilton, NH, you will come to two hills that have "climbing lanes" or "truck lanes." The second of these is where the park is. The entrance is on the right, just past the top of the hill. It's a bit hard to see, and it comes up quickly after you crest the hill. Be ready to turn right when you pass Temple Mountain on the left.
The access road simply ends on the parking area. Depending on the season, there may be traffic "cones" forming a driveway to the ranger's booth in the middle of the parking lot. Otherwise, just park near the edge of the parking lot and go to the ranger's booth to pay your access fee and get a receipt to put in your windshield.
The auto road, should you choose to go that way, is directly across the parking lot from the access road. It is closed from November 3 through June 23 each year.
The trail head to both the Marion Davis Trail and the Wapack Trail is on the eastern side of the parking lot (on the right as you came in from the highway). There is a signboard with information about both trails. Go left from the signboard for the Wapack Trail, or straight ahead for the Marion Davis Trail. (If you go right from the signboard, you're heading south on the Wapack Trail toward Mount Watatick in Massachusetts, which might be a fine hike, but I can't tell you anything about it.)
Terrain and Ecosystems
There are dramatic differences in the terrain and ecosystems between the eastern flank of Pack Monadnock, where the Marion Davis Trail goes, and the western flank, where the Wapack Trail goes. The auto road goes right up the middle, but is more like the eastern flank.
As I describe in more detail in my story of the Process of Pack Monadnock, the difference is the ice age.
On the southern and eastern slopes of Pack Monadnock, the ice sheets deposited a thick layer of glacial till, typical of much of New England. This rocky but rich soil supports a dense forest of mixed hardwoods and evergreens. It is a perfectly typical second-growth New England forest (having been used for grazing cattle well into the 20th century). It is home to every species of tree I've seen in New Hampshire except for the alpine types. This forest is quite dense and the trees quite large right up to the summit. As you climb, you may notice fewer red pines, but the forest remains pretty much half hardwood and half evergreen from bottom to top. The only thing I'd call unusual about this forest is that there is more juniper than in the typical New Hampshire forest.
This large boulder beside the Marion Davis Trail is a glacial erratic. It was obviously worn by flowing water for a very long time, but there are no rivers anywhere near here. There are no other such smooth-looking boulders around here, either. It must have been scooped out of a riverbed by the ice sheets then deposited here on the southeast side of Pack Monadnock. Most of the cracks occurred before or during its stay in the river, but a couple of them are newer.
This mixed forest is home to most of the animals you'd expect to see in southern New Hampshire. There is the usual population of birds, the red squirrels and chipmunks, and the white-tailed deer. There are foxes and possibly fishers. I've never heard of bears or moose in the area, but the habitat appears to be suitable and they could come back any time. Since there are no large streams and few swamps, you won't find many amphibians.
The northern and western slopes of Pack Monadnock are a completely different environment. This area was scoured bare during the most recent ice age, and the rapid erosion of the bedrock that continues to this day makes the land unsuitable for large trees. There is very little soil, the rocky scree holds very little moisture, and the surface is in slow but constant motion. Any tree that manages to get a start here will die young as the rocks slip out from under it.
Uprooted trees, victims of the movement of the scree along the Wapack Trail. Notice how little
soil is on the root disks, and you can barely detect the scar on the land where the trees once
The ferns and mosses that took root on the little ledges of this crumbling boulder have begun to
slide down the mountain. The trees rooted in the cracks will follow before they become fully mature.
This mountain is not nearly as bare as the true scree you see in the Rocky Mountains. There are trees everywhere. But all of these trees are young. And it is not that this is recent regrowth. The typical first-succession colonizers of disturbed land - the birch and the sumac and such - are not at all common here. The trees that are present include the same beech, oak, spruce, pine, and hemlock you would see in a mature mixed forest in southern New Hampshire. But none of these trees grow to the hundred-year maturity typical of their species. They live long enough to set seed, but they die young as their footing slides down the slopes of the mountain.
Another extraordinary thing about the northern and western slopes of Pack Monadnock is the juniper. As mentioned above, juniper is unusually abundant on the eastern and southern slopes, but it is incredibly abundant on the northern and western slopes. There are places where juniper could even be called the dominant "tree." Huge stretches along the Wapack Trail could be described as a knee-high juniper forest from which the occasional oak rises.
This could be described as a juniper forest with a few oak trees.
Not surprisingly, the northern and western slopes of Pack Monadnock are also more sparse in wildlife. With very few large trees, there are very few woodpeckers or nuthatches. With little browse (and little good footing), there are very few deer, possibly none at all. There are still squirrels and chipmunks, though noticeably fewer than on the other side of the mountain, and a few small predators to hunt them.
It is quite unusual in eastern North America to see such a pronounced difference between one side of a mountain and another, unless there is a difference in the steepness of the slope. Pack Monadnock is something to study.
The typical hike involves a destination and a certain amount of time just hanging out at the destination. This is true even for my being here style of hiking. And if the hike is up and down a mountain, the destination is usually the top of the mountain. Pack Monadnock is a little bit different for me. The summit is a bit too popular for my taste, so I usually don't loiter there for very long. I have my own, more private hang-outs, one on the Marion Davis Trail and one on the Wapack Trail. I usually hike up to the summit on one trail, look around a bit, then head down the other trail and stop for lunch and a cigar when I reach my hang-out. Each is just a few steps off the trail, so I can see and hear people passing, but they usually don't notice me.
Majestic Mount Monadnock dominates the western skyline as seen from the summit of
Looking west-southwest from a ledge along the Wapack Trail toward Peterborough, we see the
legendary New England foliage spread out around Cunningham Pond.
The Marion Davis Trail and the Wapack Trail are each about 1.4 miles from the parking lot to the summit of Pack Monadnock. Each trail has its easy spots and its hard spots. I can not recommend either way as the "easier" or the "more challenging," and I can not recommend one way as shorter than the other. The way I choose which way to go up and which to come down depends on the weather and the time of day, or sometimes just a whim.
The Marion Davis Trail is more heavily wooded. That means more hiking in pleasant, shady forest, but less sweeping views of the countryside. It also means more protection from the wind, no matter which direction the wind is coming from.
The Wapack Trail provides more places to look out at the landscape to the west. But that leaves it open to burning sunshine on a summer afternoon, and to biting winds on a fall or winter day. The Wapack Trail is a good deal rockier than the Marion Davis Trail, requiring a little bit of clattering over loose scree and even a little bit of scrambling up and down boulders.
The Wapack Trail is rather rocky.
The Wapack Trail scrambles up several low cliffs like this one. Notice the trees rooted in the
cracks in the ledge.
The Marion Davis Trail starts out heading east from the parking log, and climbs gently for a short distance. It soon begins descending and curves around to the north. The lowest part here is a trifle swampy, but not quite wet. Just about the time you wonder if you're actually heading up the mountain, the trail starts climbing again. It's a fairly gentle climb for the most part, with only about three moderately steep stretches. The last steep part is just at the summit. The trail abruptly emerges from the forest into the parking lot at the summit.
This stone fence once separated two farms. Now it marks the boundary between the state park (right) and the Nature Conservancy property (left). These boundaries are also marked by blue rectangular blazes, and are pretty distinct from the blue triangular blazes of the Marion Davis Trail. Notice that the trees in this picture are mostly young regrowth, but the abundant soil and leaf litter indicate a much healthier forest than on the other side of the mountain.
The Wapack Trail goes north from the parking lot, then curves around to the west. It soon crosses the auto road. (Watch the traffic!) Just after the road, it starts climbing at a moderately steep grade up boulders and loose rock. You will soon begin seeing the broad valley to the west and the majestic Mount Monadnock. The trail continues climbing over rock, with the occasional patch of soil, for several hundred feet. When you are truly on the western flank of the mountain, the trail descends a little way, then begins climbing steeply again. As you approach the summit, the trail begins crossing other trails. The ground is so bare, being almost nothing but rock, that it's sometimes hard to tell where the trail is. You have to rely on the painted blazes, and where you're crossing other trails, you have to remember to follow the yellow triangular blazes. There are a couple of places where the trail crosses a property line (between the State Park and the Nature Conservancy land) which is marked with blue rectangular blazes. Don't try to follow them! And for a time, both the Wapack Trail and the Summit Loop Trail are the same trail, where you'll follow both the yellow triangular blazes and the round red blazes. Just to keep things confusing, there is a stretch just before the summit where the upward (south) branch of the Wapack Trail runs parallel to the downward (north) branch. The two trails are just a few feet apart, but the north branch is "paved" with crushed stone while the south branch is natural surface.
It's important to be able to see the blazes, but it might have been better not to paint a blaze on
this tree. It has a rough enough life, growing in a tiny crack in the boulder. Notice the odd way
its branches and needles grow, densely packed and all on the top side of the tree, unlike the
other pine just ten feet away. I suspect this pine is much older than most in the area.
A closer look at the same tree. Growing in this tiny crack restricts its growth, but it may also
provide the only solid footing for a tree in this area. This is one of many open ledges that the
Wapack Trail crosses.
Once you get to the summit, you might want to follow the Summit Loop Trail. Bear in mind that these trails are very heavily traveled, being used by the people who hike up and by those who drove up. To avoid damage to the sensitive ecosystem, stay on the marked trails. Don't short-cut the switchbacks.
The Wapack Trail continues north of the summit for many miles. However, even if you're not bound for an all-day hike to North Pack Monadnock, you might want to follow this trail a short distance. It is nearly level (despite a fairly steep descent immediately off the parking lot) and leads to several nice picnic areas. These are all set up on open bedrock ledges offering a pleasant view. (My former favorite spot to stretch out with a book was up that way, but its' too crowded for my taste now.)
This is almost a "micro-bog" where lichen has created a substrate for numerous small plants in a small depression on top of a very large boulder along the Wapack Trail north of the summit.
If you came up one trail and you want to go down the other, here's how to find them:
- If you came up the Wapack Trail, you'll find the top of the Marion Davis Trail at the southeast corner of the summit parking lot, near the weather observatory. It is marked with blue triangular blazes.
- If you came up the Marion Davis Trail, you'll find the Wapack Trail at the northern end of the parking lot. Be aware that the Wapack Trail goes in two directions from here, one north toward North Pack Monadnock and one south toward the parking lot where you started. The northern branch (the one you don't want) is covered with crushed stone for a hundred yards or so, goes pretty much straight north (after a little switchback), and is pretty much level and open to the sky (after the switchback). The southern branch (the one you want) is natural soil and rock, goes northwest from the summit, and descends rapidly into somewhat scrubby forest.
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.
- Chipmunks (Tamias striatus). Fairly common on southern and eastern slopes, and around the summit. Very rare on northern and western slopes.
- Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). Present everywhere, rarer on northern and western slopes.
- Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Tracks visible in winter only, but I've never seen the foxes themselves. Almost unheard-of on northern and western slopes.
- Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). They're there, but just about impossible to find. Mostly they sit motionless high in the trees all day and feed at night.
- Woodpeckers. Much more common on the southern and eastern slopes, but present elsewhere. Both downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) and hairy woodpeckers (P. villosus) are easy to find. The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is probably also present.
- Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Everywhere. These are the only birds that could be called "common" on the northern and western slopes.
- Nuthatches, including white-breasted (Sitta carolinensis) and red-breasted (S. canadensis) are common on the southern and eastern slopes. I haven't figured out any pattern to the ranges of the two species, but I'm working on it.
- Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis). Very often seen soaring over the valley and the mountain on the northern and western slopes. Also present on the southern and eastern slopes, but harder to see because of the denser tree cover.
- Smaller hawks, including Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and sharp-shinned hawk (A. striatus) are often seen racing among the trees on the southern and eastern slopes hunting songbirds.
- Owls, including barred owls (Strix varia) and great horned owls (Bubo virginianus virginianus), often call in late afternoon. Rarely, you may hear a saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) "singing" in a beech tree. All owls are more common on the southern and eastern slopes than elsewhere.
- American beech (Fagus grandifolia). The most common hardwood on the southern and eastern slopes.
This beech Fagus grandifolia) near the summit along the Wapack Trail is short and stout, with low branches, including one long, low branch. Very unusual for this species.
- White oak (Quercus alba). The most common hardwood on the northern and western slopes, never very large there. Present, and large, elsewhere.
- White birch or paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Fairly common on the southern and eastern slopes, especially lower down.
This seedling is starting out in a crack in a boulder, with plenty of lichens for company.
- Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). The most common evergreen at lower elevations.
- Red spruce (Picea rubens). Common in the higher slopes, especially northern and western.
- Red pine (Pinus resinosa). Present at lower elevations.
When you see them together like this, it's easy to tell the seedlings of eastern hemlock (left) and red pine (right) from the shining clubmoss (mostly in front of the hemlock) and ground cedar clubmoss (mostly in front of the pine).
- Juniper, either creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) or eastern juniper (J. virginiana). Present everywhere, especially abundant, even dominant, in middle elevations of the western slope.
A young juniper (Juniperus sp.) creeps down the vertical face of a boulder.
- Hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium). Uncommon in hardwood areas.
- Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Occasional right around the summit. Flowers in late spring.
- Trillium, including white (or large-flowered) trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), painted trillium (T. undulatum), and purple trillium (T. erectum). Common on southern and eastern slopes, absent elsewhere.
- Pink lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule). Present on southern and eastern slopes, especially lower elevations.
- Trout lily (Erythronium americanum). Rather common along the Marion Davis Trail, but you have to go at exactly the right couple of weeks in early spring.
- Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis). Common on southern and eastern slopes. Flowers in mid spring, but the distinctive "blue bead" fruits can be seen all summer long.
- Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense). Rather common on southern and eastern slopes and around the summit, blooming from mid-spring well into summer.
- Asters, including wood aster (Aster acuminatus), white wood aster (A. divaricatus), and stiff aster (A. linariifolius) can be found in sunny patches on the southern and eastern slopes, and in some of the level stretches on the western slopes in late summer. Calico aster (A. lateriflorus) grows in the same places, but blooms later, in around mid-fall.
An aster (Aster sp.) has set seed and is waiting for the wind to carry them away. I don't know the species.
- Goldenrod, including rough-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) and showy goldenrod (S. speciosa). Both occur in clearings on the southern and eastern slopes, and can be found in somewhat large stands on the western slope.
- Shining clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum). Very common on the southern and eastern slopes and around the summit, but not usually in the dense patches that are so common elsewhere in New Hampshire.
- Ground cedar (Lycopodium complanatum). This may be more common on Pack Monadnock than any other place I know.
Ground cedar clubmoss (Lycopodium complanatum, mostly right and background) and shining clubmoss (L. lucidulum, front, center, and left).
- Lichen (family Cladoniaceae, possibly Cladonia rangiferina or C. portentosa, either of which may be called "reindeer lichen"). Very common, especially near the summit. Other lichens of other families unknown to me encrust every exposed shelf of bedrock and the larger, more stable boulders.
Reindeer lichen (possibly Cladonia sp.) near the summit of Pack Monadnock.
- Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Very common, especially lower down along the Marion Davis Trail.
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