Monday, July 8, 2013

Stairs Mountain

I was looking forward to doing a long solo hike while up in New Hampshire. I didn't want to tie up the car and I also didn't want to bother the girls with driving me to and from the trailhead. I ultimately hatched a plan to ascend Stairs Mountain by running to the trails and then hiking once the steep climbs began.

Since I was going solo, I wanted to make sure that I had all the supplies necessary to enter the backwoods safely. But I also didn't want to rely on my daypack since it would be cumbersome for the running sections. I had picked up a waist pack from EMS which I had tested back in Rhode Island. It seemed to work well and didn't move around too much so long as it was cinched tight. I wore my Brooks Cascadias, my racing singlet and carried water in each hand (along with another bottle in the waist pack.)

I woke up at 5:30 AM and hit the road around 6:00. The first mile was the paved downhill of Glen Ledge and the next three miles were on Jericho Road. I knew the ascent would begin almost immediately on Jericho but I was still surprised how steep the hills were at first. The first ascent was followed by a big downhill and then the uphill slog began again at a more manageable grade. After about a mile Jericho Road turned to dirt and at two miles I came upon a "Road Closed" sign.

I wasn't sure what to make of the sign but the road ahead looked fine so I skirted the gate and continued. From this point on until about mile six the Rocky Branch river was alongside the road/trail. It was flowing well from the recent rain and was splendid to look at. My pack began to aggravate my lower back but I realized that it was rubbing against my skin - I tucked my shirt into my shorts and that seemed to help. At 4.25 miles, just as I was beginning to wonder if I was on the right road, I saw brown trail signs ahead and knew I had finally hit the Rocky Branch Trail. But I also saw this:

Closed eh?

Hmm, I hadn't planned on this. There was construction equipment about and I wondered what I would find ahead. Still, I hadn't just run four miles up here for nothing. How bad could the damage be? I took the bridge over the Rocky Branch (hoping this wasn't the damage they were talking about) and continued on the dirt road which was now the Rocky Branch trail.

Another big dozer and a giant pipe lay in the middle of this road but after about 1/3 mile the trail began in earnest and I entered the woods. Finally I was actually trail running, with rocks and streams to contend with. At 1/2 mile, I encountered my first major water obstacle, a rushing brook that took me a couple minutes to cross without getting wet. Soon after I came upon very wet sections of trail. And after that, another swelling waterway. I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to just deal with wet feet. I plowed through the brook and every water hazard I met after that. Hell, this is why I brought extra socks.

I was on the Rocky Branch trail for two miles and was able to run all of it as it only climbed about 300 feet over that span. At two miles, I came upon Resolution Shelter #1 and the Stairs Col Trail which I would take up to Stairs Mountain. In addition to the basic shelter, there were also some tent platforms right along the Rocky Branch river that would make for pleasant camping.

Rocky Branch Shelter #1

Once on Stairs Col Trail, the hiking began. In addition to steep grades, portions of the trail were also now waterways with tiny waterfalls here and there. Lovely to listen to, slippery to walk on. I was still able to run at points when the trail leveled off but they became few and far between. After about a mile, I stopped to have a snack and dunk my head in a stream - it proved the perfect break point because after that it was steep hiking the rest of the way.

Pine tree snapped, got snagged and now dangles 2 feet off the ground

Towards the top of Stairs Col, the slick rocks made proper foot placement more important. The trail doesn't end at the summit but rather in a dank forest between Mt. Stairs and Mt. Resolution. With ferns everywhere and sunlight streaming through the pines, it had a very ethereal vibe. It took me about 35 minutes to climb the Stairs Col Trail. Considering that the White Mountain Guidebook estimates that it should take an hour and 45 minutes, I think I made pretty good time.

From here, it was a short climb on the Davis Path before taking a fairly flat side trail to the Stairs Mountain summit. The summit is wooded however there is a side ledge which has great views towards Carter Notch. Below the ledge are the rocks which are known as Giant Stairs.

Forest beauty at the Stairs Col / Davis Path junction

Unfortunately I arrived to find the summit completely fogged in. There was nothing beyond the ledge but whiteness. I took off my soaked singlet, threw on a long sleeve shirt and sat down to eat my breakfast. After a few minutes the clouds passed and I was able to see some decent views before another cloud bank fogged the mountain in once again. I hung around up there for about twenty minutes, enjoying the views when I could before making my descent.

I considered heading over to check out the peak of Mt. Resolution but I decided to just head back down Stairs Col trail. It was only 8:30 AM and figured I'd be able to catch the girls before they headed out on the day's adventures. I took my time on the descent, with the slippery rocks and what-not. After a while the grades became more manageable and I was able to begin running the rest of Stairs Col and Rocky Branch.

Just before the clouds roll back in

Near the end of the Rocky Branch trail, I encountered a fellow trail runner heading into the forest. She remarked that she didn't think she'd see anyone else out here today. Soon after I hit the initial dirt road section of this trail and came upon a bunch of construction workers. One of 'em said, "watch out for the hole." He wasn't kidding. While I was up in the woods, workers they had dug a huge hole with the backhoe and placed the giant pipe inside. I scrambled over their work and continued back to Jericho Road.

Back on Jericho, the rest of the run was a slog. While the next two miles were downhill, I was tired and could feel my lower back being rubbed raw by the waist pack. The pack worked well for the hiking but it definitely needs more padding for running. With 2.5 miles to go, I decided to stop and change my socks. I could feel the beginnings of blisters and since the water hazards were behind, I figured better to be safe than sorry.

As I knew it would be, the last uphill mile on Glen Ledge Road was a cruel epilogue to this journey. But I pushed through and made it back just in time to join the girls on their trip to Wildcat. Despite the lack of great views at the summit, a fun if wet adventure.


  1. That is a pretty crazy adventure. Glad you didn't get fined....

    1. Actually I've did a little researching online yesterday and discovered that the section I ran was opened back in May:

      "Open to foot-traffic only from the closed gate at Jericho Road to Rocky Branch Shelter #1. The trail remains closed from Rocky Branch Shelter #1 to Rocky Branch Shelter #2."

      So it turns out it was kosher.