“What the heck is that thing?!”
I remember those words very clearly as they left my mouth that morning as we drove from New York into new areas of Vermont – along the Connecticut River which cut a line to New Hampshire. We were new explorers of this part of Vermont and only several months fresh off our cross country road trip. Initially upon our return we took a trip to visit Acadia National Park in Maine, this destination was high up on our “must see” list that we unfortunately did not see during our long mileage outing. You may be scratching your head thinking “Erik, this is supposed to be about Vermont and Mount Ascutney, so get along with it already..!” Well, on our trip back from Maine we decided to stop and hike in the Whites Mountain National Forest – Moosilauke in fact. While driving there we fell in love with the quint little towns with so many folks standing in the village squares, chatting like they had all the time in the world. We decided to give New Hampshire a try before we actually committed to the West Coast!
We were on our way to visit four possible places to stay while living in New Hampshire,
two of those being right over the river – in Vermont, more or less in the shadow of this behemoth pile of rock, visible from just about anywhere in the area. I had no clue what I was looking at, but certainly it did not take long before I was on my Gaia GPS app (I was navigator during this trip so “mapping” was basically my job!) I rotated my phone until all the directions lined up: “uhh..Ascutney..I guess? Never heard of it!” I boldly stated. Aside from a funky name, the next thing that I noticed was that it had “A TOWER!! WE GOTTA DO IT!!” But unfortunately we were there to house hunt, not hike a mountain that we had just discovered 30 seconds ago.
Fast forward 3 months and there we were, living 18 miles from the base of this very mountain – close enough that I can catch beautiful views of it towering out of the landscape as I crest the hill on one of my 13 mile runs.
We have seen all four seasons up on Mount Ascutney by the time of me writing this –
we’ve bailed due to some nasty wintry gusts and ice balling up between the boys toes (our boys are two German Wirehaired Pointer bro’s who go everywhere with us and rarely can be found running out of energy!). I’ve since used the Ascutney trails to run and improve my agility and endurance in preparation for a summer of local trail races and finally my first ultra marathon. The very first trail race that I joined once we had settled in New Hampshire was a gift entry to the West Windsor ‘5 & Dime’, which took place on the north facing Ski Resort side of the large iconic mountain.
Our trip begins just around 3:00pm Sunday
as Ciara was working on this weekend and I had joined a local run fun club (The Blue Collar Runners) for a 14 miler – I suppose we logged one mile for each degree of temperature this morning. We loaded up on a huge salad with avocado for each of us and satisfied our desire for sweet things with several dates – better than candy! We decided since it was late in the day (we were shooting for sunset on the summit initially but quickly realized we may be a bit late still) to ascend from a trail we were familiar with – The Windsor Trail which departs from Route 44A to the east.
The trail exits the parking lot and traverses briefly over a field before entering a hardwood forest and continues gradually until at about 0.3mi in, the left side drops into what I have seen on several maps accurately named “Mountain Brook”. This is where the trail begins to climb somewhat steeply at what my GPS watch tracked to be ~20%. At about the 0.75 mile point is where we decided it would be incredibly silly to slip on the ice underfoot while carrying our Hillsound spikes,
..so on our feet they went, for about 500ft until we reached more bare rock.
At about the 0.9mi mark the trail cuts across a level area of the brook, with fine views of a very frozen Gerry Falls. There are many spots along the ice-bridge stream crossing that is clearly open to rushing ice water – some form of traction is highly encouraged by this point! Conveniently, someone even strung up heavy paracord between several of the trees to aid with the crossing, which we used on the descent after the sun had set.
The trail cuts one more time across the very narrow, slowly trickling branch of the brook, then continues ascending, making several switch backs as it gradually reaches up the side of Ascutney North. The side spur trail which heads over to Blood Rock (on my list of places to visit – it has a very interesting history to its naming) can be found at the 1.6mi mark. Our daylight was dwindling at this point (we had headlamps of course) so we decided to press on for now.
Our next point of interest came after a few short and sweet leaps
up small boulders and a scoot through the forest as the trail narrows briefly was the famed “Log Shelter”. The description here is completely spot on, no room for guessing here, exactly as the name imply’s – off to the right of the trail, as the path bends slightly left toward the summit, the log shelter/cabin can be found. Every time that we have come up on this shelter the blue tarp has been down (I get it, to block the wind, but if I may be completely honest – its mildly creepy and makes me want to avoid the area altogether, not knowing what or who is lurking on the other side of the tarp), we did have a peek inside of the shelter last year when we were here and found all of the typical fire making tools with a cast iron (I think it was cast iron anyway) stove to heat the enclosure. No matter the weather we have always found a spring exiting the rocks just a few yards from the edge of the shelter – I would assume fresh water, but I would also assume any water these days aside from glacial melt water from the ice caps up north are contaminated – so I would recommend a quick filter or iodine tablet to sanitize!
Here is where the switchbacks toss the path back and forth in a full swing, I could count roughly 15 times the trail switches direction before reaching a flat area with access to the Slot Trail and Castle Rock to the (left) south, we continued along and mere moments later met the junction with the Brownsville trail, which merged with our path from the north at 2.4 miles into our journey.
Located around the 3094′ summit of North Ascutney Mountain
is the spur trail to visit Brownsville Rock (also a trail I have heard great things about but have yet to visit myself – adding that to the To-Do list also..!). From here the trail dips into several wet areas with rustic hand hewn log bridges throughout, these are super fun half logs to run across in dry weather, but today with the packed snow/ice trail, only the corners and supports were visible, sticking up out of the snow. The trail now leveled out, scurrying through the thick forest with only a handful of ice-covered boulders to shimmy up (no problem maintaining traction on slab ice with the Hillsounds – despite being several years old and dulled slightly from all of my abuse!).
There are multiple signs throughout the trek for the “Observation Tower” with mileages all along the way, but if a person were not glancing around I could totally see walking right past it and continuing to the high point of Mount Ascutney; which is what I did, intentionally though as the daylight was seriously dwindling at this point and I wanted to see the “true” summit with whatever light remained. About one tenth of a mile past the base of the look out/observation tower, and down a small rock scramble and back up a bit of exposed rock (I remembered needing to use my hands more in the summertime to pass over this section) came the 3130′ summit.
This is a nice open area with somewhat limited views, enough rock to accompany several large parties of hikers spread out comfortably, however! The peak here has two main communication towers which work to rip you right back to civilization, remembering to enjoy nature now before you have to make the return trip back to the towns and villages with folks who do not know the pure joy of climbing mountains.
There are concrete block bases for towers that are long gone and if you look for a shiny disc of gold – there is also a USGS marker to be found. I never looked deeply into this marker – but my guess is someone stole the original and this is a gaudy replacement with an unfortunate blank spot for ‘registered elevation’ and ‘peak name’ – typically the survey markers are at least stamped with the known peak name – sometimes complete with overlapping, crooked lettering – giving it that real human touch.
Ciara and I have been up here on windy days and it is nice on those occasions to have a bit of tree cover to sit and grab a bite to eat, refueling prior to heading back down; we find it a welcoming spot to bathe in some sun while minimizing the wind exposure before heading to the actual lookout tower back down the trail.
The tower itself is rumored to be the remnants of the old fire tower,
which has been dramatically shortened and topped with a wooden platform affording 360 degree views on a clear day – there are even small panoramic plaques located on each side of the tower, giving the distant mountains a name – very nice to know what peaks you are peering at!
Unfortunately I missed the sunset, but with the clouds coming in I would not have captured much – but given the right time and conditions – this would be a fantastic spot to capture the setting sun, we were able to see a sky glowing with orange and maroon sherbert and blue to pink cotton candy colors as we ascended the final mile earlier. I stayed long enough to capture a few photos of the surrounding landscape and booked it back down under the light of headlamps. Much of the same terrain in reverse, taking extra care while descending the ice-covered boulders. My pace hastened on the packed snow sections – being quick on my toes to avoid the frozen post-holes from previous days’ adventurers when the snow was much softer.
The most noticeable difference to the trail on the descent was the ice that we didn’t initially expect under the leaves.
The sun had dropped, and in that short amount of darkness the quarter inch of run-off had crystallized and made for a treacherous descent, even with our spikes the ice was so solid that we really had to kick our heels in with each step.
Before long though the path began to level off and we could see Christmas lights on houses that surround the trail head – a welcome sight indeed! Overall a fantastic short hike for us to get the blood flowing and escape into nature for a few hours.
I hope this write-up helps plan a trip to Windsor, Vermont sometime soon – no matter the season Ascutney does not disappoint! There are ski trails on the Brownsville (Northern) slopes, two other trail heads dispersed around the base of the mountain, biking trails, even an auto-road that will allow you to gain most of the ascent, leaving a short trek to the look-out tower (perfect for a family picnic perhaps?).
Please reach out if you have any questions at all about Mount Ascutney – its trails, outdoor activities, or any ideas of where I should hike next? Let me know with a comment down below! Don’t forget to subscribe to receive email updates with new trail reports, plant-based nutritional goodness or any day-to-day epicness!
Cheers and Happy 2019 to all y’all!!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with my Coros Pace watch
- 3hr 5min (trail ran on packed snow last 2mi)
- 2703′ total ascent