In the spirit of favorite things and all subjects Christmas-cheer related, I thought I’d share one of our favorite hikes in the Gorham area. Now, what makes a hike a favorite is obviously a subjective standard, but here are some of my criteria:
(1) Not too long–as in, five miles or less. I am, alas, not a mountaineer; (2) A good picnicking spot with a view; (3) Points of interest/varied landscape; (4) A path that provides a challenge without being too difficult or so rutty that you spend your time staring down to avoid ankle-twisting instead of admiring the scenery around you; (5) Accessible location; (6) Accessible to all skill levels; (7) Accessible year-round; and (8) Loops are ideal.
What hike could POSSIBLY meet these standards? you may ask. Turns out, the White Mountains of New Hampshire are riddled with options, but my favorite just happens to also be the first hike I took when Sam and I moved to New Hampshire back in late 2016. Without further ado, may I introduce:
The Mt. Crag loop in Shelburne, New Hampshire.
This hike has a loop option as mentioned, but if you fancy a shorter hike, you have two approaches from North Road to choose from. This allows you to park at one of the two trailheads, hike to the summit, and return the way you came. The first choice starts with Gates Brook Trail (also called Middle Mountain Trail on the actual trailhead sign) and the second choice begins at the Millbrook Trust estate further down North Road.
The wonderful folks at the Shelburne Trails Club do a fantastic job maintaining this loop, and sometimes they even lead group hikes … complete with llamas … to the crest of Mount Crag. The club also sells an excellent map detailing the miles and miles of Shelburne trails. I bought my map at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Pinkham Notch Visitors’ Center just south of town on Highway 16, but I’m sure that if you contact the club, they may have other means of purchasing one.
How to get to the Mount Crag loop
There are two main trailheads that lead to Mount Crag in Shelburne, both of them off of the North Road, which runs parallel to Route 2. North Road itself is one of the most New England-y (that is an official term, folks) roads I’ve experience since moving here, as it rolls between giant evergreens, New England homes and scenic farms complete with rusty-red barns.
Parking for the first trailhead (Gates Brook/Middle Mountain Trail) is an unmarked, semi-circular parking area off North Road that, as the crow flies, is almost directly north of the Birch View Motor Lodge (located on Hwy 2). It appears that the Google maps embed above already has this trailhead marked.
You will notice the red fire hydrant across the street from the parking area. Around where this hydrant is, just a few feet further into the trees, the Middle Mountain Trail (aka Gates Brook Trail, as it is indicated on the Shelburne Trails map) begins your journey to Mount Crag.
Parking for the second trailhead (Austin Brook/Yellow Trail)–which I don’t see as marked as of yet on Google–is about a half mile east, also right off of North Road (both trailhead parking areas are located on the right side if traveling west to east). The second trailhead is easier to find because it is directly across from a charming white farmhouse surrounded by gentle hills and a split-rail fence.
On one side of the farmhouse, a small dam/waterfall tumbling over granite slabs and a turnstile with the cutest little “loaner library” and a Conservation Easement plaque indicate the point for public entry.
I don’t know about you, but I’d never entered a hiking trail via turnstile before. It’s fun.
So now that we have our two points of ingress and egress sorted, here is what the loop would look like if you start on the west end from Gates Brook/Middle Mountain trail. (Caveat: for those who might have some cardio concerns, approaching Mt. Crag from the east end (Millbrook Trust/Yellow Trail/Austin Brook Trail) is MUCH less steep, although a tad longer to the summit.)
The photos shown are from various hikes taken during the year, which just goes to show it really is a fantastic hike any time of year.
Step-by-by step guide to the Mount Crag loop, starting from Gates Brook (west end)
- Follow Gates Brook trail for about 0.4 miles and revel in the faerie forest, complete with spongy green moss, a babbling brook and cheery evergreens that turn a snowy hike into pure magic.
2. When you reach this tree-sign, follow the indicator for the Mount Crag Trail to the right.
If you continue straight instead, you will remain on Gates Brook, which offers a fun rough-hewn log bridge to cross (although it can be treacherous in the winter).
3. Huff and puff up the Mt. Crag trail for a mere 0.3 miles … but it will feel longer! This section is steep.
4. You, fearless adventurer, have now reached the summit of Mt. Crag.
5. When you finally tear yourself away to begin your descent, you’ll notice this sign just at the base of the granite rocks that make Mount Crag such a great picnicking spot. If you wish to make your journey a loop, follow the sign for Philbrook Farm. On the Shelburne Trails map, this section of the trail is labeled as part of the Yellow Trail (which eventually leads to Philbrook Farm.)
Venturing down this spot of trail is pretty fun in the heavy snow; it was the first time in my life to experience, for lack of a better description, my body weight simply dropping into the snow with each step. The trail is also quite rocky (when not completely blanketed in 1+ feet of snow), so keep that in mind as some spots can be rather slick after rain or if it is icy.
6. Follow the Yellow Trail down for about 0.8 miles. It’s a beautiful little section of woods–I love to come here and force Sam to pose for pictures …
… and toward the bottom of your descent, you’ll encounter enormous hunks of rock.
7. At this point, you’ll reach the intersection of the Yellow Trail and Austin Brook Trail.
8. You’ll hang a right onto Austin Brook Trail, and follow it down for about 0.4 miles until you encounter the Millbrook Trust estate (already described toward the start of this post), with its cute little “library” and the nifty turnstile.
BUT! Should you decide to carry on and continue with the Yellow Trail, you shall encounter one of the coolest things I’ve discovered since arriving in this land of enchantment:
Yup. A cable car! This crossing takes you to a logging road which, if followed south, will dump you onto North Road where you’ll hang a right to get back to your car. Or you can take the logging road and rejoin the Yellow Trail, which leads to some beautiful hikes around Philbrook Farm.
9. Assuming you stay on Austin Brook, you’ll of course reach North Road and the parking area across from the Millbrook Trust estate. If you parked your car at the Gates Brook Trailhead parking area, then you’ll simply hang a right on North Road and walk about 0.6 miles to your parking spot.
10. That’s it. You have now completed the glorious hike that is Mount Crag! The entire loop is under 3 miles, so it’s a great choice when trying to decide upon a hike with visiting friends and family.
Observations from my personal experience(s) on the Mt Crag loop that you may find helpful:
-As mentioned, ascending from the Gates Brook side, while slightly shorter, is much steeper.
-Hunters frequent these woods, so wear your blazes during New Hampshire’s various hunting seasons. Or just wear them to be a snappy dresser. Those orange vests are rather fetching!
-The parking area by Gates Brook is not always plowed in the winter, so you may need to plan on parking by Millbrook Trust.
-In the winter, the Millbrook Trust parking area can get I-C-Y. Bring snowshoes with cleats or strap-on spikes for your shoes. You may need them just to traverse the parking area.
-Also, in the winter, the snow can get quite deep, and after it has lost its initial light and fluffy texture, snow shoes are most likely needed. I’ve hurt myself a few times while inadvertently “post-holing.”
-In the spring and early-to-mid summer, the Mount Crag hike can be buggy. Tick/bug repellent should be part of your routine and bringing a net to cover your head is helpful.
I hope you enjoy Mt. Crag as much as we have, and if you think of other tips that should be shared, please send in your comments. In the meantime, happy hiking!